||Centre College and the Presbyterian Church of Danville celebrate their long history
RELEASED: October 22, 2009
By Leigh Ivey
DANVILLE, KY—In 1789, three decades before the founding of Centre College, the congregation of the Concord Church in Danville first began worshipping in a building on Main Street.
That church was the forerunner of the current Presbyterian Church of Danville, and the organization has a venerable history with Centre. Last weekend, members of the church and the College community celebrated the 225th anniversary of its founding.
The weekend's events included an original one-act play exploring the church's history, dinner and a concert, and a worship service featuring a past sermon by the church's founder, David Rice.
Rice settled in Kentucky in 1783, and, "encouraged by other settlers to organize Presbyterian churches in the area, responded by establishing four in the following year," says John Marshall Harlan Professor of Government Dr. Bill Garriott, a Centre graduate from the Class of 1966.
The first of these, the Concord Church, was built in Danville.
The congregation of the church worshipped first in the town's court house, then moved to a log meeting house on the town square. Before long, they were able to move to their new church building on Main Street.
"Under the leadership of Samuel K. Nelson," Garriott says, "the congregation increased in size, and the Presbyterians were instrumental in bringing two significant institutions to the city—Centre College in 1819 and the Kentucky School for the Deaf in 1822."
Although in 1824 the Kentucky Legislature gave complete control of the College’s board of trustees to the Presbyterians, it added an amendment stating that "the College shall at all times be conducted on liberal, free, and enlightened principles, and no student shall be excluded in consequence of his religious opinions, or those of his parents, guardians or relatives."
After the College's founding, many members of the Centre community became active in the church, and because of its growing membership, a larger building was built in 1831.
While construction was underway, John. C. Young, then only 27 years old, arrived in Danville as Centre College's sixth president.
Young soon began a second job as pastor of the Presbyterian Church, and the congregation—which included many Centre College faculty members and students—continued to grow under his leadership.
In 1852, a new Presbyterian Church was established, with Young as its first pastor and with the Centre community well represented among its congregation. And "in 1853," Garriott says, "the old brick meeting house on Main Street was turned over to the black Presbyterians for their Sunday services."
"The antebellum years had been good to Danville’s Presbyterians," Garriott says, "but more than six decades of growth were about to come to an end."
This end was hastened by the death of John C. Young in 1857 and the slavery debate, which had long divided the Presbyterians.
"David Rice had preached against slavery," Garriott says, "and as a delegate to the 1792 Kentucky constitutional convention, he had tried unsuccessfully to include language that would have banned it from the state."
Both Young and Robert J. Breckinridge, the head of the Danville Theological Seminary and the man for whom Centre's Breckinridge Hall is named, advocated gradual emancipation.
The divisions created by the slavery issue—divisions that impacted not only the Presbyterian Church in Danville but Centre College as well—greatly interest Centre professor of sociology Dr. Beau Weston, who will be leading a Sunday school class about the history of the church during this weekend's anniversary celebration.
"Centre College and Danville Presbyterian Church have always been on the border between North and South," he says. "In the 19th century, this was a crucial divide. The college faculty and the church pastors—who were often overlapping groups—promoted abolition of slavery and better race relations after the Civil War, though always in a centrist way. The student body and the members of the congregation leaned more toward a pro-slavery and segregationist position. The tension between the two was energizing, intellectually and ethically, for college, church, and town, making Danville an oasis of genuine debate on these fraught issues."
It was not until after World War Two that efforts were made to reunite the two Presbyterian churches.
"After two unsuccessful attempts, both congregations agreed to merge and become the Presbyterian Church of Danville in 1969," Garriott says. "It was agreed that the building on Main Street would become the home of the reunited church. The national reunion of the northern and southern branches of the Presbyterian Church would not occur until 1983, more than a decade after it was accomplished in Danville."
Centre's relationship with the church has undergone many transformations as well.
Until 1965, Centre students were required to attend weekly chapel at the church. "I was a student in 1965," Garriott says, "and there was no single precipitating event that ended required chapel, but rather a growing resistance to the requirement on the part of the students."
That year, the Student Congress asked the administration to make chapel voluntary, "arguing, as I recall, that no one could be forced to have religious beliefs, and, therefore, no one should be compelled to attend religious services," Garriott says. "The administration finally gave in, and the chapel service became voluntary, beginning in the spring term of 1966."
Today, the College maintains its affiliation with the Presbyterian Church but welcomes students, faculty and staff of all faiths.
The church's sanctuary is also the meeting spot for the College's Get Centred meetings, weekly Christian worship services that include scripture reading, prayer, music and periods of silence.
"The church and College have always had friendly and mutually respectful relations, on the whole," Weston says. "Twenty years ago, half the senior faculty were members of the church, a residue of the stronger church relation that the college had before the '70s. After a long drought, more faculty members are joining the church, Get Centred is a very successful service for students, and more students are attending Sunday services."
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Consumers Digest ranks Centre No. 1 in educational value among all U.S. liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
For news archives go to http://www.centre.edu/web/news/newsarchive.html.
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