Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary: History, impact, future

Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary originated in 1867 in Charlotte, North Carolina, as the Freedmen’s Institute of North Carolina. It was established by Presbyterians who believed that education was an essential antidote to the poisonous effect of slavery. Over time, the Institute became a university that included a theological seminary and its name was changed to Johnson C. Smith University. In 1969, the seminary and university parted ways and the seminary relocated to Atlanta to join the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC). It is one of the 10 theological institutions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the only historically African-American one.

Throughout its 150-year history, the seminary’s continuing roles and responsibilities have been asserting that the African-American heritage of the church is every bit as vital as the history whose symbols may include Geneva gowns and Scottish kilts, and that the perspective of the African diaspora on biblical interpretation, Reformed theology, preaching and worship can constitute a critical corrective to the church whenever it may be tempted to see the faith through the eyes of privilege. Even today, JCSTS is one of the few institutional reminders of the PC(USA)’s stated commitment to racial/ethnic diversity. 

History: A snapshot of the past

The university was founded under the guidance of the Presbyterian Church. It was established on April 7, 1867, as a part of the Freedmen’s College of North Carolina. Soon thereafter, it was named Biddle Memorial Institute after Major Henry J. Biddle who pledged $1,400 to start the college.

Like many of the similar institutions started after the Civil War, its mission to teach reading, writing and other basic skills to freed slaves rapidly expanded to, among other things, the preparation of teachers and preachers. During these early years, the seminary operated as a department of the university, graduating its first class of three in 1872. The first all-black intercollegiate football game was played between Biddle and Livingstone College of Salisbury, North Carolina in 1892. 

In 1923, Jane Berry Smith of Pittsburgh generously endowed the institution and constructed several buildings on the 75-acre campus in honor of her husband, Johnson C. Smith. In recognition of this gift, the board of trustees voted on March 1, 1923, to change the name to Johnson C. Smith University.

A year later, when James Buchanan Duke established the Duke Endowment, Johnson C. Smith University was one of only four educational institutions – and the only historically black one – to be named eligible for support from the endowment. (The others were Duke University, Furman University and Davidson College.) That same year, the North Carolina State Board of Education recognized JCSU as a four-year college.

By 1938, the institution had attained the status of an independent college, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church and reporting to the General Assembly through the Board of Christian Education. JCSU was an all-male institution during its first decades and first admitted women to the freshman class in 1941. In 1944, JCSU became a founding member of the United Negro College Fund.

Despite the university’s growing success, its seminary was falling on hard times. In the 1960s, as African-American students became less interested in becoming preachers and more interested in pursuing other types of careers afforded them by the civil rights movement, the seminary’s enrollment dropped. Two years after the university celebrated its 100th anniversary, the seminary was threatened by the possibility of closure due to declining enrollment. A national effort led by alumnus James Costen resulted in relocating the seminary to Atlanta to join the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of seminaries each with its own denominational background. This action officially was endorsed in 1969 by the JCSU board, the ITC board and the 182nd General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (northern branch).

James Hutton Costen Sr. was the first administrative dean of the Atlanta-based seminary. He had four students and a small office in the basement of the ITC administrative building. Over the succeeding four decades, the seminary flourished and its enrollment grew to about 60 full-time Master of Divinity students. 

Impact: Graduates

The seminary has produced prophetic leaders who challenged the status quo of racial segregation and who helped lead the way to the reunification of the denomination.

One of those leaders was Lawrence McCrory, a graduate of the school who became its president in 1907. During his 40 years as president, the university became fully accredited by the Association of American Colleges. In 1919, the school became the first black college in the South to offer professional courses in education. A relentless fundraiser, McCrory’s greatest achievements came in attracting the support of philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie, Jane Berry Smith and James Buchanan Duke.

In 1965, Costen, another celebrated JCSTS graduate, established an interracial Presbyterian congregation in Atlanta that would facilitate the process toward a “non-segregated church in a non-segregated society.” That congregation became Church of the Master and continues to serve faithfully today. Costen was moderator of the United Presbyterian Church and played a powerful role in promoting the reunion of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian denominations the following year. In 1983, he and J. Randolp Taylor were elected co-moderators of the newly reunited PC(USA) during ceremonies in Atlanta.

Costen’s wife Melva also is a JCS graduate. A nationally recognized musician, choir director, scholar and author, she chaired the committee that produced the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal.

Katie Geneva Cannon graduated from JCSTS in 1973 and became a prominent American Christian theologian and ethicist associated with womanist theology and black theology. She was the first African-American woman ordained in the United Presbyterian Church in 1974.

Third-generation Presbyterian pastor and JCSTS grad, J. Herbert Nelson II, is the current stated clerk of the PC(USA) — the first African-American to hold the position. 

Jimmy Hawkins, current director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness is a JCSTS graduate. Among his many successes, Hawkins mobilized hundreds of Presbyterians at the 223rd General Assembly and raised some $40,000 to protest the oppressive cash bailout system in St. Louis. 

Well into the mid-1990s, the overwhelming majority of African-American Presbyterian pastors earned degrees at JCSTS. The seminary’s alumni/ae have included moderators and vice moderators, presbytery executives, dynamic preachers, pioneering pastors, mission workers, church musicians and chaplains. 

