John Frederic Oberlin, 1740-1826
Opening Assembly Address
September 14, 1972
Prof. Kurtz has been working since 1963-64 on the first comprehensive
English biography of John Frederic Oberlin. Mr. Kurtz has been a
member of the faculty since 1932 and will retire next June. He was
chairman of the department of German and Russian 1956-70 and directed
the Oberlin German Summer Sessions in Vienna in 1959, 1961, 1963
and 1965. In 1966 he was awarded the Officers Cross in the
Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for outstanding
service in the manifold fields of German-American cultural relations.
The name that the minister intoned at the christening in the culturally
German, politically French frontier city of Strasbourg in 1740 was
Johann Friedrich Oberlin. His family called him Fritz. The name
that he used as minister of his French speaking parish in the Vosges
mountains of Alsace was Jean-Frédéric Oberlin. His people
there called him cher Papa. The name that is inscribed in
the wrought iron cross that marks his grave at Fouday is just that,
Papa Oberlin. Americans and Englishmen, who wish to avoid disputes
about national cultural affinities, anglicize the name to John Frederic
He lived 86 years and died in 1826. Two other men who died in that
year were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Oberlin died April 1.
Those two American superpatriots both chose the Fourth of July.
All three missed the founding of Oberlin College by seven years.
Oberlin entered the university at the age of 15. The curriculum
at Strasbourg being (as my friend Ed Com would say) structured
on the interest model, he chose a wide variety of courses
in the liberal arts, giving special attention to ancient languages
and cultures and the natural sciences. He also attended lectures
in medicine and studied human anatomy in the dissecting laboratory.
He took the Ph.D. at the age of 23. He never used the title; all
but the latest of his biographers have been unaware that he possessed
He did not consider that his studies were ended therewith, but
he felt like copping out for a time in order to find
himself. He took a position as tutor in the home of Strasbourgs
leading physician and surgeon. This gave him an opportunity to develop
some ideas he had conceived about the education of children, to
increase his knowledge of medicine by reading in the doctors
library, and to acquire some rudimentary skills in surgery by observation
and some practice.
After two years he rematriculated, this time in theology. He finished
the course and was ordained at the age of 27.
Oberlin had been reared in the tradition of 18th century German
Lutheran Pietism, with a strong. infusion of the discipline of the
Moravian Brethren. On his 20th birthday he had written out a long
and solemn act of consecration in which he dedicated
to God all that I am and all that I have: the faculties of
my mind, the members of my body, my portion and my time. It
became his habit to renew this pledge by endorsing it again at the
beginning of each decade. His last endorsement he made at the age
Oberlin believed that this act of consecration required of him
renunciation of all worldly comforts and total dedication to the
working out of Gods will. As a student he had accordingly
practiced a severe austerity of life, and he now hoped for a vocation
that would demand of him the discipline of asceticism, of renunciation,
of mortification of the flesh through deprivation and hardship.
He recognized his opportunity when it came in the form of a call
to serve the community called the Ban de la Roche. It was a large
and far flung parish high in the Vosges mountains. It comprised
five villages: Waldersbach, Belmont, Bellefosse, Fouday and Solbach.
It was physically nearly inaccessible. Its climate was inclement
and its soil infertile. It was culturally isolated because its language
had deteriorated to a barbarous patois that was incomprehensible
even to its neighbors. Its people were suspect and despised as residents
of a Protestant island within a Roman Catholic sea. It had been
devastated in the Thirty Years War and plundered for centuries by
greedy feudal lords under the medieval system of vassalage that
persisted in that remote corner of Europe until some years after
the French Revolution. For these reasons, its poverty was immeasurable.
It was a forgotten enclave that seemed to have been passed by in
the march of history. Among Oberlins fellow theologs it was
spoken of as a place of exile, an Alsatian Siberia.
To that unpromising scene Oberlin joyfully went forth. His head
was full of the cultural optimism of the charismatic century
as we know it, for instance, from the works of Locke and Rousseau,
the German idealistic philosophers, and our own founding fathers.
His soul was imbued with Pietistic yearnings for a heavenly perfection
on earth. His will was steeled by rigorous self-discipline and a
profound religious faith. The goal that he had set for himself was
to make of the unlettered folk of the Ban de la Roche a Gottesvolk,
a people of God.
