Oberlin and the Liberal Tradition in Religion

According to the Work Projects Administration guide to Ohio (1962:363) written during the 1930s, Oberlin College, located in the center of the town of Oberlin, thirty-five miles southwest of Cleveland, is a liberal arts college with an average enrollment of 1,800 students and a faculty of 275. Its thirty-nine buildings are spread over the wooded campus, the central portion of which forms a public square in the center of the town. The college has a conservatory of music and a theological seminary that sends its graduates to every part of the world.

In 1832 John Jay Shipherd, a Presbyterian minister from Elyria, and Philo P. Steward, a missionary to the Indians, inspired by the example of an Alsatian pastor, John Frederick Oberlin, made plans to found a college where both men and women might be educated. Their plans received unexpected support from the troubles at another college.

The brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan were wealthy New York silk merchants and leading philanthropists. The Tappan brothers in December 1833 founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. They also provided much of the funding for Lane Seminary in Cincinnati. Calvin Stowe, the husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was professor of Biblical Literature there. At Lane a full-scale revolt broke out over the antislavery issue. The rebels, encouraged by the Tappans' generous support, decided to start a school of their own. There were going to be two Lane Seminaries. At that time the Reverend John Jay Shipherd of Oberlin Collegiate Institute invited the refugees to come to Oberlin.

In December of the following year Oberlin College opened with twenty-nine male and fifteen female students. At first women were eligible only for the preparatory course, but in 1837 four tremulous females applied for the regular college course. They were accepted, and Oberlin became the first coeducational college in the world. In 1850 Oberlin granted a theological degree to a woman (Ahlstrom 643). A memorial gateway was dedicated in 1937 at the celebration of the centennial of the beginning of coeducation on the college level.

While the emergence of the college as a bastion of abolitionism marked an important step in the development of American antislavery activism, it also laid the foundation for a uniquely tolerant community. One of the conditions on which the young radical seminarians had agreed to come to Oberlin was that the school begin admitting blacks. After the reluctant trustees consented, from 5 to 8 percent of the student body became black and this percentage stayed about the same throughout the nineteenth century. Almost overnight Oberlin became a haven of freedom and religious idealism. The town's abolitionist sentiments drew to the community many blacks who constitute today almost a fourth of the residents. Under the influence of abolitionist radicalism, the races mingled in town and college with a relative ease rare in ante-bellum America (Gerber 1976:12-13).

Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) was the father of modern revivalism. In 1835 he accepted an appointment as professor of theology in the newly founded Oberlin College. He also served as president of Oberlin from 1851 to 1866, and his dynamic presence made Oberlin a center of influence for revival theology (Ahlstrom :461). Late in the century the Anti-Saloon League was founded at Oberlin.

College Life at Oberlin

About the time that Vernon Johns came to Oberlin the community consisted of little more than the college buildings, the residences of the faculty, and a few stores. All the students at Oberlin knew each other, there being only about a thousand students at the time. Nearly all of the students came from within a small, homogeneous area (Mayer 1993:23). Two of the outstanding students at the time were Robert M. Hutchins and Thornton Wilder.

Hutchins was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1899, which made him about seven years younger than Johns. When he was a young lad, Hutchin's father, William James Hutchins, got a call inviting him to join the faculty at Oberlin. Kemper Fullerton, Hutchins's senior colleague at the Oberlin Theological Seminary, noted that Will Hutchins' example, more than any other influence, moved Fullerton "to live a Christ-like life" (Dzuback 1991:11). They lived at 95 Professor Street, a few blocks from the campus with its broad green and cluster of Victorian buildings.

Robert (Ashmore 1989:8-9) said that the area was "the hottest, coldest, wettest, flattest part of the state of Ohio, so uninteresting and disagreeable that Plum Creek, the arboretum, the reservoir, and even the cemetery seemed like scenic gems set in a dull setting of yellow mud." He said of the college: "When my father became a professor at Oberlin in 1907, whatever metropolitan flavor Brooklyn had given us was quickly drained away. We became residents of a Puritan island in the Middle West. Here communication and transportation were even more primitive. Church was, if anything, even more frequent. The town, and our lives in it, were dominated by the college. All the pleasures of the flesh were denied or decried." Oberlin was very strict. Drinking was not against the rules because nobody even contemplated so irrational an indulgence. The ultimate nonrationality came to the male students in the form of tobacco (Mayer 1993:21).

