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Oberlin
Unmasked

by Delazon Smith, a Student

Written 1837
Condensed 2019

~

Preface by TBT.

Conduct and Character
of the Church.

Introduction.

Conduct and Character, Concluded.

Course of Study,
and Manual Labor.

Abolition.

Board and
Mode of Living.

Intolerance or
Suppression of Opinion.

Connexion of Male and
Female Departments.

Concluding Remarks.

 

Disclaimer, by an Alumnus:  After its rather rocky first decade, Oberlin College has become much more worthy of our support....

..

 

Concluding Remarks.

Were I to be judged with the Institution's judgment for my presumption in giving this exposition to the public, I have reason to expect that nothing short of death might be looked for at their hands.  (This might seem to be an unwarranted conclusion, yet from past experience I am persuaded that the conclusion is fully justifiable.)

I do not wish to burden the public with tedious accounts relative to myself, but the facts are too important to be suppressed and the authors of them should be exposed.  I cannot forbear giving a brief sketch of their conduct in a few particulars.

I entered the Institution in July, 1835, and commenced a course of study preparatory to the Christian ministry.  I continued “steadfast in the faith,” a member of the Church and of the Institution, for more than a year.  I was in “full and perfect fellowship” with my brethren of the Church and a strenuous advocate for the Christian religion.

But then some eight months ago, on a public occasion at Oberlin in the fall of 1836, I informed the Church that I felt constrained, after as full as investigation as I had been enabled to bestow upon the subject, to differ with them in regard to the doctrines of their religion.  This announcement was the signal for a general set-to.

Robert Samuel Fletcher implies in chapter 28 of A History of Oberlin College that Smith rejected all Christianity, not just the local version:

In November of 1836 Smith announced to the Oberlin church, of which he had become a member upon entering the Institute, his total disavowal of the Christian religion.  The Oberlin Fathers were not likely long to tolerate what they considered atheism in their midst.

Intolerance and persecution were now aroused.  Every man's brow was set, every countenance fixed, and every man's hand was against me.  I came to them as an inquirer, but I was spurned and denounced with all the envy, hatred, malice, and uncharitableness that priestcraft, superstition, and sectarian zeal could invent.

I told them, if they would but hoist the honest flag and “give open sea and fair play,” we could reason together and endeavor to arrive at the truth, and, when once ascertained, practice it together with brotherly affection.

But no.  They declared that they would not countenance difference of opinion by permitting discussion.

They undoubtedly thought thus to drive me to a compliance with their views, as they had found this a very successful course in other instances.  But I, concluding that truth was better than error, determined to stand by the former.

I was well aware that this would be at the expense of loss of reputation in this community, where a difference of opinion on what they deem fundamental principles is a crime of great enormity.  I knew that I would receive all the injuries they were capable of inflicting.

 

Harrass the Infidel!

My expectations were soon realized. One of the first attempts of the Church and officers and students of the Institution was to traduce my character, blast my reputation, and thus destroy my influence.

I had been a member of their Church for a long time, and no complaint was ever made to me.  All appeared satisfied with my moral and religious character.  But I had now the “awful presumption and temerity” to differ from them in opinion and to openly announce that difference.  Therefore I could not be tolerated within the limits of their “consecrated ground.”

 

Starve the Infidel!

For the purpose of effecting their object, one of the first efforts was to drive me from the public house, where I was then taking my meals. The Faculty called upon the landlord and, by threats and promises, tried to persuade him to dismiss me as a boarder.

For a time he could not be induced to gratify their malicious feelings. But through the influence of the Faculty, the pious students who were boarding at the public house drew up a petition and presented it to the landlord.  They affirmed that, unless I was dismissed, they should all quit his house, because it was not safe to remain in company with one differing so widely with them in sentiment.  The influence of mind upon mind was such that they might be led astray.

This had the desired effect, and I was informed by my host that, “against his own wishes,” I must leave.  I informed him that it would be very inconvenient for me to leave immediately.  At the same time I tendered him the money for a weeks' board in advance; this he refused.  I then called for victuals by the meal; this too was denied me.

I then told them that I would not leave the place, but that at the usual hour of meals I should repair to the tavern as usual and seat myself at the table, unless prohibited by brute force.  I executed this vow with tolerable success for a time, until another effort was put forth by the Faculty — some of whom stated that they would not assist me to a meal if I were to starve to death!  However, I succeeded in obtaining 41 meals, for which I paid as I received them, one by one.

 

Withhold Lodging and Membership!

Their next effort was to get me removed from the room I was occupying, supposing that they could prevent my obtaining another. But through the liberality of N.P. Fletcher, I was permitted to retain my room. This gentleman declared his determination to conduct towards men according to their moral characters and not their religious opinions.

Being defeated here, their next resort was to expel me from the different societies with which I was connected, on the charge of holding and expressing different sentiments from those generally taught here.  I gave a full account of their proceedings on one of these occasions in the Boston Investigator of April 28.  Since I had found a friend in the person of Mr. Fletcher, their every effort seemed exhausted.

