First Church and Oberlin's Early African American Community


Presented for the Oberlin African American Genealogy and History Group

By Marlene Merrill

Dec. 6, 2003, Oberlin Public Library
©Marlene Merrill


               Today, when we think of Oberlin’s First Church, most of us immediately visualize the large and handsome orange brick meetinghouse on the corner of Lorain and Main streets. And, if we think about its early history we usually first recall it’s great preacher Charles Finney and his famous revivals.

               But what do we know about the ordinary people who organized this church, built it, worshipped in it and helped shape its mission, or those who were simply active participants in the many political or secular events held within it? Among both these categories were a substantial number of African Americans, both students at the College and Oberlin residents. We’re likely to dismiss their participation by saying that, after all, since First Church was the only church in Oberlin until the late 1850s, African Americans had no other place to worship. Or, we could suppose that once efforts began in the 1860s to establish black Oberlin churches, black residents simply stopped attending or withdrew their membership from First Church. But, well into the 20th Century, many African American residents continued worshiping at First Church, or at its extension, Second Church, which was established in 1860 to relieve the pressures of First Church’s over-large congregation).

               Why this relationship between First and then Second Church and Oberlin’s African American residents, continued so long clearly raises complex issues of changing local and societal racial identities. These are different matters than what I wish to discuss today. But these issues are important matters and, hopefully, they will someday be addressed--perhaps by this group.

            Before getting into the meat of my presentation I want to briefly outline Oberlin’s earliest history since it connects in important ways to Oberlin’s later Black History.

               Both Oberlin College and the Oberlin Colony were established together in 1833, two years before the arrival of the first black students and townspeople. The College and the Colony constituted two integrated parts of one whole: a community that was devoted to virtue and religious service, and a college (first called the “Oberlin Collegiate Institute”) that would send its students into the developing West as teachers and ministers. Its first forty-four students and its earliest colonists hailed from New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and a few areas in northeast Ohio, such as Brownhelm and Elyria.

               The institution was unique from the beginning because it included several different courses of study: a female course, a college course, a preparatory course (comparable to a high school) and a theology course (similar to a seminary). Women students could enroll in college level classes, thus making the Institute the first coeducational college in the country, and adult women (largely wives of the all male faculty) were given supervisory positions in the Female Department. In many ways Oberlin’s founders, Philo Stewart and the Rev. John Shipherd, thought of the College and the Colony as a conventional family, where women were co-partners with men in the enterprise and performed as daughters, sisters or mothers would in a domestic household.

               The Colony’s earliest worship services--roots of which would later blossom into First Church--were first held in Peter Pindar Pease’s log cabin.

           By Sept. 1834, sixty-two devout men and women organized themselves as the “Congregational Church of Christ at Oberlin.” Led by Oberlin’s co-founder, the Rev. John Shipherd, this group held worship services every Sunday in one of the small second story classrooms in the Colony’s first multi-purpose building which was called “Oberlin Hall,” and hastily erected on the present site of Ben Franklin and the Java Zone.

               But then in 1835, Oberlin began to change. Pastor Shipherd left the colony to found another school, and Charles Finney, the country’s leading evangelist, was lured to Oberlin to become the church’s pastor as well as Professor of Systematic Theology in the Institute’s theology department. At the same time. Finney’s major backers, the wealthy New York abolitionist brothers, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, urged the Oberlin trustees to accept African Americans as students and to declare that the Institute was an abolitionist institution. After the trustees agreed that “the education of people of color should be encouraged and sustained,” Oberlin became the first college in the nation to admit not only women students, but African American students, as well. [1]

               So it was, that in 1835, black students began to enroll in the Institute; soon after, the earliest black settlers arrived in town. What had started out being a homogeneous community was beginning to become noticeably diverse.

               Also in 1835, a large, three-story building, “Colonial Hall,” was built on the site of the present Conservatory, with its entire first floor used as a large chapel. Since all students were required to regularly attend the same worship services that the faculty and colonists attended, it was here that Oberlin’s first African American students worshipped. Many of these black students later became members of the church. The earliest to join, in 1836, were Gideon and Charles Langston (John Mercer Langston’s brothers).