The college had been a station on the Underground Railroad, and in Robert's boyhood the campus still had two little red buildings crumbling away at the corners that had been used to house the fugitives on their way to Canada (Mayer 1993:15). The Martyr's Arch memorialized the Oberlin graduates who as missionaries had been killed in 1900 in the Boxer Rebellion. The arch itself was dedicated in 1903 and is located in the center of campus in Tappan Square. Oberlin was beset by a sense of mission abroad and at home, and a professorship of preaching was as much a ministry as the ministry itself.

Oberlin College: Tappan Square in the middle of the picture with a white arrow pointing to the Memorial Arch.

Plaque on the Memorial Arch.

The Memorial Arch looking towards Tappan Square.

The Memorial Arch looking towards Peters Hall.

Hutchins was a member of the Oberlin Review board and was a good debater in the Alpha Zeta debating society. The great extracurricular activity of the college was not intercollegiate athletics, but debating. Students joined literary societies rather than fraternities and sororities (Mayer 1993:20). There were many debates and lectures involving prominent progressives and socialists. John Spargo, socialist author of The Bitter Cry of Children, Raymond Robins, a Chicago-based social reformer, Scott Nearing, socialist and economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Steffens, journalist and reformer, Robert G. Macauley, editor of the Single Tax Review, and many others spoke in Oberlin while Hutchins was a student (Dzuback 1991:13-14).

Winifred Rauschenbusch (Oberlin Review, January 18, 1916:1), daughter of Walter Rauschenbusch of Rochester Theological Seminary and famous proponent of the social gospel, was president of the Oberlin Socialist Club. Walter Rauschenbusch was engaged to give two courses in the graduate school of theology in the winter semester of 1918. These courses substituted for a part of the work of Dean Fiske, who was to be absent on leave (Oberlin Review March 9, 1917:1).

The required freshman Bible course was the study of "the world of Jesus." It included the politics, geography, economy, religious and ecclesiastical culture, and living conditions of ordinary people in Palestine as well as background in the history of the Gospels.

Although rigorous academic standards were maintained, in the years before World War I the institution was characterized by one of its admirers as "more a cause than a college" (Ashmore 1989:9). Fifteen years out of college, Robert Hutchins found that if one of his classmates was actually engaged in making money he was almost always apologetic about it and insistent upon telling his fellow alumni privately that his own extracurricular life was devoted to civic betterment. It was an Oberlin assumption that a man might be rich or honorable, but hardly both" (Mayer 1993:15&19).

Children of Oberlin professors attended the four-year Oberlin Academy free. Robert Hutchins made a clean sweep of the academy's distinctions. As president of his freshman class he scaled the impressively high college heating-plant chimney by night to adorn it with his class numerals: 1919 (Mayer 1993:15&18). Hutchins's buddy was Thornton Wilder. One of Wilder's haunts was the home of Professor and Mrs. William Hutchins.

During World War I (entered by the United States on April 6, 1917), as an 18-year-old sophomore, Hutchins joined the army. Of Oberlin's 500 males students, 232 left school for one branch or another of the armed forces. The cultural shock of entering the army was tempered by the fact that section 587 of the US Army consisted entirely of Oberlin students organized as a unit of the Ambulance Service (Mayer 1993:29-30). After his tour of duty in the United States Army Ambulance Corps from 1917 to 1919, Hutchins returned to Oberlin for a summer and studied the history of philosophy and American history. Then he went to Yale University as a junior.

Wilder (Goldstone 1975:26) did not go into the army. His aspirations to serve were frustrated by his nearsightedness. Instead, in September 1917, he became a member of the class of 1920 of Yale University.

