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RG 30/37 - Florence Mary Fitch (1875-1959)

Florence Mary FitchFlorence Mary Fitch, daughter of the Rev. Franklin Solomon Fitch (1846-1917; B.A. Oberlin 1870) and Anna Eliza (Haskell) Fitch (1847-1936; Lit. Oberlin 1870), was born in Stratford, Connecticut on February 17, 1875. The family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1878 and to Buffalo, New York in 1883, where for thirty-three years the Rev. Fitch served as pastor of the First Congregational Church. Florence Fitch entered Oberlin College in 1892, graduating Phi Beta Kappa with the B.A. in 1897. Returning to Buffalo, she taught Latin, mathematics, and English at Masten Park High School from 1897 to 1900.

In July 1900, Fitch resigned her teaching post and went to Germany for further study on a fellowship from the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, now the American Association of University Women (A.A.U.W.). Anna Fitch accompanied her daughter and remained with her until the fall of 1901. Florence became a “guest” student at the Universities of Berlin (1900-03) and Munich (1901), since women were not permitted to matriculate. She studied philosophy and psychology with professors Karl Stumpf (b. 1848), Friedrich Paulsen (1846-1908), and Theodor Lipps (1851-1914) and biblical theology with Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) and Otto Pfleiderer (1839-1908). On presentation of her thesis, published in 1903 as Der Hedonismus bei Lotze und Fechner, she received the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Philosophy from the University of Berlin, becoming one of the first American woman to do so. Fitch later continued her studies at Union Theological Seminary (1916), the American School for Oriental Research in Jerusalem (1926-27), and the University of Chicago Divinity School (1930). Oberlin College awarded her the honorary Litt. D. in 1947 and the Alumni Medal in 1956.

Florence Fitch’s career at Oberlin College spanned thirty-seven years. In 1903, she accepted the dual appointment as Instructor in the Department of Philosophy and Secretary to President Henry Churchill King (1858-1934). During her first year at Oberlin, she co-taught with President King a course on the thought of German philosopher Hermann Lotze (1817-81).In 1904, she began teaching in the Department of the Bible and the Christian Religion (known as the Department of Religion after 1938), serving as Associate Professor of Philosophy (1904-06), Professor of Philosophy (1906-11) and Professor of Biblical Literature (1911-40). Fitch taught the popular “Introduction to the Study of the Bible,” as well as courses in Old and New Testament literature, biblical archaeology, and early Christian thought. As the focus in undergraduate religious education shifted from the doctrinal to the humanistic, she offered instruction in world religions and social Christianity, drawing from first-hand knowledge obtained from travel and research in Israel, Syria, Greece, and Egypt (1926-27) and in India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, China, Japan, and Hawaii (1936-37). A highlight of her overseas experience was her 1936 interview with Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948).

From 1904 to 1920, Florence Fitch combined teaching duties with service as Dean of College and Graduate Women. During her tenure, the rules governing the social conduct of women students were relaxed in order to allow for greater freedom of association between men and women, a move which attracted national interest. In 1914, Fitch founded the “Women’s League” at Oberlin, an organization designed to adjudicate matters relating to the lives of women undergraduates. Her writings from this period include the pamphlet, “What Are Our Social Standards?” (1915) and a book, Principles of Social Conduct (1919).

In addition to her duties as teacher, counselor, and administrator, Florence Fitch served Oberlin and the cause of higher education in numerous capacities. From 1926 to 1958, she was a member of the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association Board of Trustees. She visited the Shansi mission at Taigu in 1915 and again in 1937. From 1904 to 1920 she was Secretary of the Advisory Committee of the Oberlin College Y.W.C.A., having served as the first Oberlin President of the Y.W.C.A. during her senior year (1896-97). Fitch served as President of the Oberlin Branch of the A.A.U.W. from 1922 to 1925, and as President of the State Federation of the A.A.U.W. in 1925-26 and 1935-36. She was also President of the National Association of Deans of Women. Service to her own professional organizations included terms as Vice President of the State Section of Teachers of Bible and Religion (1934-35) and as President of the National Association of Biblical Instructors (1935). She was a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis and the Religious Education Association. Florence Fitch’s civic affiliations included the First Church in Oberlin, the Oberlin Community Chest, Community Center, Women’s Club, and the League of Women Voters.

After retiring from teaching in 1940, Florence Fitch began writing religious books for children. The books quickly became popular among adults as well. These publications are: The Daughter of Abd Salam (1930); One God: the Ways We Worship Him (1944); Their Search for God: Ways of Worship in the Orient (1947); Allah, the God of Islam (1950), A Book About God (1953), The Child Jesus (1955), and Young Jesus Asks Questions, published posthumously in 1970. Of these, the most popular was One God, which went through twenty-five printings in the fifteen years following publication and won for its author the Ohioana Library Award in 1945. Their Search for God was reviewed in manuscriptby Mohandas K. Gandhi. Other publications of Florence Fitch include The First Church in Oberlin 1842-1942 (1942), a centennial history, and numerous pamphlets and articles.

Florence Fitch died in Oberlin on June 2, 1959 at age 84. Three cousins survived her. Her sister, Anna Eliza Barnum (b. 1873), of Coconut Grove, Florida, died in 1946.

Sources Consulted

Fitch, Florence M., “Changes of Women’s Rules,” The Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Vol. X, No. 3, December 1913, pp. 76-78.

Fitch, Florence M., “The Women’s League: An Appreciation,” The Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Vol. XI, No. 2, November 1914, pp. 47-48.

Student Files of Florence M. Fitch, the Rev. Frank S. Fitch, and Anna Haskell Fitch (28).

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