JOHNSON C. SMITH THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY is one of the ten theological institutions of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the only historically African-American one. Much of the seminary's early history parallels that of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte.
The university was founded under the guidance of the Presbyterian Church. It was established on April 7, 1867, as a part of the Freedmen's College of North Carolina. Soon thereafter, it was named Biddle Memorial Institute after Major Henry J. Biddle who pledged $1,400 to start the college.
In 1876, Charlotte citizen Colonel W. R. Myers donated the first eight acres of land for the school. In 1883, a new building was erected to serve as the main administrative building for the university. It featured recitation rooms and a 600-seat audience chamber.
Like many of the similar institutions started after the Civil War, its mission to teach reading, writing and other basic skills to freed slaves rapidly expanded to, among other things, the preparation of teachers and preachers. During these early years, the seminary operated as a department of the University, graduating its first class of three in 1872. The first all-black intercollegiate football game was played between Biddle and Livingstone College of Salisbury, N.C. in 1892.
Lawrence McCrorey was elected as the second African-American president of Biddle in 1907. Born in SC during the Civil War, Dr. McCrorey graduated from the College and Arts program at Biddle 1892 and from the theological seminary in 1895. He taught in the high school department at Biddle and was later promoted to chair the Greek Exegesis and Hebrew department in the theological seminary. During his 40 years as President, the university's many achievements included becoming fully accredited by the Association of American Colleges. In 1919 Biddle became the first black college in the South to offer professional courses in education.
Dr. McCrory apparently was a relentless fund raiser, attracting the support of philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie. Perhaps the two greatest coups he scored were attracting the support of Jane Berry Smith and James Buchanan Duke.
In 1923, Mrs. Jane Berry Smith of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, generously endowed the institution and constructed several buildings on the seventy-five acre campus in honor of her husband, Johnson C. Smith. In recognition of this gift, the Board of Trustees voted on March 1, 1923, to change the name of the Institute to Johnson C. Smith University.
A year later, when Mr. Duke established the Duke Endowment, Johnson C. Smith University was one of only four educational institutions and the only historically black one to be named eligible for support from the endowment. (The others were Duke University, Furman University, and Davidson College.) That same year, JCSU was recognized as a four-year college by the North Carolina State Board of Education, (The importance of the historic relationship to the Duke Endowment became evident last year when the Endowment awarded JCSU a grant of $35 million.)
By 1938, the institution had attained the status of an independent college, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, reporting to the General Assembly through the Board of Christian Education. JCSU was an all-male institution during its first five-plus decades and first admitted women to the freshman class in 1941. In 1944, JCSU was a founding member of the United Negro College Fund.
Despite the university's growing success, its seminary was falling on hard times. Two years after the University celebrated its 100th anniversary, the seminary was being threatened with closing because of declining enrollment, financial difficulties, and the loss of its accreditation. A national effort led by alumnus James Costen (see below) led to the seminary being relocated to Atlanta to join the Interdenominational Theological Center* (the ITC) in 1969-an action officially endorsed by the JCSU board, the ITC board, and the 182nd General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (northern branch).
James Hutten Costen, Sr., was the first Administrative Dean of the Atlanta-based seminary. He had four students and a small office in the basement of the ITC administrative building. Jim was a former Catholic raised in Omaha, Nebraska. He was a graduate of JCSU, from which he received his bachelor's and divinity degrees. He earned a Masters in Theology in religious education at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. Subsequently, he served a congregation in Rocky Mount, North Carolina and then was called by the Knox Hodge Presbytery of SC and GA in the Synod of Atlantic to establish an interracial congregation in Atlanta that would facilitate the process toward a "non-segregated Church in a non-segregated society." That congregation became Church of the Master, chartered in 1965, to which he was called as pastor.
Until he became president of the ITC in 1983, Jim Costen was to the seminary what Henry McCrory had been to the university. Under his leadership, enrollment increased and the seminary built an endowment of its own. Dr. Melva Costen, a nationally recognized musician and choir director, whom he met in college and subsequently married was a powerful partner throughout his ministry. She was on the ITC faculty until her retirement and chaired the PCUSA committee that developed the reunited denomination's first hymnal.
During his last year at JCSTS (1982), Jim was moderator of the United Presbyterian Church and played a powerful role in promoting the reunion of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian denomination the following year. In 1983, he and J. Randolph (Randy) Taylor were elected co-moderators of the newly reunited Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) during ceremonies in Atlanta.
Jim's successors included the Rev. Dr. Clinton Marsh, the Rev. Dr. Lonnie Oliver, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Gaston, the Rev. Dr. David Wallace, the Rev. Dr. Mark Lomax, and the Rev. Paul T. Roberts, Sr., who currently serves as President of the Seminary.
Well into the mid 1990's, the overwhelming majority of African-American Presbyterian clergy was educated at JCSTS with the largest concentration settling in the southeastern United States. Additionally, the seminary's alumni/ae have included moderators and vice moderators, presbytery executives, dynamic preachers, pioneering pastors, missionaries, church musicians, and chaplains.
In 2014, amid dramatic shifts in the leadership needs of the Church, JCSTS disaffiliated from the ITC with an eye toward delivering a theological education that is more affordable, increasingly relevant for a changing world, contextual, global in perspective, and innovative. An institution born of the Black Church, JCSTS remains committed to advancing the healing and liberating gospel of Jesus Christ among people from all walks of life.