From 1833 to 1966, the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College trained Christian ministers, missionaries, and educators in a nonsectarian, interdenominational setting. Founded for the purpose of spreading of the Gospel throughout the Mississippi Valley, the school approached theological education with the distinctive combination of evangelical fervor and liberal outlook embodied in its notable succession of leaders, including Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875), Henry Churchill King (1858-1934), and Edward Increase Bosworth (1861-1927). In the twentieth century, the seminary faculty distinguished itself internationally through the teaching and writing of Hebraist Kemper Fullerton (1865-1941), theologian Walter Marshall Horton (1895-1966), and leading Old Testament scholar Herbert G. May (1904-77).
The Theological Department of Oberlin Collegiate Institute, (later called Oberlin Theological Seminary and renamed the Graduate School of Theology in 1916) was conceived in 1833 by Oberlin's founders but did not begin regular academic work until the Fall of 1835. The first students were fervent abolitionists from Cincinnati's Lane Theological Seminary. They arrived in Oberlin at the invitation of the Rev. John J. Shipherd (1802-44) and were joined by Lane Professor John Morgan (1802-84), Lane Trustee Asa Mahan (1799-1899), and evangelist Charles G. Finney. These men agreed to form Oberlin's theological faculty after the Trustees voted in 1835 to admit students irrespective of their color.
The first class graduated in 1836. Beginning with the class of 1875, the school began awarding the Bachelor of Divinity degree to those already holding the B.A. and completing the three year Classical Course of instruction. One year of graduate theological study led to the M.A.In 1954, the Schauffler Division of Christian Education offered a two-year course of study leading to the Master's degree in Religious Education. To those students holding B.A. and B.D. degrees, the seminary offered the advanced degree of Master of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.).
Until the position of seminary Dean was created in 1903, the President of Oberlin College served as head of the seminary. Actions of the seminary faculty were subject to the approval of the general faculty and the college Board of Trustees. As a department of the college, the seminary had no independent endowment but shared in the college's general endowment; as a nondenominational body, it was prevented from soliciting denominational sources. Thus, from an early date, the seminary faced considerable difficulty in securing adequate funding for curriculum development, student fellowships, faculty salaries and physical improvements.
During the presidency (1866-89) of James Harris Fairchild (1817-1902), funds were raised from local Congregational churches and from other sources to sustain the seminary, support curriculum expansion, and construct its first permanent headquarters. Council Hall opened in 1874 with hot water heating and suites for sixty students. From 1886 to 1921, the Slavic Department trained young men of Slavic descent for missionary work among Bohemian, Polish, and Slovac populations. In 1887, responding to a shortage of Congregational ministers in Ohio, the seminary introduced the English Course, an accelerated two-year course centered on the study of the English Bible. Along with the Slavic and English departments, instruction in academic year 1892-3 was offered in the departments of Old and New Testament, Greek, Church History, Church Polity, Theology, Apologetics, Homiletics and Practical Theology, Sociology, Elocution, Hymnology, and Church Music. George Frederick Wright's course "The Harmony of Science and Religion," in which students examined the relationship between Darwinism and Christianity, reflected Oberlin's abiding interest in harmonizing scientific developments with progressive orthodox theology.
In 1903, President Henry Churchill King appointed Edward Increase Bosworth (1861-1927), Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, to the newly-created post of Dean of the Theological Seminary. With Bosworth's personal support and encouragement, seminary students entered missionary service in China, Japan, Thailand, Albania, Turkey, India, the Sandwich Islands, and Jamaica. Oberlin would train Americans as missionaries until 1927. Home missionary and church work received added emphasis in the curriculum with the hiring in 1907 of George Walter Fiske (1872-1945) as Professor of Theology and Religious Education. Fiske, who shared the deanship with Bosworth from 1910-21, pioneered the teaching of church administration, religious education, and sociology as a background for church social work.
