Like many theological seminaries in the United States, Northern Seminary began as a "protest school." By the second decade of the twentieth century, many evangelicals in the old Northern Baptist Convention (now the American Baptist Churches in the USA) were concerned about the spread of theological liberalism within the denomination. In 1913, a group of lay people from the Second Baptist Church of Chicago decided to establish a new seminary committed to preparing men and women for effective service as pastors, educators, missionaries, and evangelists within an evangelical theological context.
Northern’s first president was Dr. John Marvin Dean, pastor of Second Baptist Church of Chicago, and its first student was Amy Lee Stockton of California, who went on to become an effective evangelist and Bible teacher. For the first few years, classes were held in the Second Baptist Church. By 1920, Northern moved to a new campus on Washington Boulevard, on Chicago’s west side, and was recognized by the Northern Baptist Convention as one of its seminaries. In its early history, Northern, like many other theological schools of the time, had both undergraduate and graduate programs for the training of Christian workers. During the 1960s, these two programs separated and the undergraduate program became Judson College of Elgin, Illinois.
The twenties, thirties, and forties were difficult years for American mainline denominations, which found themselves caught up in fierce debates over theological diversity and the control of institutions. During those decades, Northern Seminary played an important role in leading the more conservative evangelical forces in the Northern Baptist Convention, but resisted mounting pressures to separate from the denomination. Northern preferred to follow a middle course: to champion a more moderate evangelical position against both liberal and fundamentalist extremes. Long before it became fashionable in other places, Northern also pioneered in its commitments to women, ethnic minorities, and internationals.
When during the 1940s many conservatives called for a "new evangelicalism," Northern provided impressive leadership. For example, Northern graduates served in significant numbers on the founding faculties of Fuller Theological Seminary (1947) and Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary (1950). They founded many of the new "parachurch" organizations that revitalized American religious life after World War II. The founder of Youth for Christ, Torrey Johnson, was a Northern grad, as were the first four editors of Christianity Today, including Carl Henry. J. Edwin Orr, international evangelist and historian of revival, and Kenneth Taylor, who published The Living Bible, are Northern alumni. Other Northern graduates have served with great distinction as pastors, missionaries, educators, and evangelists, just as the founders of the seminary envisioned.
Northern has graduated a significant number of ethnic leaders from all over the world including Hispanics, Asians, Africans, and African-Americans. Northern recruited African-Americans during those years when many southern schools refused them admission. Miles Mark Fisher, the first black to graduate from Northern (1922), was recognized by Ebony magazine as one of the top black preachers in American in 1954. Louis S. Rawls (1938) made a prodigious contribution to the Kingdom serving as Pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Chicago, launching ministries such as Tabernacle Hospital, funeral homes, senior citizen housing, and the Chicago Baptist Institute, and mentoring such leaders as Rev. Clay Evans and Dr. E.V. Hill.
During the 1960s, Northern moved to its present campus in Lombard. More than ever, Northern seeks to stay true to its tradition, even as it develops new programs and perspectives for ministry in the 21st century. Northern's eighth president, Dr. Ian Chapman, brought leadership to a campus-wide renovation, which helped Northern position itself as a leader among evangelicals in North America and around the world. Northern retains a unique style. Our ninth President, Dr. Charles Moore, continued to undergird our strong evangelical traditions.
Under our current President, Dr. Alistair Brown, the seminary remains strongly evangelical and ready to explore new ideas and take risks. We are convinced that effective ministry in the next millennium will demand a special kind of evangelical faith, one that is committed to the truth of the gospel, unwavering in its loyalty to the scriptures, empowered by the Spirit, reflective of the body of Christ’s ethnic and cultural diversity, culturally relevant, and unbending in its support of women in ministry.