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RG31/4/1 - First and Second Congregational Churches of Oberlin
Administrative History

The Oberlin Collegiate Institute and the colony of Oberlin were established by John J. Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart in 1833. Although essentially a religious community, they did not organize a church until September 13, 1834, when the First Church of Christ in Oberlin was founded.

Initially, the church was affiliated with the Cleveland Presbytery in accordance with a plan made early in the century whereby Congregationalists agreed to place themselves under the Presbyterian hierarchy during frontier settlement as a means of maintaining some level of control over religion on the frontier. The Oberlin church, however, soon parted company with the Presbytery because of the Oberlinians' desire for complete autonomy and the Presbyterians' unhappiness with revivalism, Asa Mahan's doctrine of "perfectionism," and the colonists' anti-slavery activism. By 1836, the break was complete. The church in Oberlin renamed itself the First Congregational Church and led the way in establishing the Association of Congregational Churches of the Western Reserve. That year was a landmark year for another reason as well: the famous evangelist, Charles Grandison Finney, accepted the pastorate of the church in addition to his new teaching responsibilities in Oberlin College's Theological Seminary.

Internally, First Congregational Church was governed by a Board of Trustees, Executive Committee, and/or an Executive Council, with an elected Board of Deacons to oversee charitable work, but it did not have legal status that entitled it to buy or sell property. Those actions were thus carried out in the church's behalf by the Oberlin Society, an organization chartered by the state in 1834 and given authority "to hold and convey property and to attend to all public matters both secular and religious." The Society ceased serving as a civil body when the Village of Oberlin was chartered in 1846, but continued acting for the church until 1903, when the church's legal status changed. All property titles were then transferred to the church and the Oberlin Society dissolved itself in 1914.

From 1834 to 1842, the church had a variety of makeshift meeting places -- Peter Pindar Pease's log cabin (the first structure of the colony); the Oberlin Collegiate Institute's first building, Oberlin Hall; the dining room of Ladies Hall; the ground floor of Colonial Hall; and, weather permitting, Charles Grandison Finney's revival tent. It was at Finney's urging that the church decided to build a meeting house. On June 17, 1842, the cornerstone was laid for the church building that still stands. The plans were a modification of New York City's Broadway Tabernacle, which had been recently built for Finney's use. The cost of the Oberlin church has been estimated at about $12,000, but "like a mediaeval cathedral the Meeting House was built with the offerings of material and labor from the people of the community and their friends abroad."

By 1860, First Congregational Church had over 1500 members, plus students. Thus, a decision was made in that year to divide the congregation. One hundred and three people voluntarily withdrew and established the Second Congregational Church of Oberlin. The Sunday Schools of the two churches continued to meet together at the meeting house. Its building plans delayed by the Civil War, Second Congregational Church held services in the college chapel until 1870, when its meeting house was finally completed.

In 1882, missionaries of the two churches were accepted by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Prior to that time, the American Board had not generally accepted missionaries from the Oberlin churches or Oberlin College because of their outspoken opposition to slavery. Oberlin missionaries had gone out independently and under the auspices of the American Missionary Association in large numbers. Between 1882 and 1942, however, some estimate that the Oberlin churches sent more missionaries to the American Board than any other two churches in the country. The women of the church were very much involved with missions, both within the United States and abroad, and had numerous voluntary organizations over the years to educate others on mission work and raise financial support.

In 1920, the two congregations decided to reunite and took the name United Church (Congregational) of Oberlin. They met in Finney Chapel on the campus of Oberlin College until 1928. By that time, the college had ceased requiring students to attend church, so attendance dropped sufficiently to allow the church to resume meeting in its own, newly refurbished building. Soon thereafter, in 1929, a new name was adopted: First Church of Oberlin.

First Church was very much involved in national religious organizations. It had hosted the first meeting of the National Council of Congregational Churches in 1871, and when that body was replaced by the General Council of Congregational Churches in 1931, First Church quickly joined the new organization. In 1957, the Congregational Churches merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and First Church was one of the first to join the Synod.

Although never subsidized by Oberlin College, First (Congregational) Church was always an integral part of college and community life. It was very much involved with the progressive reform movements generally associated with Oberlin, including anti-slavery and temperance. From the turn of the century, the teaching of the church emphasized the social responsibility of Christians, continuing the progressive tradition of the nineteenth century, but without the evangelicalism that had previously characterized the church. Over the ensuing decades, church leaders and the congregation consistently emphasized such issues as pacifism, women's rights, and civil rights for blacks and other minorities.

Pastors of First Church

1834-1836 John J. Shipherd (b.1802-1844)
1836-1872 Charles Grandison Finney (b.1792-1875)
1873-1899 James Brand (b.1834-1899)
1900-1911 John W. Bradshaw
1912-1916 William H. Spence (b.1870-1945)
1917-1927 Nicholas Van der Pyl (b.1866-1943)
1928-1942 James A. Richards (b.1878- )
1942-1962 Joseph F. King (b.1906- )
1963-1973 Frederick Schumacher (b.1923- )
1974-1992 John Elder (b.1932- )
1992-1997 Douglas Long
1997-1998 Stephanie L. Haines (Interim Senior Minister)
1998- 2002 William Barney Kitchen, Jim Deitz (Interim Minister), Gilmer D. Fauber, Jr. (Interim Minister)
2003 David Hill

Pastors of Second Congregational Church

1861-1864 Miner W. Fairfield
1877-1882 William Kincaid
1886-1888 R.G. Hutchins
1889-1909 Henry Martyn Tenney (Pastor Emeritus, 1910-27)
1910-1914 J. N. Pierce
1915-1919 C. H. Williams

Sources Consulted
Oberlin College Seal -