An institution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the seminary was founded in 1828 in Lexington, Georgia, and was moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where classes began in 1831. Influential citizens of Columbia, wanting “a southern theological seminary,” helped purchase the Ainsley Hall mansion to house the seminary.
Following the model of Andover and Princeton theological seminaries, Columbia was a graduate professional institution with a three-year curriculum. The requirement of a college education was intended to ensure that entering students had the philosophical and linguistic background provided by a collegiate education and the general culture and manners taught in the colleges. The curriculum was organized around the study of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, church history, and systematic and practical theology.
While Columbia attracted a substantial New England presence in the faculty and student body during the antebellum period, the strength of the institution was linked to the South Carolina and Georgia lowcountry. Leading faculty members included George Howe, Charles Colcock Jones, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, John Adger, and James Henley Thornwell. They taught an Old School Calvinism that understood truth to be propositional. Their organic view of society was used in defense of slavery and against the rising tides of bourgeois individualism and the anarchy of the modern world.
The years following the Civil War were marked by financial and intellectual crises. Woodrow Wilson’s father, Joseph, and his uncle James Woodrow were members of the faculty during this period. In 1928 Columbia Theological Seminary moved to the outskirts of Atlanta. Socially and theologically it was a move away from the Old South and toward the New South. By the end of the twentieth century, while remaining deeply Presbyterian in its ethos, Columbia was broadly ecumenical in its faculty and students. It had an endowment of more than $170 million and students and scholars from fifteen countries.
Clarke, Erskine. Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690–1990. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
Farmer, James O. The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1986.
LaMotte, Louis C. Colored Light: The Story of the Influence of Columbia Theological Seminary, 1828–1936. Richmond, Va.: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1937.