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Brief history of the Presbyterians of Danville

October 23, 2009

Editor's note: This brief history was written by Dr. Bill Garriott, a parishioner of First Presbyterian and Centre College professor. A lengthy history of the church, titled "The Presbyterians: 200 Years in Danville, 1784-1984," was written by the late Dr. Richard Brown and is available at the church and in the Centre College and Boyle County libraries.

The early years



In 1783, just weeks after the end to the Revolutionary War, David Rice, a Presbyterian minister, came to Kentucky from Virginia and settled on what is now Buster Pike. Encouraged by other settlers to organize Presbyterian churches in the area, he responded by establishing four in the following year. The first of these, the "Concord Church," was in Danville. After worshiping in the courthouse and the log meeting house built by John Crowe on the town square, the congregation was able to move into its own church building on Main Street in 1789, the same year that George Washington became the nation's first president. The original wooden structure was replaced by a brick building in 1812. Rev. Rice also helped organize the Transylvania Presbytery — the first established west of the Alleghenies — and served as its first moderator. He and his wife are buried in McDowell Park, on the site of his first church.

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Under the leadership of Samuel K. Nelson (1809-27), the congregation increased in size, and the Presbyterians were instrumental in bringing two significant institutions to the city: Centre College (1819) and Kentucky School for the Deaf (1822). By 1830, the church — now serving the college as well as the residents of Danville — had outgrown its original building. The "New Meeting House," completed in 1831, still serves as the sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church. The church originally faced Walnut Street. The bell tower and Main Street entrance were added in 1853.

Separation and Civil War



As the new church building was being constructed, 27-year-old John C. Young arrived in Danville to become president of Centre College. In 1834, he took on a second job as pastor of the Presbyterian Church. Under his leadership, the congregation continued to grow. Young wrote to a friend in 1847 that a December, 1846 revival brought in 120 new members, and concluded: "The whole strength and influence in the town is still Presbyterian." While the increasing membership was a sign of strength, it also created problems. Centre students, who at the time were required to attend Sunday services, were relegated to the balcony seats. In addition, Young argued unsuccessfully that his $500 salary, which had remained the same since the beginning of his ministry, should be increased because of the larger congregation he had to serve.

In 1852, a new Presbyterian Church was established with a congregation that included many Centre students and faculty members. Young became the new church's first pastor at a salary of $750, and a policy was adopted that allowed people to sit wherever they liked. The church soon had to overcome two significant losses. Young died in 1857 and was replaced by the new Centre president, Lewis Green, and in 1860, the original church building was destroyed along with much of the city's business district in the Washington's Birthday fire. After the Civil War, a new church, which is still standing, was built on the corner of Third Street and Broadway, next to the site of its predecessor.

In 1853, the old brick meeting house on Main Street was turned over to the black Presbyterians for their Sunday services. Instead of one Presbyterian Church in Danville, there were now three. The Presbyterians also added two new educational institutions in the 1850s: the Danville Theological Seminary, which was located on the Centre College campus until it acquired property near the town square, and the Caldwell Female Institute on Lexington Avenue. The ante-bellum years had been good to Danville's Presbyterians, but more than six decades of growth was about to come to an end.

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