History of Northern

(pictured left)

Amy Lee Stockton (pictured left) and Rita Gould

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 graduate 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 more conservative evangelical endeavors of the Northern Baptist Convention, but resisted mounting pressures to separate from the denomination. Northern preferred to follow a middle path and championed a moderate evangelical position against both liberal and fundamentalist extremes. Long before it became fashionable in other places, Northern 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. 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. Other Northern graduates have served with great distinction as pastors, missionaries, educators, and evangelists, just as the founders of the seminary envisioned.

Through the years, 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 at times when many southern schools refused them admission. Miles Mark Fisher, the first black to graduate from Northern in 1922, was recognized by Ebony magazine in 1954 as one of the top black preachers in America. 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 leaders such as Rev. Clay Evans and Dr. E.V. Hill.

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, 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 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, IL, 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.”

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 scripture, empowered by the Spirit, reflective of the Body of Christ’s ethnic and cultural diversity, culturally transformative, and unrelenting in its support of women in ministry.

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