Mount Zion Baptist Church
47 Locust Street
Oberlin, Ohio 44074

A History
Lee Davis, Alison Dennis and Satoko Kanahara
Oberlin College
Fall 2003

Mount Zion Church in Oberlin began when a group of Black Baptists broke off from the city's white Baptist church to form independent prayer groups in the 1880's.   Blacks had worshipped alongside whites in integrated churches in Oberlin since 1835; but, with the post-Civil War influx of more Blacks who had experiences of an autonomous Black Christian community, Black Christians began to feel a need to establish a community of their own. [1]   Most white people in Oberlin churches supported the Blacks' effort to organize their own church, but local papers reported some opposition. [2]   Nonetheless, the first Black church, Rust Methodist Church, had already been established in Oberlin in 1872. 

Black Baptists, however, sought to worship by themselves and started meeting in prayer groups and Sunday schools in private homes.  Jane and Mary Bows hosted meetings in their house on Sumner Street, and Lucy Brown hosted meetings in her house on Park Street.  Although there was no formal organized church, they did have a pastor, a young man named Rev. Brown of Cleveland. 

Three families who had recently moved to Oberlin pushed forward the organization of a Black Baptist church.   The Martins, the Dickersons, and the McGees sought to establish a church in the southeast section of town.  The pastor of the white Baptist Church, Rev. C.J. Rose and other members of the church were sympathetic to their cause.  They helped the families organize Mount Zion Baptist Church, which began in 1886 with seventeen members. [3]

Rev. Brown resigned later that year, and a new minister, Rev. Collins became the first official pastor of Mount Zion.  He added six new converts, and re-organized Mount Zion church as a regular Baptist Church, connecting it with other Baptist organizations in 1887. 

The location of church services varied greatly in these early years.  At first, the congregation held services on the top floor of Johnson Hall, but it burned down in 1886, taking with it the church records.   By 1887, services took place alternating weeks in the homes of the Martins and the McGees.  For a time, the city allowed Mount Zion to hold services in the upper floor of the Town Hall for free.  The church later purchased a house on South Park and Locust St in 1889 where services were held until it was sold in order to buy an empty lot on the corner of Locust and South Pleasant streets where the church stands today.  

In 1892, Rev. B. B. Hill, from Howard University, became the pastor of Mount Zion.   Under his leadership, Mount Zion was incorporated and Sunday School attendance reached 125 people. [4]    The year Rev. Hill arrived also marked the beginning of construction for the new building; the foundation of the present church was dug, entirely by male church members, who worked for several days from dawn to dark, while the ladies of the church cooked for the digging crew.  The Ohio Baptist Convention, which contributed $100 to Hill's salary, promised $1000 dollars to build a permanent church structure if the congregation could raise $600.   But, with the Panic of 1893, no more funds for construction were forthcoming. The foundation was to remain open until the church was finally completed in 1905. [5]

Rev. Hill resigned in 1895, leaving the 30 members leaderless again for two years until Rev. W.R. Wilson of Cleveland took up the post in 1897.  He stayed less than a year, but helped the congregation purchase a small, one-story building that had once been a chicken coup. It was moved to the North end of the lot on Locust and South Pleasant Streets.  Named as "The Chapel," the congregation used this building until the main church was finally completed [6] .

Pastors tended to stay only briefly for the next few years until rev. B. K. Smith arrived as a supply pastor in 1901 and became the official pastor in 1902.  During his leadership, membership doubled to sixty, and the actual edifice of the church was built.  "The Grand Rally for the Building Fund" took place over three weeks in the summer of 1903 in order to raise $600, and the building started soon afterward, with George Quinn serving as contractor to supervise construction, although church members donated most labor. The cornerstone was laid in 1904 and the church was completed the following year.   The official dedicatory service was held on July 16, 1905.  The congregation rejoiced that their beautiful church, valued at $20,000, was finished, free of debt; they could even point to a surplus of $57 in their treasury. [7]    


