In Search of Oberlin on our 50th reunion
by Dennis Krumholz ’73
A distinct memory of my earliest days at Oberlin is of the painted rock on Tappan Square that, in the words quoted in the title, lamented the direction the College had taken. What did these words mean? Perhaps this was merely a quip written by a stoned upperclassman annoyed with some aspect of college life. But the meaning that rings most true is a cri de coeur recalling an earlier era before the College had strayed from its proper path.
What was it about that earlier Oberlin the writer regretted having lost? What, indeed, had been the essence of the institution and place? Was there really something distinctive about Oberlin, and had it gone missing?
In thinking way back to our college years, and then ahead to our milestone reunion, I found it difficult to express the spirit of Oberlin. Was there, and is there still, a special Oberlin identity? After 50 years, it was high time to go in search of those qualities that have contributed to its distinctiveness.
My dive into history revealed stories, personalities and ideas that, in my ignorance, I had known embarrassingly little about. So many books and articles have been written about the College and the town, especially about its unique and formative early years, that it certainly seems that more ink has been devoted to this place than its small size would suggest is warranted. I read more history than I intended or had thought time would allow; a bibliography is at the end of this piece. What follows is my own idiosyncratic effort to distill the essence of Oberlin based on history and our experience so many years ago.
John Frederick Oberlin himself
Young men and women, if you have the good fortune to graduate from this college, you will bear the name of no ordinary person. Who was John Harvard? Who was Eli Yale? Who was Lord Geoffrey Amherst? Persons of no real consequence, whose fame depends on the chance attachment of their names to institutions which have succeeded…This College has an inheritance and a challenge in its name such as no other college in the country possesses.
Fullerton, Essays and Sketches, Oberlln, 1904-1934, ”The Oberlin Centenary, June 1926”
Inspiring words indeed! We should know more about this impressive man whose piety and works formed the guiding spirit of the founding of the Oberlin colony and college.
The namesake of the College was a Lutheran pastor who lived in the 18th and early 19th centuries. He dedicated his life to serving the impoverished residents of the Ban-de-la-Roche region of Alsace, an extremely poor and remote area of what was then, and remains, France. Pastor Oberlin was a learned man who held a doctorate in theology but elected to live a selfless and ascetic life. He was pious but equally known for his good works. For example, Oberlin taught his impoverished and illiterate congregants to build roads and bridges and to plant trees, and he established a silk-ribbon industry to provide employment and some modicum of prosperity. He devoted enormous attention to the education of his youngest flock in primary schools decades before the first ‘kindergarten’ was established in Germany. His self-sacrifice was exemplified in numerous ways. For example, Oberlin gave away three-tenths of his income equally to beautifying his church services, for general parish purposes and to the poor. For a time, he forewent coffee and sugar in protest against the slave labor that produced them. Curiously, Oberlin once had considered becoming a missionary in rural Pennsylvania but thought better of it as a result of the outbreak of our revolutionary war.
Pastor Oberlin was engaged on the progressive side of the great political issues of his day. He was deeply anti-royal and a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, and he viewed the Declaration of the Rights of Man as the beginning of the Kingdom of God. He gave communion to Jews and Catholics as well as Protestants, and he boldly rejected the Lutheran doctrine of eternal damnation. As Fullerton, longtime professor in Oberlin’s former School of Theology, also wrote, certain Americans “…would have found in John Frederick, the revolutionary, rather a dangerous Bolshevist.”
Plainly, this humble man was deeply pious and highly spiritual yet also theologically rebellious, and in that spirit was committed to the freedom and physical betterment of the lives of the common people in his parish and the wider world. This combination of the spiritual, humanistic, practical and rebellious embodied by Pastor Oberlin provided the inspiration for the College and colony that bear his name.
The Second Great Awakening and Charles Grandison Finney
The period of our nation’s founding obviously is fundamental to understanding the nature of our country, and the subsequent Civil War period also holds an extraordinarily important place in the country’s historical development. But what about the years in between, that is, the early-to-mid 19th century, the period when Oberlin College was founded? I had thought of this era as best personified by Andrew Jackson and by Emerson and Thoreau. Jackson was a complex figure: a slaveholder who was unusually cruel to Native Americans, but also a populist with faith in the wisdom and value of ordinary (white male) citizens irrespective of class or status. The Transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of people and nature, and saw divine experience in the everyday rather than in a distant heaven.
