Oberlin College Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Oberlin College was the first coeducational institution of higher education in the United States—graduating the first woman in the United States to be ordained to the Christian ministry—and was a center of theological training for students of all races.

Summary of Event

In 1825, the celebrated Presbyterian Presbyterians revivalist Charles Grandison Finney appeared in Utica, New York, where he recruited twenty-two-year-old Theodore Weld into his “holy band” of evangelists. Weld, who enrolled in the Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York, to prepare for the ministry, also became an exponent of emancipation. Weld’s devotion to the antislavery movement was inspired by his close friend, Charles Stuart, a Utica schoolteacher and member of Finney’s holy band, who was an avid opponent of slavery. Oberlin College;founding of Education;higher [kw]Oberlin College Opens (Dec. 3, 1833) [kw]College Opens, Oberlin (Dec. 3, 1833) [kw]Opens, Oberlin College (Dec. 3, 1833) Oberlin College;founding of Education;higher [g]United States;Dec. 3, 1833: Oberlin College Opens[1840] [c]Education;Dec. 3, 1833: Oberlin College Opens[1840] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 3, 1833: Oberlin College Opens[1840] [c]Women’s issues;Dec. 3, 1833: Oberlin College Opens[1840] Bradley, James Blackwell, Antoinette Brown Finney, Charles Grandison Shipherd, John J. Stewart, Philo Penfield Weld, Theodore Dwight Stuart, Charles Tappan, Arthur Tappan, Lewis

In 1830, Weld met Arthur and Lewis Tappan, New York City merchants and philanthropists who were financing Finney’s revival movement. Weld sought to persuade them to establish a theological seminary for preparing Finney’s converts for the ministry. In 1831, Arthur Tappan agreed to Weld’s suggestion and asked him to find a suitable site for the proposed seminary. Weld selected the already established Cincinnati’s Lane Theological Seminary Lane Theological Seminary Cincinnati;Lane Theological Seminary , which Tappan pledged to endow. He also helped appoint well-respected scholars to its faculty. Most of the students who enrolled in the school were Finney’s converts. The Lane Seminary instantly became a center of debate on the slavery question, as Weld’s students demanded immediate emancipation.

Weld’s tenure at Lane Seminary proved to be of short duration. Cincinnati Cincinnati;and slavery[Slavery] was so close to the slave area and so dependent on southern trade that the trustees of the seminary ordered all discussion of the explosive slavery issue to cease immediately. Faced with that administrative injunction, Weld and most of his students who opposed slavery withdrew from the school, establishing their own seminary in Cumminsville, Ohio.

The Reverend John J. Shipherd Shipherd, John J. , a Presbyterian minister, and Philo Penfield Stewart Stewart, Philo Penfield , who had been a missionary to the Choctaw Indians, had founded the community of Oberlin in Lorain County, Ohio. In 1832, Shipherd and Stewart conceived a plan to establish the community that they hoped would also serve as the site for a theological school. Shipherd wanted such an institution because, as he observed in 1832, “The growing millions of the Mississippi Valley are perishing through want of well-qualified minister and teachers.”

On December 3, 1833, the Oberlin Collegiate Institute—named in honor of Jean F. Oberlin, an Alsatian clergyman, educator, and philanthropist—opened its doors. The school was founded on Oberlin’s “manual labor plan,” which had gained popularity at American seminaries during the late 1820’s. Strict adherence to a program of manual labor was believed to be a panacea for both the physical and moral ills that threatened students while attending school. Original plans for Oberlin contemplated only a college preparatory program. After consulting with his colleagues, however, Shipherd decided that the college should offer a collegiate curriculum, including a department of theology. He then invited Weld and the “Lane rebels” to join Oberlin.

Moved by the prospect of having, in a single institution, a school for the Lane rebels, a place to educate African Americans, and a platform from which to promote abolition, Tappan financially supported Oberlin, as he had Lane Seminary, saving the school from financial collapse. Weld’s students were placed under the tutelage of Charles Grandison Finney Finney, Charles Grandison , who, in 1835, was invited by the trustees of Oberlin to establish the department of theology at the school. The prospects of bringing both the slavery issue and African American students to the school aroused a storm of opposition in the community, leading to six unsuccessful attempts in the Ohio state legislature to revoke the college’s charter. In 1835, Oberlin’s trustees, under the threat of losing the Tappans’ Tappan, Lewis Tappan, Arthur financial support, approved admission of students “without respect to color” by a margin of one vote. In 1836, James Bradley, an African American, was admitted to the Sheffield Manual Labor Institute, a branch preparatory school established by Oberlin.

Faculty and student body of Oberlin College in front of the college’s Memorial Hall in 1906.

(Library of Congress)

From Oberlin’s Oberlin College;and women[Women] opening in 1835, the trustees approved the admission of women, although initially restricting them to the preparatory program. The event heralded the beginning of collegiate-level coeducation for women in the United States. In September, 1837, Oberlin gained distinction as the first coeducational institution to offer the degree of bachelor of arts to women. Four women who had completed Oberlin’s preparatory program were then admitted to the regular curriculum as freshmen. Three of them, Mary Hosford, Mary Kellog, and Caroline Mary Rudd, received bachelor of arts degrees in 1841.

“The work of female education,” Stewart wrote in 1837,

must be carried on in some form, and in a much more efficient manner than it has hitherto, or our country will go to destruction. For I believe that there is no other way to secure success to our great moral enterprises than to make prevalent the right kind of education for women.

Despite Stewart’s enthusiasm, however, fewer than six other colleges in the country followed Oberlin’s example before the Civil War (1861-1865).

Oberlin restricted women by refusing to allow them to address mixed audiences, thus preventing them from presenting their graduation orations. Admission to the theological seminary also was barred to women. However, in 1847, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Antoinette Brown (later Blackwell) and Lettice Smith began attending classes in the Theological Institute as “resident graduates pursuing the theological course.” Both completed the course. Smith married, but Brown, denied ordination at Oberlin, persisted until she was ordained over the church at South Butler, New York, thus becoming the first woman in the United States ordained to the Christian ministry.

Oberlin’s first commencement exercises took place on September 14, 1836, when more than two thousand people witnessed fifteen men graduate from the Theological Institute. In the 1841 commencement, three of the four female students who had entered the freshman class in 1837 received the bachelor of arts degree, along with their nine male classmates. Those three women were the first women in the country to be awarded bachelor’s degrees in a collegiate program identical in content to that required of male students pursuing the same degree.


During its first years, the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, formally renamed Oberlin College in 1850, was primarily a religious school. Finney had agreed to teach there in order to train evangelists, and he believed that the conversion of sinners was prerequisite to the millennium that, when attained, would permit other reforms to come about. In his commencement address of 1851, Finney reminded graduates that they had been educated in what he referred to as “God’s College.” As a member of Oberlin’s faculty, and then as president of the school between 1851 and 1866, Finney endeavored to preserve that emphasis. Oberlin emerged from its first years of existence as the nation’s first coeducational institution of higher education based on the traditional curriculum, and as a vibrant center of theological training.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fletcher, Robert S. A History of Oberlin College from Its Foundation Through the Civil War. 2 vols. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College Press, 1943. A solid, incisive study of Oberlin’s role and place in nineteenth century intellectual life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hosford, Frances Juliette. Father Shipherd’s Magna Charta: A Century of Coeducation in Oberlin College. Boston: Marshall Jones, 1937. Relates accomplishments of various women students and women educators at Oberlin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lasser, Carol. Educating Men and Women Together: Coeducation in a Changing World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, in conjunction with Oberlin College, 1987. Symposium on coeducation, with many references to Oberlin’s influence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lasser, Carol, and Marlene Merrill, eds. Friends and Sisters: Letters Between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1846-93. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Letters of Lucy Stone and her personal thoughts, views on women’s rights, and half-century friendship with Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Oberlin graduate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Soul Mates: The Oberlin Correspondence of Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown, 1846-1850. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College, 1983. Letters between two feminists and abolitionists provide insight regarding Oberlin’s influence in these movements
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tewksbury, Donald G. The Founding of American Colleges and Universities Before the Civil War, with Particular Reference to the Religious Influences Bearing upon the College Movement. New York: AMS Press, 1965. A general survey placing Oberlin’s emergence in context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodson, Carter G. The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. New York: Arno Press, 1968. A general survey of African Americans and education.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woody, Thomas. A History of Women’s Education in the United States. 2 vols. New York: Octagon Books, 1966. A general survey of women and education.

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Categories: History