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  • "All the truly wise or truly pious have one and the same end in view":Oberlin, the West, and Abolitionist Schism
  • J. Brent Morris (bio)

As old men approaching their eighties, Charles Grandison Finney and Lewis Tappan sometimes reminisced about the abolitionist movement, in which they both played important roles. Finney, the great revivalist, had served as professor of theology and president of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, one of abolitionism's inimitable strongholds, a veritable training ground for abolitionist-missionaries and antebellum America's most radical educational institution. Tappan, along with his brother Arthur, had been among Oberlin's chief benefactors as well as one of the most prominent leaders of the national abolitionist movement in the East. In one of the final letters between the men, one from Finney to Tappan, memories of the antislavery struggle filled the page and stretched back to the early 1830s, a golden age of abolitionism unmarred by sectarianism. In their recollections of the intervening years, however, there was no discussion of any abolitionist infighting in the East, but only the tactical importance of the West and Oberlin's essential role in the fight to end slavery. Finney offered his opinion on the ongoing project of one of Tappan's New York colleagues to write the history of the abolitionist movement and reckoned that the man would "do as well as any man unacquainted [End Page 234] with the influence of Oberlin on the whole Northwest." "The fact is," Finney concluded, "that Oberlin turned the scale in all of the Northwest. No man can tell the story right unless he knows this."1

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Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) Moved to Oberlin in 1835 to assume a post at Oberlin College, later becoming its president. A wildly popular evangelical speaker both domestically and internationally, Finney proved to be influential in the dissolution of local racial barriers between whites and blacks, and in shifting the creative epicenter of abolitionist ideology away from the east coast. Oberlin College Archives, Oberlin, Ohio.

Despite his judgment, scholars have neglected the story of Oberlin and the West in the antislavery movement. Largely because contemporaries believed Oberlin's value to the movement to be self evident, most modern historians have taken their cues from the vague and romantic characterizations the school and the town attracted during the antebellum years. Oberlin's radical reputation allowed both contemporaries and the scholars that followed to confidently use its name as a keyword of sorts to denote zealous abolitionism and commitment to social reform.2 Yet these passing abridgements miss [End Page 235] the opportunity to highlight the crucial role of Oberlin and the West in the struggle to end slavery. This tendency also fails to notice the vitality, ideological independence, practical influence, and relative unity of the abolitionists west of the Alleghenies, even as eastern reformers appeared to be embroiled in sectarian infighting.

The historical Oberlin was more impressive for its actual substance than for its role as an abolitionist symbol. The college and organically connected town of the same name comprised beyond question one of the most important communities in the abolitionist movement, rivaling even New York City and Boston in symbolic and practical importance. They quietly achieved this distinction because of unique circumstances in their early years that gathered an unprecedented multiracial and cohesive abolitionist population in the Ohio wilderness and maintained a fever pitch of reform agitation throughout the antebellum period. The community was founded as a utopian venture whose sole mission was to save souls and prepare the world for the coming millennium. Within two years, the town of only a few hundred residents had begun sending out a phalanx of abolitionist-missionaries across the North in numbers unmatched by even the largest eastern cities, and its college had become the most radical academic environment in the nation, perhaps the world. Oberlin was the first institution of higher education in the United States to admit men and women of all races, and as more conservative schools persecuted or expelled outspoken student-abolitionists, Oberlin welcomed them with open arms. Indeed, the school became a beacon for the nation's most progressive students, and together...


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