Yet, a third significant aspect of American society, although far less well known today perhaps in light of the more secular mind-set of the modern era, arose during this period known as the Second Great Awakening. Well, what was the First?
The revival movement known as the First Great Awakening had taken place in the early-to-mid 18th century. By that time, the spiritual fervor of the Pilgrims had died down and Deism, with its reliance on reason and the natural world rather than faith, the supernatural and organized religion, was ascendant. Yet, the First Great Awakening was a period when spirituality and religious devotion were revived. It was important to repent and confess one's sins and ‘convert’ into believing that humans were ‘fallen creatures’ in need of God’s grace. The First Great Awakening was an evangelical movement, that is, ministers travelled around the colonies to preach the need for salvation and to convert common parishioners. Historians generally agree that this movement helped unify the thirteen colonies which unity, in turn, helped support the Revolution.
The Second Great Awakening took place in the first half of the 19th century. It arose in another period of perceived religious decline, driven in part by the great migration from the eastern seaboard to the new territories that lay beyond the original colonies and lacked a strong religious tradition. In the east, Unitarianism, a liberal branch of Protestantism that rejected the Trinity and, somewhat like Deism, emphasized rationalism over formal dogma, was gaining adherents. In reaction, the Second Great Awakening, like the First, sought to recapture an earlier religious vitality through the means of revivals, which often were pointedly emotional in order to spur the listeners to repent their sins and convert. In a certain sense, this Awakening might be seen as the religious expression of the ‘era of the common man’ as embodied by Jackson and Emerson. Its success lasted until the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century when large numbers of immigrant Catholics and Jews began to challenge the so-called Protestant consensus.
Historians generally agree that Charles Grandison Finney, future professor of theology and President of the College, was the single greatest figure of the Second Great Awakening and certainly its most renowned preacher. Finney originally read law, but shortly after beginning his legal career he had a conversion experience. The story is told that shortly afterwards Finney informed a would-be legal client, “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and [so] cannot plead yours.”
Like so many impacted by the Second Great Awakening, Finney was raised in upstate New York in a family that had migrated west from Connecticut. He was tall, handsome and athletic, assets that amplified his preaching power. Many reports note Finney’s “piercing eyes,” and a photograph in the McLaughlin book cited below reveals them to be eerily so. Finney preached a ‘new Calvinism.’ That is, traditional Calvinism taught that revivals and conversions were solely the work of God, whereas Finney believed that people had within themselves the power to respond to the call of the preacher and convert. As Finney saw it, traditional Calvinism was dogmatic, pessimistic, hierarchical and legalistic. In his view, the personal faith of the citizen was key to conversion, rather than the arbitrary selection by God of a limited number of souls for salvation. Finney preached to all, especially those who were not among the elite. He emphasized stewardship — the idea that individuals did not truly own their wealth but were required to use it to better the world and then to pass it along — along with the simple lifestyle called for in the Bible.
Unlike the majority of his clerical colleagues, Finney was a child of his age, not an enemy of it. He had little use for Calvinism, and the basic philosophical principles underlying his thought were essentially the same as those associated with Jacksonian democracy. Like the Jacksonians, Finney had an ardent faith in progress, in the benevolence of God, and in the dignity and worth of the common man. Like the Jacksonians, he believed that the restrictive clerical and aristocratic traditions of th seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were out of date and that they must give way to a new and more liberal outlook if the nation was to continue to grow in peace, liberty and prosperity under God. Finney was no backward-looking fundamentalist exhorter, longing for the good old days of Puritanism and inculcating a fear of hell to keep the wickedness of the common man in check. He was in fact just the opposite of a theocrat—he was a pietist. And that is why he spent his life at odds with the Calvinists of his day. He disliked man-made creeds; he saw no need for institutionalized denominational systems; he believed in the priesthood of all believers. His mission, as he saw it, was to create a universal Church based upon the fundamentals of the gospel. He sought to cut away the bonds of customs and liberate men from their blind obedience to the past. He wanted to help men free themselves from sin and learn to grow in wisdom and love as free Christian men and women. And he believed that the millennial age was about to dawn in the United States of America.
