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RG 2/3 - James Harris Fairchild (1817-1902)

James Harris FairchildJames Harris Fairchild (1817-1902), teacher and theologian, served as third President of Oberlin College with which he was associated from its beginnings and for sixty-eight years thereafter. He was born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts to Grandison (1792-1890) and Nancy (Harris) Fairchild (1795-1875). The family joined the westward current of migration in 1818, settling in the town of Brownhelm in the Western Reserve of Northern Ohio, nine miles from Oberlin. At the age of fourteen, Fairchild attended the newly opened high school in Elyria, and at seventeen, he entered the first freshman class at Oberlin Collegiate Institute (as Oberlin College was known until 1850). Fairchild graduated from the College Department in 1838 and entered the graduate Theological Department, completing the theological course in 1841. He was married November 29, 1841 at Minden, Louisiana to Mary Fletcher Kellogg (1817-90), one of the first women to enroll in the College course in 1837. Six girls and two boys were born to the Fairchilds, all but one of whom attended Oberlin.

During his years in the Theological Department, Fairchild served as Tutor in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew for the College Department (1839-42), becoming Professor of Languages in 1842. In 1847, he was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, and in 1858, he was named to the chair of Systematic Theology and Moral Philosophy. During Charles Grandison Finney’s tenure as President (1851-66), Fairchild assumed most of the administrative duties of the office. Upon Finney’s resignation in 1866, Fairchild, then chairman of the faculty, was elected President. During his twnety-three tenure as President, the college’s assets increased to a value of one million dollars, and its faculty grew from ten to twenty-three professors. Through Fairchild’s personal example and theological bent, Oberlin’s reputation evolved away from that of the Finney-inspired reformist enclave towards the mainstream. At Oberlin, Fairchild encouraged a respect for pure reason and expressed his belief in the power of education to shape human character. Although he supported the education of women and their right to the vote, he nevertheless wrote in an 1870 article, “Woman’s Right to the Ballot,” that the ballot had been “withheld from woman because the work of government seemed incompatible with the womanly character and work,” adding, “If a woman chooses to feel dishonored by the arrangement, it is merely a matter of her own interpretation.” His anti-slavery stance is well-known, particularly after he provided the refuge of his own garret to the fugitive slave, John Price, in 1858. In questions of reform, Fairchild was a moderate.

In 1870 and 1871, President Fairchild traveled in Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Land. In 1884, he visited California and Hawaii. Fairchild resigned the presidency in 1889 and retired as Professor of Theology in 1898, but he continued to teach as Professor Emeritus until 1902. He served as a member of the Prudential Committee from 1847 to 1901, as a member of the Board of Trustees from 1889 to 1901, and, during the last year of his life, was prevailed upon to continue his service as an honorary member of the Board.

In addition to numerous essays, commencement addresses, and sermons, Fairchild published several books, including Moral Philosophy or the Science of Obligation (1869), and Elements of Theology, Natural and Revealed (1892). His pamphlet, “Coeducation of the Sexes,” appeared in the annual report of the United States Commissioner of 1867. Fairchild’s Oberlin, the Colony and the College (1883) and his inaugural address published in 1866, “Educational Arrangements and College Life at Oberlin,” remain major sources for the study of early Oberlin history.

Fairchild’s last years in Oberlin were occupied with writing, teaching, and lending counsel to the college with which he had become wholly identified; yet, he was not unbroken. Grief was a constant companion for Fairchild, who endured the untimely deaths of six of his eight children: Emma Frances (d. 1859), Alice Cowles (d.1876), Grace Augusta (d. 1893), George Hornell (d. 1894), Mary Fletcher (d. 1897), and Catherine Cooley (d.1902). Just one month after losing Catherine, Fairchild died in Oberlin on March 19, 1902 at the age of 84.

Sources Consulted
Papers of James H. Fairchild (RG 2/3).
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