Oberlin's Namesake: John Frederick Oberlin (1740-1826)

What's in a Name? Why Oberlin?

Opening Assembly Address by Prof. John W. Kurtz
Finney Chapel, Oberlin College
September 14, 1972

Prof. John W. Kurtz (1906-84) wrote the first comprehensive English biography of J. F. Oberlin (John Frederic Oberlin, Routledge, 1977). Mr. Kurtz was a member of the Oberlin College faculty from 1932 until his retirement in 1973. He was chairman of the department of German and Russian 1956-70 and directed the Oberlin German Summer Sessions in Vienna in 1959, 1961, 1963 and 1965. In 1966 he was awarded the Officers’ Cross in the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for “outstanding service in the manifold fields of German-American cultural relations.”

The name that the minister intoned at the christening in the culturally German, politically French frontier city of Strasbourg in 1740 was Johann Friedrich Oberlin. His family called him Fritz. The name that he used as minister of his French speaking parish in the Vosges mountains of Alsace was Jean-Frédéric Oberlin. His people there called him cher Papa. The name that is inscribed in the wrought iron cross that marks his grave at Fouday is just that, Papa Oberlin. Americans and Englishmen, who wish to avoid disputes about national cultural affinities, anglicize the name to John Frederic Oberlin.

He lived 86 years and died in 1826. Two other men who died in that year were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Oberlin died April 1. Those two American superpatriots both chose the Fourth of July. All three missed the founding of Oberlin College by seven years.

Oberlin entered the university at the age of 15. The curriculum at Strasbourg being (as my friend Ed Com would say) “structured on the interest model,” he chose a wide variety of courses in the liberal arts, giving special attention to ancient languages and cultures and the natural sciences. He also attended lectures in medicine and studied human anatomy in the dissecting laboratory. He took the Ph.D. at the age of 23. He never used the title; all but the latest of his biographers have been unaware that he possessed it.

He did not consider that his studies were ended therewith, but he felt like “copping out” for a time in order to “find himself.” He took a position as tutor in the home of Strasbourg’s leading physician and surgeon. This gave him an opportunity to develop some ideas he had conceived about the education of children, to increase his knowledge of medicine by reading in the doctor’s library, and to acquire some rudimentary skills in surgery by observation and some practice.

After two years he rematriculated, this time in theology. He finished the course and was ordained at the age of 27.

Oberlin had been reared in the tradition of 18th century German Lutheran Pietism, with a strong infusion of the discipline of the Moravian Brethren. On his 20th birthday he had written out a long and solemn “act of consecration” in which he dedicated to God “all that I am and all that I have: the faculties of my mind, the members of my body, my portion and my time.” It became his habit to renew this pledge by endorsing it again at the beginning of each decade. His last endorsement he made at the age of 80.

Oberlin believed that this act of consecration required of him renunciation of all worldly comforts and total dedication to the working out of God’s will. As a student he had accordingly practiced a severe austerity of life, and he now hoped for a vocation that would demand of him the discipline of asceticism, of renunciation, of mortification of the flesh through deprivation and hardship.

He recognized his opportunity when it came in the form of a call to serve the community called the Ban de la Roche. It was a large and far flung parish high in the Vosges mountains. It comprised five villages: Waldersbach, Belmont, Bellefosse, Fouday and Solbach. It was physically nearly inaccessible. Its climate was inclement and its soil infertile. It was culturally isolated because its language had deteriorated to a barbarous patois that was incomprehensible even to its neighbors. Its people were suspect and despised as residents of a Protestant island within a Roman Catholic sea. It had been devastated in the Thirty Years War and plundered for centuries by greedy feudal lords under the medieval system of vassalage that persisted in that remote corner of Europe until some years after the French Revolution. For these reasons, its poverty was immeasurable. It was a forgotten enclave that seemed to have been passed by in the march of history. Among Oberlin’s fellow theologs it was spoken of as a place of exile, an Alsatian Siberia.

To that unpromising scene Oberlin joyfully went forth. His head was full of the cultural optimism of the “charismatic century” as we know it, for instance, from the works of Locke and Rousseau, the German idealistic philosophers, and our own founding fathers. His soul was imbued with Pietistic yearnings for a heavenly perfection on earth. His will was steeled by rigorous self-discipline and a profound religious faith. The goal that he had set for himself was to make of the unlettered folk of the Ban de la Roche a Gottesvolk, a people of God.

