A Brief History of Moravian Theological SeminarySince its earliest days in Bohemia and Moravia, the Moravian Church has promoted education and has provided the best possible training for its leaders. Until the beginning of the 19th century, clergy for the Moravian Church in America were trained in European universities and in the Moravians’ own theological schools in Germany. A growing sense of American national identity, however, coupled with the difficulties of transatlantic travel during a time of war on the Continent, led to the founding of Moravian Theological Seminary in October 1807.
The first class, which met at Nazareth Hall, the Moravian boys’ school in Pennsylvania, consisted of three students taught by two instructors. All three members of that class—William Henry VanVleck, Samuel Reinke, and Peter Wolle—became bishops in the Moravian Church. Professor Ernest Lewis Hazelius, after brief but distinguished service among the Moravians, went on to be a pioneer in theological education for the Lutheran Church in America. Professor John Christian Bechler also became a bishop, but he is perhaps best known as the composer of the tune for “Sing Hallelujah, Praise the Lord!”
For its first half century, Moravian Theological Seminary was housed at various locations in Nazareth, Philadelphia, and Bethlehem. In 1858 it moved permanently to Bethlehem and a collegiate division, which became Moravian College, was added to the theological school. The curriculum included most of the subjects which today are typical of a liberal arts education, in addition to specialized courses in pastoral ministry.
1930 marked a step toward the development of independent graduate theological education at the institution, when Walter Vivian Moses became the first dean of Moravian Theological Seminary as a separate faculty within the corporation of Moravian College. During the 1940s the faculty and student body of both the College and Seminary declined dramatically when many Moravian men went off to war, but the school grew again during the religious boom of the 1950s and the diversification of American culture in the 1960s.
In the 1970s the Seminary itself became more diverse as an increasing number of women and non-Moravians joined the student body. Bahnson Center, the main academic building of the Seminary today that houses classrooms, conference space, and faculty and administrative offices, opened on the campus in 1976. During the course of the 1980s two additional degrees, a master’s in pastoral counseling and a master’s in theological studies, were added to the curriculum, alongside the Master of Divinity, which remains the basic credential for ordained ministry in the Moravian Church and other denominations.
In 2007 Moravian Theological Seminary celebrated its bicentennial. A conference on the partnership of the Seminary and the Church was held in March, and a memorial chapel service took place on October 2, exactly 200 years after the first class met in Nazareth. A “past and future” celebration followed with a dinner honoring past and present deans, students and faculty, a tour of the Seminary's footprints in Nazareth and Bethlehem, and a lovefeast.
Today, Moravian Theological Seminary continues to experience growth and vitality. There are six full time professors and 16 adjunct faculty members from a variety of denominations including: Moravian, Presbyterian, United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, and Episcopal Church. The student body averages 110 students, representing 15 denominations and 4 countries. A new curriculum, adopted in 2004, is designed to equip “missional and transformational” leaders for the church and the culture of the 21st century.
Dr. Raymond Haupert, who was president from 1944 to 1969, often spoke about Moravian Theological Seminary as “the heart of the church.” We pray that the Seminary may continue to be both heart and head for the Moravian Church as it enters its third century of service.