Dedication Program courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives

In 1911, the congregation felt a need for a more educated pastor than Rev. Smith, who was then a student at the Oberlin Graduate School of Theology.  Smith resigned gracefully, though not without regret, to take a position pastoring in Cleveland and Rev. George Washington took his place.  His 1917 resignation was the beginning of another period of rapid pastor turnover, with many student pastors from the College filling in, until Rev. P. H. Hill came in 1921. [8]

Writing a history of Mount Zion in 1955, Rev. Fred Steen, who pastured at Mount Zion for nearly fifty years at the end of the twentieth century, commented that the lack of a stable pastor during the early years of the century presented a challenge to the church, but it has also allowed Mount Zion to play an important role in the college and community by giving students an opportunity to practice preaching during interim period.

Mount Zion played an important role for black conservatory students as well.  Mr. Jasper Bows, an early member of the church, and one of those who dug the foundation and built the church edifice, conducted the Mount Zion choir for free for 37 years.  During the school year, however, Mr. Bows gave conservatory students the opportunity to direct the choir, resuming his position in the summer when the students were gone.  During this time, R. Nathaniel Dett, a conservatory student who would go on to become a world-renowned musician and composer, conducted the Mount Zion choir.  The practice of providing students with opportunities directing the church's music continues to the present day. 

Under Rev. P.H. Hill's pastorate, the church established the Phillis Wheatly Society, a social welfare organization.  It also expanded to include a parsonage at the cost of $1,100.  It was a financial burden on the church, but the congregation worked hard to liquidate the debt. 

From the late nineteenth century until 1947, Mount Zion maintained an important connection to the community and the town through a house at 181 South Pleasant Street, known as Thomas House.  When Oberlin College began to push Black women out of its dormitories, asked "Uncle" Bob Thomas to provide housing for displaced Black female students.  Thomas House, immediately next to Mount Zion Church, also served as an unofficial parish house for the church.  Picnics and parties were often held there; and the student pastors and musicians often took their meals at Thomas house and warmed up before preaching or performing at Mount Zion.  When Langston Hughes came through town, he visited both Mount Zion and Thomas House. [9]

Rev. Hill resigned in 1923, and a student named Robert B. Powell briefly filled the pulpit.  In 1925, Rev. Howard Thurman (1900-1981) came to the pulpit.  He became an important and beloved pastor at Mount Zion.  He was such a captivating and eloquent speaker that townspeople, students and professors all packed the church on Sunday morning to hear him preach.  Thurman left Mount Zion in 1928.  His experiences as a pastor at Mr. Zion preaching to people of varying racial, cultural and educational backgrounds greatly increased his interest in multiculturalism and influenced his future work; he subsequently became a significant pastor, professor, and African American spiritual leader in the Civil Rights movement, holding positions at a number of colleges and seminaries before becoming a professor of theology at Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1932.  While at Howard University, Thurman journeyed to Southeast Asia where he became increasingly aware of the cultural and racial divisions in the church. Thurman left Howard University in 1944 to preach for a multicultural fellowship at the request of his friend, Dr. Alfred G. Fisk, a Presbyterian minister and professor at San Francisco State College. Thurman continued to focus his work on racial reconciliation in the church and became increasingly active in the Civil  Rights  movement. [10]

Rev. Howard Thurman, 1900-1981

In 1929, after Thurman's departure from Mount Zion, Rev. Clarence McFadden was called to serve the church.  He led the church through 1932.   Rev. C. H. Brown from Columbia, South Carolina, then served briefly, from 1932 to 1934, and Rev. F M. Marshburn, a student pastor, served until graduating from the Oberlin School of Theology in 1936.  Another student pastor, Rev. Homer J. Tucker, took up the pastorate, and he stayed longer and had a larger impact on the church and community.  He worked closely with the Phillis Wheatley Organization, and, along with Emma Bows and Margaret Barnes, worked to insure the hire of the city's the first Black teacher in the Oberlin Public Schools, Elizabeth Glenn.  Rev. Tucker resigned in 1941, and was succeeded by Rev. Normal C. Crosby, another student from the Oberlin School of Theology.  He stayed eleven years, and oversaw the somewhat controversial remodeling of the church. In 1952, Rev. Crosby resigned, and the student who was currently serving as associate pastor and music director, Fred L. Steen, became the interim pastor. [11]

