Historical Markers
Susquehanna University Historical Marker
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Susquehanna University

Valleys of the Susquehanna


Marker Location:
U.S. 522. .5 mile W of old U.S. 11 and 15, Selinsgrove

Dedication Date:
June 17, 1948

Behind the Marker

Exterior and grounds. Students standing on the rooftop
Missionary Institute of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Sellinsgrove, PA, 1863.
Surveying the small crowded assembled that crisp autumn day in November 1859, the dedication-day speaker raised his eyes heavenward. "You are to be educated, as well as we of the sterner sex," he said with a glance toward the young women before him, "for the great mission of practical life." Though institutionally separate from the all-male Missionary Institute, the women of the Susquehanna Female College shared the Institute's mission of joining faith and practical knowledge in the spread of American-style Lutheranism throughout Central Pennsylvania.
Commencement, Missionary Institute Class of 1891.
Commencement, Missionary Institute, Selinsgrove, PA, Class of 1891

The establishment of Selinsgrove's Missionary Institute of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and its sister institution the Susquehanna Female College was the direct outgrowth of contentious church politics on the eve of the Civil War. In the fading glimmer of the Second Great Awakening's evangelical enthusiasms, the new schools were also part of the gradual democratizing trend in American higher education.

As early as 1856, the Rev. Benjamin Kurtz and other supporters of the new-styled American Lutheranism, as their movement was called, advocated the creation of a missionary school to train working-class young men for church work in the West. Their decision reflected significant divisions within the denomination and invited criticism from more conservative or "old school" Lutherans at Gettysburg Theological Seminary. At the same time, there was an equally important movement to establish a woman's college to serve central Pennsylvania.
Exterior and grounds
Lutheran Theological Seminary Buildings, Gettysburg, PA, circa 1900.

Two years of disagreement over the proposed site was settled with the May 1858 decision to locate the all-male Missionary Institute in Selinsgrove, where the local Trinity Lutheran congregation gave strong financial and material support to the enterprise. By November, the cornerstone was laid for a new building, Selinsgrove Hall. A year later a similar dedication ceremony opened the nearby Susquehanna Female College. Though nominally separate institutions with different clientele, from the start these two institutions shared a cooperative relationship.

Like many new "colleges," both the Missionary Institute and Susquehanna Female College struggled under the weight of enormous financial liabilities. Divisions within the Lutheran Church and the lingering effects of a national economic depression added further strain. And the impending crisis of disunion created unstable enrollments just as the schools opened.

Men exercising in gym.
Physical education class, Alumni Gymnasium, Susquehanna College, Selinsgrove,...
From the Institute's opening session, the liberal arts-oriented Classical Department was much more popular than the Theological Department, which trained Lutheran ministers. Of the 110 men who trained at the Institute at the start of the Civil War, nearly 90 percent enrolled in the Classical Department and received an education in the humanities, arts and sciences. Only twenty-one students enrolled in the Theology Department for ministerial preparation. The ninety women in the Female College pursued a Classical course in Algebra, History, Literature and Composition, Physical Geography, and the Sciences.

Lower than projected enrollments and continued financial insolvency were continuous problems at the Female College. Bowing to what seemed inevitable, the trustees closed the college in 1872. Embracing the new trend in coeducation, Institute benefactors agreed to the then novel principle of educating both sexes under the same roof. This led, in the long run, to a change a name in 1895 that better reflected the predominantly secular mission of the institution: Susquehanna University.
Exterior, front facade, neo-classical style.  Red brick, trimmed with limestone, with large Corinthian columns supporting the front porch.
Seibert Memorial Hall, Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, PA, circa 2004.

In the 1890s, a series of educational reforms transformed the curriculum, further distinguishing the liberal arts core from the less popular ministerial track. Academic diversification included new departments and course offerings, and a popular "normal" or teacher-training program. By the 1920s, Susquehanna University had completed the second of two major physical expansions, and laid out the modern college campus. By then, the separate Susquehanna Female College was just a faint memory, and a more ecumenical atmosphere had replaced the strong ministerial identity of the early Institute.

With nearly 2,000 students currently enrolled in four academic divisions or colleges, Susquehanna University today retains its strong identification with the community of Selinsgrove and its formal ties with the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Eighty percent of the study body reside in campus housing. The 220-acre Georgian-styled campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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