University of South Carolina Press, 424 pages
Reviewed by Thomas W. Currie
In the preface to this remarkable history of Columbia Theological Seminary, the author notes that institutional histories can provoke a yawn. This one does not. Indeed, by choosing to write about something “small,” Erskine Clarke enables the reader to see big things about the faith with which the seminary sought to engage the culture of its day, and how that culture, in turn, shaped the seminary’s witness. More than that, in describing the genesis and development of a great theological institution, Clarke unhesitatingly reveals many of the difficult, if not shameful, chapters in that institution’s past, while capturing the noble and even sacrificial efforts of Southern Presbyterians to contribute a distinctively Reformed witness to the larger church and world. Though this is a book of church history, its theological grasp of the issues that informed and shaped this seminary is profound.
The seminary began teaching students in 1829, and like all institutions established in the antebellum South and like many in the North, this seminary benefited from the labors of slaves. Clarke is not only clear about the extent to which slave labor enabled and enriched the first years of the seminary’s existence, but he also describes both the paternalistic attitudes of those seeking to secure their “Southern Zion” and their occasional efforts to ameliorate if not acknowledge the debt owed to their slaves. A genuine contribution to this history is Clarke’s painstaking efforts to recover the names, the tasks, the specific family relations and even the graves of those slaves who contributed so much.
Additionally, this book tells of the extraordinary people who established and led the seminary through theological conflict, civil war, regional poverty, near closure, a critical move from Columbia, South Carolina, to Decatur, Georgia, and the vastly increased scope of witness and influence rendered in the 20th and 21st centuries. Any volume containing such figures as George Howe, Charles Colcock Jones, Thomas Smyth, James Henley Thornwell, Benjamin Palmer, Leighton Wilson, James Woodrow, John Giradeau, Richard Gillespie, William Marcellus McPheeters, J. McDowell Richards, William Childs Robinson, Shirley Guthrie, Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez and Walter Brueggemann – not to mention John Adger, John Bulow Campbell, Frank Harrington, Claude Clopton and Jesse Graham – is a volume full of, to quote the author, “their own histories, quirks and oddities” who not only shaped the institution’s life but also served to “bring the complexities and mysteries of the human personality to the story of the institution’s history.”
One cannot read this volume without being impressed with the leadership that Columbia has enjoyed in more recent years, beginning with president J. McDowell Richards and extending beyond him to include J. Davison Philips, Doug Oldenburg, Laura Mendenhall, Stephen Hayner and Leanne Van Dyk. Most (though not all) of these leaders were pastors, and no small part of their leadership manifested itself in their embodied commitment to lead a seminary that understood itself to be in service to the church. One of the more provocative questions Clarke’s book raises is whether the very success of these leaders, particularly in raising money and establishing a strong endowment, has not resulted in a kind of independence of the seminary that threatens to distance it from the life of the church.
This book is about Columbia, but it would be a shame if its readers were only alums or people connected to that institution. If one seeks to understand how theological education arose and developed in the southern part of the United States, and what questions theological seminaries face today, then one could do no better than to pick up and read “To Count Our Days.”
Thomas W. Currie is professor emeritus of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina.