Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Ecumenical Significance of Oberlin

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Ecumenical Significance of Oberlin

Article excerpt


I have represented the American Holiness movement on the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.'s Faith and Order (F&O) Commission for nearly a quarter of a century, ever since the efforts of Director Jeff Gros in the 1980's to expand the representation of the commission to be more reflective of the texture of American Christianity than the actual membership of the N.C.C.C. In this position I am something of a low-church Protestant who finds the ways of the "ecumenical world" somewhat strange and the issues of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (1) a little arcane. When I ponder the fact that I do not believe that I was ever denied communion or "eucharistic fellowship" until I began to attend "ecumenical" meetings, I begin to wonder about the way we use such words and who qualifies for the label "ecumenical."

I am also leery of some views of "sainthood" that make such a special calling that could undercut the call to holiness as an expectation of all Christians (because I am inclined, as a layperson, to believe that all Christians are called to be ministers, theologians, and saints). In addition, though I studied in Israel for a year, I am similarly nervous about such labels as "the holy land" (often evoking images of the ancient churches fighting for hegemony over the "holy sites"), having sympathy, as I do, for the Quaker position that all places can become "holy" if they are dedicated to the service of God. However, if I were to nominate a place and a group of people as candidates for the label "holy," it would likely be the colony and college of Oberlin and the sometimes cantankerous people who served as founders of this school and leaders of the movement called "Oberlinism."

I grant that what I have just said may appear to be outrageous to some and rather idiosyncratic to my own experience. I was reared in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, which may be the closest parallel to Oberlin outside this colony. My denominational college (Houghton College, in the "burned over" district--from revival fires--of upstate New York) was modeled after Oberlin and used this institution as a "finishing school" until the full four-year curriculum was in place. (Our music program was modeled after Oberlin's great "conservatory of music, and, in an unusual illustration of serendipitous nomenclature, it was chaired by Charles Finney, our organist, who carried the name of the great evangelist who had dominated early Oberlin and became the second president of the college.)

My Ph.D. "contextual" (that is, a "minor") on "Oberlin Perfectionism" at Chicago was supervised by Martin Marry. (I cheated; when he vetoed the study of my own tradition, I proposed to study the same abolitionist and theological movement in its "reformed" expression.) This study resulted in a series of essays in the predecessor to Sojourners magazine that led to my first major book, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, (2) with chapters on the "Oberlinism" that makes this school the major illustration of the antebellum conjunction of revivalism and social reform. My study of the thought of Asa Mahan, the first president of Oberlin College (and the subject of Barbara Brown Zikmund's dissertation), led me away from a dissertation on the ethics of Karl Barth to what became The Theological Roots of Pentecostalism, (3) a study in which figures of the theological faculty of Oberlin are central players. Moreover, Oberlin I in 1957 serves as an appropriate symbol of my "ecumenical" career over the last quarter of a century. To top all this off, a group of my students, colleagues, and friends chose this week as the occasion to present me with a Festschrift in anticipation of my sixty-fifth birthday. You can understand why for me there is a sense in which Oberlin is sacred space.

My purpose here is to urge us to ponder the wider "ecumenical significance of Oberlin" in four steps. I wish first to offer an analysis of the report of Oberlin I, indicating what I believe to be a major flaw that prevents it from being an adequate guide to the Faith and Order work in the next half-century. …

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