Walter and Kersten: The Future of NPTS

From Gary Walter’s “I Believe in the Future of North Park Theological Seminary”:

All seminaries, including our own, are navigating precarious times. The three-year, full-time residential model of seminary preparation that has been the standard for decades is under pressure at schools of all stripes. In the meantime, some schools are closing and others are consolidating. When I gather with leaders of other denominations, conversations about the future of theological education are common. No one is confident they have “figured it out.”
In previous generations, the general consensus held that a seminary degree was the threshold for entering the ministerial vocation appropriately prepared. If you wanted to be in ministry, you went to seminary, just as you went to law school to be a lawyer or medical school to be a doctor. While this is still broadly true, increasingly churches are calling ministry staff based on observed rather than “projected” effectiveness. In some quarters a seminary education is viewed more like an MBA—a value-added degree to enhance the efficacy of those already in ministry rather than the necessary gateway to ensure readiness prior to ministry. This is particularly true for special focus positions such as youth, children, worship, and others, which comprise more than half of all ministry positions in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). The percentage of seminary students already in ministry positions is higher than it has ever been.

Schools will need to see students as multi-dimensional and not merely consumers of biblical and theological content…. Intellectual preparation is only one dimension of seminary training. It is never less, but it is always more… a comprehensive view of student preparation for ministry must integrate spiritual, character, and skill development… Seminaries will need to be multi-lateral. Effective seminaries of the future will provide instruction by partnering scholars and expert practitioners…

Finally, seminaries will need to be authentically engaged in multi-ethnic realities and opportunities.
From David Kersten’s “Strategic Initiatives: Planning for the Future”:
Nyvall Hall, approximately 1950 (image credit: CAHL 4869)

Nyvall Hall, approximately 1950 (image credit: CAHL 4869)

In the past decade, the seminary classroom has been changing. No longer

are seminary courses filled primarily with those in pursuit of a senior pastor role… In meeting the needs of the changing demographics of the church, we have embarked on a vigorous strategy of “right-sizing” and “right-timing” our master of divinity degree, launching a revised degree in the fall of 2015. This degree requires fewer credit hours, decreasing its cost by 14 percent, with a strengthened and simplified core curriculum and a renewed emphasis on preaching, intercultural studies, and pastoral leadership. While we have reduced the number of credits needed to earn a degree, we anticipate the number of courses taken over a graduate’s
lifetime to increase as the interest in and demand for lifelong learning opportunities grow.
In addition to denominational partnerships, we are pursuing further opportunities for collaboration with our university colleagues. These include joint teaching between the seminary and the university’s Biblical and Theological Studies (BTS) Department, providing students with a broader spectrum of professors. Also in collaboration with the BTS Department, we envision developing a “fast-track” undergraduate to seminary degree. The seminary currently cross-lists its courses, allowing undergraduates to take seminary classes for undergraduate credit. We hope to expand this partnership, providing undergraduates advance standing toward a seminary degree and making it possible to complete both a bachelor degree and an MDiv degree within five to six years.
Next spring, in collaboration with Serve Globally and Start and Strengthen Churches, we will begin offering the church planting certificate to the Covenant Church in Taiwan. We also hope to offer our certificates and potentially degree programs to our partner churches in the International Federation of Free Evangelical Churches. These partnerships strengthen the cross-cultural competency of NPTS students and Covenant pastors. As the ECC becomes more reflective of all of God’s people, NPTS intends to be at the forefront of engagement with the world.
We are researching the viability of a plan that would supply all of our students with a modest interest-free loan to cover their tuition costs. Such loans would come from major initial gifts from donors that will be invested and will also secure a larger credit facility. This would form a captive loan pool to cover seminary tuition, allowing students to defer all payment until graduation. Students would make a modest monthly payment for seven years following graduation. These payments will go back into the loan pool to help replenish funds. Through investment and program management provided by affiliates of the ECC, there is also a significant tuition discount built into the program, and the interest-free nature of the loan reduces the overall costs of seminary further. Students will also be encouraged to form a team of ministry partners to help support a portion of their education, financially and in prayer. These ministry partners can help reduce costs even further while bringing a sense of support and community to the students. Students will be held to minimum standards of performance in order to continue to qualify.
A highlight for North Park in the area of ecumenical partnerships has been the development of a course taught by Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom at Stateville Correctional Facility in Chicago. This course involves both seminary students and Stateville students learning together. Some Stateville students have expressed the desire to continue their education at North Park after their release. This endeavor shines light on the type of restorative justice we as a community of believers can bring about in our city and world.