Introduction, Lectures on Revivals of Religion by Charles Grandison Finney, edited by William G. McLaughlin (1960).
Put much more simply and directly by Geoffrey Blodgett, professor of history at Oberlin for 40 years, including our own,
“Finney’s message was that his listeners had the God-given natural ability not only to achieve personal salvation in the afterlife but also to transcend their sinning ways and strive for perfection here and now in the lives they led from day to day….for most, this Perfectionist message was welcome but demanding. You could be good, and you had better try.
Blodgett, Oberlin History, Essays and Impressions, “Father Finney’s Church” (1997)
Hence, “Oberlin Perfectionism.”
A key element of Finney’s philosophy and of the Second Great Awakening more generally, and one that would have special resonance at Oberlin, was its belief in evangelical activism in order to be ‘useful in the highest degree.’ That is, Finney and his colleagues and converts believed that all true Christians have a “spirit [that] is necessarily that of the reformer. To the universal reformation of the world they stand committed.” McLaughlin, page xliii. It was in this spirit that the Awakening embraced the reform movements of the day including, among others, abolitionism, temperance, and education. Each of these engagements would hold a special meaning for Oberlin.
Oberlin College was a creation of the Second Great Awakening. Piety, living righteously with God in the wilderness, and the belief that a devout life requires engaging in the great issues of the day were all qualities of the Awakening and of Oberlin. Like Pastor Oberlin, Reverend Finney was a profoundly devout and spiritual man whose religious beliefs compelled him to devote his life to improving the spiritual lives of others. Like Oberlin, Finney was a radical within the established church of his day. Also like Oberlin, Finney’s religious philosophy embodied a democratic spirit that drove him to engage with the political and social issues of the day. As much as Oberlin inspired the College, Finney’s future involvement helped establish the College as a formidable institution.
At the Creation
The establishment of Oberlin, both College and community, has been recounted many times by various authors yet I remained unaware of so much about it before undertaking this project. John Shipherd was a Presbyterian minister from New York State who was a preacher in the Western Reserve, the large swath of land in northeastern Ohio that had been granted by the English crown not quite two centuries earlier to the then-colony of Connecticut. Shipherd sought to establish a utopian community in the Midwest — among many such ‘perfectionist’ communities being created on the frontier in those years — that would train young adults to ‘spread the gospel’ throughout the Mississippi Valley. Along with Philo Stewart, his childhood friend and former missionary to the Choctaw tribe in Mississippi, Shipherd obtained thousands of acres of land in Russia Township that was purposely isolated from more populated areas and difficult to reach “in order to be insulated from the vices and temptations of cities and large towns.” Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War, page 30. They named their community in honor of the spirit and achievements of Pastor Oberlin.
Early members of the colony —but not students — were required to sign a covenant that vividly illustrated the colonists’ view of the state of the world and the role the colony sought to play in it. The Covenant of the Oberlin Colony should be required reading for incoming students! Let them appreciate, in the language of the colonists themselves, the very earliest roots of the community, and let them come to see, no doubt with great relief, how profoundly the community has changed.
The Covenant begins by “[l]amenting the degeneracy of the church and the deplorable condition of our perishing world…,” rebellious, almost blasphemous, sentiments that Pastor Oberlin no doubt would have endorsed. It speaks of bringing both the church and the world “under the entire influence of the blessed gospel of peace” and of the importance the “influence of the Valley of the Mississippi must exert over our nation and the nations of the earth.” These goals are pious but hardly dogmatic, they express a great ambition to engage with the world both near and far, and they reflect the life and spirit of Pastor Oberlin. The Covenant further declaims the “express purpose of [the colony to be to] glorify God and doing good to men to the extent of our ability.” Again, expressed with appropriate modesty, is the combination of the devout and the worldly.
