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Prof. Oval Pirkey's tenure at Abingdon College was during unsettling times for Christian churche

Christian University, Canton, Mo., as published in an advertisement for the school in 1901, Mexico Ledger.


About 1860, organ music gained popularity in many of America’s churches. A great divide came along with that trend, as followers of the Churches of Christ held true to their beliefs that any practices not present in accounts of New Testament worship were not permissible in the church. They could not find any New Testament documentation for the use of instrumental music in worship, so the use of instruments was forbidden.

In contrast, as explained in Wikipedia, the followers of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, (referred to as “Campbellites”) believed that instrumental music could be considered, unless expressly forbidden in the New Testament.

This issue over interpretation was more complex than this brief explanation, but none-the-less, the divide was intense, resulting in the splitting of congregations throughout the country, and hard feelings on both sides of the issue.

Abingdon troubles

Abingdon College, located a small community nine miles southwest of Galesburg, Ill., became a hotbed of emotions in March 1873, when a faction of Christians (“Campbellites”) united to oust J.M. Butler, a long-time college president.

The next year, Professor Oval Pirkey – a respected and admired professor at Christian University in Canton, Mo., was hired to replace Mr. Butler. Pirkey had been educated at Bethany College in West Virginia, which was founded by Alexander Campbell of the Restoration Movement.

The Chicago Tribune of Dec. 25, 1875, told of the mounting of tension between the feuding Christians.

“The feeling of the Butler party was very bitter toward Pirkey (a Campbellite) from the date of his arrival, and no pains were taken to conceal their hatred. A spirit of lawlessness seemed to pervade the entire community. Effigies of Pirkey and his adherents among the faculty and townspeople were suspended in different parts of the town. Their dwellings were defaced, and insults were heaped upon them while walking the streets. The press of the place were no silent spectators to the fight, and hardly was an edition published that did not teem with incendiary articles.”

A Christmas sociable was conducted by the Pirkey supporters in 1875. During the evening, three young men showed up at the event, reportedly in an intoxicated state. One allegedly struck Mr. Pirkey in the head with a “billy,” sending him to the ground in an unconscious condition.

The three men were taken into custody by the marshal, and Mr. Pirkey was taken to his home. It was predicted at the time that it was unlikely that Pirkey would survive his wounds.

Mr. Pirkey did survive, and it is unclear if the men were tried for their crimes against him. Some in the town made light of the attack, including the newspaper’s editor and the mayor.

Classes resumed, but Pirkey did not return to his leadership role. It is believed that he resumed his teaching position in Canton instead.

The year 1881 found Professor Pirkey in Emporia, Kan., where he set the groundwork for a new Select School and Commercial College. Two years later he was elected president of Christian University at Canton. In 1888, he was named president of Kahoka (Mo.) College.

An advertisement for the Kahoka school was published in the April 14, 1892, edition of Farmers’ Union newspaper of Memphis, Mo.:

“The first regular term of the summer school of Kahoka College and Normal University will begin on 7th of June next and continue eight weeks for the benefit of teachers and others, who cannot attend college at other times. An unparalleled opportunity! For circulars of course of study, send to: Pres. Oval Pirkey, or Prof. Guy Clinton, Kahoka, Mo.”

Mental decline

In 1908, when he was 74 years old, he experienced dementia-like symptoms while living near family in Topeka, Kan.

“His unusual behavior was blamed on the blow to the head he received (in 1875)” the Topeka newspaper reported. “Prof. Pirkey has been subject to sinking spells, which has impaired his memory of late years and which, no doubt, will account for his mysterious action.”

Professor Pirkey died July 5, 1912, at Missouri Baptist Sanitarium in St. Louis. He was buried at Canton, along with his family.

Respected instructor

Oval Pirkey was profiled in the June 1871 edition of the Phrenological Journal. At the time a professor at Christian University (later renamed Culver-Stockton) in Canton, Mo., the merits of his teaching were considered beyond reproach.

He was a graduate of Bethany College in West Virginia, which was founded by Alexander Campbell of the Restoration Movement.

An instructor in Greek Language and Literature in 1871, he had a profound influence upon the students under his charge at Canton, many of whom advanced to prominent leadership roles in their own time.

Among those students was La Cossitt Hendren, a graduate of Christian College, who went on to earn a law degree before returning home and taking charge of his father’s (S.O. Hendren) farm in Miller Township, Marion County, Mo. Among Hendren’s papers now in the possession of Bob and Hong Kilmer, is a miniature photo of Professor Pirkey, circa 1870.

Others students of note who were likely Prof. Pirkey’s students include:

• Dr. Franklin Worthington Bush, from the Mount Zion area of Marion County area, attended Christian College at Canton from 1867-69, and while in Canton he studied medicine under Dr. John W. Hawkins. He went on to graduate from Missouri Medical College in 1876. He practiced medicine in both Hannibal and Palmyra, including the Mt. Zion area. He died in May 1937 at the age of 86.

Judge C.J. Scofield of Carthage, Ill., was an 1871 graduate of the classical course at Christian College in Canton. First a minister, and later a lawyer and judge, he died in 1953, just short of his 100th birthday.

O.C. Clay was the son of Littleberry Clay, a steamboat captain. The elder Clay purchased farmland near Monticello in Lewis County, moving his family there in 1861. Oliver Clay graduated from Christian University in 1871, where he later taught math. He began the study of law while teaching at the university, and was admitted to practice law in 1877. He was elected Lewis County prosecutor in 1882. His wife, Charlotte Biggs Clay, was the first “lady” graduate of the classics department at the university. She was the daughter of Dr. James Biggs and wife, and was born in Lewis County in May 1856.

C.W. Barrett, born around 1850 in Pennsylvania, moved to Canton, Mo., with his parents, when his father, J.W. Barrett, was named head of the Methodist seminary. The seminary closed at the start of the Civil War, and in 1862, J.W. Barrett started the Canton Press, a weekly newspaper. The elder Barrett’s two sons, Harry H. Barrett and C.W. Barrett, followed their father into the newspaper business. They edited and published the Press after the death of their father in 1886.

Joshua W. Alexander attended Christian University at Canton from 1868-1872, when he earned an A.B. degree. He taught school for a term at Canton, and then moved to Gallatin, Daviess County, where he began studying law. In 1888, he was a statewide candidate for Missouri Speaker of the House.

Hayden J. McRoberts, formerly cashier of Monticello Savings Bank, Lewis County, Mo., purchased an interest in the Bank of Canton in November 1893, from B.H. Smith, upon his retirement as president of the bank. McRoberts died in October 1902 at the age of 52, and is buried at Forest Grove Cemetery in Canton.

Frank L. Schofield was born 1850 in Virginia; in 1870 he was a 20-year-old lawyer in Canton, Mo. He lived in Canton with Joseph A. Schofield, 27, presumably his brother, who was an engineer. Joseph died in 1892 and is buried at Canton. Frank moved to Hannibal in 1889, and died in 1925. He is buried Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Frank Schofield was a former president of the Missouri Bar Association. Upon his death, he had been standing master in chancery in the United States court of the Northern Division of the eastern District of Missouri since 1887.

Note: Most of the photos that accompany this story were found in the files of La Cossitt Hendren, and are now in the possession of Bob and Hong Kilmer of rural Hannibal. The identities of these individuals are based upon research of known students at Canton University circa 1870, and handwritten notes on the old photos. The identities are calculated, rather than absolute.

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