Northern Seminary was founded in 1913 with the purpose of training leaders for the Church.
Now, 110 years later, we retain that goal. The vision is grand: To lead the church and engage the world by igniting Spirit-led innovation; forming and graduating resilient, mature, and joyful students; and delivering personal, accessible, and affordable biblical training.
Like many theological seminaries in the United States, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary began as a “protest school.” By the second decade of the 20th 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 established a new seminary committed to preparing men and women for effective service as pastors, educators, missionaries, and evangelists.
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 would later become an effective evangelist and Bible teacher. Classes were held in the Second Baptist Church.
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. One year later, Northern moved to its new campus on Chicago’s west side. In 2020, it was recognized by the Northern Baptist Convention as one of its seminaries.
In its early history, Northern had both undergraduate and graduate programs, but during the 1960s, the programs separated, and the undergraduate program became Judson College of Elgin, Illinois.
The 1920s-1940s 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. Northern championed a broadly evangelical position distinct from liberal and fundamentalist extremes. Long before it became fashionable elsewhere, Northern also solidified its commitments to women, ethnic minorities, and internationals in ministry.
During the 1940s, when many conservatives called for a “new evangelicalism,” Northern provided 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 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.
In its early years, Northern recruited African Americans 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 7thpresident, 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, at which time Dr. William Shiell assumed the position.
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.
In 2018, Northern opened a new center in Fairfield, Ohio, in partnership with Tabernacle Bible Church City of Promise, and by 2020, it launched Seminary Now, an on-demand, video-streaming platform to some of the leading educators and pastors today.
The future is bright. 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.
Soli Deo gloria!