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Thinking Out Loud

Lewis Sherrill: Presbyterian Pioneer for Theological Education

by User Not Found | Jan 30, 2014
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

This blog post was guest-written by Louis WeeksPresident Emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, Virginia, and Charlotte, North Carolina. In retirement, he preaches and teaches, consults with churches and seminaries, and he contributes for websites including Faith and Leadership and Resourcing American Christianity.  He is the author of a number of books, most recently: To Be a Presbyterian, Revised Edition, 2010, and A Sustainable Presbyterian Future: What's Working and Why (2012). For 24 years he was a member of the faculty of Louisville Seminary.

In his sesquicentennial history of the seminary, Many Lewis Joseph SherrillLamps, One Light, Rick Nutt claims that the contributions of Lewis Sherrill helped "make Louisville stand out in the practical area of theological education-the area for which it has been best known and most distinctive."[1] True, indeed! In fact, one can argue that few others have done as much as this pioneer to set the course for appropriate preparation for congregational ministry in North America.

When we moved to Louisville in 1970 and I began teaching at the Seminary, Helen Sherrill was among the first to offer us the hospitality of her home. She had us for dinner after I preached at the Anchorage Presbyterian Church, where she had been the first woman ruling elder. All four of us were there--our son Lou who was five, second son Sid age three, my wife Carolyn, and me--all of us! Lou and Sid behaved well for the most part. Carolyn and I did too, for that matter.

Over the mantel in her home, Mrs. Sherrill had a dignified portrait of Lewis, her deceased husband. He gazed out on us with a penetrating look, a half smile. Both kids noticed his portrait. I determined to learn more about both of the Sherrills. And so I came to appreciate Helen Sherrill pioneering in the social work arena, her lobbying for women to become students at Louisville, and her church leadership. And I contributed an article for the Journal of Presbyterian History on the contributions Lewis Sherrill made to theological education and to the church more broadly.[2]

Lewis Sherrill was a Texan. Born in Haskell, Texas in 1882, he stayed in Texas through his undergraduate experience at Austin College (A.B., 1916). Venturing East, he came to Louisville Seminary for a B.D., interrupted as he served the YMCA and the U.S. Army during World War I. Graduating from Louisville in 1921, he married Helen a week later and soon was serving the First Presbyterian Church of Covington, Tennessee. As a pastor he read broadly and deeply in the new discipline of psychology, and he joined the vibrant Religious Education Movement in its early years.

The faculty at Louisville recognized his gifts as well as his new area of involvement, and they called him to become a member in 1925. He taught such subjects as "Religious Education," "Church Efficiency," and "The Religious Education of Adolescents." As it did for some other members, the Louisville faculty gave him a leave for Ph.D. studies at Yale University under Luther Weigle. Sherrill and his family returned to Louisville in time for the Great Depression, which tested the resilience of Louisville Seminary as other schools and non-profits more generally. Nevertheless, he taught and preached prolifically throughout the thirties. He found time, too, to write some profound, simple books for the church: Presbyterian Parochial Schools...,(1932) Religious Education in the Small Church,(1932) Becoming a Christian(1943), and The Rise of Christian Education, (1945).

While some in the Religious Education Movement paid more attention to the social sciences than to the Bible and the Church, Lewis Sherrill certainly was not one of them. His 663 sermons, archived in the Ernest White Library, reveal his mature struggle with the texts of Old and New Testaments, a rich comprehension of the issues confronting congregants, and a concern with the whole of the Christian life. Over time, his orthodox conservative theology yielded to a variegated ecumenical, inclusive worldview, as for many of us.

Sherrill's later books, for which he is better known, Guilt and Redemption (1945), The Struggle of the Soul, (1951), and The Gift of Power (1955), evidence the anxiety and the retreat from a facile faith in progress that had characterized the pre-war West. Increasingly, his writing focused on the crucial nature of Christian community and congregational koinonia. All three books grew from lectures he provided for various seminaries. All exercised considerable influence on the whole generation of post-World War II theological leaders, not just Christian educators and those in practical theology. And his influence emanated from his administration as well as from his books and teaching.

Sherrill spent 20 years as Dean of Louisville Seminary and helped, with Charles Pratt and Morton Hanna, fashion the unique "Todd-Dickey Rural Training Parish" experience for hundreds of seminarians, permitting them supervised ministry in small groups while they served small churches in southern Indiana. This "laboratory" for apprenticeship in ministry, in turn, helped characterize the distinctively practical nature of the Seminary's course for future. Naturally, such a trajectory would later come to include such elements of the of Louisville Seminary courses of study as the DMin program, the congregation-based instruction, and even the focus on marriage and family therapy.

When theological seminaries banded together for mutual support in an increasingly bureaucratized culture of American higher education and to establish standards for the various degree programs, Sherrill made another contribution by serving as the first Executive Secretary of the nascent American Association of Theological Schools, from 1935 to 1938. He gave again as its president, from 1938 to 1940. There he made certain that supervised "field education" was part of the curriculum, as well as practical theology.

Sherrill moved to Union, New York, for the final seven years of his teaching career, 1950-1957, the year of his death. His final two works were published while he served there. But the major work of Lewis Sherrill occurred while he served and helped lead Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.          

[1] Rick Nutt, Many Lamps, One Light: Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary: A 150th Anniversary History. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002). p.72.

[2] Weeks, Lewis Sherrill: The Christian Educator and Christian Experience. Journal of Presbyterian History (1973)   pp. 235-248.

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