Christian Theological Seminary traces its origins to 1855 and the founding of North Western Christian University in downtown Indianapolis. The new school’s primary mission was to train ministers for the Disciples, a frontier movement emphasizing Christian unity and lay leadership. But one thing distinguished NWCU from other Disciples schools at the time, most of which were in slave-holding states: its commitment to abolitionism. By 1877, the school had been re-named Butler University in honor of its most celebrated leader and most generous financial supporter, Indianapolis lawyer and abolitionist Ovid Butler.
Through the early years of the 20th century, Butler began offering a more diverse undergraduate curriculum, and the Butler School of Religion became one of many programs of study in the increasingly secular institution. As the growing university moved to its present location on Indianapolis’ near northside, the School of Religion grew as well, adding a graduate program in 1924 thanks to the generous financial support of Disciples businessmen William G. Irwin and Hugh Th. Miller, as well as Disciples minister Z. T. Sweeney.
The founding dean of the Butler School of Religion, Frederick Doyle Kershner, charted a unique course. At a time when American Christianity was sharply divided between liberalism and fundamentalism, he sought a middle ground. He opened the School of Religion to persons of all denominations, persons of color, and women, and welcomed a Jewish rabbi to serve on the faculty for more than two decades — a remarkable move in early twentieth-century America. Living out the historic Disciples commitment to Christian unity, Kershner insisted that the school prepare excellent, broad-minded leaders to serve the churches of his day. By the late 1950s, it was clear that the Butler School of Religion would serve the theologically progressive sector of American Protestantism, and especially of the Disciples, a commitment embodied in Dean Orman Shelton.
Driven by growth and a need for operational independence, the school severed its institutional ties to Butler University and became a free-standing seminary in 1958, reorganized and incorporated as Christian Theological Seminary. Almost immediately, the administration and faculty recast its vision of theological education: the school would at once maintain its commitment to ecumenism and preserve its ties to the emerging Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); it would offer graduate degrees to prepare women and men for congregational leadership; and its curriculum would demand the highest standards of scholarship from students, focussing intentionally on developing their lives of faith. In 1966, under the leadership of President Beauford Norris, CTS settled into its present location, just south of the Butler University campus.
Since its establishment as a free-standing institution, Christian Theological Seminary has adapted to meet the changing needs of both church and society. In the 1970s and 1980s, Veteran Disciples missionary and ecumenist T. J. Liggett led the school as it developed a truly global perspective on Christian faith. A new faculty began to emphasize the role of social science in the study of religion and to promote active engagement with pressing social concerns of the day. An innovative field education program was introduced as the seminary’s understanding of “ministry” expanded to include work in social service agencies, government, and other non-congregational settings.
In the early 1990s, the seminary launched several degree programs in psychotherapy, and began operating a counseling center that serves both as a training center for students in those programs and as a much-needed resource for the Indianapolis community.
Under the leadership of Presidents Richard Dickinson and Edward Wheeler, the last twenty-five years have witnessed the intentional diversification of the seminary community, and now enjoys one of the most diverse communities of any seminary in the nation. While nurturing strong, formal ties to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the seminary strives to live out the denomination’s historic commitments to Christian unity, inclusiveness, and reconciliation.
The next chapter in the CTS story began in 2011 with the installation of the seminary’s sixth president, Matthew Myer Boulton. An ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a scholar with degrees from both Harvard and the University of Chicago.
In 2017 Bill Kincaid became the seminary’s interim president as CTS searches for an new president. Kincaid is a faculty member and serves with the more than thirty denominations and religious traditions represented among the administration, faculty, staff and student body of today’s CTS, a vibrant, growing community of faith and learning.