Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Legacy of This Place: Oberlin, Ohio

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Legacy of This Place: Oberlin, Ohio

Article excerpt


Oberlin owed its beginning to a man named John Jay Shipherd; a Congregational minister with a keen desire to evangelize the West. Shipherd was working in Elyria, Ohio when he began dreaming of a religious colony where, as he put it, "consecrated souls could withdraw to Christian living in the virgin forest." One of his students, Philo Penfield Stewart, encouraged him and, together, Stewart and Shipherd conceived of a plan for a utopian colony and school. They proposed to name the colony after John Frederic Oberlin, a pious European pastor who was very popular with missionary-minded American Christians, because in 1830 the American Sunday School Union had published The Life of John Frederic Oberlin, Pastor of Waldback.

Shipherd and Stewart were dreamers. In a providential sequence of events, they obtained a tract of land southwest of Elyria and began convincing families to move to Oberlin. By March, 1833, a small group began to clear the woods. Oberlin's first resident, Peter Pindar Pesse, moved his family into a new log cabin a month later. By the end of 1833, approximately a dozen families called Oberlin home. (1)

About the same time, Shipherd contracted with some teachers and made plans for a school. He was impressed with the success of the Oneida Institute in upstate New York, which operated on a manual-labor plan. In such a school students worked the land to pay for their studies. The only other educational institution in the area, Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio, did not have enough land to support manual labor. Soon, what began as an innocent common school mushroomed into an ambitious plan for higher education. On February 28, 1834, the Ohio legislature granted the Trustees of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute a state charter. (2)

Things did not go well. Some teachers decided not to come; the school's president fell ill; the students did not understand the manual-labor scholarship system; and Shipherd was inept at handling funds. Although classes began on December 3, 1833, with thirty students living and working in the colony, by the end of the year the financial situation was serious. Faith and luck led Shipherd to Cincinnati, a booming metropolis at the southern edge of Ohio, where a drama had been unfolding that would have major consequences for Oberlin.

Lane Theological Seminary

Lane Theological Seminary had been chartered in 1829 in Cincinnati to train clergy for various forms of Protestant ministry on the expanding Western frontier. Its early years had been characterized by a battle between "New School" Presbyterian/Congregational leaders deeply committed to revivalism and abolition and "Old School" Presbyterian/Congregational leaders who were just as passionate to protect the doctrine and practices of classic Calvinism.

During these years Arthur Tappan, a wealthy, Eastern, abolitionist philanthropist, began talking about starting a "New School" theological seminary on the manual-labor plan. He was convinced that such a work-study system was the only way to provide affordable education on the Western frontier. To that end Tappan commissioned Theodore Weld, a radical activist who had felt a call to ministry through revivalism and who had been a student at the Oneida Institute, to determine where this seminary might be located.

Weld listened to many suggestions and eventually recommended that Tappan's dream seminary build on the foundations of Lane Theological Seminary, where a "New School" takeover was already in progress. With Tappan's support, Lyman Beecher, a well-known New England "New School" Congregationalist, became president of a revitalized Lane Theological Seminary. Beecher was well-known and brought prestige to the school; he was theologically progressive and positive about frontier revivalism; and, most importantly, Arthur Tappan was ready to pledge a great deal of money to Lane if Beecher were president. …

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