Oberlin’s first concern was for the children and their education. The schoolhouses that he found there were wretched hovels. Among friends in Strasbourg, he raised money to build a new one in Waldersbach, the central village of the parish. To allay the people’s hostility, he deemed it necessary to issue a proclamation that the building and maintenance of the new school would bring to them no new financial obligations. Gradually the people came to recognize the value of education; they eventually built and paid for a new schoolhouse in each of the four other villages.

Before Oberlin's arrival, the school keeping function had been contracted to the lowest bidder. Usually that turned out to be the village herdsman, whose main qualification was that he was otherwise unemployed in the winter and stood ready to apply to the keeping of children in that season the same techniques that he exercised on swine and cattle in the summer. In order to establish teaching as a profession, Oberlin selected his best, most promising pupils and himself trained them to be teachers. To proclaim his own regard for their, to him divine, calling, he gave them the title régent d’école and inducted them into their high office in special dedicatory church services.

Oberlin introduced compulsory education by proclaiming from the pulpit that it was the obligation of all parents to send their children to school regularly. He enforced that ruling by applying such sanctions as withholding the sacraments from the parents of habitually truant children; and denying the rite of confirmation to pupils who flouted the regulations. To encourage regular attendance and maximum effort by the children he awarded prizes in an annual honors day ceremony, which, significantly, also took the form of a special church service.

Oberlin’s system of obligatory attendance antedates the national compulsory education act in France by more than a hundred years.

In Oberlin’s parish the scbool-leaving age was 16. By way of comparison, consider that in England, where public schools were established some 50 years later, boys and girls were generally taken out of school and put in the mills at the age of 10.

To pay for education, Oberlin eventually collected taxes from all householders, including the childless and the celibate. Surely this was one of the earliest instances of general taxation for the support of education.

Oberlin instituted a system of representative self-government in which the school children exercised legislative, executive and judicial functions.

He supplied textbooks and other materials free of charge, a democratic measure introduced in most of our states only during my lifetime.

Oberlin once wrote a candid self analysis. It contains the statement: “I have a peculiar esteem for the female sex.” That esteem is authenticated by the fact that he was the first person, anywhere to employ women as teachers in public schools—surely an innovation that is worthy of our notice at this time, when feminism is on the march, and in this place, where, seven years after Oberlin’s death, the opportunity of higher education was for the first time offered to women.

Oberlin’s first educational objective was to give his people a viable language, that is to say, to change the vernacular from the incomprehensible patois to standard French. He saw this as such an urgent matter that he could not be content with teaching only the children. He therefore organized night schools for men and women, and thus became a pioneer also in adult education.

By such persistent language training for the whole population, juvenile and adult, Oberlin attained two objectives: with astonishing rapidity the patois gave way to standard French as the universal language of the valley; and the very high incidence of illiteracy was reduced virtually to zero. For these attainments the National Convention in Paris honored Oberlin as a promoter of the French language. He acknowledged the accolade with embarrassment, as one who all his life spoke French with a German accent and never broke the habit of interlarding his French talk with his favorite German expletives. By teaching also German in the upper school grades, he eventually made the population literate also in the second language of bilingual Alsace.

Among all of Oberlin’s educational innovations, however, his one great, historic contribution was the creation of the world’s first infant schools. That was in 1770, sixty-seven years before Froebel, who is traditionally celebrated as the originator of infant education, opened his first kindergarten in Germany. The name Kindergarten—the invention of a truly inspired moment—is to be sure, Froebel’s; the substance, however, is Oberlin’s—a priority that is now generally, though sometimes grudgingly, recognized by historians.

In Oberlin’s parish the children started to school at the age of three or four, a practice that is being timorously and tentatively tried out in our country only now, 200 years later, in the—awkwardly named—“head start program.”

Along with his educational innovations, Oberlin made many other significant contributions to the common good. In this presentation I can merely recite a list of them.

