John Millot Ellis was born on a small farm near Jaffrey, New Hampshire on March 27, 1831. His infancy and early boyhood were spent amid the scenes and activities of his family's rural home. In 1840, Seth Brittain and Lucy Jocelyn Ellis took their four sons and five daughters to Oberlin, where the Colony and Collegiate Institute were in the first stages of development. Throughout the rest of his adolescence, Ellis worked for his father and continued his studies. Following his parents' wishes, Ellis fulfilled the terms of an apprenticeship to a mechanical trade in his father's planning mill, which was a prominent landmark of early Oberlin, before he entered Oberlin College in 1847.
Ellis supported himself during his collegiate years by teaching in the district schools of the State of Ohio. He graduated in 1851, in a class of seventeen which included Jacob Dolson Cox and Charles G. Finney, Jr. For several months after his graduation, Ellis was employed as a teacher in the Academy at Lapeer, Michigan. From 1852 to 1855 he was Professor of Languages at Mississippi College. After this appointment, he returned to Oberlin to pursue two more years of theological study, graduating from the Oberlin Seminary in 1857. In 1858 he was appointed Professor of Greek at Oberlin College. Many years later, in 1893, he received the first honorary D.D. ever conferred by Oberlin College.
Professor Ellis was ordained as a minister of the Gospel in 1865. From 1866 to 1890 he was Professor of Mental Philosophy and Rhetoric. In 1871, for a one year term, Ellis served as Oberlin's acting President. He ended his career as Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy, 1890-1894. Elliss service to Oberlin College also included nearly three decades of membership on the influential Prudential Committee, 1866-1894, where his colleagues called upon his business acumen.
Ellis contributed to the intellectual life of the College as well, and he gave many talks and sermons concerning the institution's mission. His talks and sermons, 1873-93, included "The Importance of our work as a College and a Community" (1884), "Oberlin Students Abroad" (1879), and "College Life in Oberlin Thirty Years Ago" (1881). The primary themes that run through his many presentations are community service and religious commitment.
Elliss service to the Oberlin community stretched far beyond the College. He served as Oberlin's mayor from 1861 to 1862. In August 1862, Ellis presided over a chapel meeting where resolutions were passed by local citizens asking for immediate emancipation of Negro slaves, thereby making abolition a war aim weeks before President Abraham Lincoln issued his proclamation.
Ellis was also an active participant in the community's economic development. He supported initiatives ranging from the building of railroads from Lorain to local coal fields to town beautification projects. The later led to the establishment of the Arboricultural Association, an organization composed of college students and faculty.
Ellis was instrumental in founding the Westwood Cemetery, dedicated July 16, 1864, and later served as the association's President, 1870-1894. He served as the chief of the fire department and was a member of the board of sewer commissioners until he was forced to resign because of ill health.
Elliss involvement in Oberlin's religious community included his work as principle organizer of the Second Congregational Church, 1860, an active member throughout his lifetime.
Ellis married Minerva E. Tenney 1858, of Oberlin, on August 28, 1862. This union resulted in one daughter, Josephine, and four sons, Albert (enr. 1881-82, 1885-86), Theodore (enr. 1882-89), John, and Luman (enr. 1890-94). All four of his sons studied at Oberlin, although only one, John Tenney, graduated (Ph.B. 1894).
As a student, instructor and professor, Ellis was associated with Oberlin College for more than 40 years. John M. Ellis died, on March 29, 1894, in the home of his classmate and friend Colonel S.F. Cooper in Chicago, Illinois.