Al Tizon: The Graduate

From “The Graduate” by Al Tizon


Graduate procession in front of Old Main, circa 1949 (image credit: CAHL 6752)

… If at the end of students’ harrowing theological journey their love for God has not been deepened and strengthened precisely by the transforming process of quality education, then we have failed. In other words, theological education must have a spiritual formation component to it. Without this component, students can study theology devoid of spirituality, devoid of God… Like Paul, graduates finish their grueling, assumption-smashing, paradigm-shifting education with a deeper, stronger, more mature and creative love for the maker of heaven and earth and lover of our souls.

The graduate also lives and imparts biblical wisdom… after grasping the complicated history of canonization, after analyzing the books via lower and higher criticisms, after acknowledging the disparate accounts and stories that make up Scripture, and even after interrogating some of those stories through a postcolonial lens, graduates still see the indispensable value of the Bible for faith and practice. They even appreciate it more in its ability to guide, encourage, challenge, and correct the people of God on their way to maturity. If graduates leave with more suspicion and deeper disdain than with more respect and reverence for the Bible, their theological education has failed them.
If seminary does not teach graduates to live creatively in the tension between being in the world but not of it, they will tend either to assimilate in a given culture—perhaps offering at best a nice, non-offensive religious word that affirms all (I’m OK, you’re OK)—or to go against the culture, cultivating a “church versus world” understanding that stands in judgment over those not of the fold. Neither extreme is acceptable. The graduate recognizes this tension and lives in it, thus becoming both a lover and a transformer of culture.
Graduate and family in front of Nyvall Hall, circa 1965 (image credit: CAHL 6754)

Graduate and family in front of Nyvall Hall, circa 1965 (image credit: CAHL 6754)

Graduates know the inadequacy of private, overly individualistic faith and are committed to participating in Christian community, despite its imperfections, blemishes, and even scandals… Lurking behind the pursuit of unbroken community, the perfect church is a denial of our brokenness, a disengagement with reality, an excuse not to be in deep relationship with others. To be committed to the church is to be committed to real relationships with real people, and quality theological education fosters this commitment… Graduates from the best of what theological education can offer have this commitment to authentic, healthy relationships, to genuine koinonia, to real church.

This should go without saying, but the hope of theological education must not only include identifying and purging prejudice from the hearts of students; graduates must also become champions of gender equality, racial righteousness, and economic justice. Graduates fight against sexism, racism, classism, and all other injustices, beginning in their own hearts and then extending this fight to society. This affirmation turns graduates into reconcilers in the world, challenging human-made lines in the sand and creating spaces for enemies to embrace.
And finally there’s humility, with which I have chosen to cap my list. Graduates can be all of the above… but if they are all of this without humility, something has gone awry along the way… Beyond our disability to see perfectly, humility is engendered by recognizing the vastness of God, the mystery of God. Even if we could see clearly, we are confronted with a force, a personality, far more complex than even our most enlightened selves could fully take in. Indeed, the All-Mysterious can be known because of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ—but fully known? The impossibility of grasping the fullness of the Divine keeps the graduate forever “walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). Let this be true of all of us.

C. John Weborg: Reflections of a Seminary Student and Professor

From “Inhabiting a Dwelling Place: Reflections of a Seminary Student and Professor” by C. John Weborg


C. John Weborg (Image credit: CAHL 18760).

I left North Park with a historical and theological identity. That identity has not changed. I am still a Lutheran Pietist with only this difference: that which was a latent Lutheran dimension has become more theologically articulate. I still have a clear sense of the vocation I was taught at North Park Seminary but with a profounder confidence in the God who is at work through his word. The educational methodology that fostered this identity was in no sense a form of indoctrination. It did include a disciplined learning of the church’s confession of faith and the Scripture on which that confession is based. It is that material, long in formation, endowed with faith, hope, and love, that was mediated to us at North Park. It was an education rich in reading original sources – patristic, Reformation, and contemporary – as well as the required textbooks that provided students with a treasury of wisdom and knowledge.


