History of Northern
Like many theological seminaries in the United States, Northern Baptist Theological 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, 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. Classes were held in the Second Baptist Church for the first few years. In 1918, in the middle of the Spanish Influenza outbreak and at the end of World War 1, President George Taft met with Illinois Baptists to discuss Northern’s future. The seminary was growing and needed larger facilities to train educated pastors to preach the gospel. The following year, Illinois Baptists donated money to purchase a mansion on West Washington Boulevard and moved the seminary out of the basement of Second Baptist Church. In 1919 Northern moved to its new campus on Chicago’s west side and in 1920 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 traditional American 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 championed a broadly evangelical position distinct from liberal and fundamentalist extremes. Long before it became fashionable elsewhere, Northern also pioneered in its commitments to women, ethnic minorities, and internationals in ministry.
When during the 1940s many conservatives called for a “new evangelicalism,” Northern provided impressive leadership. 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 newer para-church organizations that revitalized American religious life after World War II. The founder of Youth for Christ was a Northern graduate; many of the early editors of Christianity Today magazine, including Carl Henry, Harold Lindsell, and Gilbert Beers, had either graduated from or taught at Northern. In addition, international evangelist and historian of revival, J. Edwin Orr, and Kenneth Taylor, who published the Living Bible and founded Tyndale House Publishers, 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 graduate from Northern (1922), was recognized by Ebony magazine as one of the top black preachers in America 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. Bill Bentley, a 1960 graduate, organized the National Black Evangelical Association and contributed much to racial reconciliation among evangelicals.
During the 1960s, Northern moved to its Lombard campus. While staying true to its tradition, Northern continued to develop new programs and perspectives for ministry. Under Dr. Ian Chapman, Northern’s seventh president, the seminary renovated its campus, built the Lindner Conference Center, added new academic programs, dramatically increased its endowment, and positioned itself as a leader among evangelical schools in North America and around the world. The year 2001 was one of transition as Dr. Chapman retired as president and became the seminary’s chancellor, and Dr. Charles Moore was elected president. He served until 2006, at which time John Kirn became the interim president. In 2008, Northern opened a new center on the West Side of Chicago in partnership with Lawndale Community Church and Dr. Wayne “Coach” Gordon. In 2008, Dr. Alistair Brown was selected as president and served until 2016. In 2016, Dr. William Shiell was selected as president, beginning an exciting new era at Northern Seminary.
After more than 50 years at our Lombard campus, in 2017 the seminary took a major step forward to make Northern more accessible, affordable, and contextual for the changing world. Northern embraced a new future by relocating its main campus to a state-of-the-art facility in Lisle, Illinois, opening a site on the South Side of Chicago, and expanding its programs delivered on the West Side of Chicago and its live-streaming programs through “Northern Live.”
In 2018, Northern opened a new center in Fairfield, Ohio, in partnership with Tabernacle Bile Church City of Promise. In 2020, we launched a new on-demand platform in partnership with InterVarsity Press called Seminary Now. This new service provides access to course content on a subscription basis to anyone regardless of education.
Northern retains a unique style. We are evangelical, culturally and socially engaged, and racially diverse. We are convinced that effective ministry today demands 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 transformative, and unbending in its support of women in ministry
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