Equally importantly, the Covenant expressed promises for living together. These include nods to stewardship of property, but only enough to “profitably manage for God;” self-denial beyond necessary expenses; eating “plain and wholesome food” and renouncing tobacco and even tea and coffee, as well as expensive fashions and “ornamental attire.” Significantly, the colonists covenanted to “take special pains to educate all our children thoroughly and to train them up in body intellect & heart for the Service of God.” What a high-minded place Oberlin was, where forgoing pleasure and working for the good of mankind in the service of God in this and future generations were its essential founding principles.
Labor and Learning
It is not clear from my reading to what extent other colleges at that time required students to work alongside their studies, but at the beginning of the College physical labor was a requirement of all Oberlin students. This obligation no doubt arose as a matter of necessity as the College needed to be built up and most students were of limited means, but it also went hand in hand with the down-to-earth modesty expressed in the Covenant. Difficult work also was seen as helping to prepare students for the hardships they likely would to face as missionaries.
As it turned out, having students perform farm work and similar domestic chores proved to be inefficient and the work requirement was soon abandoned. As described somewhat humorously by James Fairchild, a member of the first graduating class and later professor and third President of the College, the early students “rested on their hoes in the cornfields to look into their inner consciousness, and the manual labor cause suffered in the interests of philosophy.” Blodgett, Oberlin HIstory, Essays and Impressions, “Myth and Reality in Oberlin History,” page 12. Yet, “Learning and Labor” became and still remains the motto of the College, perhaps intended as a perpetual reminder of the importance of remaining grounded notwithstanding the lofty ideals of the founders and the abstract thought required by philosophy and other academic disciplines.
A foundational element of Oberlin’s distinctiveness is that it was the first college to admit women on an equal basis with men. This practice began at the very inception of the College in 1833, when the first students enrolled in the Oberlin Collegiate Institute. Coeducation is a prime example of the willingness of the participants in the early institution to challenge existing dogma. Interestingly, educating women along with men seems to have been viewed at Oberlin as natural and not particularly noteworthy, let alone controversial. Perhaps this is one reason why the subject is given far less attention in the literature than other reformist elements of the institution, notwithstanding that being the first college to educate women was indeed distinctive and, as such, is frequently and justifiably cited to tout Oberlin’s progressive heritage. Another reason may be that coeducation was overshadowed by another practice that was far more controversial.
Professor Blodgett has suggested a pragmatic reason for coeducation: educating women would increase the number of teachers and missionaries which, after all, was the school’s primary mission at the time. Because piety, modesty and moral restraint were part of the air everyone in the colony breathed, and as the first coeducational college, Oberlin needed to take great pains to ensure that the sexes maintained a respectful social distance from one another. Notwithstanding the lofty promise of coeducation, It should be remembered, however, that, during the early years, separate programs for men and women were maintained, and the education of women often was considered secondary to that of men. Along these same lines, the best-known leaders of the suffragist and other reform movements that arose in the latter half of the nineteenth century largely were women who had not been educated at Oberlin but, instead, were graduates of the all-women colleges that had been founded during that era. This fact further illustrates the College’s conservative religious ethos that encouraged a reformist but nonetheless restrained worldly engagement.
Arthur Tappan, a wealthy New York merchant, devout Christian and philanthropist, along with his brother Lewis, had become quite friendly with Finney, who had taken a break from traveling the revival circuit to settle down and preach in lower Manhattan. Shipherd went to New York in 1835 to persuade the Tappans to provide money for the College, which had opened only recently and was struggling to stay afloat. The Tappans agreed to provide funds on the condition, among other noteworthy requirements described below, that Finney be appointed head of the Department of Theology. Finney himself had agreed to come to Oberlin in that capacity but, among conditions of his own, had required that the faculty manage college admissions and all internal affairs without trustee interference. Faculty governance also was a concern of the Tappans’. The brothers and the trustees of the College agreed, and Oberlin thereby secured the funding that would enable it to move forward with assurance.
The reason for Finney’s and the Tappans' insistence on faculty governance will become apparent shortly, but this arrangement, singular among colleges then and into the 21st century, should be appreciated as constituting one of the attributes of Oberlin that has contributed to its distinctive open-mindedness. The emphatically democratic nature of the decision-making process, and the willingness of the Oberlin faculty to allow the students to challenge the status quo and push the institution and the larger world to greater openness and equality, were made possible in no small measure by the more limited governance role played by the trustees throughout the history of the College. This requirement was deemed important enough to be written into the College By-Laws in 1903 as Article XV, Section 2.
