Editor's note: for the next several months, as we celebrate the 160th anniversary of our founding, Thinking Out Loud readers will receive sporadic blog posts about key people and events in the life of Louisville Seminary. We'd love for you to share your memories. Email us!
In 1853 a group of brave Presbyterian leaders launched the Danville Theological Seminary on the campus of Centre College in Danville, Ky. The seminary, like nearly every other seminary, barely survived the Civil War and the period of reconstruction that followed. In 1893, another Presbyterian seminary was started in Louisville. The Louisville seminary was made up mainly of southern Presbyterians, while the Danville Theological seminary was mainly northern Presbyterians. During a time when few thought the union of, or even cooperation between, these two groups was possible, leaders of the two schools joined forces in 1901 creating the only seminary jointly sponsored by both sides of the church.
Let's back up a bit to the middle of the 1895-96 school year at the seminary in Louisville. The endowment income was not as robust as seminary leaders expected, and churches were failing to provide sufficient gifts. To ease the financial pressure, the faculty recommended that aid no longer be offered to students, a decision that greatly decreased the number of applications and ultimately the student population. From 1896 to 1901, the student body had dwindled more than 50 percent (from an enrollment of 67 to just 28).
Post war struggles in Danville and the declining enrollment in Louisville had both seminaries in dire financial straits. It became clear that divided Presbyterianism in Kentucky could not support competing schools, and it was then that the seminary in Louisville began exploring merger with 'that other struggling Kentucky Seminary' in Danville.
Early talks eventually led to plans of consolidation, with both boards approving the merger in the spring of 1901. The Louisville board approved unanimously, although board member B.H. Young stated his judgment that the plan was "not satisfactory or wise."
The plan called for joint ownership and control of the new seminary in Louisville. The Board of Directors would have 24 members. The PCUS Synod of Kentucky elected six members, the PCUS Synod of Missouri elected six and the PCUSA Synod of Kentucky elected 12. Since the PCUSA did not have to elect people who were members of the synod, the school could receive wider ownership. The plan took into consideration the anticipated objections of those who saw the merger as being on 'shaky theological ground,' noting that both seminaries existed for the same purpose of educating people for ministry, and that the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of both churches were the same. The PCUSA synod approved the consolidation plan easily.
The PCUSA General Assembly voted in favor of consolidation without incident, but the proposal generated substantial opposition in the PCUS from those who feared cooperation with northerners who were considered more liberal (both theologically and socially). They reasoned that the Old School Calvinism of the PCUS could be compromised by the joint control of the training of the ministers. With questions of safeguarding the traditions of the PCUS muddying the waters, it became unclear whether the merger would actually ever happen.
When the PCUS General Assembly met in 1901, the Committee on Theological Seminaries, by a vote of six to five, recommended in its report that the denomination not approve the consolidation of Danville and Louisville. The majority sympathized with the difficulties of both seminaries, but, among other reasons, thought recruitment would only be more difficult if the seminary were put under outside control (outside the synod).
Thankfully, the issue finally came to a close when a substitute motion that included approval of the merger passed by a vote of 120 for and 56 against. It was clear that the General Assembly was not completely on board with the merger, especially when it made this declaration:
"That while the Assembly may not wholly approve the wisdom of the consolidation of the two seminaries, yet, in view of the fact that there was practical unanimity in the Synods of Kentucky and Missouri as to the measure, and because of the safeguards thrown about the compact, this court hereby imposes no bar to such consolidation, but gives its assent thereto, leaving the entire responsibility thereof to the Synods of Kentucky and Missouri."
In other words, "It's your baby. Good luck."
A couple of protests were filed against the vote, but to no avail. And thus, Danville Seminary and Louisville Seminary were joined in 1901 as the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of Kentucky. This was also the start of the modern-day Seminary's reputation of being a 'bridge' between North and South. Though the phrase was meant almost literally back then, the metaphor has changed over the decades. The modern-day Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary is still a bridge: a bridge between theological differences, a bridge between the academy and the church and a bridge between races and faiths.
Ashley Schaffner is director of communications at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Rick Nutt is professor of Religion at Muskingum University and author of Many Lamps One Light, a 150th Anniversary History of Louisville Seminary.