               Oberlin’s church was the heart of the Oberlin enterprise. Never narrowly denominational,[2], it was ...“[a]t its center...a controversial brand of Congregationalism” both preached and taught by Finney. “’Oberlin Perfectionism’ rejected the grim predestination of Calvinism and espoused instead the doctrine that sinners are responsible for their own sins and for their own response to God’s offer of salvation. At Oberlin, salvation required more than [just] conversion: it required daily effort to maintain ‘a clean and pure heart;’ and it required work in the world to reform a corrupt society.”[3] Slave holding was regarded as a sin in Oberlin, and both the church and the College joined to combat it. Oberlin Christians renounced their allegiance to all Christian benevolent societies that did not support the antislavery cause, and they were instrumental in establishing the American Missionary Society, “a powerful Christian anti-slavery agency which sent its representatives (the largest percentage were Oberlinians) into every important antislavery battle ground.” [4]

              Several African American Oberlin women graduates performed outstanding service as AMA teachers in the south after the Civil War; other black First Church members--men and women--worked as Christian missionaries in Africa and the Caribbean.

               Finney’s presence in Oberlin attracted growing numbers of students to the Institute and worshipers to his church. Space, once again, was becoming limited for large college events (such as commencement), as well as for ordinary Sunday worship services.

               For awhile, a large tent, measuring 100’ by 100’, helped to temporarily alleviate the crowding. From its top flew a pennant banner with the words, “Holiness to the Lord,” and it had a seating capacity of 3,000. Periodically erected on the north east section of what was then the “campus” (but is now Tappan Square), the tent could hold crowds of summer visitors who attended college commencements and Finney’s famous revivals. The tent was also used throughout one summer for Sunday worship services, which required students to put it up on Saturday every week, and then take it down on Monday.           

               Finally, one Sunday in Feb. 1841, an overflowing congregation heard Finney announce that “this place demands of us a house of worship that will accommodate the people.” A planning session was held the next for the congregation to discuss the kind of church desired. Finney gave his views of the kind and size of building he would like. In short, he wanted the new building to resemble his large church in New York City, “The Broadway Tabernacle,” which he had helped design with ample room for a great organ and large choir, perfect acoustics and a circular seating arrangement to bring everyone close to the pulpit. Finney’s views, of course, prevailed. Funds were donated and soon a Boston architect, Richard Bond, was hired. At first, plans were made to seat 2,500 people. Later the size was reduced to seat 1600. [5]

               Several black carpenters helped build First Church, and Allen Jones, an African American whose blacksmith shop stood opposite the church site, helped forge the church’s iron work. These men were part of a group of African American artisans who were living and working in Oberlin in the 1840s and who also helped build other town and college buildings. Some of them and their families attended--or were members

of--First Church. and many of their children also attended Oberlin College.

               One later member of the congregation wrote that the meetinghouse was “built like a medieval cathedral with offerings of materials, labor and skills from the people of the community and their friends abroad. Given were bricks, stone, [timber,] hardware, nails, money and things to be exchanged for labor or cash. Cheeses, cattle, a wagon and even clothing were recorded in this category.” [6]

               It took well over two years for First Church to be completed; but when it was, it was the largest building west of the Allegheny Mts. There were many more pews in it than there are now and they were smaller and placed closer together. Students generally sat in the balcony while faculty and town residents (including black families) rented integrated pews downstairs, sometimes covering their pew’s wooden flooring with carpeting that suited their taste or means.[7] Heat was provided by wood stoves. At special times, like Commencement, when people sat on chairs along the walls and aisles or on the steps in the gallery, as many as 2,000 could be crowded into the meetinghouse--a fire marshal’s nightmare today! The First Church choir loft, alone, could hold 150 singers.

               Religious services were, of course, held in the meetinghouse on Sundays, but the building was also used for College Commencements along with town meetings, rallies and other public events. “No one ever thought there was anything sacrosanct about the building,” a longtime member once commented. Not only was the town’s hand-operated fire engine kept in the church’s basement, the building was never officially consecrated. And in keeping with Finney’s and the congregation’s wish that the building be plain but dignified, the tower that was completed in 1845 was never equipped with its planned-for clock and bell. [8]

               Like Oberlin’s First Church and the College’s Preparatory Department, Oberlin’s public schools were also racially integrated--a rarity even in northern states in the 1830s and ‘40s--further attracting black families to move here who sought greater education for their children. By 1848, the names of thirty-one African American school children who resided in District #1 of Russia Township, appear in one enumeration tally, including the names of the children of such notable black early residents as the Watsons and the Camptons--families who also rented pews in the newly built First Church.[9]