I recall asking a student from Kenya or Nigeria (my memory is not sure which) how he might teach the doctrine of the church in his culture. He told me of a certain tree whose age was older than his people. This great tree had collected so much dust in its branches, crevices, and leaf structures that seeds borne by the winds took root in the collected dust. The seeds grew into a diversity of trees, all living together in the big host tree. Birds of species normally hostile to each other lived in peace in this tree. I learned to not do the “western” thing and analyze this rich response. Theological thinking by storytelling allows the story to disclose its meaning – although I wonder if “meaning” is even too immobile a word. The story itself releases its power, enfolding the listener in it, rather than simply disclosing an interpretation or deducing a conclusion from it.


The fixed world of my education with which I began this article met its challenge in my introduction to world Christianity. World Christianity is not simply a topic but an entire discipline, challenging church history as it is conventionally understood and taught, drawing attention to the fact that early Christianity was far more geographically vast than conventionally presented.


Not least of the value in this global historical awareness is that congregations today are increasingly ethnically diverse. Depending on location, one’s parish may include refugees, immigrants, exchange students, and American citizens of various ethnicities. Some knowledge of this “world church” – at least enough to know where to look for the specific data one needs to do ministry – is a key component of pastoral competence. Knowledge of world Christianity also contributes to pastoral care in preparing congregants for international business, educational, and philanthropic assignments.


Seminary faculty, 1970s. Weborg is third from the right in the second row (Image credit: CAHL 19358)

Seminary faculty, 1970s. Weborg is third from the right in the second row (Image credit: CAHL 19358).

The communication of the infinite value of a person’s humanity is gospel. It is not the entire gospel – and we cannot fail to preach and teach the full intellectual content of the faith – but it is the beginning. In Irenaeus’s bold gospel claim, the glory of God is the “human being fully alive.” The “human being fully alive” begs to know what dehumanizes the person, what vandalizes the divine image…. In order to get a hearing for the gospel, whether from the SBNR or East Germans, we must first come as fellow human beings. In meeting human to human, the Holy Spirit will show the other that we can be trusted with the deeper matters of their lives. Effective pastors something about context. And they do not make the mistake of respecting the fully human and calling it secular humanism.

Read the full text here.

Image credit: Covenant Archives and Historical Library (Historical Photograph Collection)

Not A “Simple Preacher’s School”: David Nyvall and NPTS

From “David Nyvall’s Enduring Impact on Christian Higher Education” by Scott Erickson:

David Nyvall (image credit: CAHL 3880).

David Nyvall (image credit: CAHL 3880).

David Nyvall (1863-1946), founding president of North Park University and Theological Seminary, was an impactful leader. He was purposeful in requiring his church to think innovatively about its philosophy of education. He is relevant today because he established an academic culture that has sustained and extended the immigrant community beyond its first generation.


During his first half-decade in America, David Nyvall had become increasingly concerned with the future of education in a largely poor Swedish immigrant community. It was a community struggling to survive and negotiate its ethnic identity. Swedish immigrants were navigating their way in unfamiliar territory without a school, educational plan, or academic culture of their own. If Swedish immigrants assimilated readily into the American culture, Nyvall feared they would get lost like small plants in the large American garden. They would become “foreign flowerpots” hidden inconspicuously “in the window of an attic.” Urged by Nyvall, the Covenant Church voted to establish a school in 1891, with Nyvall appointed as president, located first in Minneapolis and by 1894 in Chicago.


Nyvall did not want his immigrant community simply to “Americanize” and thus lose its identity in a melting pot. He rejected an easy and straightforward cultural assimilation, causing some to accuse him and his immigrant community of denying their American citizenship. When a journalist charged immigrant schools with being un-American, Nyvall retorted in 1899: “Our American friends ought to be patient with us. We are coming. But it takes time to die for a nation so much alive as we are; it takes time to die when to die should mean to live again…”


Nyvall Hall, early 1950s (image credit: CAHL 13365)

Nyvall Hall, early 1950s (image credit: CAHL 13365)

The theories that North Park should be a Bible school were directly opposed to Nyvall’s consistent vision for North Park. In two letters from 1893, he sharply criticized the philosophy of a simple preacher’s school, insisting that North Park would not and should not be “merely a preacher’s school,” as that would not be a school at all. Rather, it would include three academic departments: business college, seminary, and academy for the liberal arts.


