A Brief History of United Lutheran Seminary

A Start in Gettysburg

On September 5, 1826, what is now the oldest Lutheran seminary in the Americas held its first classes with eight students in the small borough of Gettysburg.  In 1832, the seminary built upon and moved to Seminary Ridge overlooking Gettysburg, expanding its mission of theological education for American Lutherans.

By 1835 the Seminary welcomed one of the first African Americans to study theology in America, Daniel Alexander Payne, who later became a bishop in the AME Church and the first president of Wilberforce University under AME auspices.  Schmucker’s anti-slavery commitments continued in lecture and preaching right up through the Civil War. And the little school in a bucolic setting found itself overrun by the greatest battle ever fought on American soil when in July 1863 the opposing armies descended upon it.  Today its original building on Seminary Ridge (1832), Schmucker Hall, is a state of the art museum, interpreting not only the great battle story on Seminary Ridge, but also civil war medical practices (it was the largest fixed field hospital at Gettysburg), and the role of faith and freedom in the mid- to late-1800’s.

A century after its early integration, the Seminary was the first among Lutherans to grant tenure to a female professor.  Dr. Bertha Paulssen, a towering figure in 20th century Lutheranism, influenced generations of leaders in urban and social ministries.  Graduating in 1965 was Elizabeth Platz, the first woman to be ordained (1970) by a U.S. Lutheran body, and its museum became the first and only LEED certified building among Lutheran seminaries.

And a New Development in Philadelphia

Founded by the Ministerium of Pennsylvania in 1864 to preserve strong Lutheran identity and instruction in German, the Philadelphia Seminary was first located in center city.  It relocated to the Mount Airy neighborhood in 1889 on a historic site where the first shots of the American Revolution’s Battle of Germantown were fired a century before.  Battles raged within American Lutheranism, as well as across the country at large in the 1860’s.  While Philadelphia’s founding was motivated in part by growing regionalism, continuing disputes over language, and conflicting strong personalities, the overriding factor was a theological contest between Schmucker and those some referred to as the “old Lutherans.”  The degree of authority and textual integrity of the Lutheran Confessions prompted church-dividing theological disputes, which quickly eroded a few years later. But the two schools retained their separate identities for more than 150 years.

Late 20th century evolution brought changes to both campuses.  The decision to ordain women ushered change to both seminary’s student population that was largely made up of young Caucasian Lutheran men preparing for ordained ministry. And the 1979 establishment of the Urban Theological Institute (UTI) at Philadelphia became a magnet for students of many denominations, particularly from historic African American churches.  Its founding and flourishing over four decades has enabled the Philadelphia campus to be one of the most ecumenical and racially and culturally diverse among North American seminaries.

Becoming “United”

Over the course of the past century, there have been numerous attempts to reconfigure Lutheran theological education in the northeastern United States. Ecclesiastical leaders attempted to merge Gettysburg and Philadelphia multiple times since 1918 when both were joined to the same Lutheran church body. External economic and enrollment “push” pressures and internal “pull” factors converged in the 21st century.  In January 2016, the boards of Gettysburg and Philadelphia determined to move together toward full formal institutional consolidation.

From the outset, the goal was “more than one seminary on two campuses.”  The “more” involves a robust scholarship support to reduce costs to students, innovative pedagogical approaches (inter-disciplinary, competency-based, praxis-oriented), and challenging students to experience the richly diverse contexts in historic Gettysburg and urban Philadelphia.

Beyond its intrinsic value, which the new school’s leaders are convinced will enhance the already-strong offerings on both campuses, the move to unite bears strong Christian witness at this juncture in history, when so many forces of disunity and polarization surround us.  Both practically and prophetically, becoming the United Lutheran Seminary offers faithful and courageous witness for the sake of the church and the world.