Although six months had elapsed since the announcement of my present sentiments, not one word had as yet been said to me by the Church.  Therefore my connection with them, as a Church member, now presented one more means of torture.

A committee was appointed to confer with me, for the purpose of ascertaining if I had determined to quit my membership and “walk with them no more.”  Being of course answered in the negative, the Church were then publicly urged to treat me as “a heathen man and a publican.”

More from Fletcher:

Asahel Munger, a colonist and later a missionary in Oregon, brought charges against Smith before the church in February.  A committee headed by Professor Morgan, being appointed to confer with him, reported that “said Delazon Smith distinctly stated that he does not believe in the divine origin of the Bible or in the efficacy of prayer.”  On March 3, 1837, he was excommunicated by a unanimous vote.

I now pass to delineate a brief account of their brotherly affection as manifested towards me on my departure from the place, which took place on the 19th of June.

 

The Unpaid Debt

About a year before, a theological student and I had mutually given our note to the landlord for the payment of a small sum of money. All parties agreed that payment would not be required until the student paid me for services then being rendered.  Because he had not yet done so, I called upon the note-holder and made an arrangement he agreed to as satisfactory.

But on the morning of leaving Oberlin, I found that a change had come over his spirit.  The self-condemned brethren of the Church and institution — including the dear student who was equally obligated with myself for the payment of the note — were very assiduously inducing the landlord to prosecute for payment.  Knowing full well that I was on the point of leaving for Cleveland with this pamphlet (in manuscript) entitled Oberlin Unmasked, they endeavored to secure the manuscript, or my person, or both.

 

Arrest

Accordingly, after having entered the vehicle, I was apprehended by the pious constable and dragged before the pious justice of the peace.  On inquiring for the authority by which I was thus arrested and retained in custody, I was presented with several ficticious or spurious charges, evidently for the purpose of detaining me until the brother holding the note could make necessary preparation for securing his object.

I was then insulted and abused by three-fourths of the citizens, from the right Reverends down to the general agent and their subordinates.  The pious justice permitted each of them to assert their opinion of law, justice, and the guilt and ill desert of the heretic who now stood before them as a prisoner.  It was determined that I should be conducted to the county jail.


Drawnry Howe, 1846 Engraving from a drawing by Henry Howe, 1846

Whilst a vehicle was being prepared, the pious prosecutor was asked to state the ground of justification.  He declared that I was an Infidel and deserved to be punished.

On leaving for the county seat of Elyria, “all hands were on deck,” rejoicing with exceeding great joy over their brightening prospects.  They had thus far secured the Infidel, and now my written exposition of their conduct would be withheld from the public. Even the pious officer into whose charge I was committed was very careful to observe the command, “rejoice with those that rejoice.”

But oh, ah, alas, what was his chagrin when on arriving at Elyria, he learned that the entire course being pursued was wholly illegal and that he himself was liable for false imprisonment.  The constable soon made his escape for Oberlin.

Thus relieved from the company of my pious brethren and having been conducted thus far towards Cleveland, I proceeded on my journey.  “Dear damned distracted town, farewell!”

 

Will the President Offer a Rebuttal?


President Asa Mahan

Since my arrival in Cleveland, I have learned that President Mahan was very anxious that he should supply an exposition of my character to accompany the one I was giving of theirs.

I have very kindly offered him the privilege of annexing the number of pages required.  But as yet, no manuscript has appeared.

Come, O do, President Mahan!  Who knows but that you may, by annexing some ten pages, counteract (at least in some degree) my eighty.

Perhaps, sir, you are not aware that I am enlarging my field of operations.  Already the people manifest an anxiety to hear, with frequent calls to lecture.

On the Fourth of July, I had the pleasure of addressing a large audience of intelligent men and women who were disposed to be liberal and to appreciate the views of Free Enquirers. Since then, called to lament the loss of a beloved child, I have addressed a bereaved family.

And notwithstanding that you have prayed and expected God would kill me, I yet enjoy good health and trust that I shall live to do a vast deal of good.

To this end, every effort that can be made shall be made to disabuse the public mind in reference to your peculiarly pious and amalgamated Institution.


~~~~ DELAZON SMITH.
 ~~~~~~ Cleveland, July 26, 1837.

 


 

Editor's Postscript:

Smith had 2,000 copies of this little book printed in August.  According to Robert Samuel Fletcher, “probably as many people in the late thirties and early forties knew Oberlin through Delazon Smith's pamphlet as knew it through the Evangelist [Finney].”

But in the 182 years since its publication, Oberlin has become much less “peculiarly pious.”  Strict adherence to religious doctrines and fad diets is a thing of the past, daily Chapel attendance is no longer required, and the last School of Theology students left for Tennessee half a century ago.  In fact, niche.com now ranks Oberlin the third most liberal college in America.
 


 
Its students do believe that one person can change the world!

 

TBT

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