Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school located in Decatur, has provided theological education and spiritual instruction in the Reformed theology of Calvinism to thousands of ministers, missionaries, teachers, and laypeople. Columbia Theological Seminary is one of ten seminaries owned and operated by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The seminary was founded in Lexington in 1828 and moved to Columbia, South Carolina, in 1830. In 1927 the seminary again moved, to Decatur, in order to better serve the growing population of Georgia and the Southeast. It has since grown, under the leadership of presidents Richard T. Gillespie, J. McDowell Richards, C. Benton Kline, J. Davison Philips, and Douglas W. Oldenburg. In 2000 Laura Mendenhall became president.

The Columbia Theological Seminary campus on Columbia Drive occupies fifty-seven acres. Among its facilities are dormitories, a refectory, a chapel, a library, the Harrington Center for Continuing Education, classrooms, and administrative buildings.

Degree programs at the seminary include the master of divinity, master of arts in theological studies, doctor of educational ministry, doctor of ministry, master of theology, and the doctor of theology. The master of divinity degree prepares students to serve as pastors and missionaries. The doctor of ministry degree gives advanced training to pastors currently serving in churches or other ministries. The master and doctor of theology degrees prepare future teachers.

A notable program is the Lay Institute of Faith and Life, which is housed in the W. Frank Harrington Center for Continuing Education. (The building is named for the former pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.) The institute seeks to enable the laity of the church to become better theologians and followers of Christ though luncheon programs, retreats, seminars, and other activities. It also offers a certificate in spiritual formation.

Southern Institute for Business and Professional Ethics
Southern Institute for Business and Professional Ethics

The student body is quite diverse and includes students from various cultural and professional backgrounds who hold undergraduate and graduate degrees in many subjects. The majority of Columbia’s 500 students are Presbyterian.

From 1993 to 2007 the seminary housed the Southern Institute for Business and Professional Ethics (later the Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility), a center for promoting ethical leadership and business integrity. In 2007 the center moved to the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Throughout its history the Columbia Theological Seminary faculty have produced numerous books, articles, hymns, and training materials. In the nineteenth century James Henley Thornwell and other faculty contributed to debates on theology, ethics, missions, preaching, and social issues. Columbia also experienced controversies over slavery, alcohol, and later, evolution during the nineteenth century.

James Henley Thornwell
James Henley Thornwell
From The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, by B. M. Palmer

The seminary’s graduates have become well known as ministers, teachers, and leaders. Nineteenth-century alumni founded colleges, orphanages, and schools; produced tracts and treatises; and wrote histories of many places, including locations in Africa and Asia. Alumnus James Lyman Merrick was tutor to the Prince of Persia at Tabriz (in modern-day Iran) and later taught oriental languages at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

A well-known alumnus is Peter Marshall (class of 1931). Upon graduation he pastored the Covington Presbyterian Church. In 1933 he accepted a call to the Westminster Presbyterian Church, then located on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta. While pastor at Westminster, he met Catherine Wood, a student at nearby Agnes Scott College, and the two were married. Marshall  left Atlanta to become pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., and was eventually appointed chaplain of the U.S. Senate. After his death Catherine Marshall, his wife, became famous as a writer. In 1955 her book A Man Called Peter (1951) was made into a movie with the same title, and starred Richard Todd and Jean Peters.

Peter Marshall
Peter Marshall
Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Two recent graduates of Columbia Theological Seminary, Murphy Davis (1974) and Ed Loring (1966), founded the Open Door Community, an organization that provides assistance both to the homeless community in Atlanta and to prisoners in the state of Georgia.

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Southern Institute for Business and Professional Ethics

Southern Institute for Business and Professional Ethics

Former Atlanta mayor Sam Massell introduces students at Atlanta Girls' School to CarTown U.S.A., a program of the Southern Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary. The classroom exercise was developed by the institute to promote the ideals of honesty and integrity in business transactions.

Peter Marshall

Peter Marshall

Peter Marshall, an alumnus of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, preaches in 1942 during a sunrise service in Washington, D.C. Marshall began his illustrious career, which included a tenure as chaplain of the U.S. Senate, in Georgia, first at the Covington Presbyterian Church, and then at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, #LC-USF34-011480-D.

James Henley Thornwell

James Henley Thornwell

In 1856 James Henley Thornwell, a native of South Carolina, joined the faculty of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur and became one of its most influential members. He published a number of sermons during his career, as well as articles defending slavery and secession in the Southern Presbyterian Review.

From The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, by B. M. Palmer