From: The Arkansas Democrat Gazette - Sunday November 18, 2012
By Tom Dillard
This article was published November 18, 2012 at 2:50 a.m.
LITTLE ROCK — The First Presbyterian Church of Dardanelle is celebrating the centennial of its church building today, which draws attention to the role played by these hardworking followers of John Calvin in the history of Arkansas. First Presbyterian of Dardanelle grew out of the church at Norristown on the north side of the Arkansas River in modern Russellville. When a new church building was needed after the turn of the 20th Century, women played a major role in funding the new church, and it was known within the denomination as “the church built by women.”
It is generally agreed that a Presbyterian preached the first Protestant sermon in Arkansas. There seems to be some debate as to just when and where that sermon was delivered—either at Arkansas Post in 1811 or Crystal Hill, near modern Maumelle, in 1812. If it were preached in 1812, then this year marks the bicentennial of Protestantism in Arkansas.
There is no debate about who the preacher was—Rev. John P. Carnahan from Kentucky’s Cumberland Presbytery. The Carnahan family arrived in Arkansas in 1811, settled briefly at Crystal Hill, and then moved to Cane Hill in modern Washington County.
While Carnahan was certainly a pioneer, the Rev. James Wilson Moore is regarded as the Father of Presbyterianism in Arkansas. Unlike Carnahan, who was what is today known as a Cumberland Presbyterian, Moore was affiliated with what would become known as the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Arriving in the young village of Little Rock in January of 1828, Moore reported finding only three white and three enslaved professed Christians. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Moore worked for 45 years as a missionary and minister in Arkansas. Among the churches he established was First Presbyterian of Little Rock. In 1840, Moore relocated his family about 30 miles east of Little Rock to an area he called “Ruralia,” where he established Sylvania Church in 1843. He also established an academy to educate young men.
Presbyterians of all stripes have always supported education. Indeed, in 1821 a Presbyterian named Cephas Washburn established a mission and school for Cherokee Indians living in the vicinity of modern Russellville.
The Presbyterians established their first college, Cane Hill College, in 1834 in the village by that name west of Fayetteville. This was while Arkansas was still a territory. Except for the Civil War, Cane Hill College remained open until 1891, serving as an important educational institution in a time when colleges were few in number. In 1875 it became the first four-year college in the state to admit women into its degree programs. The college relocated to Clarksville in 1891 and eventually became known as the University of the Ozarks.
Perhaps Presbyterians deserve the most recognition for providing educational opportunities for freed slaves following the Civil War. Except for the largest towns, most Arkansas communities did little to educate the freedmen. In the 1880s, the “northern” Presbyterian Church—the denomination split during the Civil War—began organizing academies for black children across the South. In Arkansas, the best-known Presbyterian black school was Cotton Plant Academy in Woodruff County, which was almost completely funded by the Presbyterian women of Illinois. By 1890, the school had 200 students, most being in the elementary grades, but some were working at the secondary level, and a few students boarded at the school. This was the only school in the area that offered high school classes for black students. The famed black pianist and composer Florence Price taught at the academy. It closed in 1950.
Another important Presbyterian school for black students was the Richard Allen Institute in Pine Bluff, established in 1886. Lasting until 1932 after the outbreak of the Great Depression, the institute educated many black citizens, including George E. Haynes, who went on to get a doctorate from Columbia University and become the first executive director of the National Urban League.
Presbyterians were also part of a national movement in the early 1900s to establish “mountain missions” in the isolated southern mountains where public schools usually did not go beyond the eighth grade. Two examples of these schools in Arkansas were the Kingskraft High School in Kingston in Madison County, and the Caddo Valley Academy at Norman in Montgomery County. These schools were especially important in educating girls.
As the Presbyterians of Dardanelle gather today to celebrate the centennial of their church structure, female members can take particular pride in the role played by women in funding the building. These dedicated Presbyterian women even hired themselves out as cotton pickers to raise money.
Tradition has it that many of the merchants in town closed shop in order to watch the women picking cotton. One woman wrote that the men “sat on the rail fence all day, eating at noon from paper bags.” The church was debt-free by the end of 1913.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in Farmington, Ark. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial, Pages 84 on 11/18/2012
Print Headline: Church people