- Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism: College, Community, and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in Antebellum America by J. Brent Morris
In Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism: College, Community, and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in the Antebellum Era, J. Brent Morris charts the growth of the college and town from their rocky beginnings to a bastion in the fight against slavery in America. In the course of doing so, he argues the Oberlin reformers remained committed to seeking practical ways to fight slavery. Unlike abolitionists in the East, they concentrated on concrete ways to end slavery and largely avoided the doctrinal conflicts that rent older abolitionist movements in the East. Moreover, Oberlinites spread throughout the West, disseminating their practical approach to reform based on example rather than simply words. Morris argues, convincingly, that Oberlin, and its influence in the West, created a fertile ground for the spread of reform unencumbered by the schisms among eastern abolitionists.
Oberlin, both the college and the town, sprang from the vision of the Reverend John Jay Shipherd, a pastor who had been involved in religious revivals in western New York, and his friend Philo Penfield Stewart. The pair felt a calling to create a utopian revival community in the then–sparsely settled area of Ohio. The new community and school attracted prominent supporters, including the famed evangelical Charles Grandison Finney. With Finney’s arrival, money from the coffers of prominent eastern abolitionists, most notably the New York brothers Arthur and Lewis [End Page 88] Tappan, began to flow in, facilitating the expansion. The path of the college was not easy, as the school leaders had to fight off attempts by other Ohioans to revoke the school’s charter and limit its activities.
At Oberlin, the community strove against sin in all its forms, “not just slavery but gender and racial discrimination, as well as the closely related greed and class conflict that were dividing the nation” (64). As Morris describes, this approach resulted in a remarkably forward-thinking and integrated community. From the start, the Oberlin way focused on putting reform and utopian ideals into practice. It enrolled both African American students and women, and it required manual labor on the part of all its enrollees as a step to help erase class differences. Between the rigorous academic program and the Oberlin ethos, the school produced a large number of dedicated reformers who spread throughout the country.
Crucially, the high proportion of African Americans who attended the college and lived in the town of Oberlin helped keep the focus of abolitionists on pragmatic means to end slavery. As Morris points out, although the proportion of African Americans at the college remained low—between 2 percent and 5 percent of the student body at any given time—these numbers far outstripped African American enrollment at any other college. African Americans both at the school and in the town helped push the community toward practical abolitionism, as they “appreciated the value of anything that could be used to their advantage . . . as an emancipatory tool” (165). This influence helped steer Oberlin toward attempting to end slavery rather than debating abolitionist ideology.
Oberlin’s focus on the extirpation of sin in America, and abolitionism, helped its reformers avoid doctrinal conflicts regarding abolitionism. Indeed, the college had inculcated heterogeneity in its teachings, which made it “much better able to accommodate the differences that disturbed eastern antislavery unity” (108). This approach allowed the Oberlin reformers to focus their activities on leading by example, engaging in partisan politics, and assisting fugitive slaves through the Underground Railroad. Morris concludes by showing how Oberlin students participated in the Civil War.
Morris, in his well-written book, has demonstrated how Oberlin provided a place in the North for the “unparalleled free discussion of abolitionism and the development of independent ideology and practical plans of action” (3). He focuses on the actions of the Oberlin reformers, rather than solely on their rhetoric, and...