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Sweeney traces ‘The Trinity Story’ in Founders’ Day presentation

Trinity CommunicationsFebruary 10, 2017

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Trinity International University marked Founders’ Day 2017 with a presentation that traced the institution’s history from its roots within the Scandinavian immigrant community to its present focus as a global institution.

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School Professor of Church History Douglas A. Sweeney delivered the address, “Immeasurably More than we Asked or Imagined: The Trinity Story,” during chapel services Feb. 8–9 on the Deerfield campus.

A tradition started when David S. Dockery became president of Trinity in 2014, Founders’ Day is a two-day long event where students, faculty and staff of Trinity come together to celebrate the founding of the university and reexamine its history.

Sweeney, who also serves as the chair of the Church History department and director of the Jonathan Edwards Center, started with an examination of a church reform movement in Sweden that met with persecution. Many of the reformers, who had started what they called “free churches,” moved to the United States and its promise of religious freedom. They joined a larger exodus.

From 1840–1920, Sweeney said more than 2.6 million immigrants arrived on U.S. soil from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

“More Swedes came to Chicago than to anywhere else,” Sweeney said. “By the time they founded Trinity, more lived here than in any other city in the world except Stockholm.”

Sweeney described the 1897 start of what would become Trinity International University as “a simple missionary training course in Bible, Swedish language, church history, natural sciences, anthropology, and logic.” The Svenska Bibelinstitutet (Swedish Bible Institute) enrolled 22 men and women, who studied at a location along West Oak Street just a few blocks from what is now considered Chicago’s upscale Gold Coast. In those days, Sweeney said, locals called the area “Little Hell,” and “a rough-and-tumble slum.”

From those humble beginnings, Sweeney traced a series of developments: the institution’s move to Minneapolis, the joint venture with Moody Bible Institute, the move to a location on North Hermitage Ave., and the merger with Norwegian and Danish institutions just after the conclusion of World War II.

It was during that time that the school first took the name of Trinity. The first seminary programs emerged in 1947, and included women as well as men. Women typically were not welcome in seminaries during that period. Sweeney noted that Harvard Divinity School did not admit its first female student until eight years later.

Continued growth in the 1950s led then-President Will Norton to consider moving the campus, and through a real estate contact he became aware of a tract in Bannockburn known as the Sunset Estate.

Sweeney said Free Church leaders agreed to pay $146,000 for a portion of the land in 1960, and the Welch family donated the remainder of the property. The site included “a large country home,” several other small buildings and a swimming pool. By the early 1960s, students took classes and meals in the largest building, later called “The Mansion.”

“In the midst of all this busyness, Dean Kenneth Kantzer arrived,” Sweeney said, “perhaps the most important person in the history of the school, with a plan to revolutionize the Seminary.

In the years ahead, Sweeney said, the school’s focus shifted from a Scandinavian constituency to a global ministry – something Kantzer called “a love gift from the EFCA to the entire church of Jesus Christ.”

“He turned it from a Scandinavian Free Church school to a top-tier, world-class destination of choice for earnest evangelical theological students everywhere,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney said the first talk of becoming a university started in the early 1970s, but it was not until the presidency of Kenneth Meyer that the discussion intensified, amid dramatic enrollment growth. Shortly after Meyer’s retirement, the name changed to Trinity International University.

“Over the past 20 years, TIU has also grown more international than ever,” Sweeney said. “Every geographical region in the world had sent some—few of whom had even heard about our Scandinavian history, but all of whom shared the evangelistic passion and educational aims of our Free Church founders, and most of whom went on to multiply the work of their hands far more faithfully and effectively than they had dared to dream.”

Sweeney’s research reveals that by 2015, Trinity had 23,000 alumni and a footprint in 89 countries around the world.

“Who could possibly have guessed that a school with such a pedigree—founded in a slum, transplanted several times, often tested by expansion and economic strain—would be used by the Lord in such a global way today?” Sweeney asked in conclusion.

“God has forged our identity through trial, to be sure. But He has done so in order to bless the church and the world, engineering a way of life and a culture here at Trinity that edifies us all.”