To improve the economy

  • He built roads from village to village within the valley; a bridge over the river Bruche, and a highway to connect the community with the outside world.
  • He established the crafts essential to a rural economy; first by bringing in journeymen, later by apprenticing promising native youths to carpenters and joiners, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and shoemakers.
  • He and Mme. Oberlin took groups of girls into their home to train them in the domestic arts.
  • He introduced spinning and weaving as family fireside industries, thus producing exportable products that brought money into the community.
  • He created cooperative enterprises, including: an interest free loan fund; a tool crib stocked with essential impIements; and a cooperative bake oven society.

For agriculture

Oberlin organized an agricultural society, probably one of the first—and certainly the most active—in all France. For this he again received national honors. Using the society as an educational instrument:
  • He improved the quality of the soil by erosion control through contour plowing and terracing; by draining and irrigating; and by the optimal use of organic fertilizers.
  • He transformed the parson’s glebe into an experimental plot, where he developed better strains of such basic crops as rye, wheat, flax, and grasses. Before Oberlin’s time there had been frequent potato famines. He developed a new strain from imported seeds, and thus soon produced not only enough of that essential commodity to nourish the people, but also an exportable surplus.
  • He introduced fruit culture by grafting new, imported stock on existing wild fruit trees.
  • He improved animal husbandry by importing new breeding stock.

For health and hygiene

  • Oberlin was the only medical practitioner in the valley. In order better to serve the people’s needs, he sent one of his teachers to his surgeon-friend in Strasbourg for training and made him his medical assistant.
  • He also sent two young women to be trained as midwives, the first in the Ban de la Roche.
  • He introduced smallpox vaccination—and made it obligatory—soon after it was developed by Jenner and thus put an end to that scourge of the people.
  • For the improvement of both hygiene and the quality of the environment, he promoted sanitation in farmyards and village streets by insisting on the gathering and composting of litter and dung.
  • He himself made a collection, along with a classified descriptive index (according to the then new system of Linné) of all the flora of the valley. He also made plant ecology one of the basic courses in the schools, beginning in the infant schools, and thereby eventually eliminated the unwitting ingestion of toxic plants as a frequent cause of death.
  • He promoted the beautification of the landscape by requiring the planting of fruit and ornamental trees: two for every marriage ceremony performed, one for every baptism, one for each confirmation, etc.

By all his exertions taken together, Oberlin transfigured the quality of life for his people. It would be hyperbolic to say that he lifted them out of poverty into prosperity, for the fact is that the Ban de la Roche has always been, and still is, relatively poor. To epitomize more accurately Oberlin’s accomplishments I cannot do better than to quote a line from the third chapter of George Eliot’s great novel Middlemarch, where Dorothea summarizes a vision of an idealized rural community with the words: “… it would be as if the spirit of Oberlin had passed over the parishes to make the life of poverty beautiful!” Expressing the same idea in more contemporary—and less sentimental—terms, perhaps one could say that Oberlin realized for his backward region in the 18th century, the approximate objectives set by the Peace Corps and VISTA for the undeveloped countries in the 20th.

Politically Oberlin was a democrat and a dedicated believer in the Revolution. Even the interdiction of all religious organizations and services, which brought two of the great issues of his life in conflict, the religious and the political, did not disconcert him; he just transformed each congregation into a citizens’ club, changed his own title from minister to president, renamed the churches club houses, the prayers discourses, the sermons lectures, the liturgy and hymnody community singing, and carried on essentially as before. When, because of that ruse, he was arrested and carried off to prison by the Committee of Public Safety, he went without protest. The incident, which might have culminated at the guillotine, was providentially terminated by the prior sudden death of Robespierre. Twenty years later the nation conferred on Oberlin its highest honor: he became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

This summary is too brief to give you an image of Oberlin’s character and personality; of his private life; of his generally unorthodox, sometimes bizarre religious beliefs and their centrality, not only in his religious ministry, but also in his social, educational, and economic planning. I can only suggest that you read one or two of the more than 400 items listed in a recently compiled bibliography on John Frederic Oberlin. Such reading will, I believe, fill out your image of him as an educational leader and social activist who, 140 years ago, seemed worthy to have named after him an institution in Ohio dedicated to learning and social action; and I hope you will find, on closer acquaintance, that it still seems appropriate now to call this college and this community by his name.

Source: Kurtz, John W., "What's in a Name: Why Oberlin?" Oberlin Alumni Magazine 68 (November/December 1972): 4-9.

See also the John William Kurtz Papers, Oberlin College Archives.


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