In 1917, gifts from the Rockefeller Foundation and New York philanthropist, D. Willis James (1832-1907), allowed the architect, Cass Gilbert (1859-1934), to proceed with plans for new seminary buildings to replace Council Hall. Bosworth Hall, housing offices and classrooms, and the Theological Quadrangle, providing married student quarters, were dedicated in ceremonies from 11-12 October 1931. Fairchild Chapel became the focus of seminary worship, recognition, and commencement services.
Professor of Homiletics Thomas Wesley Graham (1882-1971) replaced Bosworth as Dean of the Seminary in 1923, serving until his retirement in 1948. Graham led the seminary through the Depression and Second World War, introducing several changes to the seminary calendar and curriculum. Following a comprehensive study in 1929 to determine the proper training for parish ministers, courses were added in the fields of pastoral psychology, pastoral leadership, parish management, the arts, and public worship, and a fieldwork requirement was instituted. The seminary scheduled refresher and postgraduate courses on Monday afternoons and evenings to accommodate local ministers. In 1942, in response to the war emergency, it became possible to matriculate in Fall, Winter, or Spring terms. Such flexibility, as well as an awareness of the seminary's changing constituency, led to the adoption in 1945 of the Summer School of Religious Education, a program run in cooperation with the Ohio Council of Churches to provide training for teachers of religion in the public schools. The Summer School, expanded in 1950 to include coursework for rural ministers, attracted financial support and bolstered enrollments. Additional income was provided by student tuition of $75 per semester, charged for the first time in academic year 1947-48.
Leonard Albert Stidley (1898-1958), Professor of Religious Education, replaced retiring Dean Graham in 1948. During a decade of energetic administration, Stidley developed close ties with the Ohio Methodist churches, thereby increasing seminary enrollment. He coordinated the transfer of the Schauffler College of Religious and Social Work from Cleveland to the Graduate School of Theology and laid the groundwork for the first meeting of the Alumni Association of the Graduate School of Theology, which occurred in June 1958. On Stidley's untimely death in May 1958, the Director of the Schauffler Division, George P. Michaelides (1892-1963), assumed the duties of Acting Dean, a post he held for two years.
In September, 1960, the Rev. Dr. Roger Hazelton (1909-88) of Pomona College became Dean of the Seminary. He moved quickly to establish his goals: to recruit a higher caliber student; to emphasize the intellectual life of the seminary by increasing the core of full-time students pursuing the B.D. and M.R.E. degrees; and to promote the seminary's closer integration with the whole of Oberlin College. In his annual report of 1961-62 to President Carr, Hazelton described the school's future as "promising though not assured," noting Oberlin's inability to compete for the better students with the three or four top interdenominational seminaries in the East. In his final report before resigning in 1965, Hazelton faulted the Carr administration for an "absence of determination to underwrite the work of the school with increased support and oversight from the college as a whole." On June 11, 1965, the Board of Trustees of Oberlin College voted to close the Graduate School of Theology, citing its tenuous relationship to the central mission of the college, undergraduate education. On December 22, 1965, plans were announced to move the GST to the Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville. Six faculty members and twenty students went to Vanderbilt at the end of the 1965-66 academic year. Oberlin transferred its endowment funds for the seminary to Vanderbilt and provided $50,000 per year for five years for transitional expenses. Professor of Practical Theology Harold W. Fildey (1907-84), principal negotiator during the merger discussions, served at Vanderbilt as assistant and then associate dean until 1972.
College Presidents (1835-1927) and Seminary Deans (1903-66)
1835-1850 Asa Mahan
1851-1866 Charles Grandison Finney
1866-1889 James Harris Fairchild
1891-1896 William Gay Ballantine
1899-1902 John Henry Barrows
1902-1927 Henry Churchill King
1903-1923 Edward Increase Bosworth
1923-1948 Thomas Wesley Graham
1948-1958 Leonard Albert Stidley
1958-1960 George Peter Michaelides
1960-1965 Roger Hazelton
1965-1966 Harold William Fildey