A Legacy of Faith and Learning
The founding of Morehead Normal School in 1887 grew out of the Rowan County feud. The State applied militia force to settle the problem, the Baptists held evangelistic meetings, and the Disciples of Christ established a school and a church.
—Morris L. Norfleet, Morehead State University Founding Years
It reveals much about the Disciples’ spirit that our response to the chaos from a multi-year violent feud which left more than 21 people dead, destroyed thousands of dollars of property, and terrorized local residents of Rowan County was to send missionaries to found a school and organize a local church. William T. Withers, a prominent Lexington horse breeder, ex-Confederate colonel, and a former slave owner, underwrote the missionary endeavor. A young college graduate Frank Button and his mother Phoebe Button accepted the call from the Kentucky Christian Missionary Convention to come to Morehead. Their work was to establish a school in Morehead and to provide pastoral leadership for the Christian congregation.
The early days were difficult. Later Wither’s daughter, Ida W. Harrison related the story that upon his arrival, Button was visiting with a man in town, “and while they were talking, firing began on the street, and they had to take refuge behind an old stone chimney, until the fusillade was over.” The school attracted early opposition from the community, perhaps a distrust of outsiders played a role. In a letter to Button in October 1887, Withers saw the controversy as an opportunity, writing, “Am not surprised at the opposition to your school. It was only what might have been expected—this very opposition will no doubt result in bringing your school before the public & that’s what you want.”
Education and faith were bound together in those early years. In the same October letter, Withers expresses his pleasure in hearing of the progress in forming a congregation in Morehead and informs Button that a “nice plated communion service” was being sent from the deacons of the Main Street Christian Church in Lexington for use by the new Morehead congregation. The church, alongside Baptist, Presbyterians, and Methodists soon held its gatherings in the newly erected Union Church building, constructed in 1888 on the site which our church facilities now stand.
Disciples’ influence continued in Morehead as the Kentucky Christian Missionary Society oversaw the mission of the Normal School for thirteen years, after which control of the school was transferred to the national Christian Women’s Board of Missions. The work of the school fit in with the larger mission of the Women’s Board of Missions, whose work encompassed educational and missional projects internationally and in the United States.
Roy Roberson, minister of FCC Morehead from 1970 to 1984, speaking at the centennial celebration of Morehead State University, reflected on what he called the religious spirit of the time as a reaction to the social upheavals of the era which led to Frank Button’s move to Morehead said, “...this was an explosion that led to a birth of new religious thinking that combine religion with reason, faith with purpose, intellect with a desire to build a better world, the ability to think and apply that thinking to a faith perspective that would do something in the lives of others.”
As we celebrate our 135th year as a congregation, once again we find ourselves in a time of uncertainty and upheaval. Rather than be reactionary, may we instead be moved to commit ourselves to a missional vision which faces the future with hope and steely determination. Let this be a time of celebration, a moment to look back, and an opportunity for a reclaiming of our congregational heritage, this rich legacy of faith and learning with which we have been entrusted.
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A native of Illinois, Rev. Nancy Gowler lived for 26 years in the Pacific Northwest. She joined the ministry of First Christian Church in Morehead, KY, in July of 2020.