Even if you searched an 1832 map of the United States as carefully as you could, Oberlin, Ohio would not be found. The areas that we know as Tappan Square, North Quad or Phillips Gymnasium were then occupied by a forest.
In the summer of 1832, two Presbyterian ministers by the names of Reverend John Jay Shipherd and Reverend Philo Stewart met in the town of Elyria. The two bonded over the lack of strong Christian morals among the settlers of the American Midwest. As a result, they decided to unite their efforts and to travel south of Elyria in search of a good location to start a new colony, grounded in the Christian norms and beliefs they shared.
Despite the fact that the land was largely unsuitable for building, the two ministers traveled about eight miles into the woods that covered this part of Ohio looking for a place to stop. At nightfall, they stopped to rest and prayed under a large elm tree.
Legend has it that while they were praying, a hunter saw a family of bears coming down from a tree very near the two men. However, the bears merely turned and walked away without bothering them. After Shipherd and Stewart stood up, the hunter rushed to tell them exactly what he witnessed. The two ministers took this as a sign from God that their mission would be accomplished exactly at that place.
Early the following day, Shipherd returned to Elyria to convince the landowner of the land to donate 500 acres so that he and Stewart could build a school. Shipherd also purchased 5,000 acres for the town in which the new colony was to be situated.
Shipherd also rallied friends and family to move with him. Soon afterwards, he and his followers arrived at the site and began building the first cabin of the new community. The first structure in town was the Peter Pindar Pease cabin, built under the same elm tree the two ministers had found themselves. From then on, the tree was known as the Historic Elm.
“Lamenting the degeneracy of the church and the deplorable condition of our perishing world, and ardently desirous of bringing both under the entire influence of the blessed gospel of peace; and viewing with peculiar interest the influence which the valley of the Mississippi must assert over our nation and the nations of the earth; and having, as we trust, in answer to devout supplications, been guided by the counsel of the Lord: The undersigned covenant together under the name of Oberlin Colony, subject to the following regulations, which may be amended by a concurrence of two-thirds of the colonists…”
According to the Oberlin Heritage Center, this was the beginning of the Oberlin Covenant, a document that Shipherd and Stewart implemented in order to bring the community together. The document included the ideals and regulations that colony residents needed to abide by. It was primarily based on the concept of being a member of the community rather than an individual. The members of the Covenant promised to not hold or acquire more property than they could profitably manage.
The same year that the Colony was established is also the founding year for the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, now known as Oberlin College. During the first few years, students were given the opportunity to study at the Institute tuition-free, as long as they made a commitment to assist in the building of the town and the college buildings in between classes.
This is how the College’s first motto, “Learning and Labor,” came to fruition. It can still be seen today on the College seal printed on coffee mugs sold in DeCafé or on planners sold at the bookstore.
From the very beginning, the Institute was committed to co-education, an idea highly unusual for that time. However, it was not until 1837 that the first four women enrolled in the school, with three graduating four years later, thus becoming the first women in the nation to receive Bachelor of Arts degrees.
Even before that, the College was already an important agent in stirring controversy in various beliefs of the era. In 1834 the so-called Lane Rebels came to Oberlin. The group was comprised of about 50 students from the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati who left the school after the school’s board of trustees voted to prohibit antislavery agitation among students and faculty.
The founders of Oberlin saw this as an opportunity to solve some of its financial problems by inviting the rebellious students and two faculty members who left with them to attend the Oberlin Collegiate Institute.
The former Lane students prompted the school to adopt a policy of racial non-discrimination. In addition, they pushed the institution to support freedom of speech among all students. In 1836, the Oberlin Theology school opened its doors in the building that is known today as Asia House.
Over the next few years, the town and College continued to develop. More and more people with innovative and progressive views joined the community that was later to become the town and College that we know today.