               Black Oberlin parents seemed to favor daughters over sons when it came to providing higher education for their children. Gleaned from letters written at the time, parents believed that boys did not need higher education when they could learn skills like carpentry, blacksmithing, tinsmithing, harness making, etc. by being apprenticed to a master craftsman. Such skills could then provide them with dependable incomes. However, the only employment available for daughters without higher education was to become domestic housekeepers. This smacked of the subservient role black women had been serving for too long under slavery. And, with this work came the ever-present potential for sexual abuse, leading many black families to send their daughters here so they could qualify to become public school or missionary teachers. By the end of the Civil War, over 140 black women were enrolled as students at the college. Most of these were students in the Preparatory Department. Graduating from this department was equivalent to a high school degree, which was then a sufficient credential to become a grade school or high school teacher.

           Fifty-six African American women were enrolled in the Female Course and twelve graduated. Three more received the bachelor’s degree: the first of these was bestowed in 1862 on Mary Jane Patterson, daughter of Oberlinians, Henry and Emeline Patterson. Mary, as well as her parents, were members of First Church.[10]

               Other notable black Oberlinians worshipped or joined either First or Second Church. This included Wellington Rescuer Wilson Bruce Evans, who served as a deacon at Second Church.[11] John Mercer Langston and his wife annually rented a pew at First Church but never became members.[12] Several students who came from Africa also became church members. Sarah Margru Kinson, a seven year old Amistad captive from Sierra Leone, later attended Oberlin public schools and the college’s preparatory department and joined First Church. She returned to Africa and was the first African college educated woman to become a missionary teacher. [13]

               John Dube, an African Zulu from Inanda, South Africa, came to Oberlin as a young man in the 1880s where he attended classes in the Oberlin public schools and the preparatory department. By profession of faith, he joined Second Church in November 1887. When Dube returned to Africa, he founded the first Zulu newspaper, and later helped found and was the first president of the African National Congress.[14]

               To the best of my knowledge, no one has gone through official First Church records to discover who among Oberlin’s less famous black residents were First Church members. One can, however, turn to Oberlin obituaries to get some of this information, or to Bill Bigglestone’s book, They Stopped in Oberlin , where First Church membership sometimes appears in the portraits of black Oberlinians. I also found additional information about this topic, which I’d long forgotten, in my own papers (The Lawson-Merrill Papers), deposited in the Oberlin College Archives. Here are five brief portraits of African American Oberlinians who were members of either First or Second Church, drawn from the Bigglestone book.


Arthur and Caledonia Mitchell Arthur came to Oberlin from North Carolina and before the Civil War he attended Oberlin’s Liberty School--a school in which fugitive adults were taught to read and write. Caledonia was a native of Tennessee who lived in Oberlin before the war and boarded with the family of Ralph Plumb, an attorney active in abolitionist circles. Arthur’s occupation was that of a painter and paper hanger. He served two terms on the village council and three years as a trustee of the city water works. In 1886, he became a member of First Church, which Caledonia had joined fifteen years earlier. Arthur had a two story brick house with a tin roof erected on a lot he owned at the corner of Walnut and North Main Streets. Three of the Mitchell children attended Oberlin College--the youngest, Lottie, became the second wife of Cleveland attorney and black leader, John Patterson Green.[15]


James and Jemima Waring This couple came from South Carolina to Oberlin in 1857 with four out of what would become a family of nine living children. They stayed one year in town, then moved two miles northwest to a farm that became their permanent home. In 1865, when he was 38 years old, James enlisted in the army and served in Company C of the 27th U.S. Colored Infantry. After the war, he continued to farm. He and Jemima joined First Church in 1864, where they kept their membership for the rest of their lives. Four of the Waring children attended the preparatory department of the College, and three daughters remained in Oberlin (Mrs. W.T. Henderson, Mrs. Oliver Copes, and Mrs. Robert Murphy).[16]


Cornelius and Caroline Burnett Both born of free parents in North Carolina, Cornelius came to Oberlin in 1860 and bought a business lot on the east side of Main Street a little south of the intersection with College Street. He intended to move his family to Oberlin after this purchase, but the Civil War intervened and they were unable to leave the south until 1865. Cornelius erected a two story brick building at the front of the lot where he operated his barber shop and where, for a number of years, Caroline also ran a restaurant and boarding house that was popular with the college faculty and students. The family lived in a frame structure behind it. On March 6, 1882, one of the worst fires in Oberlin history destroyed all of the buildings on the southeast corner of Main and College Streets. Although Cornelius had recently sold his business, the loss of the family’s house and most of their belongings was a staggering blow because they had no insurance. But, Cornelius was a popular and respected citizen and with the help of the community he was able to build a brick house at the rear of the lot.

