Asa 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
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
Seminarys 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 Seminarys
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 Oberlins 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 Oberlins first president. The
arrangement was apparently contingent upon Oberlins 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 countrys
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 Oberlins 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 Mahans impervious and overbearing personality.
His biographer, Edward H. Madden (OC 46), focused on Mahans
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 Mahans
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 Mahans 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
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.