Fred L. Steen was born in San Antonio, Texas and attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee as pre-med student before he became interested in Christian ministry.  He eventually accepted a work/study scholarship to study at the Oberlin Theological Seminary.  In 1951, he was appointed music director at Mount Zion because of his background in vocal music and piano, which he studied under the famous Swedish-American concert pianist, Ejnar Krantz. The following year, at the age of 23, he was asked to become a student pastor after Rev. Crosby's resignation.  Only two months after his appointment as a student pastor, the congregation appointed him as the permanent pastor.  Steen would go on to serve Mount Zion for 46 years, until his death on March 11, 1998. Steen's commitment to Mount Zion, the Oberlin community and issues of racial and social justice shaped the activities and the ethos of the church during this time. [12]

Rev. Fred Steen as a young man; from Miscellaneous Churches Collection, OCA

In addition to his pastorate, Rev. Steen served as a member of the Oberlin Civil Service Commission for over sixteen years, and was a member of the Oberlin Committee on Open Housing.  He was the first clergy member to be elected to the Allen Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees, and served on the Treatment and Services Committee of the Lorain County United Health Foundation. [13]

Steen also had a great deal of influence outside of Oberlin, preaching at many different churches across the United States and Canada and attending nationwide events and conferences.  It was at such a conference in St. Louis in 1955 that Rev. Steen met Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who came to speak at Finney Chapel and at Mount Zion in 1957, and to whom Steen became a close friend.  Rev. Steen also attended a special event at the White House in 1979 where he met President Jimmy Carter and Pope John Paul II.  [14]   

During his time at Mount Zion, Rev. Steen sought to expand church programs into the community.  Two major programs implemented during the Steen era were the Zion Community Development Corporation and the Host Family Program.  The Zion Community Development Corporation was founded in 1994 to serve the needs of the southeast quadrant of Oberlin, an area that has experienced high rates of drug abuse and crime.  Zion CDC was set up to empower the community and act as "a catalyst for positive community change." [15]

Mount Zion's Host Family Program became an official joint church and college program in 1972.  It was formed by representatives from ABUSUA, an Oberlin College African American student organization, the dean of Developmental Services and Pastor Steen to provide students with families in Oberlin with whom they could celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas and other events.  The main force behind the program was Catherine Rheinhardt, a church member who, at the inception of the program, already served as a host mother for about twenty Oberlin College students. The program flourished until the early 1990s. [16]     

Rev. Steen also developed ideas for future church and community programs which he mentioned in a letter he wrote to the congregation shortly before his death in 1998. These ideas included the building of a Family Life Center across the street from Mount Zion Baptist Church, summer and after school youth programs, a hot meals program, a drug rehabilitation program, and a collaboration with Zion CDC for the creation of a retirement center, more low-income housing and the creation of a credit union.

In this same letter, Rev. Steen also discussed the financial stability of Mount Zion.  Having begun his service as pastor at a time when the church was deeply in debt, he remarked joyously that the church currently possessed $90,000 in assets, and $275,000 in real estate. [17]

Rev. Steen also oversaw the physical expansion of the church, which.  In 1960, Mount Zion bought Orville Thomas's property on Locust Street in order to build an educational wing; construction began in 1962.  Property for a new parking lot was also bought in 1963 and a new manse was purchased in 1965 and dedicated the following year.  The sanctuary was also remodeled in 1995.


