John Shipherd was a Presbyterian minister in Elyria, Ohio. In 1832, Shipherd and Philo Stewart began planning to form a new community in northern Ohio. In 1833, they established the town of Oberlin, named in honor of Reverend John Frederic Oberlin, a famous minister in Switzerland. That same year Shipherd established an institution of higher education in Oberlin. The college became known as Oberlin College. Shipherd hoped to educate the students to be missionaries for the Presbyterian Church. The school quickly grew, primarily due to the support of Charles Grandison Finney, one of the leading revivalists of the day.
Shipherd intended for the college to educate both men and women. When Oberlin College first admitted students in 1833, fifteen of the forty-four students were women. These women, however, were only admitted to the college preparatory program, while the men pursued a traditional college education. The first women formally admitted to the college program enrolled in 1837. The four women who enrolled that year made Oberlin College the first coeducational college in the United States. Three of the four women graduated with A.B. degrees in 1841, the first women in the United States to attain this degree.
Oberlin College was also one of the first institutions of higher education to admit African Americans. Although the Presbyterians had resided in Ohio since the late 1700s, the religious group was divided over doctrinal issues during the 1830s, including over slavery. Slavery divided white Ohioans, with those residents originally from more northerly states opposed to slavery, and those people from more southerly states supporting it. Nationally, the Presbyterian Church divided into Northern and Southern branches. With Ohio's divided population, both factions of the Presbyterian Church existed within the state. Shipherd and a majority of the faculty at the college were devoted abolitionists, committed to ending slavery and attaining equal opportunities for African Americans.
In 1844, Shipherd moved to southern Michigan, where he established the community of Olivet as well as Olivet College. He modeled both the community and college after his Ohio experiment. Like Oberlin, this institution admitted both men and women of all races. It also encouraged working-class people to seek higher education. During this period, most college students came from wealthier backgrounds. Unfortunately, Shipherd did not live to see Olivet and its college prosper. He died in 1845 from malaria.