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Celebrating Seminary Firsts

Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary prides itself on being at the forefront of theological education. We have always selected our faculty and seminary leadership with our eyes to the changing landscape of the world around us. As we inaugurate Rev. Dr. Javier A. Viera, the seminary’s first person of color and first latino to hold the Office of President, on October 20, 2021, we also remember and honor the Garrett-Evangelical Firsts who have had a great impact on the seminary community, the church, and the world.

Eliza Clark GarrettEliza Clark Garrett
1853, Founding Benefactor

Eliza Garrett, the wife of Chicago mayor, Augustus Garrett, became convinced of the need for better training for Methodist preachers. In her will, made out in early December 1853, she left a considerable inheritance for the founding of a biblical institute. A meeting was held in Chicago on December 26, 1853, at which a group of Methodist leaders invited John Dempster to organize the institute. Eliza Garrett’s will and this meeting are the basis for the date of 1853 as the founding of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (then named Garrett Biblical Institute).

John DempsterJohn Dempster
1853, First President of Garrett Biblical Institute

Dempster was the first president of Garrett Biblical Institute and the driving force behind bringing Eliza Garrett’s vision of a Methodist training school in Chicago to fruition. Dempster, the son of a Scottish immigrant, was a great champion for theological education within Methodism. While many in the denomination were skeptical of the necessity for theological education, he made it clear that theological education could only aid ministers. He served as president from 1853 until 1859.

Lucy Rider MeyerLucy Rider Meyer    
1855, Chicago Training School Founder

In 1855, Lucy Rider Meyer along with her husband, Josiah S. Meyer, founded the Chicago Training School for city, home, and foreign missions. Lucy Rider Meyer served as principal and faculty member, training more than 5,000 workers before her retirement in 1917. She is credited with being the originator and sustainer of the deaconess movement in Methodism. Due in large part to her work, the office of the deaconess was recognized by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1888.

Isabella ThoburnIsabella Thoburn
1888, Head of First Deaconess Home

In 1888, Isabella Thoburn, a methods and church history faculty member at the Chicago Training School (CTS), became the head of the first deaconess home in the United States. She worked with nine CTS graduates as they served the people of Chicago. These nine became the first Methodist deaconesses.

Georgia E. HarknessGeorgia E. Harkness
1939, First Female Garrett Biblical Institute Faculty Member;
First Female Theology Professor in an American Seminary

In 1939, Georgia Harkness was appointed Professor of Applied Theology at Garrett Biblical Institute, where she taught until 1950. In so doing, she became the first full-time female professor of theological studies in an American Protestant seminary. She was also the first female member of the American Theological Society, which she joined in 1937. It is because of Georgia Harkness that graduates wear red shoes at Garrett-Evangelical’s commencement ceremonies and events. Harkness was inspired by her great-grandmother Abigail who, as a woman of her own mind, was known for wearing a red coat despite her community’s disapproval of such flashy attire.  Rosemary Skinner Keller, the first female academic dean at Garrett and Harkness’ biographer, wore red shoes to honor strong women like Abigail and Georgia.

Grant S. ShockleyGrant S. Shockley
1959, First Black Garrett Biblical Institute Faculty Member

Grant Shockley was Professor of Religious Education at Garrett Biblical Institute from 1959 to 1966. His lifelong work centered around the contributions that the Black religious experience could bring to religious education. He was clear that his work was not about Black Christian education as distinct from any other kind of Christian education, but about how the religious experience of Black persons could influence all of Christian education. His scholarship and teaching has had a significant impact upon the field of religious education and later scholars.

Edsel A. AmmonsEdsel A. Ammons
1968, First Black Faculty Member to Become a Bishop

Bishop Ammons graduated from Garrett Biblical Institute in 1956 and later returned to the school to teach in the area of church and urban society from 1968 until 1976.  During this time, he was instrumental in the formation of the Center for the Church and the Black Experience. In 1976, Ammons left the seminary to preside over the Detroit and West Michigan Annual Conferences, and later the West Ohio Conference as bishop.  In his retirement, Ammons served as bishop-in-residence at Garrett-Evangelical.