Hutchins became an outstanding proponent of civil rights. As president of the Fund for the Republic, he led the counterattack that is given primary credit for putting an end to McCarthyism. The Fund also became a mainstay of interracial agencies in the South during the disruptions that followed the Brown decision desegregating the public schools.

Blacks at Oberlin

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was a teacher, author, and civil rights leader. She received a B.A. in 1884 and an A.M. degree in 1888 from Oberlin. In her autobiography A Colored Woman in a White World (1940) she wrote of Oberlin: "As a colored girl at Oberlin, I was accorded the same treatment . . . at that time as a white girl under similar circumstances. Outward manifestation of prejudice against colored students would not have been permitted for one moment at that time by those in authority. . . . It would be difficult for a colored girl to go through a white school with fewer unpleasant experiences occasioned by race prejudice than I had." (quote in Gerber 1976:55)

Until the 1880s little outward discrimination existed at Oberlin; dormitories and eating facilities were integrated; some black students had white roommates and social organizations were generally mixed. But as a new generation of students unconnected with the antislavery movement came to Oberlin, racial incidents increased. In 1883 white girls at one dormitory refused to eat with black girls. In 1910 black students felt compelled to organize their own literary societies (these societies were becoming more like fraternities and sororities) because of white hostility toward them in existing organizations. President Henry Churchill King defended the white students as "merely representative of the attitude of the whole north toward the question. Of course they are not zealous advocates of equal rights for Negroes as were the early students," for times had changed (quoted in Biggleston 1971). In fact, by 1910 the racial climate was so severe that almost none of the missionary schools or churches any longer enjoyed even token integration (McPherson 1994:243). That Oberlin was in sympathy with Booker T. Washington is seen from the memorial services for Dr. Booker T. Washington in Oberlin (Oberlin Review November 26, 1915:2). President King gave the main address.

Vernon Johns at Oberlin

Why did Vernon Johns choose Oberlin? Chauncey Spencer said that "Vernon Johns discussed it with my parents, with my mother particularly. Benjamin H. Scott had attended Oberlin and when he came he talked so much about Oberlin and the opportunities" that this influenced Vernon Johns.

In writing of this period, Altona Johns reported that Vernon applied for admission before being kicked out at Virginia Seminary and was told that because Virginia Seminary was unrated he could not be admitted. This did stop Vernon. He got in because Dean Edward Increase Bosworth and the Oberlin faculty were so impressed by the constant flow of letters in well-written style that they voted to allow him to enter on probation for one semester only (Gandy 1977:xi).

Branch (1988:8) reports an alternate scenario. Johns left home with thirty dollars in his pocket and arrived at Oberlin with eleven dollars. Upon his arrival, Vernon Johns pushed his way into the dean's office, and announced that he was ready to begin classes. The dean informed him that he had already been turned down because of his worthless credits. "I got your letter, Dean Fiske," he replied. "But I want to know whether you want students with credits or students with brains."

The Dean handed him a book in German and demanded that Johns read it. The dean was shocked when Johns did. Dean Fiske sent Johns to see Dr. Edward Increase Bosworth (b. 1861), the eminent dean of Oberlin Seminary. Bosworth had been a student at Oberlin and received his A.B. from Yale in 1883. He returned to Oberlin to get his Bachelors of Divinity in 1886 and his Doctor of Divinity in 1901. Among his books were Studies in the Life of Jesus Christ (1904) and Christ in Everyday Life (1910). Bosworth tested Johns with a book of Greek scripture. Johns smiled because Greek was his favorite language. He even collected histories and poems in Greek. Bosworth enrolled Johns as a provisional student and by the end of the term he was so impressed that he took Johns on as his protegee. Johns became a full-fledged member of the graduate seminary. Bosworth (Boddie 1972:63) even helped find Vernon work as a part-time preacher so Johns could support himself. Johns was later to name his eldest child Increase in honor of his favorite professor and a proclivity for all things rural.

Of Vernon's arrival day, Gandy wrote that "Before the day was over he had his meals taken care of for his entire stay by promising to be on hand to say grace before meals at a boarding house operated by a kind, middle-aged Negro couple, a job making beds in the campus men's dormitory in which he lived, and a job secured for him by Dean Bosworth as pastor of a small congregation church in Painesville, Ohio. His academic work was such that at the end of the semester he was admitted as a full, regular student of the seminary."