Rev. Fred Steen, Elyria Chronicle Telegram, February 2, 1981 in Miscellaneous Church Files, OCA

In 1997, Rev. Steen had announced his plans to retire at the end of 1998, but his death in March of 1998 came as a surprise to the congregation.  For two years, between1998 to 2000, Pastor Fred Bell served the church as an interim pastor while the congregation looked for a new pastor. Pastor Bell grew up in Oberlin and was an assistant to Rev. Steen for about twenty years. Thus he was very well acquainted with the church.  "My role was to regroup the church to maintain stability," says Pastor Bell. [18]

Mount Zion's current pastor, Kevin R. Dudley, who had formerly served as at New Salem Baptist Church in Columbus, came to Oberlin on July 25, 2000. In 2002, the family life center, House of Zion Fellowship Center, an edifice capable of holding about 250 people, was built across the street from the church building. During the week, activities such as bible studies take place in the hall. Currently, there are twenty-eight ministries and activities running throughout the week.  It also has a computer lab, which is used for educational programs run by the Zion Community Development Corporation. [19]

Rev. Kevin Dudley, Oberlin News-tribune, Miscellaneous Church Files, OCA

Mount Zion Church and Zion CDC continue to play a large role in the community.  Minister Dudley, the wife of Pastor Dudley, currently directs Zion CDC, and is helping low- to moderate-income families secure loans to buy their own houses.  In November 2003, Zion CDC launched a new program called the "Fit for Life Work Development Program" in conjunction with the Elyria YWCA.  Teenagers recruited for this program are assisted in exploring college options and internships and job searches. Zion CDC also runs the After School Enrichment Academy, which aids students in math, science and reading skills. To help families have "affordable homes they can take pride in, rather than rent property owned by absentee landlords."  Zion CDC, along with the Third Federal Bank, provides classes for getting loans approved. [20]           

Photo from Mount Zion Church Files

Mount Zion also has annual gatherings, which bring the church members together and build the community.  In February, Mount Zion celebrates Black History Month with guest speakers and films that are open to the whole community.  In the summer, the church actively participates in Oberlin's celebration of Juneteenth, marking the arrival of the news of emancipation to enslaved people in Texas who did not learn of their freedom until long after the Emancipation Proclamation. The church also has Sunday School classes and annual Sunday School picnics funded solely by tithes and offerings. [21]

Mount Zion currently holds two Sunday services, at 8:30 am and at 10:30am.  On average, about two hundred people attend the services.  Janice Reddick, a senior at Oberlin College, currently leads the worship.  The worship at Mount Zion is a mixture of contemporary and traditional African American spiritual songs often led by Ms. Reddick.   Mount Zion does not follow specific music scores because most of the people do not know how to read the music. The worship songs are often very simple and expressive, so everyone can worship freely in their own way. Courtney Andrews, a graduate of the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College, has been playing the piano and the organ at Mount Zion for the past three years.   Ms. Andrews says that she decided to be a part of Mount Zion because of the encouragement and support she received from the family-oriented congregation.  She says that people came up and spoke to her after the services, and she got to know people very quickly. [22]

Mount Zion Baptist Church is a vibrant part of the Oberlin community today.



Pastors of Mount Zion Baptist Church

Rev. Collins 1887-88

Rev. Charles Garner 1888-89

Rev. Lewis 1889

Rev. B. B. Hill 1892-95

Rev. W. R. Wilson 1897

Rev. Charles Lambert 1897-99

Rev. B. K. Smith 1902-11   

Rev. George Washington 1911-17

Rev. James Pace 1917-19

Rev. P. H. Hill 1921-23

Rev. Robert B. Powell 1923-25

Rev. Howard Thurman 1926-28

Rev. Clarence McFadden 1929-32

Rev. C. H. Brown 1932-34

Rev. F. M. Marshburn 1934-36

Rev. Homer J. Tucker 1936-41

Rev. Normal C. Crosby 1941-52

Rev. Fred L. Steen 1952-98

Rev. Kevin R. Dudley 2000-present


  Mount Zion Baptist Church Files in Miscellaneous Churches Collections, Oberlin College Archive

  Mount Zion Baptist Church Clippings and Records, Mount Zion Baptist Church

  Howard Thurman, Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples.  New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959. 


