This article deals with the relationship between Centre College and the Presbyterian Church.
Presbyterians provided the impetus for the founding of Centre College, and the college retains a connection almost 200 years later, although the forms of that connection have varied over the years. Kentucky Presbyterians had been a force in establishing Transylvania University. By 1819 Presbyterians felt they had lost control of that school, and began a movement to found their own college. In 1819 the Kentucky General Assembly chartered Centre College. Although Presbyterians dominated the first board of trustees, they were disappointed when the legislature created the new school as an independent college. The initial charter contained two clauses that "No religious doctrines peculiar to any one sect of Christians, shall be inculcated by any Professor in said College" and "Whenever the Legislature shall find it expedient to adopt the said College as a State Institution, and endow it, in aid of the funds which shall have been furnished by private donations, it shall thereafter be subject to such laws and regulations as may be enacted for the government of the same." The state didn't have the funds to support the college, and in 1824 the legislature amended the original charter to permit the Kentucky Synod of the Presbyterian Church to elect the college's trustees in return for the Synodís promise to endow the college with $20,000 and assume responsibility for the school. Centre College passed to the control of the Presbyterian Church.
The organizational structure of the Presbyterian Church is important in understanding the history of the Centre-Presbyterian relation. The minister and elders of a local Presbyterian congregation form a session, sessions are organized into presbyteries (district governing bodies), presbyteries into synods (regional governing bodies), and at the national level a general assembly. In todayís Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) there are over 10,000 congregations, 173 presbyteries, and 16 synods. The bulk of Kentucky is part of the four-state Synod of Living Waters, with the three presbyteries of Western Kentucky, Mid-Kentucky, and Transylvania.
The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC-USA) was organized in 1789, and existed until 1958 when it merged with the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPC-NA) to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPC-USA). The Kentucky Synod of the PC-USA was formed in the late eighteenth century and comprised the entire state. In 1861 southern Presbyterians split to form the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. Following the Civil War this was renamed the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PC-US). Because this split was the result of differences over slavery, politics and theology, the PC-USA became known as the "Northern" Presbyterians and the PC-US as the "Southern" Presbyterians. Following the Civil War the Kentucky Synod split also, with some Presbyterians remaining affiliated with the PC-USA (Northern Synod), but the majority associating with the PC-US (Southern Synod). The Southern Synod, after unsuccessful legal attempts to gain control of Centre, founded Central University in Richmond, Kentucky, while Centre remained associated with the Northern Synod. The two Kentucky Synods found it financially impossible to support two colleges in the same state, and in 1901 Centre College and Central University consolidated into one university with the name of Central University, supported by both Synods. In 1907 the institution became totally independent of church control in part by the desire of both the university trustees and the two synods to qualify Centre faculty members for participation in the retirement system founded and funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
In 1921 the charter was again amended to provide for election of two-thirds of the college trustees by the two Presbyterians synods on nomination by the college's board of trustees. For the first time the president required to be a Presbyterian and other denominationally flavored policies, such as tuition scholarship for children of Presbyterian ministers, were established.
The relationship between Centre and the Presbyterian synods was tested in the 1950s over the issue of desegregation. Following the Supreme Courtís 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the Board of Christian Education of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. adopted a policy of immediate desegregation, and that funding, which was controlled at the national level, would be withheld until institutions complied. The "Northern" synod was requiring immediate action, although similar demands had not been made by the "Southern" synod. Centre President Walter A. Groves favored adaption of this policy for Centre. However, many alumni and some trustees were resistant, fearing a lowering of academic standards if such a policy were adopted. Two opponents of immediate desegregation, Logan Caldwell and Norris Armstrong, were trustees up for reelection at the annual meeting of the two synods in July 1956. Normally names submitted for reelection were approved by the synods on a routine basis. This time, however, Caldwell and Armstrong were not confirmed. Several trustees felt that Groves had not pushed for approval, and Groves felt forced to resign in September.
Thomas A. Spragens, a Kentuckian and Presbyterian, succeeded Groves. Taking office in the autumn of 1957, Spragens' first concern was the issue of desegregation and compliance with the Presbyterian church directives. He devised a statement that reassured both sides of the argument: Centre adopted a policy that stated that no candidate for admission would be excluded on grounds of race or creed, and that Centre would remain academically selective. The Board of Christian Education released the $20,000 that it had been withholding to help support a Centre budget of $650,000.
During the presidency of Thomas Spragens, the college-church relationship was steadily altered towards a more independent institution, but still recognizing its Presbyterian heritage. In 1958 the Centre trustees and the two synods approved an amendment to the charter making the board a self-perpetuating body, with the majority of members being Presbyterian. The Kentucky synods no longer played a role in electing or approving trustees. A board of curators, elected entirely by the two synods, was established to serve as an advisory body. Over the course of several years the curators would disappear.
A charter change in 1964 still required that the president be a Presbyterian, but the stipulation that faculty be members of some evangelical church with the majority, as far as practicable, be Presbyterian was dropped.
In 1966 a joint committee of the two Kentucky synods recommended changes in their approach to higher education. The Kentucky synods supported four institutions: Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Centre College, Pikeville College, and Lees Junior College. As the operating costs of colleges escalated, it became clear that the church could no longer provide significant support to colleges. The UPC-USA adopted a plan to discontinue general support over the next three years, and to instead provide grants for special programs. The PC-USA failed to adopt a similar plan, but did urge boards of trustees to consider collegesí relationship to the church and recommend any needed changes.
In 1967 Spragens reported to the trustees that the time had come "for Centre and the Synods to examine seriously the assumption that Centre as a Christian college should also be predominately Presbyterian." The reality that the church was no longer able to provide any significant financial support to Centre was a compelling reason in moving to a more independent status. Two years later both Kentucky synods approved an action by the trustees declaring Centreís readiness to withdraw entirely from the institutional support budgets of the two synods. The deciding factor was the synods inability to maintain adequate financial support for the three other Kentucky Presbyterian schools.
Although both synods terminated their regular support of Centreís operating budget, the board did propose "to continue the College in its historic Christian stance, to provide its students with a mature academic encounter with the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and to cooperate as closely as possible with the Synods of Kentucky in mutual service and respects." Gone now were the charter provisions that the president be Presbyterian, that the majority of trustees be Presbyterian, and that all modifications of the charter require approval by the synods. In 1983 the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.) united to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The new four-state regional Synod of Living Waters, composed of presbyteries in Kentucky Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, replaced the Kentucky synods. The new synod inherited the covenants between Centre and the synodís predecessors.
At the end of the Spragens presidency Centre had redefined its relationship with the Presbyterian Church, standing as an independent institution, but also one that still identified with its Presbyterian heritage. The three presidents that followed Spragens, Richard Morrill (1982-1988), Michael Adams (1988-1987), and John Roush (1998-present) did not come as Presbyterians. Each has maintained the collegeís independence, but under each Centreís Presbyterian roots and covenants have been acknowledged and valued.
This article has been adapted from Eric Mountís unpublished Centre College and the Presbyterian Churches: A Covenantal Ally Rather Than a Proclaiming Witness.