               An active Episcopalian, by 1865, his eight children had either joined or been baptized in Christ Episcopal Church. But, in 1876 Cornelius began to regularly attend services at Second Congregational Church.

               One son and one daughter of the Burnetts were enrolled in the College Preparatory Department; three other daughters were graduates of the College. Mary (Mrs. William H. H. Talbert) later served four years as the president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. She also served as vice president of the NAACP.[17]


Stephen and Clarissa Bordley Stephen was from Maryland and Clarissa probably from Virginia. They moved to Oberlin sometime around the late 1860s. Stephen worked as a day laborer and was first a member of the Second Methodist Episcopal Church, but later joined the Second Congregational Church where he pumped the organ for many years.


George and Augusta Glenn George Glenn was born on a farm in Virginia in 1829. He met and married Augusta König, who was born in Prussia and was eight years his junior, in Defiance, Ohio, where George was working as a barber. The couple lived for 11 years in Delphos, Ohio, before moving to Oberlin in 1866 to gain educational benefits for their five children. Five more children were born here and nine grew to adulthood--all of them leading successful lives.

               George spent his first seven years here in the draying business (hauling large objects by truck or cart) and then resumed barbering. His shop was located on College Place for 40 years, and he advertised himself as “The College Barber.” Apparently he was, for he was very popular and knew most of his student clients by name. An 1891 advertisement for his establishment read, “Barber Shop and Bath Room. No. 2 College Place. Draying done to order. Moving Pianos a speciality.”

               George joined First Church in 1870, but Augusta remained a Lutheran.


               These and an unknown number of other Oberlin African Americans apparently felt comfortable attending or joining First Church rather than one of the existing black churches in town. On the basis of the small sample I’ve investigated, it’s difficult to determine whether educational attainment, skin color or financial status might have affected their church selection.               There is also, of course, the question of how satisfying the First Church experience was for those African Americans we can identify as church members.

               As I contemplated all this in preparation for my talk today, I wondered if one reason for the unexpectedly high (at least to me) black membership in First Church might have been the role--sometimes even a secular one--that it played in historic nineteenth century events that profoundly affected black Americans. Let me mention just a few.

               The meetinghouse was the site of many fiery abolitionist discussions, speeches, debates and rallies. Such notable personages as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass addressed the community there. [18] But it was also the place where black and white Oberlinians came to mourn as a community. There were, of course, many such occasions. One memorable outpouring of grief occurred on a cold Christmas Day in 1859 when black and white Oberlinians gathered at First Church for the funeral service of a black Oberlinian, John Copeland, who had been hanged a week before at Harper’s Ferry for his participation in John Brown’s historic failed raid. [19]

               Another community funeral was for a four year old fugitive slave child, Lee Howard Dobbins, whose mother had died in slavery. Accompanied by a slave woman who had helped care for him, and a small party of other fugitives, the party was traveling to Canada by means of the underground railroad. When they reached Oberlin, the child became so ill that he had to be left behind, and died shortly thereafter. Professor Henry Peck officiated at his funeral in First Church, and over 1,000 black and white mourners attended. At its conclusion, the coffin was opened and carried to the church vestibule. One mourner reported, “I believe every man, woman and child who looked into the face of the little freedman swore between clenched teeth, that he could do his utmost to overthrow the nefarious system of slavery.” Oberlinians later took up a collection for a tombstone to rest over the child’s body. It was first buried in the old cemetery on South Professor Street and later moved to Westwood Cemetery, where it now rests in an unknown location. His broken tombstone is kept at the Oberlin College Archives, however, he is memorialized with words from a poem said at his funeral that is chiseled into the Underground Railroad Monument placed at the front of Westwood Cemetery in 1993.[20]

               First Church was also a place for celebrations. Undoubtedly, the longest one took place on July 7, 1869, when black and white celebrants gathered to greet the Oberlin Wellington rescuers after their long imprisonment in a Cleveland jail.

