The Meeting House by Robert S.
Only one building still survives from the days of Oberlin's youth, but
it is the one above all others which we would wish to keep. We value it
for its intrinsic qualities -- for its simplicity and sincerity, its perfect
balance, its economy of material and ornament, and the wholehearted way
in which it hugs our tough clay soil.
We treasure it, too, because of its historic significance. It was the
center and capitol of the community, and it was the most important College
building. It housed the church, but it was not the church -- it was the
Meeting House. It was the gathering place for all -- mechanics, professors,
farmers, students, housewives, merchants, all the members of a fully integrated
society. It stands as a reminder of the remarkable unity of high moral
purpose which once existed here.
The cornerstone was laid on June 17, 1842. It is not difficult to reconstruct
the scene. -- Here and there are heaps of yellow earth from the fresh-dug
cellar, blocks of rough-quarried sandstone, perhaps some great oak floor-beams
and straw-nested bricks. Quite a crowd gathered. The women wear full skirts,
coal-scuttle bonnets and fringed shawls, and the men are dressed in black
broadcloth and high, choking, white neck-cloths. The little girls are
absurd replicas of their mothers whose sleeves they firmly clutch. Many
of the boys are perched on the top rail of the "worm" fence
that bounds the square across the road. A spotted cow wanders down Main
Street nibbling at the roadside buttercups and attracts no particular
attention. Dust rolls up from the wheels of an approaching farm wagon.
Then the tall, erect figure of Professor Finney (who is also the pastor)
mounts an improvised platform and his uncovered head glints in the early
summer sun. All reverently bow as he leads in long and impassioned prayer.
A hymn is sung (specially written for the occasion), and the cornerstone
is "well and truly laid." The townspeople drum away along the
plank walks toward their homes. The students stream across the cow-paths
of the square to Tappan Hall and Ladies' Hall.
The Oberlin religious society known as "The Congregational Church
of Christ at Oberlin" was formed in 1834, and it was the only church
in Oberlin until the fifties. All of the College faculty and their families
and practically all the other residents were members. Religious services
were held at first in various College buildings or in the big, circular
tent which was erected for the purpose near the center of the square.
All students were required to attend. The preaching was done by members
of the College staff as a part of their regular duties. Father Shipherd,
the Founder, was the first pastor, succeeded by Professor Finney. But
Mr. Finney was often absent, preaching in the East or in England, and
then the pulpit would be filled by Professor John Morgan, Professor Henry
Cowles or Professor Henry E. Peck. The choir, which was identical with
the student musical association, was directed by the professor of Sacred
At first all available funds had to be used for dormitories and classroom-buildings
but, as the student-body and the population of the town grew larger, the
need for a more adequate place of worship became increasingly pressing.
There were no auditoriums large enough for the Sunday congregations nor
for the Commencement crowds, and the tent was a poor make-shift, totally
unsatisfactory in inclement weather. Finally, in February, 1842, the church
society voted to "proceed forthwith to take measures for building
a meeting house." The cornerstone, as we have seen, was laid in the
following June, but construction was not completed until late in 1844.
The Meeting House was built like a mediaeval cathedral with the offerings
of material and labor from the people of the community and their friends
abroad. We really have no idea how much it cost because very little money
was involved. Oberlin masons, teamsters, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters
and cabinet makers donated part or all of their time. Others gave bricks,
stone, timber, hardware and paint. The acknowledgements of gifts list
money (usually a dollar or two from each person) and also twelve pounds
of nails, a hat, a cheese, four bushels of apples, a barrel of flour,
a one-horse wagon, and two cows from residents of Medina. Most of these
articles, of course, would have to be sold or exchanged in order to apply
them on the building. This was not impractical, for old records show that,
on one occasion, the College paid "one hat" to have a stone
quarried and delivered.
The designing was an amazing demonstration of practical democracy. An
architect's plan was contributed by a Boston friend, but it was liberally
revised by vote of the church members. At one meeting they voted, for
example, that the tower should follow a certain drawing in "Benjamin's
Architect." The actual construction was supervised by a committee
which, fortunately, included Deacon Thomas Porter Turner, an experienced
house-carpenter from Thetford, Vermont.
There were two preaching-services every Sabbath one in the morning and
one in the afternoon. All the people came, Negroes and whites, from every
part of town -- one man brought his wife in a wheel-barrow. They filled
the house to the doors. The families sat in their assigned pews betweent
he great black stoves that stood sentry on either side near the windows.
The students crowded the circling balcony. The sermons might last an hour
or two, prayers perhaps half as long. The bass viol or the organ (after
1855) accompanied the hymns sung from Mason's and Hastings' song books.