In order for the immigrant church to survive and thrive, Nyvall argued that it was necessary to establish an academic culture defined by a care for the life of the mind, embracing theological complexity and developing an intellectual life. He further believed it was unsustainable for North Park to separate Christian faith from a liberal education.


Nyvall’s leadership ensured that North Park would not adopt the “simple preacher’s school” model. He set in motion many broadly conceived and far-reaching initiatives. Theological education, according to Nyvall, would not indoctrinate the preacher; instead, it would nurture and develop the preacher’s intellect.


For Nyvall, the life of the mind never required a choice against faith. The strength of a person’s Christian faith and character should be nurtured to withstand the very vices Blanchard feared. Avoiding the world should not be the goal of the person of faith, as Blanchard would argue. Cordoning off intellectual challenges was not Nyvall’s vision. Instead, Christian character would be developed in young people through their liberal education. Christian faith and a liberal education should have a constructive relationship in the Christian university, and not be relegated to a Scylla-Charybdis dichotomy. Nyvall wanted to inspire young people to welcome critical intellectual reflection in the context of their Christian faith.

 Read the full excerpt here.

Image credit: Covenant Archives and Historical Library (Historical Photograph Collection)

Philip J. Anderson: “On the Beginnings of North Park University”

From Philip J. Anderson’s “On the Beginnings of North Park University: ‘Risberg’s School’ and Covenant Ministerial Education, 1885-1916”:

Fridoph Risberg (image credit: CAHL 3880)

Fridoph Risberg (image credit: CAHL 3880)

Congregational aid to Swedish Mission Friends represented the coming together of varying degrees of cultural nativism and a growing conviction that these people were indeed Congregationalists, but, according to Scott, “there were no Congregationalists in Sweden to tell them so.” In 1867 The Chicago Association discussed how to reach immigrants and concluded that “the aim should be to nationalize them and gather them into our churches, rather than to establish churches exclusively of foreign elements.” Levi Cobb, superintendent of the AHMS in Minnesota, asserted in 1878: “To us nothing is plainer than this — that God has sent these people to our very doors for us to Christianize. We must do it, or they will make Europeans out of us.” The challenge to “Americanize, Christianize, Congregationalize” was summed up by Curtiss when he asked, “What have we, orthodox offspring of the pilgrim fathers, done to teach these children of Luther a more excellent way?” By the mid-1880s this nativism had developed into a rhetorical tradition justifying aid to Scandinavian free-church immigrants while glossing over inherent doctrinal and ecclesiological differences.


This, then, sets the context for Risberg’s arrival at CTS in the autumn of 1885, a world of faith and education that must have seemed very foreign to him. While the Congregationalists were quite certain of the qualities that defined an American, such an identifiable species must have seemed highly illusive through the eyes of an immigrant initially. No doubt, CTS provided Risberg with a culture and context that allowed him to be a bridge among Swedish leaders and groups between 1885 and World War I, three decades that comprised the most critical period for issues of identity, self-differentiation, and degrees of ethnic consciousness, made all the more pressing by generational change.


[Risberg’s] work at CTS was guided by the conviction that eventual assimilation into the American church would best serve the needs of the Swedish Mission Friends. In 1892 he wrote, “My opinion is that Every European who makes this land his home should think from the very beginning that he is to become a good American… It is because the training of Swedish preachers among Americans has a future before it that I willingly labor in this seminary.”


Composite of Swedish Department students at CTU, Risberg and D. Nyvall in middle (CAHL 5295)

Composite of Swedish Department students at CTU, Risberg and D. Nyvall in middle (CAHL 5295)

Nyvall, however, vigorously disagreed with Risberg’s views of Americanization, saying that “in all things personal Risberg and I were one, but in school matters and in matters of denominational interests we did not agree.” His role in the unfolding stormy discussions of schools and possible mergers led to the conviction that the Covenant needed its own school if the denomination was to have a future and if Swedish-American people were to shape their own cultural and religious lives.


