George Nelson Allen (1812-1877, A.B. 1838, A.M. 1848), geologist, hymn writer, and professor, was born in Mansfield, Massachusetts, on September 7, 1812. Allen was the third of five children of Otis Allen (d. 1874), a farmer, and Susanna Deane Allen (d. 1848), a teacher. In 1832 at the age of 20, Allen set out for the Western Reserve (NE Ohio) from Massachusetts under the influence of Lyman Beecher (d. 1863), a preacher who recently had been named president of the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. Allen, intending to join Beecher in Cincinnati, became ill near Hudson, Ohio, and stayed. When his health improved, Allen enrolled in the preparatory school and later, the college department of Western Reserve College (Adelbert College after 1882) in Hudson, Ohio. In this school of under 300 students, Allen found his liberal views on reform and religion clashed with those held by the college authorities in Hudson, who were measurably influenced by the views held at Yale University. This prompted Allen to transfer to Oberlin College (Oberlin Collegiate Institute before 1850) during the 1836-1837 academic school year.
Allen was extremely interested in music. Before his move to Ohio in 1832, Allen studied in Boston under Lowell Mason (1792-1872), who pioneered music instruction in public schools. In 1837, while a student at Oberlin, Allen was appointed instructor in Science of Music. Allen succeeded Yale seminary student Reverend Elihu Parsons Ingersoll, who had resigned in 1835. Ingersoll, upon his appointment as professor of Sacred Music and Principal of the Preparatory Department at Oberlin in 1834, was the first professor at an American university to teach music. Following Allen's graduation in 1838, he was named instructor of Sacred Music, and, in 1841, he was appointed professor, a teaching appointment that he held until 1864. His classes in sacred music were enormously popular. Over 100 students took his course in 1839, and by 1841, almost 250. More importantly, in 1837, Allen founded the Oberlin Musical Association—known today as the Musical Union—which is considered one of the oldest musical societies in the United States. Under the direction of Allen, who also led the First Congregational Church Choir in Oberlin, the Musical Union was often used to raise funds for the college's music program and the First Congregational Church itself. Proceeds from ticket sales of the Musical Union's performances helped build the Music Hall in 1842 (which was located on the site of Baldwin Cottage and destroyed by fire in 1880), chandeliers, gas fixtures, and a pedal pipe organ for the First Church, and a bell for College Chapel. The Musical Union also performed at commencement ceremonies, performing pieces written by Allen, such as the "Oratorio of Absalom," as well as music composed by others.
Allen, an accomplished violinist and pianist, was a firm believer in the persuasive power of hymn singing. He compiled Oberlin's first pocket sized hymnal. This enabled faculty and students (including those of the Oberlin Sabbath School, founded by John Jay Shipherd) to join in hymn singing throughout the daily college routine, particularly during chapel. Allen's compilation, Social and Sabbath School Hymn Book was first published in 1844 by the Oberlin Evangelist Press. Subsequently, this publication went through seven editions and several revisions. As a hymn writer, Allen's most famous tune was, "Maitland," written to Thomas Shepherd's "Must Simon [Jesus] Bear the Cross Alone." It conformed to Lowell Mason's blueprint for "scientific music." In a way, the simplicity and earnestness of his songs characterized Allen's own life. Furthermore, Allen's style of music was found to be in accord with that stipulated by the Oberlin College Board of Trustees. Along with John Paul Morgan and George Whipple Steele, Allen's musical enthusiasm and accomplishments would help lay the base for Oberlin's Conservatory of Music in 1865.
Allen also earnestly devoted himself to the study of Geology. In 1847, Allen was appointed, while still serving as professor of Music, professor of Geology and Natural History, a post that lasted until 1871. (In exchange for his post teaching geology, Allen resigned his position as Principal of the Preparatory Department which he had held since 1841.) Allen's natural history courses reconciled the "Genesis" story of Creation with science. In proving that the two stories were in harmony, Allen established a tradition of secularizing religion, a theme that was further advanced at Oberlin by George Frederick Wright (1838-1921, A.B. 1859, Sem. 1862). Wright would later teach a course at Oberlin College titled "Harmony of Science and Religion," which fully accounted for social Darwinism. Additional activities included the creation and upkeep of a cabinet collection of natural history specimens (which he eventually sold to Oberlin College in 1856 for $300), as well as participating in expeditions to study geology and collect geological specimens (see series XI, box 11). These trips included a visit to Jamaica in 1863-1864 and as a participant in a 1871 geological survey of Yellowstone under the direction of Ferdinand V. Hayden (Class of 1851).
Afflicted with delicate health his entire life, a nervous condition forced Allen to restrict his teaching duties. In 1864, he permanently resigned as Professor of Music, and was appointed Secretary-Treasurer of Oberlin College during the 1864-1865 academic year. Earlier, in 1862, Allen had served as part-time Treasurer of Oberlin College, taking charge of cash, notes, and other securities during the absence of the Treasurer. He was also requested to press subscriptions to the new Ladies Hall. (This three-story brick structure was built between 1861-1865 at a cost of $40,000.) Allen retired from active teaching in 1871, resigning his professorship of Geology and Natural History. In 1874, the Allens moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to be near their son, Frederic, who was teaching at the University of Cincinnati. Allen died in Cincinnati in 1877 and is buried in Westwood Cemetery in Oberlin.
In 1841, Allen married Caroline Mary Rudd (1820-1892, A.B. 1841). (Though Rudd's first name was Caroline, she preferred to be called Mary. Her name was often written as both Caroline Mary Rudd and Mary Caroline Rudd, depending on the correspondent.) Born in 1820 in Huntington, Connecticut, as the youngest child of Hezekiah Rudd (d. 1867) and Maria Deforest Rudd (d. 1828), Caroline Mary Rudd came to Oberlin in 1836 at the urging of her aunt, Sally Rudd, the housekeeper for the family of Oberlin president Asa Mahan, in order to receive a college education. With her father's blessing, she began her studies in the Female Department at Oberlin in 1836. Rudd, along with three other women, were admitted to the collegiate course in the 1837-1838 school year. Graduating in 1841, Rudd was one of three women to first receive an A.B. degree in the United States. In the 20th century, her accomplishments at Oberlin College would be recognized as a critical step for equality of women in American society. All five Allen children attended Oberlin College at one point: Frederic DeForest Allen (1844-1897, A.B. 1863, A.M. 1866), Alice Woodworth Allen (1846-1910, Lit. 1867), George Mantell Allen (1848-1922), Rosa Dale Allen (Mrs. William C. Cochran) (1851-1926), and Carrie Nelson Allen (1854-1925).