The Oberlin Musical Association, which later became the Musical Union,
gave its concerts in the Meeting House. There the first oratorio was performed
in 1852, and in two evenings five hundred dollars was taken in at twenty-five
cents a person. The musical accompaniment was furnished by a piano, a
melodeon, two flutes, two violins, a 'cello, a violone, a horn and a drum.
One year Lowell Mason led a musical convention in the Meeting House, and
choir leaders from all over northern Ohio came to Oberlin to profit by
Commencement exercises were held there from 1843 when the building was
still unfinished. The walls were decorated with greenery, and sawdust
was spread up and down the aisles. (The spreading of the sawdust was a
special Junior-class ceremony.) The Senior Class sat on the platform,
the young ladles in white, often with blue sashes. One after another each
came forward and read an essay or delivered an oration on such subjects
as "Moral Heroism," "Right the Basis of Law," "The
Dawn of Mental Freedom," or "National Responsibility."
Parents and other visitors came from far and near; both the governors
of Ohio and Michigan were present in 1859.
No one ever thought of there being anything sacrosanct about the building.
Any meeting which Oberlinites would want to attend might be held there.
Bayard Taylor lectured in the Meeting House on "The Arabs, their
Character and Customs," and commented flatteringly on its acoustic
qualities. Others who lectured there were Horace Greeley, Carl Schurz
and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Long before the movies, children and adults flocked
to the Meeting House to see displays of panoramic paintings - - in 1853
one of Niagara Falls. Some college classes met there and, for a while,
the building housed one of Oberlin's public, common schools. It was the
first fire station. The old hand-operated fire-engine was kept in the
basement for a number of years, and the fire laddies drilled in the yard.
In 1859 twenty-one Oberlin citizens were incarcerated in the Cuyahoga
County Jail at Cleveland to await trail for assisting in the escape of
a fugitive Negro slave. Among them were James M. Fitch, superintendent
of the Sunday School, and Henry E. Peck, professor of Moral and Mental
Philosophy. In July all but two of the prisoners were released and returned
in triumph to Oberlin. The welcoming ceremonies were held, of course,
at the Meeting House. It was already filling up when the procession from
the depot came in sight: the Citizens' Brass Band in the lead, the fire
companies in uniform, the freed Rescuers and the reception committee of
students and citizens. All the bells were rung and cannon were fired every
few minutes. Garlands of flowers were heaped upon the heroes' shoulders
as they passed in the front doorand down the aisles to the platform amid
deafening cheers. Father Keep, dean of trustees, presided. The musical
association sang the Marseillaise. Everybody made speeches. It was just
before midnight when the Doxology was sung and the benediction pronounced.
On April 17, 1861, four days after the surrender of Fort Sumter, a great
Union Rally was held at the Meeting House. There were speeches by Professor
Peck and Professor James H. Fairchild, by Mr. Fitch and by Oberlin's distinguished
Negro Lawyer, John M. Langston. The Musical Union sang the "Star
Spangled Banner." The next Sabbath, during the reading of the notices,
Father Keep arose In his pew to ask if there was any more news. The week
following, the first of a series of companies of Oberlin student- soldiers
was organized and soon marched away.
Though for Lincoln and many in the North that war of the sixties was a
war for the Union, to Oberlin it was always a fight for freedom. "In
this colilsion," wrote Finney, "the cause of the slave is that
of humanity, of liberty, of civilization, of Christianity." Naturally,
the Emancipation Proclamation was received with complete approval and
great enthusiasm. In April, 1863, the commandant of the Negro refugee
camp at Washington addressed a large audience in the Meeting House by
invitation of the Students' Missionary Society. The challenge there presented
drew hundreds of Oberlin men and women to the conquered portions of the
South as educational missionaries among the freedmen -- and resulted in
the re-establishment of Berea and the founding of Talladega and Fisk.
Finney is gone. Professor Peck died long years ago of yellow fever in
Haiti. Sunday-School Superintendent Fitch is near forgotten. One and all,
the men and women of those days - - faculty members, towns men, and the
thousands of students who found here moral and mental training, stimulation
and inspiration -- they are gone. But thevoice of Oberlin-in-its youth
still echoes from the walls of the old Meeting House. It is a decisive
voice with no captious quaverings, a voice of hope and not of cynicism,
a brave voice, a fighting voice, a voice that speaks in no uncertain terms
for decent justice for all humanity, for a righteousness unlimited by
convenience, for the brotherhood of all races and all colors of mankind.
It Is not a voice of consolation but a voice of alarm. It cries out in
indignant anger against all tyrants and all forms of slavery.