David Nyvall and Axel Mellander, who in 1892 became dean of the Covenant school, anticipated the Covenant’s rejection of the overture. In January 1890 Mellander wrote in Missions-Vännen that the freedom of the Covenant “cannot be sold either for Congregational favors or American bribes.” A week later, Nyvall added, “we shall not be assimilated because we shall not be Americanized. By making the best of what we now are, we can best educate the nation in America… If we are good Swedes (in an apolitical sense), we are good Americans.”


On the one hand, the distinctives that divided the Covenant, the Free, the Swedish Congregationalists, and the independents, come into sharp focus. On the other hand, one can also see the development of a pan-ethnic “Mission” identity that embraced all the Scandinavian free churches and fostered cooperation and hopes for merger, driven by religion and held together by ethnicity. The challenge was to steer between the Scylla of assimilation without tradition and the Charybdis of tradition without assimilation.

Read the full article here.

Image credit: Covenant Archives and Historical Library (Historical Photograph Collection

Sneak Peek: CQ 73:3-4 | NPTS@125

The latest issue of the Covenant Quarterly is now published. This special double issue celebrates the 125th anniversary of  North Park University and North Park Theological Seminary, with a particular focus on the seminary. 


Philip J. Anderson

Philip J. Anderson, professor emeritus of church history at NPTS, contextualizes North Park’s origins within the competing educational ventures pursued by free church Swedish immigrants, 1885–1916, each advocating divergent pathways with respect to ethnic identity and American assimilation.

“Nyvall, however, vigorously disagreed with Risberg’s views of Americanization, saying that ‘in all things personal Risberg and I were one, but in school matters and in matters of denominational interests we did not agree.’ His role in the unfolding stormy discussions of schools and possible mergers led to the conviction that the Covenant needed its own school if the denomination was to have a future and if Swedish-American people were to shape their own cultural and religious lives.”

From “On the Beginnings of North Park University: ‘Risberg’s School’ and Covenant Ministerial Education, 1885-1916



Scott Erickson

Head of the Phillips Brooks School in Menlo Park, California, Scott Erickson presents the rich educational philosophy of NPTS founding president David Nyvall.

“For Nyvall, the life of the mind never required a choice against faith… Cordoning off intellectual challenges was not Nyvall’s vision. Instead, Christian character would be developed in young people through their liberal education. Christian faith and a liberal education should have a constructive relationship in the Christian university… Nyvall wanted to inspire young people to welcome critical intellectual reflection in the context of their Christian faith.”

From “North Park at 125: David Nyvall’s Enduring Impact on Christian Higher Education



C. John Weborg

C. John Weborg, emeritus professor of theology at NPTS, reflects on his decades of experience as an NPTS student and professor.

“The communication of the infinite value of a person’s humanity is gospel. It is not the entire gospel — and we cannot fail to preach and teach the full intellectual content of the faith — but it is the beginning… In order to get a hearing for the gospel, whether from the SBNR [spiritual but not religious] or East Germans, we must first come as fellow human beings. In meeting human to human, the Holy Spirit will show the other that we can be trusted with the deeper matters of their lives. Effective pastors… do not make the mistake of respecting the fully human and calling it secular humanism.”

From “Inhabiting a Dwelling Place: Reflections of a Seminary Student & Professor



Al Tizon

Al Tizon, executive minister of Serve Globally for the ECC and affiliate associate professor of missional and global leadership at NPTS, offers a list of the ideal characteristics found in a well-educated seminary graduate.

“Inherent in quality education is developing the ability to think critically, to question assumptions, and to be willing to abandon beliefs that don’t hold up in the crucible of honest investigation. Theological education is no exception, as we help students to question their assumptions about God, truth, church, and mission. If I may boast, I can deconstruct, interrogate, subvert, and turn tables with the best of them. However, if at the end of a student’s harrowing theological journey their love for God has not been deepened and strengthened precisely by the transforming process of quality education, then we have failed.”