A colleague once asked Bosworth "Who is the most promising student?" Bosworth replied "You don't know him; he's a Negro named Vernon Johns -- the only student who ever frightened me out of my boots when, in class, he raised a questioning hand, because I doubted my ability to answer correctly." Boddie (1972:64) writes that "His professors themselves stood at his feet and took notes during his recitations, often reversing the roles of Saul and Gamaliel."

Within the year, Johns displaced Robert M. Hutchins as class leader in scholarship. Hutchins declared that no country Negro could make the grades Johns was making without cheating. Johns heard about the insult. He confronted Hutchins on campus, called him a son of a bitch, and punched him in the mouth. (The two later became good friends and remained so throughout Hutchins' long tenure as president of the University of Chicago.)

Reverend Robert B. Powell (in Johns 1977) tells the story a little differently. He remembered that Johns was so fantastic and original in his selection of sermon subjects and their treatment that a few of his jealous classmates hinted that he was using other persons' thoughts. One was Robert Hutchins. Johns called him an s.o.b. and knocked him down. Hutchins later repented and called Johns the greatest preacher of Oberlin.

Apparently Hutchins was not really that scholarly of a student for he was actually quite mischievous and fun-loving. He said that "I do not remember that I ever thought about being educated at all. I thought of getting through school." His formal education when he left Oberlin at the end of his sophomore year, had given him no understanding of science, mathematics, or philosophy and a short while after leaving Oberlin he found himself unable to read either Latin or Greek (Mayer 1993:21&22).


Painesville, Ohio is the county seat of Lake County.  It is located thirty miles east of Cleveland and two-and-a-half miles south of Lake Erie on the Grand River.  General Edward Paine was the founder of  the town.  He was born in Connecticut in 1746 and moved to New York where he was active in the New York state militia.  The town was laid out in 1803.  One of the early businesses of the town was the manufacturing of iron.  It was not until 1902 that Painesville officially became a city.  Lake Erie College on Route 20 (Mentor Avenue) is located in Painesville.  

Carl Thomas Engel (town historian of Painesville) sent the senior author the following e-mail (September 26, 1999; slightly modified here).  There are two older African-American congregations in Painesville, one Congregational and the other Baptist. They share a common origin, which also makes it sometimes difficult to separate the history of the two.  And at times it seems that the feelings between the two were less than cordial.

In 1879 [PT 1888 JAN 26, p. 3, col. 4] a Union Chapel was organized in Painesville. It was not to be a church, but a place for “prayer and praise meetings, and for such other purposes as may tend to improve spiritually and mentally the youth of our people.” But it was not their intention for those meeting at the chapel “to disunite our membership from different churches in town.” [PT 1881 DEC 22, p. 3, col. 7]

In May 1882 the Union Chapel purchased a lot on Matthews Street intending to erect thereon a suitable house of worship. [PT 1882 MAY 18, p. 3, col. 2] In September 1882 the chapel was dedicated, the ceremonies led by Rev. G. R. Merrill, of First Church Congregational. [PT 1882 SEP 7, p. 3, col. 3; 1882 SEP 14, p. 3, col. 4]

By February 1893 a Sunday school had established, and a library for it was being organized. Among the donations were books from First Church Congregational and a bookcase from the Disciples Church. [PT 1893 FEB 15, p. 3, col. 5]

In 1893 there appears to have been a split among the various factions that had comprised the Union Chapel. In a letter from a member of the Chapel to the editor of the Painesville Telegraph, the paper was asked to state that the Union Chapel had no part in the new church known as St. John’s Free Will Baptist. [PT 1893 MAY 17, p. 1, col. 6]

In May 1894 a new church was organized at the Chapel to be called Union Congregational Church. Exercises were conducted by Rev. John Henry House, D.D., at the request of Mr. J. Bond, who was called as pastor. [PT 1894 MAY 23, p. 3, col. 3]

In regards to Rev. Johns pastorate are these two newspaper articles: PT 1919 MAR 22 p. 1, col. 3: Rev. Johns of Union Congregational Church Resigns.   Rev. Vernon N. Johns, who came to this city in October, 1915, and assumed the pastorate of the Union Congregational church, will conclude his services as pastor of the church Sunday.   Rev. Johns tendered his resignation early in January owing to a misunderstanding as to certain funds, and at a church meeting a few days later it was accepted. Rev. Johns has made many friends here and has shown himself to be a scholarly gentleman in every respect. It was largely through his efforts that the new church building was completed.

