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Thinking Out Loud

Early Days, Early Struggles: Danville Theological Seminary During the Civil War

by User Not Found | Nov 18, 2013
This blog post was guest-written by Laura Garrett, daughter of Dean Sue Garrett and recent graduate of Centre College.


Danville Theological Seminary opened in 1853 on the grounds of Centre College in Danville, Ky.; the institution would transition to become the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1901.  

It thrived in its early years, with more than sufficient endowment and enrollment. Many of its students came directly from Centre College: in the 1850s, more than two-thirds of all Presbyterian ministers in the state of Kentucky were Centre alumni.[1] While the seminary focused on educating its students in theology and ministerial preparation (articles written by the faculty included such titles as "Nature and Revelation in relation to the Origin of our Conception of a God" and "The Nature and Import of a Christian Profession"), it could not escape the pressing political issues of the day-namely, slavery and the Civil War. 

The seminary's founder, the Rev. Robert J. Breckinridge, was an outspoken gradual emancipationist. While he believed that slavery was a sinful practice, he also thought that it would be a greater sin to abolish slavery immediately, and that it was the duty of benevolent owners of enslaved people to train African-Americans to live on their own before entrusting them with their freedom. 

Breckinridge owned more than 21 enslaved people who worked on his hemp plantation near Danville. Other constituents of the seminary were also owners of enslaved people who believed in gradual emancipation. One such person was the Rev. John C. Young, president of Centre College, close friend of Breckinridge and moderator of the General Assembly in 1853. Young followed the trend of many gradual emancipationists in sending the enslaved people whom he freed to Liberia. 

 When the Civil War began in 1861, the Presbyterian Church split into Northern and Southern factions, and the seminary split along with it; the student body was divided almost evenly among Union and Confederate supporters. While the Danville seminary remained with the North, students in support of the Confederacy left Danville and organized a seminary in Richmond, Ky., as a Southern alternative. 

Breckinridge's own family was split in half: one of his sons joined the Union army and the other enlisted in the Confederacy. It was likely with his sons in mind that Breckinridge wrote in his theological magazine the Danville Quarterly Review, "Utter madness, raving insanity, has ruled the hour, and men born to be brothers have fallen to cutting each other's throats . . . ."[2] 

A drought occurred in Kentucky during the summer of 1862, leaving the town of Perryville, 10 miles west of Danville, with the most water in the region. It was this water that drew Confederate troops to the area, with Union troops close on their heels. The two sides fought in the Battle of Perryville in October 1862, leaving 7,500 troops dead or wounded. Wounded soldiers from both sides filled Danville's buildings after the Battle, as homes and public buildings were turned into makeshift hospitals.[3] 

The seminary occupied one of the largest buildings in town, and as such it became a main hospital site. While most area hospitals only nursed either Union or Confederate patients, the seminary was one of the few to house soldiers from both sides. (The seminary housed the Union and Confederate soldiers at opposite ends of the building, however, to keep the men from fighting with one another.) Many of the wounded were in critical condition, while others endured ailments such as typhoid, pneumonia and dysentery. By the time the seminary was able to end its hospital duties in 1864 its grounds had been wrecked. Fences had been burned for fuel, furniture and books had been torn apart and every wall needed repainting. 

The seminary suffered a great financial blow as a result of the damages to the school, and it was never able to fully recover. That, coupled with its diminished enrollment (because Southern students were now choosing to go to seminary in Richmond), left the seminary unable to survive on its own.  

In 1901, Danville Theological Seminary merged with the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary to form the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. In 1907 the school applied to the federal government to get $5,000 in restitution for the damages the school incurred in connection with the Battle of Perryville, but never received the money. The buildings of the Danville Theological Seminary deteriorated and were eventually razed.[4]

1. Richard C. Brown, A History of Danville and Boyle County, Kentucky, 1774-1992 (Danville, Ky.: Bicentennial Books, 1992); Bob Glass, "Danville Theological Seminary," CentreCyclopedia (Danville, Ky.: Centre College, undated), www.centre.edu/web/library/ency/d/dts.html. 

2. Robert J. Breckinridge, "A Biographical Sketch of the Rev. John C. Young, D. D., Late President of Centre College," Danville Quarterly Review 4:1 (March 1864): 151-166; Richard C. Brown, "Danville Theological Seminary," The Kentucky Encyclopedia, ed. John E. Kleber (Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 253; Brown, A History of Danville. 

3. Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville: the Grand Havoc of Battle (Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 110; Stuart W. Sanders, "Danville Theological Seminary contends with the aftermath of Perryville Battle," The Cost of War: Centre College and the Battle of Perryville (Danville, Ky.: Centre College, 2004), www.centre.edu/web/library/sc/special/perryville/seminary.htm. 

4. Sanders, "Danville Theological Seminary."

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