From “The Graduate



David Kersten

Dean of NPTS David Kersten writes about strategic initiatives in process to ensure a strong future for the seminary.

“The ongoing need to keep seminary education affordable and our institutional operation sustainable has led to innovative solutions. Working with Covenant Trust Company (CTC), National Covenant Properties (NCP), and the financial division of the ECC, as well as North Park University, we are in the process of developing the North Park Plan — an interest free lending strategy meant to keep overall lending costs low for our students while increasing per student tuition revenue to the institution.”

From “Strategic Initiatives: Planning for the Future



Gary Walter

Evangelical Covenant Church president Gary Walter examines the viability of continued seminary education.

“Yet even in this era of uncertainty in theological education, I am certain of this: NPTS can be, and must be, a pace-setter among schools preparing leaders in service to the mission of God in the world. My macro view is that the seminaries with meaningful futures will be committed to a particular framing concept: Not merely to theological education but to missional theological education. A commitment is more than an implicit hope; it is an explicit frame of reference.”

From “I Believe in the Future of North Park Theological Seminary


View and download the full issue and individual articles here. Over the upcoming weeks, Forum will be hosting discussions about each article and posting related content. Sign up for email notifications and join the conversation.

“Jesus calls the church to a journey toward justice.”

From Catherine Gilliard, “Watching, Not Waiting: A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent”:


gilliard memeJesus teaches his disciples about the pain and suffering that precede a new birth. Jesus urges the disciples to remain awake so they do not miss God’s work in the middle of the chaotic events unfolding around them…. And this is my call to the church today: we too must be watchful. This week we watched peaceful demonstrators march to the seats of government power in city after city, bringing awareness to racial injustices that plague communities across this nation. Jesus is no stranger to the unrest we have seen; in our text Jesus warns his disciples that persecution will come. Jesus himself and his disciples were betrayed, handed over to authorities, beaten, thrown in jail, and eventually sentenced to death. This is also the journey of justice marked for the church today.


The unrest in city after city is not just about the death of Michael Brown, no matter how badly organizers need a face as a banner for the movement. What is resonating with people throughout this nation is not the unrest in Ferguson alone. What is resonating in city after city are the signs of the simmering tension of systemic racism present across this country, racism that those in positions of influence and power do not want to discuss or confront. What’s resonating with people about Ferguson is how signs of racial and class tensions present in their own communities are not being discussed either.

And sadly we, the church, have also been far too silent about the tension arising in our nation—and far too silent about the present signs of God’s kingdom breaking through, even as the violence increases. The voices speaking about injustice are rarely people of God who bring the hope of Christ into the dialogue. It’s as if we too truly believe that there is another answer to the sinful activities that sustain injustice other than the power of Christ.


Jesus calls the church to a journey toward justice. The Holy Spirit calls the church to see what needs to change and then empowers the church to become advocates of that change. God calls the church to embody the power of the cross, crucifying evil and resurrecting God’s plan. God heals us! God delivers us! God uses us to proclaim and witness the Holy Spirit’s power to bring good news to all who are suffering in this world. So be on guard! Be alert! Keep watch, so those watching expectantly will not lose hope. It is through us, the church, that God’s love, forgiveness, and grace are experienced by the world. It is we the church who are called to bear witness to God’s power to dismantle walls of division and separation through our ministry of restoration, redemption, and reconciliation.

Read the full article here.

Douglas Cedarleaf, a Civil Rights Advocate

kurt 2During the 1940s, a growing number of pastors educated at North Park Theological Seminary committed themselves to urban ministry and the cause of social justice. Douglas Cedarleaf, who would eventually pastor North Park Covenant Church in Chicago, was a student at North Park Theological Seminary in the early 1940s. He recalled a certain chapel message delivered during the Christmas season by a “white-haired lady” who worked at the Erie Chapel Neighborhood House on Chicago’s west side. Erie Chapel was a white church in the heart of Throop Street, a Polish-Italian community on the west side of Chicago. He and his wife Carolyn, moved by this woman’s commitment and call for justice and mercy, became active at Erie Chapel Neighborhood House’s ministry to children. After graduation Cedarleaf accepted an invitation to be senior minister of Erie Chapel Presbyterian Church, the body which sponsored the social outreach ministry.

