In Memoriam, Alma Mater
George C. Heider
At its year-end dinner this past May, the Theology Department of Valparaiso University took kind note of my impending retirement from active service. Among the speakers was James Albers, who had retired several years previously. Albers is a historian of American Lutheranism, and he went to considerable effort to point out that he and I form a set of bookends around one of the most extraordinary institutions of pastoral education in the history of his field, Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Given his last name, he said that he was the very first to receive a degree from “CSC” or “The Fort,” as its students called the place. For my part, I was student body president of the last class to graduate before the 1975 Anaheim convention of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) resolved to close the college (two additional classes graduated after the decision). Professor Albers opined that we may well have received a pre-seminary education qualitatively above and apart from anything offered before or since, and that with my retirement, the several decades of the college’s influence on the ministry of the church has symbolically ended. Ere long, all CSC graduates will be retired (or with their Lord). 

CSCTo be sure, that influence has been waning for some time. Ever since 1977, the seminaries of the LCMS have had no CSC alumni to enroll, and long before that even the “classical” seminary in St. Louis had been admitting graduates of other colleges and universities, both public and private. Still, as I step away from active faculty service, it seems an appropriate moment to pause and say a word in memoriam, while still, to paraphrase Lord Lindsay in my favorite movie, Chariots of Fire, there are those of us who can close our eyes and see firsthand what it was to spend our junior and senior years of college at an institution that I have regularly characterized in my Valparaiso context as “Christ College [Valpo’s honors college] on steroids.” 

Concordia Senior College was founded in the mid-1950s to provide upper-level undergraduate education to LCMS pre-seminary students who had, by and large, spent their first two years at another Concordia (in my case, the one in Bronxville, New York). It was located on a campus designed in the style of a Scandinavian village by the noted architect Eero Saarinen. Among its most remarkable features was that every member of the faculty was an LCMS pastor who had gone on to earn a graduate degree—almost all doctorates—in one of the liberal arts. (At the time I was a student, there was one exception to the “pastor rule”: the choir director, Herb Nuechterlein. But, as he said, “I’m from Frankenmuth [an LCMS stronghold], and that’s just as good.” He was right.)

The curriculum was devised to provide broad exposure to the humanities and, to a lesser extent, to the social sciences, with special emphasis on the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew, so that graduates could take their seminary exegetical courses with these tools already in hand. (We actually received little instruction in theology, as it would be our focus in seminary.) Because the curriculum required students to take courses in such a wide range of fields, there were no majors. Rather, each student chose one or more “concentrations,” a three-course sequence taken in the senior year (in my case, Hebrew and philosophy).

At the same time, given that the campus was well outside of metropolitan Fort Wayne, it had something of a monastic feel. Daily chapel and nightly devotions in the dormitories were well-attended, albeit not required. Given the nature of the faculty, it should come as no surprise that formation of students as “Able Ministers of the New Testament” (to cite the title of an influential LCMS study that helped shape the curriculum) was very nearly as significant an objective as academic excellence. Yet the latter was surely present. By and large, the faculty were not widely published, but they were learned and taught their classes with rigor and skill. Above all, as several regional accrediting visits reported, there was absolute clarity and unity of mission among all involved.

By the time I arrived at the Senior College in 1973, clouds had already started gathering with respect to the institution’s future. More and more of the two-year Concordia Colleges that had supplied students to CSC (including my own alma mater in Bronxville) were attaining four-year status, and they were not eager to encourage some of their best students to go elsewhere for their final two years. Overall, the number of pre-seminary students in the LCMS was decreasing (so that, by the time of its end, even though CSC was enrolling a higher percentage of upper-level LCMS pre-seminary students than earlier, the campus was still underused). No doubt, this decrease was in some ways a direct function of the increasing tensions within the LCMS: the summer of 1973 had witnessed the “Battle of New Orleans,” a convention in which traditionalist forces narrowly succeeded in enacting their views of the theological position of the LCMS, with special attention to seminary education. The long and short of it was that my two years at CSC were in many respects dominated by the conflict that eventuated in the walkout or exile (depending on one’s perspective) in February 1974 of all but five of the professors at the seminary in St. Louis that all but a handful of CSC students had been preparing to attend. As will be seen presently, this conflict played a significant role in the demise of the Senior College.

Yet before I recount that portion of the tale, I would say a bit more about my alma mater as I knew it, both in its strengths and its weaknesses. The soul of the place was its utterly committed faculty. For a student body of about 300, the faculty was stunningly deep, especially in fields of institutional emphasis. I had the benefit of four professors in Hebrew/Old Testament: one had earned his doctorate at Harvard; two held doctorates from Michigan (one of those also had a master’s from Johns Hopkins); and another had a ThD from Concordia Seminary. Faculty were regularly present (by invitation) in the dorms, and their influence on the hearts and minds of their students was palpable. Worship in Kramer Chapel (named after the family that had donated the land for the campus) was itself an education in varieties of liturgy, gifted preaching, and glorious music. Athletics was in its proper place, given the mission: if anything, intramurals generated more interest than the few intercollegiate teams.