Future: Seminary for a new time and new students

With the arrival of the internet, a significant national shift began taking place in higher education. Desiring to get out ahead of emerging trends, JCSTS broke ties with the Interdenominational Theological Center after 45 years to become a more tech-savvy institution and ensure its value and relevancy into the 21st century. The seminary no longer offers a Master of Divinity degree. Rather, the target audience for JCSTS’ programs is comprised of ordained and non-ordained persons already serving a congregation (or other context) who seek to learn new skills that will help them serve today’s rapidly changing ministry field. 

The seminary’s new educational model is:

  • Competency-based: Allowing learners to demonstrate new ministry-related skills at their own pace, in accordance with clearly defined outcomes, at a fraction of the cost of traditional seminary programs.
  • Collaborative: Creating diverse peer-to-peer learning opportunities under the guidance of a faculty member, coach or facilitator.
  • Customizable: Providing resources, support and coaching for groups of self-starters seeking skills in one or more of JCSTS’ primary program areas.

JCSTS believes its new approach will make quality theological education available to wider audiences; better serve those for whom the financial cost of traditional seminary education is out of reach; strengthen the witness, worship and mission of congregations around the country; and help pave the way for seminaries that also are attempting to address shifts in national educational trends. 


Paul Roberts. Photo courtesy of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary

Though an historically black Presbyterian institution, JCSTS today serves students from various racial-ethnic backgrounds, denominations and abilities who are vested in the pursuit of equity, diversity and inclusion in the world. For instance, of the 56 students in JCSTS’ Community Organizing Certificate Program last year, there were 37 white, 14 African-American, two Hispanic and one Asian student. JCSTS learners are active and retired pastors, musicians, activists, worship leaders, elders, deacons, teachers, administrators, lawyers, medical professionals and entrepreneurs. They value and are drawn to the programs because of the seminary’s unique perspective as a product of the African-American religious experience. 

JCSTS students are referred to as “learners” and faculty are referred to as “learning partners” to distinguish the seminary’s new educational model and to help shape the seminary’s communal, non-hierarchical philosophy. At JCSTS, the classroom is a community of learners where no one member is more important than the others.

Educational programs

JCSTS is structured into four distinct but interrelated institutes, with various programs of these rolling out strategically into the year 2022.

Melva Costen directs choir at the 195th General Assembly in Atlanta in 1983. (Photo credit: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly, courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society),

The Melva W. Costen Institute of Worship, Preaching and Sacred Arts offers a collaborative environment where pastors, musicians, liturgists and other leaders study the theological framework of justice-oriented Christian worship. Students learn to strengthen the worship experience using biblical, theological, historical, psychological and sociocultural tools. They expand their liturgical, oratorical and musical repertoires; learn planning strategies; and gain a deeper appreciation for the sacraments. Programs of the Costen Institute are taught through the unique lens of the African-American religious experience.

The JCSTS Leadership Institute seeks to strengthen participants’ personal and public leadership skills while equipping them to engage and enact community transformation. The curriculum utilizes case studies, field trips, peer-to-peer learning, assessments and readings to build students’ leadership capacity. Special attention is given to the analysis of formal and informal power dynamics; facilitation; staff development; effective communication; budget and finance; resource management; visioning; ethics; and self-evaluation. 

The Institute for Diaspora Studies surveys the origins, history, teachings and practices of African traditional religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Special consideration is given to the influence of African religious expression on Christianity and the major religions of today’s world before colonization. The institute helps foster deeper understandings of the interrelatedness of major global religions and promotes a theological framework for the cultivation of interfaith relationships. 

The Amani Institute seeks to promote peace by contributing educational resources and networking capacity to communities of activists, environmentalists, social entrepreneurs and other positive change agents. The institute gives special attention to the needs, problems and movements of selected geographic areas. Study topics include mediation, conflict management, negotiation, fundraising and creation care. Students participate in networking gatherings, immersion experiences and international travel. 

On the horizon

JCSTS is teaming up with the Board of Pensions to create a new CREDO program specifically focusing on the unique needs of African-American Presbyterian pastors. The program is scheduled to roll out in the fall of 2019.

The second cycle of the Community Organizing Certificate kicked off this fall in Baltimore. This six-month program teaches pastors and lay leaders community organizing universals and methods to help them engage vitality and transformation within their congregations. 

JCSTS will roll out a new online curriculum in January. “Articulating the Gospel in a post-Christendom world” is built on the rationale that Christianity in America is at a crossroads. Old models of doing and being the church are being replaced with new ones. The place of Christianity in the personal, social, political and institutional life of America continues to decrease. Advances in technology and changes to education demand diverse and innovative modes of communication. Pluralism is an undeniable reality, and any effort directed toward justice and transformation must engage a variety of communities and different understandings of the common good. In light of these realities, it is necessary for faith leaders to engage in Christian reflection, proclamation, and action in a way that moves beyond the four walls of the church. This curriculum will give them tools to do so. 

Paul Roberts is the president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He has been married to Nina for 23 years and has three teenage children. He is a 1996 JCSTS graduate.