By 1983, the “Finney Compact” had become a matter of contention. Then-former Professor and Acting Provost James Powell, who had been asked by the Board of Trustees to study whether it should remain in place, affirmed that “[t]he principle of faculty governance simply is a sine qua non of excellence in liberal education.” He stated that, should the trustees seek to repeal the Compact, “a heavy blow would have been struck…and things would be worse, not better. Collegiality would be a thing of the past, and the life of administrators and faculty made miserable.” On the other hand, according to Blodgett, longtime trustee Irwin Griswold, then-Dean of the Harvard Law School who became Solicitor General of the United States, thought the faculty “…have overly inflated pretensions about [its] ability to run this College.”
Last year, perhaps in response to the extraordinarily large judgment the college was ordered to pay as a result of the adverse verdict in the Gibson litigation, a risk management firm advised the college that eliminating the section of the By-Laws embodying the Compact would help protect the College from a variety of liabilities. Notwithstanding vocal objection, the trustees voted to jettison the section. In so doing, one of the foundations of the democratic and free-thinking institution for which Oberlin had become known was discarded.
Deal or No Deal?
Shortly before Shipherd traveled to New York, a group of students and several faculty at Lane Seminary, an evangelical institution in Cincinnati, rebelled against the efforts of the Seminary’s trustees to squelch their outspoken abolitionist sentiments and threatened to leave the institution. Sensing an opportunity, Shipherd invited the ‘Lane Rebels’ to enroll at Oberlin. So when Shipherd asked the Tappans to help the College financially, weighing on his mind was the need for money to support the additional students and faculty that now would be joining the College. As it turned out, the Tappans strongly supported the Lane Rebels — this group of students and faculty originally studied and taught at the Oneida Institute in upstate New York, an institution funded by the Tappans — and were endeavoring to find another place where they could continue their work. Thus, for the Tappans, Oberlin became the place where evangelism and abolitionism each could find a home. Asa Mahan had been the only trustee at Lane who supported the abolitionist students, and he agreed to leave and become President of Oberlin; John Morgan had been fired from the Lane faculty because of his anti-slavery views, and he agreed to join the Oberlin faculty.
Along with their insistence that the Lane Rebels be welcomed at Oberlin, a further condition insisted upon by the Tappans as a condition of their financial support, and by the others as a condition of joining Oberlin, was that admission to the college be irrespective of color--that is, that Black students be allowed to enroll along with whites. Arthur Tappan urged Finney to “…see that the work [of admitting Black students on the same condition as you do white students] not be not taken out of the hands of the faculty, and spoiled by the trustees, as was the case at Lane Seminary.” Much uneasiness and debate ensued when this proposition was presented to the Oberlin students and trustees. Ultimately, Shipherd put it to the trustees plainly: either the college admit Black students along with whites, or else the Tappan money would not be forthcoming, none of Finney, Mahan or Morgan would join, and Shipherd himself would quit. The trustees’ tie vote on the matter was broken by John Keep, Board chair, who supported admitting Blacks and accepting the entire Shipherd package. Thus did Oberlin decide—barely—to admit Black students.*
* It is widely believed that Oberlin was the first college to admit Blacks. In fact, other colleges already had admitted Black men on an ad hoc, occasional basis, and the short-lived Oneida Institute already had admitted Black men as institutional policy. Oberlin’s distinction was to admit both women and Blacks as policy and, it should be acknowledged, to far outlast these other institutions.
Historians telling the fascinating story of these negotiations have each emphasized different aspects. As Blodgett has observed, one focused on the importance of the Lane Rebels as having expanded the student body; another emphasized the arrival of Finney and establishment of a Department of Theology; still another focused on the financial stability provided by the Tappans, and yet a fourth emphasized the assurance of academic freedom resulting from inclusion of the Finney Compact. Yet, perhaps more significant than any of these elements was the radical institutional policy decision to admit Black students alongside whites. As one faculty member has quipped, not entirely in jest, being the ‘first’ college to admit Black students along with whites has provided Oberlin with the moral capital it has been living off ever since.
