Skip to content »

Our History

What has remained consistent through the histories of Garrett Biblical Institute, Evangelical Theological Seminary and the Chicago Training School has been an unwavering, core commitment to the formation of Christian leaders. Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary takes great pride in this history as we celebrate over 160 years of preparing spiritual leaders.

Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary is the result of the interweaving of three institutions:

  • Garrett Biblical Institute, the first Methodist seminary in the Midwest, was established in 1853 by largely the same church people who founded Northwestern University. Its founders hoped that the school would shape mind and spirit toward an educated ministry.
  • The Chicago Training School, established in 1885, was an important force for women in ministry and for developing service agencies throughout Chicago. Chicago Training School merged with Garrett Biblical Institute in 1934.
  • Evangelical Theological Seminary, located in Naperville and founded as a seminary of the Evangelical Church (later the Evangelical United Brethren) in 1873, joined with Garrett Theological Seminary in 1974 to form Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

These institutional histories live on in our core values of critical and creative reason, evangelical commitment, and prophetic participation in society. We invite you to learn more about Garrett-Evangelical's legacy below.

Founding of Three Institutions

In 1831, 40 years after the death of John Wesley, Methodists founded a society in the village of Chicago. Within its membership were early settlers Eliza Clark Garrett and her husband, Chicago mayor Augustus Garrett. Eliza Garrett had become convinced of the need for better training for Methodist preachers. In her will, made out in early December 1853, she left a considerable inheritance for the founding of a biblical institute. A meeting was held in Chicago on December 26, 1853, at which a group of Methodist leaders invited John Dempster to come to the Chicago area and organize the institute. Garrett Biblical Institute grew in the ensuing years. Like the other biblical institutes on which it was patterned, the institution’s three-year curriculum supplemented the denomination’s prescribed course of study with a particular focus on biblical learning, including instruction in Greek and Hebrew. Bishop Matthew Simpson was serving as the second president of the institute when he preached the eulogy at Abraham Lincoln’s burial in Springfield, Illinois, on May 4, 1865.

In 1837 a group of German settlers in the area that is now Naperville, Illinois, formed a society of the Evangelical Association that would become Community United Methodist Church. The 1871 General Conference of the Evangelical Association adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of a biblical institute, and on March 13, 1873, the State of Illinois granted a charter for the Union Biblical Institute in Naperville. The institute was organized as an adjunct to the college in Naperville and held its first classes in 1876. In August 1877, it was formally opened by Bishop J. J. Esher. The name of the Institute was eventually changed to Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Chicago in the late 1800s was a city of hope and despair. European immigrants had arrived by the thousands, the meat-packing industry was flourishing, and the first skyscrapers were arising from the ashes of the great fire. Upton Sinclair would soon describe conditions of the city in his novel The Jungle and evangelist D. L. Moody had become the voice of urban revivalism. It was in this context that a Methodist laywoman, Lucy Rider Meyer, called for a new vision of Christian leadership: a ministry of women who were eventually recognized as deaconesses, ministering to the needs of the city. In 1885 she and her husband convinced a group of Chicago Methodists to endorse the organization of a training school, the Chicago Training School for City, Home and Foreign Missions, and they began raising funds for the new school.

Merger of GBI and CTS

Both the Chicago Training School and Garrett Biblical Institute flourished in the 1920s. It was in this decade that Garrett built the Gothic structure that remains the main seminary building and was then considered “the pride of the North Shore.” It was dedicated in 1924, the same year in which Chicago’s First Methodist Church moved into the Chicago Temple. Both the Chicago Training School and Garrett Biblical Institute faced hard times in the 1930s. The seminary had assumed debt for its new buildings, and in 1932 could not pay for them. The buildings and surrounding property were sold at Sheriff’s auction in 1932. Northwestern University purchased the property and graciously leased it back to the seminary for one dollar per year. This arrangement, which was made by contract for one hundred years renewable at the request of the seminary for another hundred years, remains in effect today.

The integration of the Chicago Training School meant that the scope of Garrett’s vision for training Christian leaders had expanded to include leaders of church-based institutions for the betterment of social conditions and significant numbers of women. A Ph.D. program had been instituted in conjunction with Northwestern University in 1930, and this program further expanded the seminary’s program into the preparation of seminary and college faculty members. The service of Dr. Georgia Harkness as professor of applied theology (1939-1950) signaled the expansion of Garrett’s vision by including women faculty members. The service of Dr. Grant Shockley (1959-1966) marked the inclusion of African-American faculty members, and the seminary began to work deliberately to attract African-American students and faculty members.

Union of GTS and ETS

The 1968 merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form The United Methodist Church left the denomination with two theological seminaries in close proximity in the Chicago area. By that time, Garrett Biblical Institute had taken the name “Garrett Theological Seminary.” The 1972 General Conference of The United Methodist Church mandated the merger of the two Chicago-area seminaries. The two institutions agreed on a plan to form a merged seminary using the Evanston campus, and in the fall of 1974 Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary opened as a newly-merged seminary.

After the merger in the 1970s, the Center for the Church and the Black Experience became a central facet of the seminary’s life, working to attract black students and faculty members. At the same time, the rising prominence of women faculty members, especially Dr. Rosemary Radford Ruether (1976-2002), and increasing numbers of women students brought Garrett-Evangelical a reputation as a center for feminist Christian thought. During the 1970s and 1980s the seminary encouraged the development of a women’s center and centers for Asian and Hispanic ministries.

The vision of the seminary has evolved and expanded in the ensuing years with the growing inclusion of women in ministry, with the expansion of the racial and cultural breadth of the seminary’s faculty and student body, and with the expansion of the idea of Christian leadership as embracing a wide variety of gifts for ministry and forms of ministry in the churches. What has remained consistent through the histories of Garrett Biblical Institute, Evangelical Theological Seminary and the Chicago Training School has been an unwavering, core commitment to the formation of Christian leaders. Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary takes great pride in this history as we celebrate over 160 years of preparing spiritual leaders.