this being my final Praesidis Ruminationi, I proffer a
quiz: What is the most important building in Oberlin?
King, where we had most of our classes and did much of our learning,
the Con, home to one of the greatest music schools in the country,
Finney Chapel, site of just about everything public in our time and now,
Peters, whose gothic tower symbolizes the history of our
Dascomb, mid-century penitentiary-style dorm for first-year female
Other: Carnegie Library, Allen Art Museum, Warner Gym, Wilder Hall, etc.
choices (except E, perchance), but I suggest it's none of the
above. Indeed, it's another structure, a very different one,
that most or many of you, like me, probably never thought much about
or entered at all: the First Church on the northeast corner of
Lorain and Main, kitty corner to the Museum, next to the School
of Theology. Cradled as it were between Art and God, this is
the greatest and most important edifice in all of Oberlin.
Qué dice, Señor Presidente?
were just a church, albeit Oberlin's first, I'd say forget it amigos,
that's not enough. It's rather because throughout our college's
history, this building was both church and Meetinghouse, the
site of everything that mattered. Like Oberlin itself, it
embodied our school's dynamic synthesis of secular and sacred,
its singularity of mind and spirit, and its confluence of consciousness
and conscience. The place of meeting and worship, human
discourse and heavenly discourse, were one and the same. They
imbued and subsumed one another; no one differentiated between them.
Blodgett, Oberlin's leading historian in our day, called this
the moral center of Oberlin's mission to spread
perfection, the headquarters for realizing God's Kingdom on
Earth. According to Robert Fletcher, Oberlin's greatest
historian and Blodgett's mentor, This was the center and
capitol of the community, and it was the most important College
building. It housed the church, but it was not the church
it was the Meetinghouse. It was the gathering place for all
mechanics, professors, farmers, students, housewives,
merchants, all the members of a fully integrated society. It
stands as a reminder of the remarkable unity of high moral purpose
that once existed here.
cornerstone was laid on June 17, 1842, nine years after the fledgling
colony's creation in 1833 by two religious zealots, John Shipherd and
Philo Stewart, in what they piously called the Valley of Moral Death.
& S were wandering in the swampy forest and started their colony
under the Old Elm because two bears descended, a sign from above
signifying the safety of the site.
completed two years later at a then-astronomical cost of
$12,000. Above all, this was the cockpit and command center of
the grandfather of all Oberlin lore, Charles Finney. Finney
Chapel, grand in its own right, is merely a modern hall posthumously
named. The Church Meetinghouse is the place where Finney
delivered all his fire and brimstone orations to thousands upon
thousands of mesmerized disciples from near and far, preaching a path
of righteous fervor during the Second Great Awakening that still
guides our collegial spirit today.
is Finney's College. Stories abound. He once chided a
student, You are possessed by the Devil, my child!
She replied, Thank you, Dr. Finney.
erect an edifice of this magnitude at that time was an enormous
undertaking. It entailed a communal commitment like a medieval
cathedral, a demonstration of selfless democracy with everyone
pitching in, each doing their part. Fletcher depicts the scene,
with heaps of red earth, massive blocks of sandstone, barking dogs,
kids perched on tree tops, women with full skirts, bonnets, and
shawls, men in black broadcloth, brimmed hats, and high, choking
white collars. All heads reverently bowed as a spotted cow
wandered down Main Street, while the towering voice of Finney, as if
from above, eyes ablaze, sanctified a cornerstone well and
truly laid by the assembled Host of Believers, consecrating the Axis
Mundi of their Universe, not just in the name of Learning and
Labor, nor just the True and the Good, but the Holy Trinity of God,
Country, and Oberlin itself.
the biggest building west of the Alleghenies, boasting a capacity of
1,400 people, at times holding more than 2,000. By the Civil
War, it was home to the largest congregation in America. It was
used for virtually everything church services, student
meetings, town gatherings, art exhibits, concerts, rallies, lectures
and weekly sermons (all students were required to attend as in our
day), military conscriptions, commencement, and all public exercises
of the college. It housed the local fire trucks in the
basement, and served as a major stop along the Underground
Railway. This was the Ark for one and all, Oberlin's men
and women, faculty members, townspeople, and thousands of students
who found here moral and mental training, stimulation and
inspiration. After a visit by John Hale, candidate for
President in 1852, the Meetinghouse became the locale of major
political and secular convocations. Both Governors of Ohio and
Michigan attended graduation there in 1859, featuring communal prayer
and lofty student speeches on moral heroism, mental freedom, and
national responsibility. Over the next half-century, no less
than Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Horace Greeley, Mark
Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Woodrow Wilson came to Oberlin just
to speak there.
bygone era. Few of us, sadly, have ever set foot in the sacred
space of this hallowed hall.
will be the site of the Memorial Service for our fallen Brothers and
Sisters at the Reunion.
Fletcher notes its timeless inspirational significance for all
Oberlinians, then and now: The voice of Oberlin in its
youth still echoes from the walls of the old Church
Meetinghouse. It's a decisive voice, a voice of hope and not of
cynicism, a brave voice, a fighting voice, a voice that speaks in no
uncertain terms for justice, for brotherhood, and for a righteousness
not limited by convenience. It is not a voice of consolation,
but a voice of alarm. It cries out in indignant anger against
all tyrants and all forms of slavery. These are
propitious words in our dark day, a clarion call to action. We
ought to take them to heart as we embark upon our 50th Reunion a
short span from now. Blodgett extols us simply to
listen inside these venerable walls, listen to their
ghosts and echoes, and receive their moral message to us Chosen Elect
who soon return to have our inner flames rekindled.
So now a
second Quaestio Praesidis, my closing rumination: Why is
Oberlin's historic Meetinghouse facing away from the Square,
away from the center of the college, rather than toward it
like all the rest? Why is it looking out rather than in,
east rather than south? What might this mean? Its
direction at first seems to deflect and reroute its energy, siphon
its relevance, and diminish our engagement. I suggest, however,
that its skewed direction carries heavier signification, though
unknown whether intended. I suspect it was; this is the portal
to the world, the last station on the cross. And therein,
finally, its relevance to our Reunion.
the other O-buildings facing inward, accumulating their centripetal
force to intensify our mental, ethical, and character training, a
veritable baptism and Bildung in the crucible of a latter day
evangelical colony in the Valley of Moral Death, our venerable
Meetinghouse, this sanctum sanctorum, faces outward, exerting
centrifugal force against it all, a nonconforming structure, marking
a turning away, a going out, and a new beginning. This is our
exit, the door to the town, linking gown with town, not just this
college and this town, but the Platonic ideals of all Colleges and
all Towns, the liminal gateway to the greater world-at-large.
It signifies life beyond Oberlin, life after school, the aim of our
collective conception, leading us to the embattled existence we've
each earned over the last half-century. And now, having
pilgrimed en masse once again back to our Ohioan Jerusalem, we
return, figuratively, back through this sacred threshold, the way out
now in, to reenter and reclaim the magical-mythical-time-space
constellation of our youth, our common cradle, the manger of our
minds, and the sanctuary of our own Great Awakening.
Reunion is our Odyssey, our Trojan travails fulfilled, our Canterbury
complete. Our beginning is our end; Ouroboros the
snake bites its own tail; we've come full circle. Welcome home,
brave Odysseus, welcome back to Ithaca. We reconvene, bodies
breaking but spirits high, in the sunset on the square and the
twilight of the tower. Though much is taken, much abides;
and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth
and heaven, that which we are, we are; one equal temper of heroic
hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, to strive, to
seek, to find, and not to yield.*