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Oberlin
Unmasked

by Delazon Smith,
a Student

Written 1837
Condensed 2019

Preface
By Tom Thomas, 2019

 

A “co-ed dorm” is a college dormitory with bedrooms for both men and women students under the same roof.  This was once a scandalous idea.  It was not until about a year after I graduated in 1969 that Oberlin College in Ohio established its first co-ed dorm.

But men and women shared the same building at Oberlin long before that.  Long, long before.

The period from 1831 to 1838 may be considered the peak of the religious upheaval known as the Second Great Awakening.  Joseph Smith and his young Mormon sect were based in Ohio at the time, and in 1832 the prophet spoke in Amherst near Lake Erie.  Reformers in the northern states were becoming more convinced that slaveholding could no longer be tolerated.  Great Britain outlawed slavery in the Abolition Act of 1833, which also applied to Canada. 

Also in 1833, seven miles south of Amherst, a Presbyterian minister and a missionary established a college to “train Christian leaders for the boundless, most desolate fields in the West,” where “the growing millions of the Mississippi Valley are perishing through want of well-qualified ministers and school teachers.” 

They erected a building, Oberlin Hall, and the Oberlin Collegiate Institute opened on December 3, 1833.  There were 44 students, including 15 women — a novelty at the time.

These were not local young people; the location was in the middle of an unpopulated forest.  But the Institute was only eleven miles south from Black River Port (Lorain) on Lake Erie, so it was “easy of access to youth from the East” who “on their own account made their way to the school in the wilderness.”  Seven different states were represented, from New Hampshire to Michigan.

After a year and a half of operation, the college still had only the one building.  Everything was within its walls:  lecture room, meeting house, chapel, college office, professors' quarters, private rooms for men and women students, and a boarding hall where they could take their meals.  But things were changing rapidly.

1835  Construction began on a larger edifice, to be known as Tappan Hall.

1835  Cincinnati's Lane Seminary having voted to prohibit antislavery agitation, the abolitionist convictions of Asa Mahan (on the left below) led him to resign from Lane and move north.  He became Oberlin's first president.

1835  Charles Grandison Finney, the famous revivalist (on the right), arrived in May to become a professor of systematic theology.

1835  The Anti Slavery Society of Oberlin was founded in June with hundreds of names affixed to the charter.

1835  Black students were admitted to the college for the first time.

1835  And July marked the arrival of another new student, 18-year-old Delazon Smith.  On the right, we see him as he appeared twenty-some years later.

From his home in New Berlin, New York, Smith had set out on foot for the Western frontier in 1831.  When he heard of a new college in Ohio where a young man could meet his expenses through daily labor, he headed to Oberlin.  However, he lasted less than two years.  Disagreeing with the faculty's religious doctrines, he was expelled in June of 1837.

Smith promptly exacted his revenge by publishing a pamphlet known as Oberlin Unmasked.  The title page called it simply “A History of Oberlin.”  The alternate title, “New Lights of the West,” was probably meant sarcastically.

The author, not yet 21 years old, detailed the failings of this supposedly utopian colony.  He wrote that it was rife with insincere theology, illicit sexual relationships, and “amalgamation” of blacks with whites.  Smith had been appalled in the fall of 1836 when the town gave its support to the Underground Railroad, which illegally abetted escaped slaves fleeing to Canada.

He couldn't even stand the food.  Oberlin's abstemious diet was inspired by Sylvester Graham, who preached against the evils of eating meat and drinking alcohol.  Graham crackers were named after him, and he wrote his own book in 1837, Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making, which recommended whole-grain bread made from flour coarsely ground at home with no added spices or other “stimulants.”

If meat is harmful to our health, asked Delazon Smith as a student, how has the human race managed to survive so long while eating it?  Perhaps, he suggested in jest, it's a slow-acting poison that takes years to kill us.  How many years?  Threescore and ten, of course.  (Modern vegetarians might agree.)

Oberlin's bland fare led to dissatisfaction and hunger among the students.  Finally, a professor was fired for bringing a pepper shaker to the dining hall, and a mass protest in 1841 ended the experiment.

James Fairchild had enrolled in 1834, and he would become president of the college in 1866.  In 1860 he remembered Delazon Smith as “a renegade student, excommunicated from the Oberlin Church for infidelity and expelled from the Society of Inquiry for ribald and blasphemous language,” who “entertained the public with a scurrilous pamphlet called Oberlin Unmasked.  That he should choose to gratify his spleen in that way was not strange; but that leading ministers of the gospel, men of piety and good sense within 25 miles of Oberlin, should accept his vile fancies as facts, was passing strange.”

After publishing his pamphlet, Smith became a journalist.  He was active in the presidential elections of 1840 and 1844, starting up newspapers and getting into political battles.  President John Tyler sent him to war-torn Ecuador as a Special Commissioner in 1844.  Upon his return, he moved to Iowa Territory and became a farmer.  When his wife Eliza died, he converted to Methodism.  Then in 1852, “having suffered from several deaths of loved ones, poor health and other misfortunes, he resolved to move further west, setting out with his family in an ox wagon for the Territory of Oregon.”

When Oregon was admitted as a free state, he became one of its first two U.S. Senators, but he was argumentative and pro-slavery.  He soon fell out with his party, failed to win re-election to a full term, and served only 18 days in the Senate.

The next year, only 13 days after Abraham Lincoln was elected President, Smith died, “more of a broken heart than physical illness.”

[Source:  bio by “Perfield Girl” Sharon LaDuke]

Delazon Smith's youthful rant against Oberlin may or may not have included “vile fancies.”  It undoubtedly did include racist attitudes — opinions which shock our sensibilities nearly two centuries later.

You can read his prolix pamphlet online here.  He used twice as many words as necessary, as was the fashion of the time.  Also, he had no word processor, so he set down his thoughts rather randomly whenever he was reminded of additional hypocrisies.

To me, it was obvious that Oberlin Unmasked would be easier to read if those thoughts were better organized.  Therefore I've greatly condensed the pamphlet into ten chapters to be posted here on my website.

In doing so, I've relocated sentences and virtually rewritten some paragraphs, moving some of them from one chapter to another.  I've updated spelling and punctuation and added several images.  For certain individuals whom Smith chose not to identify, I've invented the names Adam and Ellen, Mr. T, and Mr. G.  I hope all this editing makes the text flow much more smoothly for a modern reader.

Above all, I hope that when you read Delazon Smith's denunciation of his Institution as “wholly unworthy and unmeriting the respect of virtuous men,” you won't think his criticisms apply to the outstanding Oberlin College of today, nearly two centuries later.  In particular, almost everyone now strongly disagrees with Smith's racism.  But his pamphlet does offer us a fascinating glimpse of the college in its first four struggling years.

You've just read the first chapter of my project, this Preface.  Smith's chapter titles, or “heads,” are listed below.  I'll post one of them each fortnight.

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.

 

Continue to next chapter.

 

TBT

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