During the first year of his ministry Cedarleaf confronted widespread social injustice in his community. On a Sunday morning in February 1945, Cedarleaf preached a sermon entitled “Vandalism in Throop Street,” in response to reports of violence against the Strongs, a black family that had recently moved into the white community.  Mr. and Mrs. Strong, along with their son and niece, had barely settled into their second-floor apartment when white neighbors hurled rocks, shattering many windows, and the neighborhood buzzed with threats that a mob would burn down the house. In the midst of this madness one of the Strongs’ neighbors, John Vilna, invited the Strongs to his church, Erie Chapel Presbyterian.

Equal Rights Demonstration led by Cedarleaf (image, CAHL 1984)

Equal Rights Demonstration led by Cedarleaf (CAHL 1984)

With the Strongs sitting among his congregation, Cedarleaf condemned the violence from the pulpit, urging his listeners to “love their neighbors as themselves” and resist the temptation to fear those who are different. After the service was over, he taught his congregation “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and invited them to join him in escorting the Strongs home. An overwhelming majority of the congregation accepted his call. Doug Cedarleaf, clad in full ministerial regalia led the singing band through the streets of Chicago to the Strongs’ front door. Once they arrived, the congregation sang “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds” and formally welcomed the family to the church and neighborhood.

The story was reported on the front page of The Chicago Sun and was eventually picked up by Time magazine. The press coverage sparked a firestorm of letters from across the United States, some laudatory and others threatening and condemning. Cedarleaf received a Distinguished Service Award from the Chicago Branch of the NAACP, and official recognition from the Urban League and the National Conference on Christians and Jews.

According to Cedarleaf,

The Good News the Master promised was something more than “pie in the sky and then we die.” His spirit of love was incarnated in the communion practiced by the Jerusalem church. Evidently these people felt as Rauschenbush puts it: “It is impossible to have men sit beside you as your brother and let him go hungry while you feed. Therefore as the usual thing we do not let him sit beside us or we deny that he is our brother.” The church moved out of these low income areas and had gone ‘high society,’ or at least strongly middle class, denying the basic relationship.

He did not propose social service as a substitute for a vital, personal relationship with Christ, “but rather as one of the channels through which the grace of God can flow.” By taking Christ’s call to social ministry seriously, Cedarleaf stood as a prophet on the threshold of one of America’s great social movements, publicly denouncing racism and economic injustice years before the civil rights movement caught fire.

Read excerpts of Cedarleaf’s 1963 sermon here; full text here.

Kurt Head ShotKurt Peterson is assistant dean and director of development for the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University Chicago. Prior to joining Loyola in 2012, he served as professor of history at North Park University. Peterson’s doctoral dissertation (Notre Dame), “Constructing the Covenant: The Evangelical Covenant Church and Twentieth Century American Religious Culture, 1920-197,.” contains more information on Cedarleaf and Covenant responses to race & racism here.


A Civil Rights Sermon, 1963

From Douglas Cedarleaf’s June 16, 1963, sermon, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done”:


cedarleaf 2 From the good news according to St. Matthew, chapter 6 verse 10, we read, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It would be interesting to know how many voices have been raised all over the world in this particular prayer and in this petition this morning. Across all the barriers of race and class and denomination. Across the seas. Across misunderstandings….

It circles the globe, this heart cry of the human race. What will it be like when God’s kingdom comes? Do you hunger and thirst after it? Do you seek after it? Is your blood stirred by it like it’s stirred by a new home or a new car or a new washing machine?


If Jesus Christ came in and said, “You really want my kingdom to come? Is this what you’re after? You really want my will to be done in the whole world? In your life? In your job? In your home? Is this what you’re really after?” We would cringe and say, “God, go away! This isn’t what we want. Leave us alone. Leave us alone. We’re comfortable the way we are. We’ve got everything we need. We live in the greatest nation in all the world. The kingdom of America is good enough for us!”