Oberlins first concern was for the children and their education.
The schoolhouses that he found there were wretched hovels. Among
friends in Strasbourg, he raised money to build a new one in Waldersbach,
the central village of the parish. To allay the peoples hostility,
he deemed it necessary to issue a proclamation that the building
and maintenance of the new school would bring to them no new financial
obligations. Gradually the people came to recognize the value of
education; they eventually built and paid for a new schoolhouse
in each of the four other villages.
Before Oberlins arrival, the schoolkeeping, function had been contracted
to the lowest bidder. Usually that turned out to be the village
herdsman, whose main qualification was that he was otherwise unemployed
in the winter and stood ready to apply to the keeping of children
in that season the same techniques that he exercised on swine and
cattle in the summer. In order to establish teaching as a profession,
Oberlin selected his best, most promising pupils and himself trained
them to be teachers. To proclaim his own regard for their, to him
divine, calling, he gave them the title régent décole
and inducted them into their high office in special dedicatory church
Oberlin introduced compulsory education by proclaiming from the
pulpit that it was the obligation of all parents to send their children
to school regularly. He enforced that ruling by applying such sanctions
as withholding the sacraments from the parents of habitually truant
children; and denying the rite of confirmation to pupils who flouted
the regulations. To encourage regular attendance and maximum effort
by the children he awarded prizes in an annual honors day ceremony,
which, significantly, also took the form of a special church service.
Oberlins system of obligatory attendance antedates the national
compulsory education act in France by more than a hundred years.
In Oberlins parish the scbool-leaving age was 16. By way
of comparison, consider that in England, where public schools were
established some 50 years later, boys and girls were generally taken
out of school and put in the mills at the age of 10.
To pay for education, Oberlin eventually collected taxes from all
householders, including the childless and the celibate. Surely this
was one of the earliest instances of general taxation for the support
Oberlin instituted a system of representative self-government in
which the school children exercised legislative, executive and judicial
He supplied textbooks and other materials free of charge, a democratic
measure introduced in most of our states only during my lifetime.
Oberlin once wrote a candid self analysis. It contains the statement:
I have a peculiar esteem for the female sex. That esteem
is authenticated by the fact that he was the first person, anywhere
to employ women as teachers in public schoolssurely an innovation
that is worthy of our notice at this time, when feminism is on the
march, and in this place, where, seven years after Oberlins
death, the opportunity of higher education was for the first time
offered to women.
Oberlins first educational objective was to give his people
a viable language, that is to say, to change the vernacular from
the incomprehensible patois to standard French. He saw this as such
an urgent matter that he could not be content with teaching only
the children. He therefore organized night schools for men and women,
and thus became a pioneer also in adult education.
By such persistent language training for the whole population,
juvenile and adult, Oberlin attained two objectives: with astonishing
rapidity the patois gave way to standard French as the universal
language of the valley; and the very high incidence of illiteracy
was reduced virtually to zero. For these attainments the National
Convention in Paris honored Oberlin as a promoter of the French
language. He acknowledged the accolade with embarrassment, as one
who all his life spoke French with a German accent and never broke
the habit of interlarding his French talk with his favorite German
expletives. By teaching also German in the upper school grades,
he eventually made the population literate also in the second language
of bilingual Alsace.
Among all of Oberlins educational innovations, however, his
one great, historic contribution was the creation of the worlds
first infant schools. That was in 1770, sixty-seven years before
Froebel, who is traditionally celebrated as the originator of infant
education, opened his first kindergarten in Germany. The name Kindergartenthe
invention of a truly inspired momentis to be sure, Froebels;
the substance, however, is Oberlinsa priority that is
now generally, though sometimes grudgingly, recognized by historians.
In Oberlins parish the children started to school at the
age of three or four, a practice that is being timorously and tentatively
tried out in our country only now, 200 years later, in theawkwardly
namedhead start program.
Along with his educational innovations, Oberlin made many other
significant contributions to the common good. In this presentation
I can merely recite a list of them.
To improve the economy:
He built roads from village to village within the valley; a bridge
over the river Bruche, and a highway to connect the community with
the outside world.
