The First Church in Oberlin
The First Church in Oberlin (has also been known as the Meeting House and founded as “The Congregational Church of Christ in Oberlin”) is of strong historical significance to the town of Oberlin, Ohio. I its construction dates back to the town’s own founding. This building carries far more than just public significance, as it also shares a rich history of abolitionism and shares a connection with revivalism during the Second Great Awakening. I have chosen First Church as my antislavery artefact because it points to the connection between evangelical Christianity and the cause of abolition.
First Church was constructed in 1842 alongside Oberlin College where the founders of the town, Reverend John J. Shipherd and Reverend Philo Stewart , had envisionsed the town as a utopian social and religious experiment. Antislavery became an important part of Oberlin’s evangelical culture. This attracted many different people to Oberlin and also brought in and created missionaries who were already integrated into Black communities. A new sense of religious fervour was y underway in many regions of America during the 1820s. In Oberlin, the only established church for a long period of time was the First Church, and the resident pastor Charles G. Finney had a strong presence in the community’s religious and social life.[i]
First Church stood as a place for solidarity of all classes, races, genders, and professions. The opposition to slavery was important to church-goers and had often been subject to debates when the church was used as Meeting House. There was tolerance over what could be spoken and debated about in the First Church, and this further shows the importance of revivalism to the abolitionist cause.[ii]
Charles G. Finney was the pastor of the First Church, and was also a professor at Oberlin College. Finney preached an invigorated religious ideology that encouraged people to discuss and tackle difficult social ideas through their religion, including slavery, intolerance, the lack of rights for women, and war. Many of Finney’s lectures and sermons had to do with alcoholism and slavery and how these things had to be eradicated for the betterment of society. The rebirth of Christianity, as Finney had once claimed, would be possible through the eradication of slavery. The issue of slavery takes on a different role, then it does in many religious places of worship in the United States.[iii]
The tolerance that the First Church held under Finney made way for other religious groups like the Quakers in Oberlin to unite in the fight against slavery. Quakers were often distinguished in a group of people because of their anti-slavery sentiments. These ideas translated well in Oberlin where there was a strong presence of abolitionist groups. Quakers were amongst the first of many to establish a safe assistance for fugitive slaves throughout the Northern region of America where they moved these fugitive slaves from home to home to evade people paid to return slaves back to their masters. Eventually, other people who shared anti-slavery sentiments followed the example of the Quakers and took fugitive slaves into their homes. These people included preachers, doctors, and farmers.
Quakers were also amongst many in Oberlin to join antislavery groups. Many meetings for Anti-Slavery groups were held in the First Church. Finney claimed that doing nothing about the slavery in America was a sin itself, and the congregation Finney served under had all agreed to not allow ministers or preachers that owned slaves to present themselves in church or give sermons through a democratic vote. This information is important too how the town of Oberlin is seen and portrayed as todayas a liberal community..[v]The idea that people had a responsibilityfor moral action, and the idea that this should be reflected in the law linked the concept of revivalism and abolitionism in relation to the First Church. Charles G. Finney connected his ideas of abolitionism to the rise of revivalism through his own published works.[vi]
Finney’s work demonstrates that revivalism was important to the abolitionist movement, and his work in his autobiography sheds light on the importance of revivals. . Finney can be credited as an academic theorist among other things, and his work on revivalism and his vision for the community in Oberlin is central to his role as an abolitionist. He wrote his ideas down but he also shared them and guided others into anti-slavery.[vii]
Oberlin gave a space for people of many different walks of life. Residents included a mixture of different classes of European settlers, along with free blacks and slaves. Peoples of several different religions like, Quakers, Methodists and Presbyterians were also welcomed and apart of this community.[viii] The interior of the First Church itself also has a lot to say about what kind of events occurred inside the church. The photo above shows the curved interior of the building and how every position has a clear view of the centre podium where Reverend Charles G. Finney once stood and others once stood to debate or preach to their abolitionist groups. The construction of the church was done democratically as the congregation would vote on how they wanted the church to look, and donations for materials to build the church was done by the community as well. The First Church was a place for the people, it was not just a place to deliver sermons every Sunday.[ix] The liberalism of the town and its connection to religion only helped solidify its abolitionist roots and how abolitionism would be dealt with in the future of the town and its church.
Aptheker, Herbert. Abolitionism: A Revolutionary Movement. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.
Booklet. “175th Anniversary of the laying the cornerstone of the First Church Meeting House” from the First Church in Oberlin.
Finney, Charles G. Charles G. Finney: An Autobiography. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1876.
Finney, Charles G. Revivals of Religion: Lectures by Charles Grandison Finney. London: Morgan and Scott Ld., 1835.
Fletcher, Robert S. Pamphlet. “The Meeting House” at First Church in Oberlin.
Fletcher, Robert Samuel. A History of Oberlin College from its Foundation Through the Civil War. Oberlin: Oberlin College, 1943.
King, William S. Till The Dark Angel Comes: Abolitionism and the Road to the Second American Revolution. Yardley: Westholme Publishing, 2016.
Lubet, Steven. The “Colored-Hero” of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Morris, J. Brent. Oberlin, Hotbed for Abolitionism: College Community, and The Fight Fight For Freedom and Equality In Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
“Our Church”. First Church in Oberlin. 2016.
Perry, Lewis. Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought. London: Cornell University Press, 1973.
Sorin, Gerald. Abolitionism: A New Perspective. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.
[i] Morris, J. Brent. Oberlin, Hotbed for Abolitionism: College Community, and The Fight
[ii] Fletcher, Robert S. Pamphlet. “The Meeting House” at First Church in Oberlin. This pamphlet was received during the field school tour in Oberlin and prompted the research journey for this project. The pamphlet includes a brief and concise history of the First Church from its conception to the American Civil War. The pamphlet is referenced throughout this work.
[iii] “Our Church”. First Church in Oberlin. 2016. http://firstchurchoberlin.org/what-we-believe-2/ Almost every source I was able to retrieve had some mention of Charles G. Finney. Even the broadest of books strictly on Abolitionism as a whole was insightful and mentioned Finney. This was also important to the research process as it cemented the importance of Finney as a figure in abolitionism.
[iv] Sorin, Gerald. Abolitionism: A New Perspective. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972. Quakers were also found in other sources cited in the bibliography.
[vi] Lubet, Steven. The “Colored-Hero” of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. This book along with Charles G. Finney’s own published works cited in the bibliography was insightful on what exactly Finney’s perspectives and ideas were on revivalism and abolitionism.
[vii] Booklet. “175th Anniversary of the laying the cornerstone of the First Church Meeting House” from the First Church in Oberlin. This booklet was provided by Professor Nina Reid-Maroney for this project and contained religious songs along with pages of important historical events that occurred in the First Church. It is known that abolitionist figure Martin Luther King Jr. visited the First Church but was not included in the project.
[viii] Morris, J. Brent. Oberlin, Hotbed for Abolitionism: College Community, and The Fight For Freedom and Equality In Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
[ix] Fletcher, Robert S. Pamphlet. “The Meeting House” at First Church in Oberlin.