Oberlin College Archives

Rev. Henry Cowles, D.D., 1803-81

Papers, 1824-1908

Biographical Sketch

Biblical scholar, teacher, anti-slavery advocate and founding member of Oberlin's Theological Department, Henry Cowles was born April 24, 1803 in Norfolk, Connecticut to Samuel Cowles and Olive (Phelps) Cowles. After a boyhood spent in farm labor and in diligent study, Cowles entered Yale College in 1822, intending a career in the Congregational ministry. He graduated from Yale in 1826 and enrolled in Yale's Theological Department where he came under the tutelage of revival preacher Nathaniel William Taylor (1786-1858), a follower of the Rev. Timothy Dwight (1752-1817). In 1828, Cowles was licensed to preach by the Litchfield North Association and ordained in Hartford in the same year. Hillsdale College in Michigan awarded Cowles the honorary D.D. degree in 1863.

In September 1828, Cowles came to the Western Reserve of Northern Ohio as a missionary of the Connecticut Home Missionary Society. He served fourteen months in Ashtabula and five months in Sandusky before being called to Austinburg in 1830. He remained in Austinburg for five years, where his ministry of revivals met with great success.

In 1835, Rev. Cowles was appointed Professor of Languages at the newly founded Oberlin College ("Collegiate Institute" prior to 1850). In character and theological outlook, Cowles was eminently suited to further the educational experiment underway at Oberlin. Shortly after his arrival at Oberlin, in 1835, Professor Cowles, Theodore Dwight Weld (1803-95), Oberlin College President Asa Mahan (1799-1889), and Professor Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875), joined with abolitionists from around the state to form the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. In 1837, Cowles became Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Pastoral Theology at Oberlin Theological Seminary, and in 1840, he was named Professor of the Literature of the Old Testament, replacing his brother, John Phelps Cowles (d. 1891).

From 1844 to 1848, Cowles assumed part-time editorial work for the semimonthly religious periodical, the Oberlin Evangelist. Since its founding in 1839, Evangelist editors had included Asa Mahan (1799-1889), the Rev. James A. Thome (d. 1873), and George Whipple (1805-76). In 1848, Cowles took over as editor full-time, having relinquished his position at the seminary due to a redistribution of teaching responsibilities. Under Cowles' direction, the paper served as a journalistic pulpit for Oberlin theologians, whose views on abolitionism, moral reform, missions, religious revivalism and Oberlin's controversial doctrine of Sanctification were spread throughout the northeastern states and western New York. Cowles served as editor until 1862 when financial constraints, brought about by a decrease in subscriptions during the Civil War, forced the paper's suspension.

From 1863 until his death in 1881, Cowles was engaged almost exclusively in the task of writing biblical commentaries. What began as a project on the Old Testament expanded to include the entire Bible. Sixteen volumes were eventually published and copyrights deeded to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American Home Missionary Society, and the American Missionary Association. Among Cowles' other writings are The Holiness of Christians in the Present Life (1841) and Gospel Manna for Christian Pilgrims (1847). His essays and sermons appeared in the Bibliotheca Sacra and the Oberlin Evangelist.

In addition to his work as teacher and biblical scholar, Professor Cowles served Oberlin College in several posts of responsibility. He was General Agent for the College from 1860 to 1863, helping to raise money for student scholarships and operating expenses. He served three terms on the Prudential Committee (1836-37; 1843-48; 1851-81) and on the Board of Trustees from 1851 until 1881. Henry Cowles died at the home of his daughter, Sarah Cowles Little, in Janesville, Wisconsin, on September 6, 1881.

In 1830, Cowles married Alice Welch (1804-1843) of Norfolk, Connecticut, who served as Principal of Oberlin's Female Department from 1836 to 1840. They had six children: Helen Maria (1831-51; enr. Oberlin 1845-48, 1849-51), Henry Benjamin (b. 1834), John Guiteau Welch (1836-1914; A.B. Oberlin 1856; Sem. 1859), Sarah Florella (1838-1912; A.B. Oberlin 1859, A.M. 1862), Mary Louisa (1839-59; enr. Oberlin 1856-58), and Charles William (b. 1842). In 1844, after the death of Alice Welch Cowles, Henry Cowles married Minerva Dayton Penfield (1800-80), already the mother of eight Penfield children.

Sources Consulted

Fletcher, Robert S. A History of Oberlin College (Oberlin: Oberlin, Ohio, 1943)

Student File of Sarah Cowles Little (28)

Faculty File of Henry Cowles (28)

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Last updated: 17 Oct. 1994