The Birth of Central Methodist

The birth of Central Methodist grew out of a combination of factors – the increasing Methodist emphasis on education and nurture; the desire of the Fayette community for a college; the success of Howard High School; and the commitment of influential leaders.

The first of these factors was the increasing Methodist emphasis on education and nurture. Two graduates of McKendree College in Illinois, Wm. Thomas Lucky and Nathan Scarritt, came to Fayette and opened Howard High School in 1844. It opened with 7 pupils, but grew quickly and was adopted by the Missouri School that “it had achieved and continued to hold for many years, the largest enrollment of any school in the state and was notable for the excellence of its instruction.”

In 1851-52 there were 338 pupils in the high school--172 males and 166 females. Note that this was a co-educational institute, a real rarity anywhere in the midnineteenth century. In 1853, a boarding house was built on land adjacent to the high school building and was occupied by President Lucky and the female department of the high school. (Apparently, prior to this boys and girls had both slept in the high school building and this led to some inappropriate behavior. The feelings about that incident led to the building of the boarding house.) The boarding house itself was the first part of what became Howard-Payne Hall and Howard Female College.

In 1854 the main building burned and Professor Pritchett put the boys “in other places.” They seem to have boarded around the town and met for classes in church basements. This development was the beginning of separate schools for boys and girls, eventuating in Central College and Howard Female College. But the success of Howard High School was a key factor in the birth of Central Methodist University.

A third factor was the desire of the citizens of Fayette for a college. The state of Missouri was preparing to establish a university sponsored and funded by the state, and Fayette citizens lobbied hard for the university to be located in their town but failed. Disappointed by their inability to get the university, the town fathers looked elsewhere.

The fourth factor was influential leaders. At the 1852 session of the St. Louis Conference of the M.E. Church, South, Nathan Scarritt and David Rice McAnally offered a resolution on the establishment of one college of the highest grade and invited the Missouri Conference to join with them in the venture. The resolution stated that there had to be an endowment of $100,000, the first $50,000 of which had to be raised and on hand before the college could begin operation. In addition, $25,000 would be needed for a building. The two candidates to become the conference college were Fayette and St. Charles College. The latter was in financial difficulty and the conference was none too pleased with its  operation, so the choice fell on Fayette as the seat of “a literary institution of the highest order.”

The curators appointed by the St. Louis and Missouri Conferences met with the trustees of the High School in Fayette on February 4, 1854. Ownership of the site of the high school was transferred to the new board of curators. The price was $5,000 to build a classroom building attached to the boarding house of the high school. This was the first addition to what we know as Howard-Payne Hall.

The Board of Curators apparently began its corporate existence in 1854 because the great seal of the college bears the words “Incorporated 1854.” The charter bears the date March 1, 1855, and was accepted and adopted by the Board in December 1855. Although the charter refers to “the central college,” there was no official name for the school written into the charter. For more than 100 years, it was known as “Central College,” but only in the 1960s was there an official name registered with the State of Missouri, “Central Methodist College,” a salute to its founding heritage. (The writer recalls great mirth on the part of some seminary friends when the name situation made the news.)

The college opened in 1857, even though the terms of the conference resolution had not been met. The building (now Brannock Hall) had been built, but the money to pay for its completion had not been raised. Apparently the builder was very patient about receiving his money, but the issue of indebtedness was a thorn in the side for many years. In addition, the $50,000 in endowment had not been raised. The curators were uncertain about opening the college, but the local residents were insistent and lobbied heavily for its opening. The curators got around the resolution on a technicality – they opened “provisionally” and operated on a provisional basis until the outbreak of the Civil War.

There were 144 students and three faculty when the school opened in September of 1857. Nathan Scarritt was the President and Professor of Language. C. W. Pritchett was Professor of Mathematics, Mechanics, and Astronomy, and Eli R. Offutt was the Principal of the Preparatory School. Tuition was $17.50 per session, meaning either per semester or per course, probably the former. The first graduate was Samuel C. Major in 1858. Many of today’s students would love to know how he was able to graduate in one year! The answer lies in his work at Howard High School prior to its demise and merger into Central College.

Presidents in the early years of the school were Nathan Scarritt (June 1857–June 1858), A.A. Morrison (June 1858–March 1860), C.W. Pritchett, Interim (March 1860–June 1860), and W.A. Anderson (June 1860–June 1861).

The closing session of the 1860-61 school year was held the same day that Bates’ Iowa Regiment marched through Fayette enroute to the Battle of Springfield. Because of the war and the Federal occupation of Fayette, the curators formally discontinued the college in1861. It would not reopen until after the close of hostilities.

About the Author: Dr. John Gooch '60 is a frequent visitor to CMU’s Smiley Library in Cupples Hall. A minister and historian, he has for some years been organizing the United Methodist archives that are housed there.