He established the crafts essential to a rural economy; first by
bringing in journeymen, later by apprenticing promising native youths
to carpenters and joiners, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and shoemakers.
He and Mme. Oberlin took groups of girls into their home to train
them in the domestic arts.
He introduced spinning and weaving as family fireside industries,
thus producing exportable products that brought money into the community.
He created cooperative enterprises, including: an interest free
loan fund; a tool crib stocked with essential impIements; and a
cooperative bake oven society.
Oberlin organized an agricultural society, probably one of the
firstand certainly the most activein all France. For
this he again received national honors. Using the society as an
He improved the quality of the soil by erosion control through
contour plowing and terracing; by draining and irrigating; and by
the optimal use of organic fertilizers.
He transformed the parsons glebe into an experimental plot,
where he developed better strains of such basic crops as rye, wheat,
flax, and grasses. Before Oberlins time there had been frequent
potato famines. He developed a new strain from imported seeds, and
thus soon produced not only enough of that essential commodity to
nourish the people, but also an exportable surplus.
He introduced fruit culture by grafting new, imported stock on
existing wild fruit trees.
He improved animal husbandry by importing new breeding stock.
For health and hygiene:
Oberlin was the only medical practitioner in the valley. In order
better to serve the peoples needs, he sent one of his teachers
to his surgeon-friend in Strasbourg for training and made him his
He also sent two young women to be trained as midwives, the first
in the Ban de la Roche.
He introduced smallpox vaccinationand made it obligatorysoon
after it was developed by Jenner and thus put an end to that scourge
of the people.
For the improvement of both hygiene and the quality of the environment,
he promoted sanitation in farmyards and village streets by insisting
on the gathering and composting of litter and dung.
He himself made a collection, along with a classified descriptive
index (according to the then new system of Linné) of all the
flora of the valley. He also made plant ecology one of the basic
courses in the schools, beginning in the infant schools, and thereby
eventually eliminated the unwitting ingestion of toxic plants as
a frequent cause of death.
He promoted the beautification of the landscape by requiring the
planting of fruit and ornamental trees: two for every marriage ceremony
performed, one for every baptism, one for each confirmation, etc.
By all his exertions taken together, Oberlin transfigured the quality
of life for his people. It would be hyperbolic to say that he lifted
them out of poverty into prosperity, for the fact is that the Ban
de la Roche has always been, and still is, relatively poor. To epitomize
more accurately Oberlins accomplishments I cannot do better
than to quote a line from the third chapter of George Eliots
great novel Middlemarch, where Dorothea summarizes a vision
of an idealized rural community with the words:
be as if the spirit of Oberlin had passed over the parishes to make
the life of poverty beautiful! Expressing the same idea in
more contemporaryand less sentimentalterms, perhaps
one could say that Oberlin realized for his backward region in the
18th century, the approximate objectives set by the Peace Corps
and VISTA for the undeveloped countries in the 20th.
Politically Oberlin was a democrat and a dedicated believer in
the Revolution. Even the interdiction of all religious organizations
and services, which brought two of the great issues of his life
in conflict, the religious and the political, did not disconcert
him; he just transformed each congregation into a citizens
club, changed his own title from minister to president,
renamed the churches club houses, the prayers discourses,
the sermons lectures, the liturgy and hymnody community
singing, and carried on essentially as before. When, because
of that ruse, he was arrested and carried off to prison by the Committee
of Public Safety, he went without protest. The incident, which might
have culminated at the guillotine, was providentially terminated
by the prior sudden death of Robespierre.
Twenty years later the nation conferred on Oberlin its highest
honor: he became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
This summary is too brief to give you an image of Oberlins
character and personality; of his private life; of his generally
unorthodox, sometimes bizarre religious beliefs and their centrality,
not only in his religious ministry, but also in his social, educational,
and economic planning. I can only suggest that you read one or two
of the more than 400 items listed in a recently compiled bibliography
on John Frederic Oberlin. Such reading will, I believe, fill out
your image of him as an educational leader and social activist who,
140 years ago, seemed worthy to have named after him an institution
in Ohio dedicated to learning and social action; and I hope you
will find, on closer acquaintance, that it still seems appropriate
now to call this college and this community by his name.