An Enduring Foundation

Eva StimsonFaith Nurture

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“Education embraces all the ways we seek to understand and embody what it means to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.” (from the Christian Education Task Force, Union Presbyterian Seminary)

In November 1914 “after much consideration and prayer,” Ala Dean Smith boarded an east-bound train in Calendonia, Missouri, and settled in for a thousand-mile journey across five states.  She was headed to Richmond, Virginia, to enroll in a brand-new training school for layworkers authorized by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States.  Smith and 27 other students were enrolled in classes when the General Assembly’s Training school for Lay Workers (ATS) opened its doors November 4, 1914.  She, along with Lucy Winston Paine and George Lucius Newton, were the first three students to graduate from ATS with a full diploma.

Over the decades that followed, hundreds of women like Ala Smith found their way to ATS and its successor, the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (PSCE).  At a time when options for women were limited, the school became a place where women were treated with respect and empowered for Christian service. Founders of ATS never intended that the school would be for women only though; when the school opened in 1914 four of the 28 enrolling students were men.

It was not without some controversy that the school was established.  Presbyterians began realizing the need for a school like ATS well before 1914.  In fact, the vision for the school can be traced back to 1873.  By 1890, the Assembly was calling for programs to train the growing numbers of women wanting to serve overseas.

It took a determined Richmond resident named Annie Wilson to get the ball rolling toward an Assembly-sponsored training school that would serve the entire denomination. When she was appointed in 1907 to serve as a missionary in China, she requested permission to take a few courses at Union Theological Seminary to prepare for her mission. The seminary set up a special program for female students, and 13 other women joined Wilson the first year.  A year later there were 23.  Former PSCE professor Charles Melchert observed in a 1986 Founders Day address, “Today it is hard to imagine what a difficult and controversial task it was then to gain support for training women….In those days not only were women not allowed to preach or enter seminaries, they also were forbidden to speak before ‘mixed groups,’ meaning groups with both men and women present. That was the official church policy in 1880.”

By 1917, the ATS student body had grown to 70, evidence of what the General Assembly called “a distinct demand” for such a school. Over the next 80 years ATS and PSCE educated and prepared women and men to serve the educational ministry of the church.  Graduates served in mission fields in other countries, mission fields in the United States, and in congregations across the country.

The impact of the faculty at ATS/PSCE on educational ministry in the church can hardly be measured.  Professors such as Rachel Henderlite, Josephine Newbury, Estelle McCarthy, Lamar Williamson, Don Griggs, Wade Boggs, Sara Little and others have left their mark not only on the school but on the wider church and the field of Christian education as well.

Their work continues through others today. Union Presbyterian Seminary (UPSem) has inherited an amazing legacy through the federation of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education and Union Theological Seminary in 1997.  Changes in the church and the world are helping shape a new vision for educational ministry. Theological institutions are changing, too, in order to help churches and church leaders adapt to those shifts. UPSem is embracing this new vision through its strategic plan and newly-revised curriculum. The seminary continues to  recognize the importance of educational ministry in the life of the church and is committed to preparing both pastor-educators and educator-pastors to meet this challenge.

On November 2-5, 2014, the seminary will celebrate the wonderful legacy of ATS/PSCE.  The event will honor the educators who have transformed, and continue to transform, the church, both in this country and around the world.  A thanksgiving for the courses taught, the professors who labored, the students who learned, and the institution that shaped the landscape for a century of spiritual nurture and formation is planned to remember and celebrate the past and to look forward with renewed commitment to the ministry of Christian education.

To find out more about the ATS/PSCE Centennial celebration, visit the web at http://www.atspscecentennial.org/.

Eva Stimson is a freelance writer and editor and former editor of Presbyterians Today.