Class of 1969
President's Letter
Spring 2019

 

 


TO CONCLUDE, this being my final Praesidis Ruminationi, I proffer a quiz:  What is the most important building in Oberlin?

A.  King, where we had most of our classes and did much of our learning,

B.  the Con, home to one of the greatest music schools in the country,

C.  Finney Chapel, site of just about everything public in our time and now,

D.  Peters, whose gothic tower symbolizes the history of our Alma Mater,

E.  Dascomb, mid-century penitentiary-style dorm for first-year female inmates, or

F.  Other: Carnegie Library, Allen Art Museum, Warner Gym, Wilder Hall, etc.

All worthy 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?

If this 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.

Geoffrey 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.”

The 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 & 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.

It was 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.

Oberlin 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.”

Just to 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.

This was 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.

Alas, a bygone era.  Few of us, sadly, have ever set foot in the sacred space of this hallowed hall.

It will be the site of the Memorial Service for our fallen Brothers and Sisters at the Reunion.

Yet, 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.

Unlike all 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.

Our 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.*

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* Tennyson, “Ulysses.”

 
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