The Next 188 Years
It would be tempting to conclude that the character of Oberlin was formed —‘forged’ would be more accurate— in its very earliest years and that nothing that has taken place since has altered the spirit of the institution. While I believe this to be largely true, such a sweeping conclusion would fail to do justice to several important developments that took place in the intervening years which affected the distinctiveness of the school.
It needs to be acknowledged that the profoundly radical support the College and town gave in its earliest decades to racial equality in education, and its related embrace of abolitionism, sadly began to give way after Emancipation and the end of the Civil War to less progressive racial attitudes that were more in line with the rest of Ohio and the country. As the promise of Reconstruction yielded to Jim Crow, so Oberlin’s zealous support of racial equality also gave way to a reduced tolerance for racial integration and equality. These changes took place in both the College and the town, and the books cited in the bibliography by Professors Lasser and Kornblith and by Archivist Baumann and others provide essential eye-opening reading on this subject. To what extent Oberlin has lived up to its “distinctive mission and historical promise” — as expressed by President Ambar in the informational video for the new Center for Race, Equity and Inclusion — is a topic of great significance and endless controversy. [During Reunion, at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday at Craig Hall in the Science Center, a panel discussion, including Professors Lasser and Kornblith, entitled "Race at Oberlin Throughout the Years", will take place. All are welcome.]
The Conservatory of Music, which became part of the College in 1867, represents a different sort of development that, in my view, has contributed markedly to making Oberlin the distinctive institution it is. Oberlin is among very few American institutions to have a conservatory so closely affiliated with a liberal arts college. The creative and experimental spirit that has become so much a part of the College has at least some of its roots in the presence of the Conservatory — as well as, of course, in the general spirit of reform that has permeated Oberlin since its founding — notwithstanding that the study of ‘classical music,’ that is, excluding electronic music and jazz, is rooted in the traditional European past.
Secularization was another important development that took place at Oberlin as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. The extraordinary religious fervor that was present at the creation had given way over time to a more heterogeneous student body and to a zeitgeist which de-emphasized religion at the expense of a more varied liberal arts curriculum that ultimately incorporated the physical and social sciences and humanities to a far greater degree than before. A closely related development was the pursuit of academic excellence. Training religious leaders and missionaries similarly had become displaced over time by the education of students in a great variety of fields, many of whom would go on to leading academic and professional careers.
So, What Makes Oberlin Distinctive?
When I was applying to college, what little I ‘knew’ of the history of Oberlin was that it was the first college in the country to admit women and Blacks. Those illustrious credentials certainly piqued my interest and have been a source of pride ever since. Among other things, this history project has taught me what motivated Oberlin to do so.
My reading of the history of Oberlin is that the syncretic nature of the Christian evangelism espoused by Pastor Oberlin and the founders, that is, its combination of pious conservatism and progressive reform, has animated the spirit of Oberlin from its beginning down through the present. It was evangelism that brought Shipherd and Stewart to create this place, caused the Tappans to fund it and caused Finney to sink roots and put Oberlin on the map. But as was the case with Pastor Oberlin and the founders, their devout spirituality was married to a religious rebelliousness whose goal was to improve the world and the lives of its inhabitants.
The admission of women along with men was part of a social reform movement that was generations ahead of its time, notwithstanding that its purpose was to further spread the Gospel. Is it too much of a stretch to consider Oberlin’s position as one of the earliest colleges to support coed dormitories as a modern expression of its original role as the first coeducational college?
The education of Black students along with whites was a radical act of rebellion against the mores of the day. More than any other aspect of the history of the College, racial integration was bold and risky. Yet, the leaders and benefactors of the College nonetheless took this path because they believed strongly that it was the right and Christian thing to do. Beyond educating Black students, Oberlin became a “Hotbed of Abolitionism,” as reflected in the title of the book by J. Brent Morris. It was outspoken in its early days against the evils of slavery and became widely known for its unyielding stance on this issue. Marilynne Robinson, the novelist who created a fictional abolitionist town based on a real one founded by Oberlin graduates, compares Finney with “another preacher and reformer, Martin Luther King, Jr.” When President Ambar speaks of Oberlin’s “distinctive mission and historical promise,” no doubt she is thinking about this aspect of the College’s past. This ‘mission and promise’ even more than its evangelical roots remains most noteworthy about Oberlin. As noted above, to what degree Oberlin, College and town, have attained this high standard continues to be debated today.
