175th Anniversary of Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin: 1833 - 2008

First Church in Oberlin

first church

The first church in Oberlin, referred to as the meetinghouse, served as the veritable capitol of the community. It was the gathering place for all townspeople—mechanics, carpenters, blacksmiths, students, farmers, housewives, and white and black folk alike.  The meetinghouse was not the actual church, but it housed the church and was a place of worship for all people. In fact, Oberlin students were required to attend religious services as part of their instruction. It was the most powerful feature in the life of the community, except only the College itself.

In August 1834, Oberlin’s townsfolk decided to ban together in a formal congregation, and a month later, a religious society, the Congregational Church of Christ at Oberlin, was legally formed. It remained the only church in Oberlin until the 1850s. By the 1860s, the congregation outnumbered any other in the United States. The meetinghouse, designed to seat 1,800, was the largest auditorium west of the Alleghenies.

Oberlin’s founding father, the Rev. John Shipherd, was the first pastor, until the arrival of Charles Grandison Finney, the newly appointed professor of theology at Oberlin College. Finney became minister of the congregation, but he often traveled to preach in the east or in England. A revivalist preacher, Finney was controversial because he emphasized the will of man in the process of regeneration, and used revival techniques known as “New Measures,” which evoked a highly emotional response. His Lectures on Revivals (1835) became a handbook for American revivalists. Finney was pastor for 37 years.

Finney wanted something more than the meetinghouse. He wanted a church. When in Oberlin, he preached under a big tent that he often took with him on his travels.

The tent was set up on the square while workers laid the cornerstone of the new church. Workers used plans drafted by Richard Bond, a prominent New England architect Finney befriended in Boston, to build the new church. The grand old orange brick structure erected between 1842 and 1844 was a combination of Bond’s specifications, Finney’s inspiration, and the wishes of the congregation.

The new space emerged with the offerings of material and labor from the townspeople and their friends abroad. Once complete, the new First Church in Oberlin building served community needs, as had its predecessor, the meetinghouse, and even housed the local fire trucks in the basement. It also was a major stop along the Underground Railroad.

The building also was ideal for the College’s commencement exercises and lectures. The senior class sat on the platform; the young women wore white, often with blue sashes. Each came forward and read an essay or delivered an oration on subjects such as “Moral Heroism,” “The Dawn of Mental Freedom,” or “National Responsibility.” Parents and visitors came from afar, and both the governors of Ohio and Michigan were present in 1859.

Among the notable lecturers were Horace Greeley, Carl Schurz, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Woodrow Wilson.

Although the auxiliary buildings north of the church have changed and expanded over the years, the footprint and outlines of the meetinghouse remain virtually intact. The hand-hewn timbers supporting the roof are still visible. In 1974, the building at Main and Lorain Streets, was included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Sources: A History of Oberlin College by Robert Fletcher; Oberlin History by Geoffrey Blodgett; Electronic Oberlin Group