On the other hand, there were built-in weaknesses (at least from the perspective of nearly forty-five years’ hindsight). The curriculum provided minimal exposure to the natural sciences; the closest that I got was a course in the history and philosophy of science. While having so many of the Synod’s future pastors living and studying together had notable advantages, including a thorough knowledge of one another in later service, the downside of this quasi-monastic existence was a lack of daily interaction with women and therefore a lack of development of social skills by many. (This was true even in my time there, although a dorm of eighteen brave women were by then students, taking advantage of the college’s liberal arts offerings.) Indeed, a shared vocational sense did not prevent a campus full of young adult males from living up—or down—to stereotype. For example, there were clever pranks (like the guys who used surgical tubing to lob water balloons from their dorm across the lake to the chapel steps), but also juvenile and even dangerous ones (like the one in my dorm, when some guys set off a cherry bomb in a cardboard cylinder containing flour: yes, the dorm lounge got powdered, but the entire dorm could have blown up).

But it was not to last. Others have written on the subject from their own perspectives. What I can do is offer eye-witness testimony. I was deeply involved in the college’s efforts during the 1974-75 academic year to make the case for its continuance, and I was present by invitation of LCMS President J. A. O. Preus as a “student delegate” at the Anaheim convention. In brief, what led to the demise of the Senior College at that convention were three factors, plus a historical-political reality. The latter is that the college had not been around long enough for any of its graduates to have become an LCMS district president. The Council of Presidents played an enormous role in the Synod at the time, in large part because its members were elected by local congregations, the heart of the Synod. But not a single member of the council was yet an alumnus of CSC, and none (again in my fallible opinion) really understood what was at stake. 

As for the aforementioned three causes for the college’s termination, the ostensible argument offered at the convention were the expense of maintaining the college in the face of decreasing enrollments and the expansion of the other Concordias. But close under the surface was the aforementioned Synodical civil war: not a single delegate who spoke with me wanted to talk about finances or enrollments; they all wanted to know whether the Senior College was a supporter and supplier of students to Seminex (the seminary formed by the faculty who had departed or been expelled from Concordia in St. Louis). Indeed, members of CSC’s 1974 class, who had to choose a seminary less than six months after the explosion in St. Louis, had elected by a large majority to attend Seminex. My 1975 class would prove a very different story, with roughly a 50/50 split between Seminex and the “official” seminary at the St. Louis campus (but that was after the convention). In the end, it was clear that among the highest priorities of the traditionalist forces in Anaheim was to choke off the supply of students to Seminex and to delegitimize any claim it had to be producing “able ministers” for the LCMS. 

Yet even the Seminex quarrel was not what finally undid this extraordinary experiment in pre-seminary education. Rather, it was the desire of the new president of the Synod’s second, “practical” seminary in Springfield, Illinois, to acquire a more winsome campus. There had long been a rivalry between the two seminaries—Springfield known for its emphasis on practical ministerial training, and St. Louis known for its academic focus—and the near-death experience of the St. Louis seminary presented the Springfield seminary with an unparalleled opportunity to achieve parity, if not superiority, in Synodical hearts and minds. Again, I saw what I saw, such as the possibly innocuous dinner shared by the Springfield seminary president and the chair of the convention’s floor committee on higher education on the evening before the vote. What sealed the causal case for me came only later: the new president of the “official” St. Louis seminary where I enrolled that fall, Ralph Bohlmann, told me that the Springfield seminary president “controlled more delegates than [his brother] Jack [the LCMS president] at Anaheim” and that the same seminary president had reiterated to his floor managers repeatedly in Bohlmann’s presence, “The move goes through.”

Enough: the move went through. The effect on me was devastating. I felt more than disappointed—I felt betrayed. I was a fifth generation member of the LCMS, who had for his entire life intended to serve as a pastor. Yet the source of the finest academic and spiritual experiences of my life had just been terminated with extreme prejudice. I now recognize it as my life’s first real trauma, which I have come to understand as an event that you never get over but must get past, if you are to be mentally healthy thereafter. Ironically, I have heard talk in recent years about the need to establish a new Senior College, perhaps even on the campus at Fort Wayne, given that it is underutilized at present. But the reality is that, as Valpo’s former president Alan Harre (also a CSC alum) regularly observed, not many LCMS pastors go on to get doctorates in fields besides theology these days. To reconstruct the faculty that was built for Concordia Senior College would be, so far as I can tell, a non-starter. In any event, such ideas are now well beyond my influence or capacity to effect. 

It is, to be sure, fair to ask a counterfactual question: would the Senior College have been able to endure in the long-term as a single-purpose institution, absent the political forces that terminated it? As well as I can determine, probably not. There was, in fact, a proposal developed by the CSC faculty (way, way too late) to offer a three-year accelerated BA program for capable students, and to the best of my recollection, the program was not to be restricted to pre-seminary education. Had the college had the chance to implement such an option, its effect on the historic unity of purpose and mission is unknowable. What I do know is that I remain deeply grateful for the college experience afforded to me and my classmates in our time. To that college I can bear witness, even if, as my colleague averred, I represent the bookend at the end of an era. Ave atque vale, alma mater!  


George C. Heider is a senior research professor of theology at Valparaiso University. This essay is dedicated to the memory of the faculty of Concordia Senior College, who modeled faithful ministry and paid its price.


For Further Reading

Walle, Oscar T. Lest We Forget—Lest We Forget!: A History of Concordia Senior College, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1957-1977. Published by author, 1978.

Walz, Edgar. Diamond Bricks Live On In The Scandinavian Village. Freeman, SD: Pine Hill Press, 1998.

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