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Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism

College, Community, and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in Antebellum America

J. Brent Morris

Publication Year: 2014

By exploring the role of Oberlin--the college and the community--in fighting against slavery and for social equality, Morris establishes this "hotbed of abolitionism" as the core of the antislavery movement in the West and as one of the most influential reform groups in antebellum America. Though historians have embraced Oberlin as a potent symbol of egalitarianism, radicalism, and religious zeal, Morris is the first to portray the complete history behind this iconic antislavery symbol.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Epigraph

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xiv

On my first research trip to Oberlin many years ago, I arrived at the college library about an hour before the archives opened. Sitting down to a cup of coffee in the café, I pulled out an old and tattered biography of abolitionist Arthur Tappan (written by his brother Lewis) to look over before heading upstairs to begin my real work. The Tappans had given tens of thousands of dollars to Oberlin in the 1830s, saving the colony and the college from financial ...


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pp. 16-19

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Introduction: Facts Are Sometimes Stranger Than Fiction

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pp. 1-11

When the Ohio legislature gathered in Columbus to convene its 1842–43 session, the first pressing order of business was debate over a proposal to revoke the charter of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute. One critic of the school from southern Ohio described the largely abolitionist faculty and students there as a “great maelstrom of seditious faction . . . exerting a more potent influence in exciting sectional animosities . . . than any, I may say...

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Chapter One: To Save the Godless West: Revivalism, Abolition, and the Founding of Oberlin

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pp. 12-39

The story of Oberlin in the antislavery movement does not begin in Ohio, or even the Old Northwest for that matter. Its origins lay, in varying degrees, in Connecticut farmhouses, New York City parlors, Virginia plantation fields, Mohawk Valley revival tents, West African villages, and other locales to the east. Slavery was not a new phenomenon when the Oberlin colony and school of the same name were founded in 1833, and neither was the ...

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Chapter Two: The Worthies of Oberlin: Antislavery Expansion in the Late 1830s

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pp. 40-60

Before their classes began in the fall, many of the Lane Rebels and their new professors joined the ranks of traveling lecturers for the American Anti- Slavery Society. Their exploits in Cincinnati and acceptance at Oberlin had made them antislavery celebrities, and their skills in converting people to abolitionism were immediately put to use. They were some of the first into the field, constituting half of the AASS lecturing force in 1835–36, and eventually...

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Chapter Three: A City upon a Hill: Utopian Oberlin

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pp. 61-80

The Oberlin community did not limit its reform agenda to just antislavery. Much like theology professor Charles Grandison Finney, Oberlinites saw abolitionism as an essential yet partial element of their perfectionist Christianity. John J. Shipherd and Philo Stewart had undertaken their Oberlin enterprise to found a bulwark against sin in all its forms; it was to be a center for reform in the most fundamental sense of the word. Even before the addition...

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Chapter Four: A Hotbed of Abolitionism

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pp. 81-107

After his expulsion in 1837, disgruntled student Delazon Smith described Oberlin’s isolated setting as a “mud-hole, frog-pond, morter-bed, swamp,” so remote that he could not fathom why otherwise intelligent students continued to flock to such an “impolitic and very unnatural location.”1 In his old age, Charles Grandison Finney also recalled that during Oberlin’s infancy, the community was mired in the midst of the wilderness. After his tenure ...

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Chapter Five: All the Truly Wise or Truly Pious Have the Same End in View: Oberlin and Abolitionist Schism

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pp. 108-131

The remarkable growth and expansion of the abolitionist movement also contained within it the seeds of discord. Reformers weighed the value of moral suasion in their agitation, and those who found it insufficient as an antislavery tactic began to consider new means and to set new goals in the fight against slavery. Others began to expand abolitionism to a program of universal emancipation from all unjust inequalities. As abolitionists’ reform...

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Chapter Six: The Tyrant’s Grapple by Our Vote, We’ll Loosen from Our Brother’s: Throat Oberlin, Free Soil, and the Fight for Equal Rights

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pp. 132-160

As one of the principal issues that divided the AASS, the question of antislavery politics remained a primary point of contention among reformers later in the 1840s. Nonresistant critics of political action pointed to the gradual dilution of antislavery demands in the third-party platforms for the sake of popular appeal. The compromises necessary to be a force in politics, they argued, destroyed the pure moral essence of abolitionism. Even if antislavery...

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Chapter Seven: We Must Watch and Improve This Tide: Oberlin Confronts the Slave Power, 1850–1858

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pp. 161-186

The decade of the 1850s was a period both pregnant with possibilities for abolitionist advancement and full of crushing setbacks to their cause at the hands of the Slave Power. No abolitionist victory seemed secure before an election, act of Congress, or judicial decision forced a reevaluation of their tactics and strategies. However, reformers in Oberlin viewed the events of the decade as a triumphant march toward emancipation, believing, in the...

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Chapter Eight: That Railroad Center at Which All Branches Converged: Oberlin and the Underground Railroad

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pp. 187-211

Nearly a half century after he first arrived as an undergraduate at Oberlin, James Fairchild remembered in his old age that the “irrepressible conflict between freedom and slavery in our land first appeared, in practical form, along the geographical line between free and slave territory.” On one side of that line, the Ohio River, could be found slaves desperate to escape their bondage. On the opposite shore was the prospect of freedom, “shadowy ...

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Chapter Nine: This Drama of Genuine Manhood and Courage: Oberlin and the Fight for Freedom

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pp. 212-238

As the sun was setting over Oberlin on September 13, 1858, one of its most prominent residents was returning from a legal engagement in an adjoining county. To his surprise, John Mercer Langston found “neither life nor stir in or about the village.” The whole town seemed to have left en masse.1 He soon solicited a quick account of the events of that day from one of the few residents left in town and headed with all haste toward Wellington, hoping ...

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EPILOUGE: Be Not Conformed to This World

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pp. 239-248

On November 8, 1864, Oberlinites gathered at the polls to reelect Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. Though the balloting was technically secret, the votes of most Oberlin men were already well known. Giles Shurtleff, an 1859 Oberlin College graduate, had arrived in town that afternoon with other members of the 5th United States Colored Regiment, of which he was commanding officer. Limping from unhealed wounds,...


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pp. 249-302

Works Cited

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pp. 303-322


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pp. 323-332

E-ISBN-13: 9781469618296
E-ISBN-10: 146961829X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781469618272
Print-ISBN-10: 1469618273

Page Count: 360
Illustrations: 30 halftones
Publication Year: 2014