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Our Affiliation with the Disciples of Christ

1780
Transylvania University founded

1801
Barton W. Stone hosts the Cane Ridge Revival
near Lexington

1832
Stone-Campbell Movement—later named the
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—
begins with a handshake in downtown Lexington

1865
Transylvania becomes affiliated with the Disciples

During the early years of our country, educated citizens very likely were ministers. So it was not unusual that fledgling universities were founded and overseen by clergy or other individuals with close ties to a particular religious denomination.

Transylvania University was no different. During its first century, as it struggled to establish an enduring identity and a robust environment for learning, Transylvania associated itself with a number of religious denominations, depending on the university’s leadership and the associations of its financial benefactors.

Transylvania’s early years

Initially, Presbyterian ministers accepted the charge to establish the college after it was mandated by the Virginia legislature in 1780—even though it was originally authorized as a public, non-sectarian institution. By 1818, the Presbyterian influence had waned, and new Transylvania President Horace Holley’s Unitarian beliefs predominated. The university flourished under Holley, but opposition to his religious views resulted in his resignation in 1827.

The next several years were a struggle for the institution. During this period, the Methodist Church took over academic administration for a brief time. In 1861, the eruption of the Civil War nearly brought the institution to its knees.

Transylvania in 1860 The Transylvania University campus in 1860.
 

Emergence of the Disciples of Christ

Inside the Cane Ridge Meeting House
Inside the Cane Ridge Meeting House.

While Transylvania University was suffering these growing pains, the Kentucky frontier was giving birth to a new church dedicated to Christian unity, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Shortly after the Cane Ridge Revival in 1801—which took place just 25 miles down the road from Transylvania—Presbyterian minister Barton W. Stone, the revival’s host, renounced Presbyterian dogma that created sectarianism and divisiveness among believers. He founded the Christian Church, in an effort to create a unified focus on Christ and the Bible.

An Intellectual Approach to Religion

Alexander Campbell, the early architect
of the Disciples' educational philosophy,
identified several key elements of a
liberal education. Here are a few:

  • Wholeness of person: body, mind,
    and spirit
  • Strong character, formed through
    faith and reason
  • Nonsectarianism: free and
    open inquiry
  • Global perspective
  • Lifelong learning

In 1832, Stone joined representatives of the nascent Disciples of Christ movement—founded by Irish immigrant and Presbyterian minister Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander—at Hill Street Church in Lexington, Ky., to establish a union between the two groups. The Stone-Campbell Movement later came to be known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

The dual name reflects the genesis of the denomination, as well as its commitment to unity. The joining of two similar but slightly disparate belief systems reflects the movement's rational approach to religion: it values both faith and reason, both spiritual and secular education, both diversity and tolerance. It is these values that Transylvania has adopted from its association with the Disciples of Christ (DOC) and continues to embrace today.

Transylvania prospers with the help of the DOC

After its early years of struggle and the disruption caused by the Civil War, Transylvania University merged with Kentucky University in 1865. Kentucky University was originally a non-sectarian institution in Harrodsburg, Ky., whose board members by this time were predominantly members of the Christian Church. The merger was architected by John Bryan Bowman, who simultaneously established the College of the Bible within the university to educate Disciples of Christ ministers. Bowman hoped to create a state university founded on Christian ideals.

But that was one paradox the church elders could not sustain. In 1878, the Agricultural and Mechanical College split from Kentucky University. By 1916 it was known as the University of Kentucky.

Kentucky University’s remaining College of Liberal Arts and College of the Bible continued to occupy Old Morrison, Transylvania’s current administration building, and students regularly took courses in both schools. Eventually, the College of the Bible moved to a new building on campus and, in 1950, to its own campus in south Lexington. In 1965 it changed its name to Lexington Theological Seminary.

Frank Rose
Frank Rose on the steps of Old Morrison.

By 1915, Kentucky University's remaining school had been renamed Transylvania College, and the college had abandoned its requirement that two-thirds of the board must be Disciples. The church began to question its role with the institution and how it should support it.

After World War II enrollment flagged, and the school faced financial hardship. When Frank Rose, a Disciples minister, became Transylvania’s president in 1951, he called on Disciples to donate generously to the school and help build its reputation among institutions of higher learning.

The relationship today

Transylvania University is proud of its heritage and its ties to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Both institutions uphold the value of education in developing thoughtful, responsible citizens of solid character. Just as the Disciples embrace “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world,” Transylvania welcomes a diversity of thought amid a unity of spirit.

By cultivating an environment where people of varied backgrounds can live and study harmoniously, members of Transylvania's community become free to act with compassion and conviction. That creates a collegial atmosphere where differences are valued, creativity thrives, and justice prevails.

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