The Oberlin Sanctuary Project

The Lane Rebels and Early Anti-Slavery at Oberlin

Above: Earliest representation of the Oberlin Colony and college campus. 1838 watercolor (detail) at the top of a letter by artist H. Alonzo Pease (1820-1881).

Shortly after its founding in 1829, Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio experienced a campus-wide controversy surrounding issues of free speech. In 1834 debates emerged about Christian morality in relation to the abolition movement. Some students argued on behalf of the abolition movement and against the American Colonization Society’s mission to send free African Americans to Africa. The seminary’s geographic location near the border of the slave state of Kentucky only made the debates more heated. The trustees hoped to silence these debates and avoid public scrutiny by implementing policy to halt abolitionist discussion. After the faculty accepted these measures, approximately forty students decided to leave the seminary. Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was President of Lane Seminary. 

John J. Shipherd and Philo Stewart, the founders of the Oberlin colony and college in 1833, were inspired by the work of French Pastor John Frederick Oberlin to establish a community where the people would strive to serve the needs of others. This principle helped to fuel Oberlin’s activism. Shipherd (1802-1844) seized upon the chance to secure Oberlin's future by raiding Lane Seminary. Two years after the founding of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute (later Oberlin College) in December 1833, the enterprise was on the brink of financial collapse. Desperate for students and in dire need of money, Shipherd traveled to Cincinnati to meet with Lane trustee Asa Mahan and work out a plan to save Oberlin. The Lane rebels, as they were now known, would transfer to Oberlin and fortify the student body.
Mahan, the sole dissenter when the Lane faculty and trustees prohibited discussion of anti-slavery, was asked to become Oberlin's first president. Professor John Morgan, who had been dismissed from Lane Seminary for permitting discussion of abolition in his classroom, was invited to join the faculty. The arrangement was apparently contingent upon Oberlin's guarantee of their freedom of speech and a promise to admit blacks. Shipherd persuaded thirty-two of the Lane students, known as the Lane Rebels, to come to Oberlin in 1835. The students demanded the appointment of revivalist preacher Charles Grandison Finney as the head of the Theological Seminary at Oberlin. 

The thirty-two students from Lane Seminary were first housed in a log structure, hastily built, in a clearing in the wooded land that was Oberlin. The structure, named Cincinnati Hall for Lane Seminary's location, was 20 feet wide by 144 feet long. A year later in 1835 the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, with support from abolitionist and philanthropist Lewis Tappan, built its first brick instructional and residential structure, Tappan Hall.
That year brothers Lewis and Arthur Tappan and abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld came together to form the American Anti-Slavery Society. The organization called for the immediate end to slavery and also advocated equal rights to African Americans with white people. William Lloyd Garrison dominated the American Anti-Slavery Society, although Arthur Tappan served as president of the organization from its founding until 1840. Tappan resigned from the society in 1840 when its membership became interested in fighting for equal rights for women with men.

James Steele was one of the Lane Rebels who came to Oberlin in 1834. After his graduation from Oberlin in 1840, he married Frances R. Cochran, a graduate of Oberlin's Women's Course. Twelve days after the wedding day, Frances died, leaving James devastated. In 1841 he joined the Amistad Mission to Mendhi, which returned freed slaves to Africa and worked to establish a mission there. However, Steele soon found that the Amistad captives belonged to seven different tribes, some at war with one another. All of the chiefs were slave traders and authorized to re-enslave freed persons. These findings led to the decision that the mission must start in Sierra Leone, under the protection of British colonizers. Illness forced his return to the U.S. and eventually to Oberlin.

During the 1840s and 1850s, Oberlin became a safe haven for runaway slaves and freed blacks who sought freedom from slavery and opportunities to live, learn, and work without concern for their personal safety. A note from H.G. Blake to Professors James Monroe and Henry Peck, dated September 6, 1858, provides evidence of Oberlin’s participation in the Underground Railroad. It reads, “Gents, here are five Slaves from the House of Bondage, which I need not say to you that you will see to them – they can tell their own story.”



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