Oberlin College

views updated May 17 2018


OBERLIN COLLEGE. In 1833 the evangelical Protestants John J. Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart founded a utopian community in Northeast Ohio focused on promoting the Oberlin Collegiate Institute to educate ministers to preach salvation to the unchurched West. Named for an Alsatian pastor, John Frederick Oberlin, the school opened in December 1834 as a manual labor institution. While both men and women attended from the beginning, not until 1837 could women pursue the A.B. degree. In 1835 a decision to admit students irrespective of color transformed the fledgling college. With this embrace of interracial education, Oberlin welcomed young men exiled from Lane Theological Seminary for their insistence on conducting antislavery revivals. The "Lane rebels" carried with them support from the New York merchant, abolitionist, and evangelical Lewis Tappan, thus ensuring the survival of the college and the recruitment as professor of theology Charles Grandison Finney, the leading evangelical preacher of the time.

Perfectionist radicalism and attendant causes, including the Graham vegetarian diet, female moral reform, temperance, missionary activity, and particularly antislavery activism, permeated early Oberlin. The school officially became Oberlin College in 1850. Although not Garrisonians, Oberlin's abolitionists embraced a "higher law" when, in the Oberlin-Wellington rescue of 1858, students, faculty, and townspeople joined together to free a fugitive captured by bounty hunters. Oberlin students and faculty distinguished themselves in military service during the Civil War, and African American alumni led in the recruitment of Ohio's first troops of color. Men and women graduates played particularly important roles in establishing schools and colleges for freed slaves during Reconstruction.

Oberlin rose to academic prominence in the late nineteenth century. Educational advances included the addition of the Conservatory of Music in 1869, the rise of men's sports, a pioneering women's physical education program, the establishment of laboratory science, the advent of electives, the creation of academic departments, and accreditation as a founding member of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools in 1895. By 1916 the preparatory department, once the largest part of the institution, closed its doors.

Despite a post-Reconstruction retreat from racial egalitarian principle, at Oberlin in the late nineteenth century, one-third of all African American graduates of predominantly white colleges before 1900 were Oberlin alumni. The college retained many of its other progressive ideals, especially in connecting the developing social sciences and the needs of social reform. In 1890 it appointed its first female professor, although not until 1948 was the first African American appointed to the faculty.

The school's religious orientation, which in 1882 supported the largest college chapter YMCA in the world, spurred Oberlin-trained missionaries to establish schools and churches in Africa and Asia. Although mandatory chapel was eliminated in 1934, later graduates of the theological department and college undergraduates played important roles in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1966 the college closed the theological school.

Entering the twenty-first century Oberlin boasted a highly ranked College of Arts and Sciences enrolling 2,200 students and a world-renowned conservatory with 650 students. A pioneering environmental studies program, high academic standards, and social commitment maintain Oberlin's traditions.


Barnard, John. From Evangelicalism to Progressivism at Oberlin College, 1866–1917. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1969.

Baumann, Roland M., compiler. Oberlin History Bibliography: A Partial Listing of Published Titles Bearing on the History of the College and Community Covering the Period 1833 to 1992. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College, 1992.

Fletcher, Robert Samuel. A History of Oberlin College from Its Foundation through the Civil War. 2vols. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College, 1943.


See alsoEducation, Higher: Denominational Colleges .

Oberlin College

views updated May 18 2018

Oberlin College (Oberlin, Ohio). Amer. coll. est. 1833, with cons. of mus. 1865. Present dean Karen Wolff.

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