Although Rev. Johns served as pastor of the Painesville church during his entire course in Oberlin, he won a $50 prize for high grade scholarship. He received the Bachelor's degree in Divinity from Oberlin college in 1918, and was chosen by the graduating class to give the memorial arch oration. Upon leaving Oberlin he declined a pastorate paying more than double that paid in the Painesville church.  Rev. Johns will enter the University of Chicago the first of April for further degrees.

PT 1922 JUL 15 PAINESVILLE TELEGRAPH CENTENNIAL EDITION p. 16, col. 1: Union Congregational Church Union Congregational Church, colored, was founded in 1894 and for many years was ministered to by students of Oberlin College, who were preparing for the ministry. In 1917 the church had its first resident pastor when Rev. Vernon Johns came to Painesville. He was succeeded by Rev. Fletcher Bryant.

In 1918 during Rev. Mr. Johns ministry the present church building at the corner of Jackson and Jefferson streets was erected. A pipe organ was installed in October, 1921. The church also owns a parsonage, located on Jefferson street immediately back of the church.  

St. John's Free Will Baptist Church for Colored People was Painesville's first black Baptist church (organized in 1898).  It began on West Washington Street.  Around 1950 the city bought the property from the church and constructed the present Harvey High School on the property (West Washington and Wood Street).   The present St. John's Baptist church was built in 1951 at 361 West Jackson Street.  

In August 1999 I talked to Deacons Cliff Bolling and Delvin Forte who told me a little about the history of the church.  Deacon Bolling said that he was told that the old church building was moved to Frederic Street (on the left hand side as you go down this dead end street). Unless you know exactly which house, you cannot find the former church because all the houses look very similar in style and construction, many of them now with aluminum siding.  

Vernon Johns could have traveled to Painesville via the electric car system.  According to Paul R. Bosley, Sr. (1974), in 1918 an inter-urban electric car system came out Euclid Avenue to Willoughby.  The system was known as the Cleveland, Painesville, and Eastern system (which opened for operation in 1896).  Bosley writes that "bright shiny trains and steaming puffy engines came from Cleveland and made stops at all the towns." He described Painesville as "a quiet New England type town with a little square in the center  . . . and around it were several examples of good and interesting architecture. "At times the cars could got sixty miles per hour.  In Painesville the cars went down Mentor Avenue (now U.S. Route 20).  Later one could ride the cars to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.    

More about Oberlin

In 1918 many Oberlin students and teachers were involved with World War I. For instance, Professor Hutchins had left Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama and conferred with the Y.M.C.A. workers in all the military camps of the Southern district. Dean Bosworth conferred with the Y.M.C. A. workers of the Great Lakes training station during the last week of Christmas vacation (Oberlin Review, January 18, 1918).

Vernon Johns did not go into the army. He was twenty-five years old. Instead, he graduated in the spring of 1918. Just before this, he was chosen to deliver the annual student oration at the Memorial Arch, dedicated to the Oberlin students killed in China's Boxer Rebellion. He was elected by his class to give the Arch oration. The address was given annually by a member at the arch exercises, which took place during the regular chapel exercises on the graduate school commencement day, May 22, of the senior class in honor of the martyrs of the American board who gave their lives in Shansi province during the Boxer uprising (Oberlin Review, April. 16, 1918:1).

On May 22, Wednesday, in the Finney chapel, Vernon Johns appealed to the then present generation of Christian workers to maintain the ideals of the martyrs of the past. He spoke on "Keeping Faith with the Martyrs". He declared that the foreign missionaries were the prophets of a new order of world federation and brotherhood.