               One participant described the pandemonium this way: “ half past seven [in the morning], many hundreds of citizens and students, including all the Fire companies in uniform, the Brass band etc., etc., were waiting [for the rescuers] at the Depot. And at the same time the Church was filling up. Cannons were fired and bells rung every 15 minutes until 12 o’clock. When the procession reached the church, bouquets and wreaths of flowers were thrown upon the Rescuers which were caught upon their arms or head & thus worn into the church, and they marched in through the aisles and ascended the platform, such deafening and tremendous shouts of applause greeted them as it is impossible for my weak pen in any fitting words to describe. But it was gratitude, yes, overwhelming gratitude to God for his goodness...All Oberlin was there. Father Keep presided. We had music from the choir (Marseilles, etc.), organ and bands and speeches either long or short from each individual of the Rescuers...Each one of these was cheered as never man was before in Oberlin. The house was nearly as much crowded as on Commencement days, but remarkable order was observed. When the Doxology was sung and the benediction pronounced it wanted ten minutes of midnight.” [21]

               In conclusion: there was a substantial historic connection between First Church and Oberlin’s early African American Community. This connection needs further study and interpretation. But, I believe it’s safe to say that the presence of African Americans profoundly affected First Church early on, especially the church’s institutional commitment to antislavery. Even today, I believe that historic black presence continues to inspire its congregation to work for a most just society--both in Oberlin and in the larger world of which we are all a part.



William Bigglestone: From War to Jubilee and They Stopped in Oberlin.

Blodgett: Oberlin Architecture, College and Town.

Nat Brandt: The Town That Started the Civil War.

William and Aimee Lee Cheek: John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-1865.

Stella Dickerman, “The Building of First Church: A Time Line of Major Events,” from The History of First Church: A Weekly Calendar for 1984, pp. 8-14.

James Fairchild: Oberlin: The Colony and the College.

Robert Fletcher: A History of Oberlin College (two volumes).

Gary Kornblith, Patricia Holsworth, Carol Lasser: “The Structure of African-American Opportunity in an Abolitionist Community: A Study of Oberlin and
Russia Township, Ohio, 1840-1870.” Unpublished paper, July 20, 2001.

Ellen N. Lawson and Marlene Merrill: “The Antebellum ‘Talented Thousandth’: Black College Students at Oberlin Before the Civil War.” Journal of Negro Education, Spring 1983, 142-155; “Antebellum Black Coeds at Oberlin College.” Women’s Studies Newsletter, Spring 1979, pp. 8-11; Ellen N. Lawson with Marlene Merrill: The Three Sarahs.

Marlene D. Merrill, “Daughters of America Rejoice.” Timeline: A Publication of the Ohio Historical Society, October-November 1987, pp. 13-21

Westwood: A Historical and Interpretive View of Oberlin’s Cemetery  

[1] Fletcher, 236

[2] Fletcher. 256

[3] Merrill: Timeline, “Daughters of America Rejoice,” p. 13.

[4] Fletcher 257

[5] Dickerman, 8-9

[6] Dickerman, p. 10

[7] Dickerman, p. 12

[8] Dickerman, p. 7

[9] School enumeration records, Oberlin College Archives.

[10] Henle & Merrill, Women’s Studies Newsletter, “Antebellum Coeds at Oberlin College,” pp. 8-11.

[11] Marlene Merrill Papers, Oberlin College Archives, John Dube Project, “Second Church” File.

[12] Cheek: John Mercer Langston, 293.

[13] Marlene D> Merrill, “Sarah Margru Kinson: The Two Worlds of an Amistad Captive”

               O.H.I.O., 2003.

[14] Marlene Merrill Papers, Oberlin College Archives, “John Dube File. “Summary of findings.”

[15] Bigglestone, 148

[16] Bigglestone, 213-14

[17] Bigglestone, 24-25

[18] Robert Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College, 269.

[19] Robert Fletcher, Ibid, 415

[20] Adelia Field Johnson, “The Membership of First Church.” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Nov. 1909, pp. 54-55, “Westwood: A historical and Interpretaive View Of Oberlin’s Cemetery.” O.H.I.O., 1997, pp. 26, 58.

[21] Fletcher. 412