William Sweetser has added a volume to the growing number on the institutional history of Presbyterian seminaries. Sweetser, a visiting professor at Union Seminary in Charlotte, was asked to write the history of the institution by Union president Brian Blount for the seminary’s bicentennial anniversary. In the six hundred plus pages of the volume, he weaves the history of the institution around five structural themes: 1) the change seen in its two hundred years of existence; 2) Union as a regional and national institution; 3) Union’s engagement with both the world and its relatively small denomination; 4) the tension felt by students and graduates between preserving the status quo and advocating for reform; 5) Union’s influence in its denomination and theological education (p. xvi).
Union Seminary traces its origins back to Hampden Sydney College in rural southeastern Virginia in 1812. The original curriculum was based upon John Knox’s Book of Discipline, which outlined theological education as covering Greek and Hebrew exegesis, theology, church history, and church polity. According to Sweetser, that curriculum remains the basis of Union’s program after two hundred years. The first professor, Moses Hoge, led the seminary through financial hardships, overwork, rivalry with the college, and indifference by the presbyteries. Yet, Hoge wanted an ecumenical seminary that would educate not only Presbyterian ministerial students but also those of other denominations and students outside of the South. Even though Southern Presbyterians made up the bulk of the students, part of Hoge’s dream was fulfilled during his tenure and that of his successor, John Holt Rice.
The issue of slavery and the Civil War provides a major turning point in the book. The ecumenical spirit that marked the early days of Union disappeared as Union became a Southern seminary. The two professors who were partially responsible for narrowing the culture of Union, George A. Baxter and R. L. Dabney, were defenders of slavery who wanted to retain the old order of the South. The war also divided the Presbyterian Church—a division which lasted until 1983. Ironically, Union found itself needing Northern financial support in order to survive.
A second major turning point in the history of the seminary was the move from rural Farmville, Virginia to the state capital of Richmond. Walter Moore, professor of Old Testament and eventual president of the seminary, argued that Union needed to make the move so that students would have more opportunity for field experience. He also wanted better enrollment at Union, improved fund raising, and a better physical plant. But the move, which eventually took place in 1898, was more than physical. It brought a new ethos in the seminary culture. The era of professionalization in seminary education had begun, and Moore wanted Union to be an integral part of the movement. According to the author, in the early decades of the twentieth century, Union remained theologically conservative but pedagogically progressive. The move to professionalization, though, brought a shift by requiring professors to be credentialed by the academy instead of the church. Union would take its academic advice not from the church but from the accreditors as she pined for national recognition. The days of pastors becoming seminary professors was drawing to a close. Union would resemble a theological university.
During this time, Union began to challenge not only the theological status quo but the status quo of the entire South as well. In the 1800s, Union, influenced by Dabney, upheld the spirituality of the church in which the church did not challenge the social order. Further changes came in the twentieth century, when Walter Lingle, himself influenced by the social gospel movement, began teaching a class on Christian sociology which applied Scripture to the social problems of the day. While Lingle remained theologically conservative, Ernest Trice Thompson was not. Thompson wanted to rid the denomination of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, but a watershed moment in Union’s history occurred in 1929 when Thompson published a series of Sunday school lessons which proved to be controversial. William McPheeters, a retired Old Testament professor from Columbia Seminary, challenged Thompson, eventually complaining to the press and to Union’s president, Benjamin Lacy Rose, over Thompson’s departure from inerrancy. But Rose defended Thompson and refused to fire him. As Sweetser notes, “Lacy’s defense of Thompson was a stand for academic freedom in a general sense, but also a statement that Union would be a genuine professional school unafraid to conduct research wherever it led and move beyond regional considerations” (p. 287). At this point Union’s ties with the confessional orthodoxy of the past were broken.
With Thompson on the faculty and the emergence of the biblical theology movement through the pages of the Seminary’s scholarly journal, Interpretation, Union became a promoter of social action in the South. Union allowed African-American students to enroll, and students and faculty marched in protest against the racial policies of the South in the 1960s.
As the twentieth century came to a close, Union faced myriad problems as declining numbers and inflation left negative effects on the seminary. Union continues to exist at two locations (Richmond and Charlotte), but since the reunion of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches, it is no longer the flagship seminary of the denomination. Programs have been reduced, yet Union continues.
A Copious Fountain is a well-researched volume. Sweetser has interacted with board minutes, sermons, catalogues of the seminary as well as impressions of the institution by the students. While institutional history could devolve into a recitation of board minutes, Sweetser gives the reader a picture of Union’s interaction with American culture as well as what it was like to be a student at the seminary. He includes slices of student life as well as their complaints about the more mundane aspects of the institution such as grading policies and workloads.
However, there are areas of confusion. When biblical theology is mentioned, Sweester seems not to refer to the historical development of biblical revelation that one finds in Vos. Instead, biblical theology at Union seems to refer to the application of Scripture to societal problems. Likewise, in his understanding of fundamentalism, Sweetser follows the line of Ernest Sandeen who believed that fundamentalism was a combination of inerrancy and dispensationalism. At one point in the book he states that Union challenged inerrancy because they did not believe in Bishop Ussher’s chronology of earth’s history. But the rejection of Ussher’s chronology was not necessarily a challenge to inerrancy since many proponents of inerrancy did not believe in Ussher’s chronology. Fundamentalism, as Marsden points out, was a mindset of radical anti-modernism. Some of the professors, such as Thomas Cary Johnson, certainly fit that bill.
Sweetser also does not mention the split that occurred in the Southern church in the 1970s, resulting in the formation of the PCA. An examination of the effect this had on the seminary would have been interesting since several of the churches that joined the fledgling PCA were in the same geographical area.
What really makes this book interesting for conservative readers is the developments that took place which led Union away from the orthodoxy of the nineteenth century to the liberalism of the twentieth century. One reason for the movement was academic credibility. Trying to gain academic respectability, Union moved towards professionalism and the university academic model. Presbyteries no longer determined the curriculum; the academy did. Thus, the seminary lost its mooring as a church based institution. A second factor was the social gospel. Rightfully, Union leaders wanted to apply the gospel to social issues. Eventually, however, that desire, combined with the loss of an inerrant Bible, allowed social issue to become predominate.
As a whole, the book helpfully reminds the reader that the movement from confessional orthodoxy was a convoluted path. The journey was a mixture of the good with the bad. This institutional history, then, warns all who believe in orthodoxy of the necessity of holding on to the inerrancy of Scripture even if doing so brings undesirable labels.