Carl H. MarburyCarl H. Marbury
1977, First Black Academic Dean

Carl H. Marbury joined the faculty of Garrett-Evangelical as associate professor of New Testament interpretation in 1972. In 1977, he became a full professor and the first Black academic dean. He served in this capacity until 1982 when he retired from the position. During his time as dean, he oversaw the institution of a new curriculum, further developed Garrett-Evangelical’s commitment to peace and justice, and provided a guiding vision for the future of the seminary. After leaving Garrett-Evangelical, he became president of Alabama A&M.

Rosemary Radford RuetherRosemary Radford Ruether
1977, First Female Professor to hold an Endowed Chair

Rosemary Radford Ruether became the first woman to hold an endowed chair when she joined the faculty as the Georgia Harkness Professor of Applied Theology in 1976. As a Roman Catholic feminist theologian, Ruether has challenged the Church to seek justice in matters of sexism throughout her career, and has served as a groundbreaking scholar and activist in Christian feminist theology. During her tenure at Garrett-Evangelical, she wrote some of her of seminal works including, Sexism and God-Talk, Gaia and God, and In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of American Women’s Religious Writing, co-edited with Rosemary Skinner Keller.

Marjorie MatthewsMarjorie Matthews
1984, First Female Bishop-in-Residence

Marjorie Matthews was elected to the episcopacy in The United Methodist Church by the North Central Jurisdictional Conference of 1980. This was the first time a woman had been elected bishop in any mainline Christian tradition. After serving the Wisconsin area for four years, she retired and Garrett-Evangelical was honored to welcome her as the school’s first female bishop-in-residence. During her time at Garrett-Evangelical she also served as visiting professor of Old Testament. 

Rosemary Skinner KellerRosemary Skinner Keller
1993, First Female Academic Dean

Rosemary Skinner Keller taught in the area of religion and American culture at Garrett-Evangelical beginning in 1977. In 1993, she was appointed the seminary’s first female academic dean, a position she held until she left the school in 1996. She was also a member of the first class of deacons to be ordained in the Northern Illinois Conference. Her scholarly work included a three-volume encyclopedia Women and Religion in North America and In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of American Women’s Religious Writing, both edited with Rosemary Radford Ruether. Garrett-Evangelical honored Keller in 2006 with an honorary doctorate of divinity.

Osvaldo D. VenaOsvaldo D. Vena
1995, First Latino Faculty Member

Osvaldo Vena joined the faculty of Garrett-Evangelical in 1995 as the first Latino professor. He teaches in the area of New Testament interpretation and urges his students to open their minds to new interpretations, possibilities, and their hearts to those who hold those interpretations. When he is not teaching at the seminary, he directs the Still a Dream Band, whose mission is to raise awareness for children living in poverty in Palestine, Israel, and Argentina by setting their poems to music. 

Yeo Khiok-Khng (K.K.)Yeo Khiok-Khng (K.K.)
2002, First Asian Professor to Hold an Endowed Chair

K.K. Yeo began teaching at Garrett-Evangelical in 1996 and became the first Asian professor to hold an endowed chair in 2001 when he was named the Harry R. Kendall Professor of New Testament. As a Chinese Christian born and raised in Borneo, Malaysia, he brings a unique perspective to biblical scholarship. He sees his vocation as one of bridging the gap between cultures, between the academy and the church, and between faith and reason. He believes this “cross-cultural biblical interpretation” will help us all to know we are blessed and loved by God.

Henry J. YoungHenry J. Young
2002, First Black Professor to Hold an Endowed Chair

Henry Young began teaching at Garrett-Evangelical in the area of theology and ethics in 1980. In 2002, he was installed as the first Neal F. and Ila A. Fisher Professor of Theology, a position he held until his retirement in 2004. With this appointment, he became the first Black professor to hold an endowed chair. In addition to teaching at Garrett-Evangelical, Young also served as a Lieutenant Colonel Chaplain in the United States Air Force Reserve.