The evangelical and reformist impulses that animated Pastor Oberlin, Finney and the others — that is to say, the desire to foster God by reforming the world — formed the backdrop for the participation of Oberlin students in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and ‘70s that roiled our college years. Of course, it would have been a shock to those who were involved at the time to consider that they were following in the tradition of the founding evangelists, yet it seems to me that they, and we, were. The orientation of the participants may have been largely secular, but the desire to reform the world was a modern step along Oberlin’s original reformist path. Finney strove to place the power to convert in the people rather than in God and the elders of the Church, and to further the dignity of common people by liberating them from the strictures of traditional Calvinism. The student reformers of earlier generations also challenged authority by striving to expand civil rights and stop the Vietnam war notwithstanding the prevailing social ethos and the goals of our country’s government and military leaders. The same holds true for Oberlin’s acceptance in more recent years of LGBTQ students, environmentalism and multiculturalism, modern movements that also seek to enhance justice in the world.
The creative and artistic expression which has become woven into the fabric of Oberlin may not derive entirely from the presence of the Conservatory, but it seems undeniable that this element of the community has contributed to expanded artistic expression over the generations. And while it may seem improbable, Oberlin’s rural Midwestern location that still remains, and feels, remote from any urban area also contributes in a less appreciated way to its distinctiveness. Its relative isolation even now (indeed, what sometimes felt while a student like living on the ‘frontier’) allows the community a freedom of social and artistic expression that would not have developed to the same degree had Oberlin been located along the East Coast or nearer a large city. In my mind, the amalgamation of these factors has made Oberlin distinctive.
While it is undeniable that, for the reasons noted, Oberlin was a distinctive institution for a good part of its existence, to what degree were its special values actualized? And if Oberlin was indeed distinctive, is it still? After all, its evangelical fervor, not to mention its religious orientation, quieted a very long time ago, and virtually all male-only colleges have long since become coeducational. Upon close examination, too, the original coeducation that was actually practiced often resulted in the unequal educational treatment of women. As discussed above, Professors Lasser, Kornblith and Baumann, along with other authors noted in the bibliography, have described in great detail how the spirit of racial integration that was so strong in the early years faded in the generations that followed. On examination, even during the earliest period, when admission irrespective of color and abolitionist sentiment were at their strongest, many in Oberlin did not embrace these ideas. Like Oberlin, most colleges long ago developed rich programs in African-American studies and related fields. Many colleges now outrank Oberlin academically, and the liberal orientation of faculty and students at most academically strong institutions is no longer limited to Oberlin and a few others. In its great tradition of self-analysis, the discussion continues over the degree to which Oberlin really was distinctive, to what degree that distinctiveness has been lost and, to the extent the school does not live up to its ideals, how best to help it to do so.
After being away from Oberlin for a half-century, I am curious to see what provocative questions today’s painted rocks on Tappan Square will pose.
I look forward to seeing you all at reunion.
Baumann, Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College, Ohio University Press, 2010
Bell, Degrees of Equality, Louisiana State University Press, 2022
Blodgett, Oberlin History, Essays and Impressions, The Kent State University Press, 2006
Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War, Syracuse University Press, 1990
Drummond, A Fresh Look at the Life and Ministry of Charles G. Finney, Bethany House Publishers, 1985
Fullerton, Essays and Sketches, Oberlin, 1904-1934, Yale University Press, 1938
Hankins, The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists, Greenwood Press, 2004
Kornblith and Lasser, Elusive Utopia, Louisiana State University Press, 2018
McLaughlin, ed., Lectures on Revivals of Religion by Charles Grandison Finney, Harvard University Press, 1960
Morris, Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism, The University of North Carolina Press, 2014
Robinson, When I was a Child I Read Books, “Who Was Oberlin?,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery, The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1969