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RG 2/1 - Asa Mahan (1799-1889)

Asa MahanAsa Mahan was born in Vernon, New York on November 9, 1799, the son of Samuel (1760-1840) and Anna Dana (1778-1842) Mahan. The Mahans were a respected service-oriented family of New England background. Like his parents, Asa Mahan experienced a religious conversion as a young man and retained a preoccupation with personal salvation and sin.

Asa Mahan graduated from Hamilton College (New York) in 1824 and from Andover Theological Seminary (Massachusetts) in 1827. He was ordained in Pittsford, New York in 1829, and later installed as minister of the Sixth Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1831. It was during this period in Cincinnati, as a member of Lane Seminary’s Board of Trustees and the Cincinnati Colonization Society, that Mahan came to the attention of the founders of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute.

In 1835, a rebellion broke out in Cincinnati among the students of Lane Seminary, a hotbed of abolitionism. When the students favored immediate emancipation and condemned the efforts of colonization the Lane trustees and faculty, in the interest of the Seminary’s welfare, prohibited all further antislavery action and discussion. Thereupon a majority of the students requested honorable “dismissions.” Mahan was the lone dissenter among the Lane trustees. Professor John Morgan (1802-1884), another antislavery advocate, was dismissed from the Lane faculty.

At this point Oberlin’s founder John Jay Shipherd (1802-1844) seized upon the chance to save Oberlin by raiding Lane Seminary. Two years after the founding of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute in December 1833, the enterprise was on the brink of financial collapse. Desperate for students and in dire need of money, Shipherd traveled to Cincinnati to meet with Mahan and work out a plan to save Oberlin. The Lane rebels, as they were now known, would transfer to Oberlin and fortify the student body; Morgan was invited to join the faculty, and Mahan was asked to become Oberlin’s first president. The arrangement was apparently contingent upon Oberlin’s guarantee of their freedom of speech and a promise to admit blacks.

Shipherd and Mahan journeyed to New York to seek help from merchants Arthur and Lewis Tappan in underwriting the venture. The Tappan brothers agreed to finance the hiring of Mahan and Morgan and six other professors - if Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) the country’s leading Christian evangelist was also hired to head the Oberlin theological department. Finney agreed to come to Oberlin, but only if the Oberlin trustees yielded control of all internal affairs of the college to the faculty. This condition, known as the Finney Compact, remains the basis of Oberlin’s faculty governance to this day.

Mahan was appointed President of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute on January 1, 1835. He was voted a salary of $600 and also named Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy and Associate Professor of Theology. A pro-active individual, Mahan aggressively supported all of the prevailing Oberlin ideas and doctrines. He used his new base at Oberlin to champion the claims of emancipation, equal co-education, and the “new education,” which was eventually established at Harvard University by Charles William Eliot.

Mahan wrote copiously for the Oberlin Evangelist and the Oberlin Quarterly Review. These outlets provided a forum for his religious philosophy. He started the protest against the prevailing Oberlin Calvinism by advocating the doctrine of “possible sanctification” as opposed to “total depravity.” He became an aggressive fighter for more reasonable faith in religion, and a greater justice in the social realm.

His fervent convictions aroused hostility from his colleagues who sometimes felt that his strong views created unnecessary hostility against Oberlin College. Within the College itself, Mahan found himself in frequent quarrels with the Oberlin faculty. Reduced to the barest level of executive discretion through the Finney Compact, his opinions and personality placed him at odds with the faculty. In assessing the causes of the conflict, historian Robert S. Fletcher (1900-1959) identified Mahan’s impervious and overbearing personality. His biographer, Edward H. Madden (OC ’46), focused on Mahan’s intense commitment to reform.

Stung by his constant criticism of their behavior, and by his attacks on what he called their “lukewarm” commitment to Oberlin perfectionism, the faculty made their first open call for Mahan’s departure in the 1840s. The first attempt failed to elicit unanimous support. In 1850, in a show of unanimity, the faculty drew up a searing ten-count indictment of Mahan’s overbearing behavior and challenged him to purge his self-esteem by confessing guilt on each count. After lengthy negotiations Mahan resigned in August 1850. Gathering a small band of friends and students he left to found Cleveland University. There he hoped to fulfill his educational and moral goals in a more promising environment. Eight of his first 11 graduates of his short-lived institution were former Oberlin students.

After the demise of Cleveland University, Mahan traveled to Michigan filling pastorates in Jackson and Adrian. In 1861 he was Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy and later President at Adrian College, serving there until 1871.

In 1874 he moved to England where he lived for the last fifteen years of his life. He continued to be an active writer and scholar. He edited The Divine Light (1877-1889) and wrote seven of his eighteen books during his last fifteen years. (His publications include: Doctrine of the Will, 1844; Science of Moral Philosophy, 1848; Baptism of the Holy Spirit, 1870; Out of Darkness into Light, 1876; A Critical History of the Late American War, 1877; Autobiography, Intellectual, Moral, and Spiritual, 1882; and A Critical History of Philosophy (2 vols.), 1883.)

In 1828 he married Mary Hartwell Dix (d.1863). Together they had seven children: Anna J. (1829-1911); Lucy D. (1831-1880); Theodore S. (1834-1863); Mary K. (1837-1924); Sarah S. (b.1840); Elizabeth M. (b.1843); and Almira, (b.1846). Four of the children attended Oberlin College (Anna, Lucy, Mary, Theodore), but only Anna received a degree. In 1866, three years after the death of his first wife, Mahan married Mary E. Munsell (1814-1894), the widow of Rev. Silas S. Chase of Cincinnati. Asa Mahan died in Eastbourne, England on April 4, 1889.

Sources Consulted

Blodgett, Geoffrey, “Asa Mahan at Oberlin: the pitfalls of perfection,” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Spring 1984 pp.24-27.

Bradley, Dr. Dan F., “Oberlin Theology—From Mahan to Horton,” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, March 1933 pp.166-168.

Fletcher, Robert S., A History of Oberlin College (2 vols), 1943.

Madden, Edward H., “A Sesquicentennial look at Asa Mahan,” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Winter 1983 pp.8-14.

Madden, Edward H. and James E. Hamilton, Freedom and Grace: The Life of Asa Mahan, 1982.

Zikmund, Barbara Brown, Asa Mahan and Oberlin Perfectionism, (Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University), 1969.

Congregational Year Book, 1890 p. 30.

Oberlin Review, April 30, 1889.

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