Let me ask you where God is in this whole business where one tenth of the population of America is crying for justice. Is God hearing this cry? Will God answer this cry? When they cry, “Thy kingdom come, and thy will be done,” will God hear what they have to say? And if he hears it, what will happen to the nine-tenths of us who feel either, on the one hand, that these folks should be restrained, or else…we just let it go. We are just indifferent. We hope this big, bad ogre will go away. And it sounds to me as though the voice of God himself is thundering through the pain of these people, “You had best wake up, wake up, lest at last you shall be submerged in the wrath of the heavenly Father who will not allow one-tenth of the human beings in this nation to be denied their basic rights!”


I am asking at this moment for you to decide in your own soul whether or not you can mix up God’s will with our keeping a tenth of our population submerged. Do you want to pray with me that God will sharpen the teeth of Bull Connor’s dogs? Do you want to pray with me that more black men will be shot in the back? Do you want to join me in prayer that the fire hoses be made ever greater in their pressure so we can mow down these people and put them back in their place where they belong?

Now if you choose this road, you have a right to do this and defy the law of America. You have a right to do this and defy the law of God, if this is your wish. But no one has ever defied the law of God and found peace.

Read the full sermon here, then come back and discuss.



For discussion:

  • Cedarleaf challenged his congregation to consider whether they really wanted God’s kingdom to come, given the way it would shake up the status quo. His question remains relevant. What would it look like for the Kingdom of God to be actualized in your job, your home, your community, and your life? What part might you be called to play in that?
  • In what ways do Christians and churches still promote the idea that “The kingdom of America (or the nation of choice) is good enough for us?”

The Covenant’s Response to the Civil Rights Movement, 1963–1968

From Ramelia Williams, “The Evangelical Covenant Church’s Response to the Civil Rights Movement, 1963–1968”:


RameliaIn the shadow of World War II, the Covenant Church took an official stance against racial discrimination. The Annual Meeting of 1944 adopted a resolution that reads in part: “We believe that all men are of one blood, and that all discrimination, based upon race, creed or nationality, is not in keeping with the Christian profession and life, and further, that it fosters conflict and war” (YB 1944, p. 133)….Between 1946 and 1968, nearly every Annual Meeting issued a resolution affirming the equal dignity of all people and rejecting racial discrimination, with only six exceptions.


Annual Meeting resolutions did not emerge ex nihilo, but were brought by a commission that sought to resource local congregations and guide them in action. In 1944 the Covenant Church established the Committee on Civic Relations to mold a Christian mindset toward various matters of civility. The name was changed in 1948 to Christian Citizenship Commission (and in 1968 to the Commission on Christian Action). The Christian Citizenship Commission would study and offer its opinion on suffrage, civil rights, international wars, political affairs, social ethics, and other important civic issues.


The practical action of the commission primarily took place through congregational commissions established at their request and under their direction. At its inception, the commission recommended the establishment of a “committee on civic relations” in every Covenant church, sending letters to each congregation with this request in November 1947. As the 1948 report stated, “Commission members quickly realized that no program of information or action could be implemented unless there were local committees” (YB 1948, p. 92), reporting that sixty churches had formed such a committee. The basic task of these local committees was twofold: (1) to educate their congregation about moral issues facing nation and community, and (2) to guide them in an appropriate response….The 1961 Annual Meeting approved the commission’s proposal that race be adopted as the “issue of the year,” launching a year of “denomination-wide study of Christianity and racial relations.” (YB 1962, p. 163)


As recognized by the Covenant Commission on Christian Citizenship, resolutions would be effective only as “interpreted and carried out by the local committees” (YB 1962, p. 163). For this reason I surveyed two congregations located in cities that, historically, have served a prominent role in the denomination: Community Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and North Park Covenant Church in Chicago, Illinois.


Read the full article here, including accounts of particular Covenant congregations and publications.

For consideration and discussion:

  • The author expresses that her initial discouragement at the minimal involvement of Covenant congregations in the civil rights movement gave way to greater appreciation through her research. Has Williams’s research impacted your own thoughts on this matter?
  • A running theme through this piece is the ECC’s expressed desire to “bring our practices into line with our beliefs” (Covenant Yearbook 1950, p. 202), and the denomination’s attempts to empower local congregations to that end. How might Covenant polity have impacted – and continue to impact – those attempts, for better or for worse?
  • How does Williams’s historical study relate to the nation, denomination, and local church today? What can it teach us?