Erskine Clark-To Count Our Days: a History of Columbia Theological Seminary

Erskine Clark


Erskine Clarke won the prestigious Bancroft Prize given by Columbia University for a work “of exceptional merit” for his book, “Dwellling Place: A Plantation Epic” (2005), a compelling narrative history of four generations of a Georgia plantation’s inhabitants, white and black. Clarke has written several important books about religion and slavery in the American South. Just retired from teaching duties, he is Professor Emeritus of American Religious History at Columbia theological Seminary in Decatur, where he taught for many years. Thomas Erskine Clarke was born May 29, 1941 in Columbia, SC. He grew up in South Carolina and received his BA in History at the University of South Carolina in 1963. He earned a Masters in divinity degree in 1966 from Columbia Theological Seminary, did graduate work at the University of Basel in Switzerland 1966-67 and received his Ph.D. in 1970 from Union Theological Seminary, and joined their faculty soon after that. He has since lectured and served as consultant at a number of institutions including Yale University, the University of London, the University of Virginia, Wesley Theological Seminary; Nanjing Theological Seminary in China, and the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. He is publisher and editor of the Journal for Preachers, a quarterly journal of homiletics.


To Count Our Days: a History of Columbia Theological Seminary

Columbia Theological Seminary’s rich history provides a window into the social and intellectual life of the American South. Founded in 1828 as a Presbyterian seminary for the preparation of well-educated, mannerly ministers, it was located during its first one hundred years in Columbia, South Carolina. During the antebellum period, it was known for its affluent and intellectually sophisticated board, faculty, and students. Its leaders sought to follow a middle way on the great intellectual and social issues of the day, including slavery. Columbia’s leaders, Unionists until the election of Lincoln, became ardent supporters of the Confederacy. While the seminary survived the burning of the city in 1865, it was left impoverished and poorly situated to meet the challenges of the modern world. Nevertheless, the seminary entered a serious debate about Darwinism. Professor James Woodrow, uncle of Woodrow Wilson, advocated a modest Darwinism, but reactionary forces led the seminary into a growing provincialism and intellectual isolation. In 1928 the seminary moved to metropolitan Atlanta signifying a transition from the Old South toward the New (mercantile) South. The seminary brought to its handsome new campus the theological commitments and racist assumptions that had long marked it. Under the leadership of James McDowell Richards, Columbia struggled against its poverty, provincialism, and deeply embedded racism. By the final decade of the twentieth century, Columbia had become one of the most highly endowed seminaries in the country, had internationally recognized faculty, and had students from all over the world and many Christian denominations. By the early years of the twenty-first century, Columbia had embraced a broad diversity in faculty and student. Columbia’s evolution has challenged assumptions about what it means to be Presbyterian, southern, and American, as the seminary continues its primary mission of providing the church a learned ministry.

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