  Courtney Andrews, November 17, 2003 (with Satoko Kanahara)

  Fred Bell, December 12, 2003 (with Satoko Kanahara)

  Kathy Donald, November 17, 2003 (with Lee Davis, Alison Dennis and Satoko Kanahara).

  A.G. Miller, December 9, 2003 (with Satoko Kanahara)

  Deloris White, November 16, 2003 (with Satoko Kanahara)

With Special Thanks to Kathy Donald, Church Historian.

[1] Fred L. Steen, "A Brief History of Mount Zion Church," 1955, Miscellaneous Churches Collection, Oberlin College Archives. 

[2] "Debating the Establishment of Colored Churches," Oberlin News, April 7, 1892.  

[3] Steen, " Brief History," and Interview with Kathy Donald, Church Historian, November 17, 2003, conducted by Lee Davis, Alison Dennis and Satoko Kanahara,

[4] Steen, "Brief History."

[5] Steen, " Brief History;" Donald interview; Oberlin News-Tribune, July 8, 1995.

[6] Oberlin News-Tribune, July 8, 1995.

[7] "Grand Rally for the Building Fund" Pamphlet, 1903; Miscellaneous Churches Collection, O.C.A. 

[8] Steen, "Brief History."

[9] Donald interview.

[10] Steen, "Brief History;" Howard Thurman, Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1959), esp. pages 22 and 33.

[11] Steen, "Brief History."

[12] "Rev. Fred Steen Is Accomplished Musician, Singer, " Elyria Chronicle Telegram, September 23, 1953;  "Rev. Dr. Fred L. Steen." [obituary] Oberlin News-Tribune, March 17, 1998; both in Miscellaneous Churches Collection, O.C.A.

[13] "Centennial Celebration Program (1886-1986)," 1986, Miscellaneous Churches Collection, O.C.A.

[14] Donald interview.

[15] Zion Community Development Corporation, "Zion CDC – Under Construction," Zion CDC News, October 2003, Mount Zion Church Files.

[16] "Students and Families Applaud Host Program," Oberlin News-Tribune, September 24, 1987, Miscellaneous Churches Collection, O.C.A.

[17] Fred L. Steen, "Legal History of the Mount Zion Baptist Church of Oberlin, Ohio, Inc.," August 14, 1996, Rev. Fred L. Steen Papers, O.C.A.

[18] Interview with A. G. Miller, December 9, 2003, conducted by Satoko Kanahara; interview with Fred Bell, December 12, 2003, conducted by Satoko Kanahara.

[19] Paul Morton, "Pastor pleased to call Zion home," Oberlin News-Tribune, August, 2000; Diana Houghland, "Dreams Come True at Mt. Zion," Oberlin News-Tribune February 5, 2002; "Fit for Life Work Development Program," Zion CDC News, October 2003.

[20] Glen Miller, "Neighborhood gets Mt. Zion boost," Oberlin News-Tribune, 17 July 1995; "In Partnership with Third Federal Bank," Zion CDC News, October 2003; "Fit for Life Work Development Program," Zion CDC News, October 2003; "The After School Enrichment Academy," Zion CDC News, October 2003 "In Partnership with Third Federal Bank," Zion CDC News, October 2003.              

[21] "Black History Programs set at Mt. Zion," Oberlin News-Tribune, February 23, 1984; Interview with Deloris White, November 16, 2003, by Satoko Kanahara,

[22] Interview with Courtney Andrews, November 17, 2003, by Satoko Kanahara,