G. Sujin PakG. Sujin Pak
2002, First Female Asian Faculty Member

Sujin Pak joined the faculty of Garrett-Evangelical in 2002 as the first female Asian professor. She taught church history specializing in the Reformation era, biblical interpretation, the role of women in the church, and Christian-Jewish relations until leaving in 2007. She is currently serving as the dean of the School of Theology at Boston University.

Nancy E. BedfordNancy E. Bedford
2003, First Latina to Hold an Endowed Chair

A citizen of Argentina and the United States, Nancy Bedford has held the Georgia Harkness Professor of Applied Theology Endowed Chair since 2003, making her the first Latina professor to hold an endowed chair at Garrett-Evangelical. As a teacher, Bedford tries to help her students become aware of the stake they have in the questions raised by theology and the responsibility they have to develop their own theology. “There is a sense in which every Christian is a theologian, and so I hope to help my students become the best theologians that they can be in the context of their particular calling.”

Gennifer Benjamin BrooksGennifer Benjamin Brooks
2008, First Female Black Professor to Hold an Endowed Chair

Gennifer Brooks has held the Ernest and Bernice Styberg Chair as Associate Professor of Preaching since 2003, making her the first female Black professor to hold an endowed chair at Garrett-Evangelical. In the classroom she seeks to instill in students both the awesome responsibility and the glorious opportunity of preaching good news. She is also the Director of the Styberg Preaching Institute which provides educational opportunities and training in homiletics to the wider seminary community.

Luis R. RiveraLuis R. Rivera
2014, First Latino Academic Dean

On January 1, 2014, Luis R. Rivera began his tenure as the first Latino Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean in Garrett-Evangelical’s history. After teaching at Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico and most recently at McCormick Theological Seminary, where he also served as Academic Dean, Rivera brings his thorough and diverse experience of teaching, administration, and institutional leadership to Garrett-Evangelical.  Rector said of his appointment, “His presence among us will enable our seminary to reach new levels of excellence as we continue to prepare students and faculty to respond to the global reality of rapidly changing multicultural demands in church and society.”

Lallene J. RectorLallene J. Rector
2014, First Layperson and Woman to Serve as President

An esteemed faculty member of Garrett-Evangelical since 1986, Lallene J. Rector served as academic dean and vice president of academic affairs from 2006-2013, and as president from 2014-2020. Among the significant achievements during her presidency, she worked with many others to help complete the $100 million Forging Our Future capital campaign in May 2017, and in 2019, helped to secure the seminary’s accreditation for an additional ten years from three differing accrediting agencies. Programs launched during her time as president include: the master of arts in public ministry; the Garrett-Evanston Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools program; a revised and expanded certificates program with an ecumenical focus; and a robust continuing education program named Connectional Learning—all this in addition to a new curriculum that was launched in the fall of 2017.

Wonhee Anne JohWonhee Anne Joh
2017, First Korean American Female Full Professor of Systematic Theology in the United States and the First Asian American Female to Earn Full Professor

An interdisciplinary theologian and faculty member since 2009, Joh serves as professor of theology and culture. She is the first Korean American female full professor of systematic theology in the United States and the first Asian American female to earn full professor in the seminary’s 168-year history.

Mai-Anh Le TranMai-Anh Le Tran
2019, First Woman of Color to Serve as Academic Dean

Tran, a 2004 PhD alumna of Garrett-Evangelical, is an internationally recognized leader in theological education, an accomplished scholar, and much sought out for her expertise in pedagogy. She joined the faculty in 2017 as associate professor of religious education and practical theology. She was appointed vice president for academic affairs and academic dean in 2019, making her the first woman of color to hold this position at Garrett-Evangelical.

Javier A. VieraJavier A. Viera
2021, First Person of Color and First Latino to Serve as President

The Rev. Dr. Javier A. Viera was named president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on January 1, 2021. Along with the right mix of skills, education, and faith, President Viera brings extensive experience in church leadership, rigorous academic study, and community building to his work as president. A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, this historical appointment marks the first time a person of color and a Latino has held the Office of President in the seminary’s 168-year history.