HOW NORTHERN SEMINARY GREW AFTER THE SPANISH FLU

By: William D. Shiell

Northern Seminary survived the Spanish influenza epidemic and grew exponentially. The new seminary was just five years old and still meeting in the basement of Second Baptist Church on the West Side of Chicago throughout World War 1. The Illinois Baptist Bulletin reported dire conditions in 1918. Over 20,000 soldiers had died in the camps of World War 1 from the flu, and three pastors had already died in Illinois. Eventually over 8,500 Chicagoans died over six weeks in the autumn of 1918.

But the young seminary was not to be deterred. Pastors grieved deeply, mourned the losses of their brothers and sisters, recommitted to an evangelistic witness, and trained more educated pastors. The editor of the Baptist Bulletin wrote in January 1919:

“There never was a time when efficient ministers were so needed in Illinois as this time . . . That does not mean that we have fewer preachers or that our preachers are not as efficient as formerly . . . We need more educated [preachers] of the right kind of education. We must have more preachers with a liberal education. The times have greatly changed … Our churches should look out for bright consecrated young men and women and encourage them to go to school and help them in cases where they need help, and try to make them believe and feel that a life spent in the service of the Master is more to be desired than a life simply spent in business unless the business man is consecrated to God and will use his business for the furtherance of the Kingdom of Christ*.”

Today, we would consider these impossible odds. But the Baptists of Illinois saw their dire conditions as an opportunity to share the gospel evangelistically, give generously, and educate more pastors. The next year, new President George W. Taft announced that Northern Baptist Theological Seminary was moving to a new location—a mansion on 3040 West Washington Boulevard that could hold 350 students. The Baptists in the region pledged $40,000 to purchase the building, and Northern Seminary was on the move.

As we live through the grim realities of COVID-19, students, pastors, and alumni are dealing with a new reality. They’re ministering to people with and without the internet and discipling people through zoom. The Northern community is mourning with people hurting from COVID-19 and grieving the loss of life. We still don’t know the full impact of this virus, and we do know the church will be different when the virus passes.

But the church will continue, and so will Northern Seminary. As we anticipate that the impact of the virus will grow, we also look forward to the hope of summer. Our Northern cloud of witnesses calls for us to remain focused on Jesus and recognize that we can anticipate that we will need even more preachers, pastors, chaplains, and ministers in the days to come.

*Author Unknown, “Preachers,” Illinois Baptist Bulletin, January 1919, https://archive.org/stream/illinoisbaptistb1918illi/illinoisbaptistb1918illi_djvu.txt.

March 30, 2020

William D. Shiell

President, Professor of Pastoral Theology and Preaching

ABOUT William



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