The response was from the Rev. Edward B. Haskell of the graduate school of theology, 1891. Rev. Haskell had been a classmate of several of the Oberlin men who met death in China. He declared that the missionaries are the shock troops of the great army of Christianity. He also spoke of the advantages of serving in the field foreign missionary work, including adventure, empire building, and true Christian service. .

Gandy (1977:xi) wrote that "His youthful fury at what he felt was racial injustice meted out to helpless Negroes in the Prince Edward County Court House interested him in becoming a lawyer. While at Oberlin he received a scholarship to enter Western Reserve Law School. That night he had a vivid dream from which he said he awoke with a start." He dreamed that he entered a clothing store handling costumers. He asked to be fitted for a suit. The clerk had him try on various types of suits. Not one fit. Finally, the clerk brought a minister's attire which fit perfectly. Vernon knew that this meant he was to abandon at once his idea of ever considering law.

Johns said his Oberlin experiences made him realize that all white people were not the same. The kindness and love he received at Oberlin warmed his spirit. His teachers, Dean Bosworth and Doctors Henry Churchill King, George W. Fiske, William Hutchins, Kemper Fullerton, and William Lyman remained his life long friends. When he was inaugurated as president of Virginia Seminary, Oberlin sent Dr. Fiske to speak and represent the Seminary (Gandy 1977:xii). Today there is a bench on Oberlin College campus called the Vernon Johns bench. (Adkins 1993).

In the 1948 (p. 192) list of Oberlin graduates Vernon N. Johns is listed with the class of 1918 "D.B., Th.B. (Virginia Theological Seminary and College) '15. Writer and Lecturer, Farmville Val, R.D.3."  In the 1960 (p. 206) list of Oberlin graduates he is listed as Vernon N. Johns "Clergyman, residence Baltimore 17, Md, 1434 McCulloh Street."

After Oberlin

Rev. William J. Hutchins received appointment as one of the Ohio state code writers in the national morality codes of $5000 competition. Seventy people were selected by the National Institution for Moral Instruction of Washington to write the code (Oberlin Review, April 25, 1916). His contribution was declared best and he won the $5000 prize. (Oberlin Review March 12, 1918) The code has two parts: one for elementary school children, and the other for high school boys and girls.

The Oberlin College archives provided a number of letters between Professor Fiske and Vernon Johns. Writing from his ministerial position at Painesville, Ohio, December 30, 1918, Vernon Johns send a $20 dollar check in a letter to Professor Fiske at Oberlin. He wrote "I am sending a check for twenty dollars to be applied on the money loan. I hope this may at least knock off the rough edges of my debt. Professor, I am very anxious to have a few copies of Mr. Hutchins' Code of Morals for Children. If you can secure them for me I should be very grateful."

Professor Fiske wrote back on January 2, 1919. He said "Yours of the 30th received. I thank you for the twenty dollar check to repay a part of your debt to the Loan Fund. It will be a relief to you when you succeed in paying off the entire debt but do not hamper yourself by doing it too rapidly. . . Mr. Hutchin's Code is circulated by the College Office. I will pass on to them your request and you will doubtless receive them in a few days. I was much interested in your Christmas Week Program. Evidently you are having a good lively winter in your church. I trust you gave the Kaiser what he deserved last Saturday night. Drop in and see us again the next time you are in Oberlin."

On February 24, 1919 Vernon Johns wrote Professor Fiske again saying "I am going to leave my Painesville parish the last of March and I am very anxious to have you preach at one of our Sunday services before that date. It will be a very great pleasure and help to my people to meet and hear the man who was first to make me feel comfortable and at home in Ohio."

Fiske on March 6, 1919 replied that he could not accept the invitation to speak before Johns's parish. He wrote that "I am declining everything now in order to stay at home with Mrs. Fiske whose health is bad again." He added "I am interested to know that you are to leave soon. You do not say what your plans are but I presume you are going to accept an opportunity in or near your old college. If I can ever be of any assistance to you in securing a new place please give me the chance, and always be sure to let me know of your change in address."


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