In 1832, Presbyterian minister John L. Shipherd began planning to establish an institution of higher education in Oberlin, Ohio. The school opened in December 1833 and became known as Oberlin College. It quickly grew, primarily due to the support of Charles Grandison Finney, one of the leading religious revivalists of the day. The institution also benefited from turmoil at the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. In 1835, Lane trustees, hoping to avoid conflict, prohibited its students from discussing slavery. Trustee Asa Mahan firmly opposed this denial of free expression. As a result of the school's action, Mahan, one professor, and several students left Lane Theological Seminary and went to Oberlin College. Shipherd asked Mahan to become the college's first president. Shipherd agreed to allow the students and faculty to enjoy freedom of speech. Mahan also asked that Oberlin College admit African-American students.
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. They were the first women in the United States to receive this degree.
Oberlin College was also one of the first institutions of higher education to admit African Americans. Although the Presbyterians had been in Ohio since the late 1700s, the church was divided over slavery and other issues during the 1830s. Ohio residents originally from more northern states tended to oppose slavery and people from the southern states usually supported it. Nationally, the Presbyterian Church divided into Northern and Southern branches. With Ohio's divided population, both factions of the Presbyterian Church were in the state. Shipherd and a majority of the faculty at the college were devoted abolitionists. They were committed to ending slavery and achieving equal opportunities for African Americans. As a result of the devotion of Oberlin College and the nearby community to the abolitionist movement, many African Americans moved to Oberlin.
In the early twenty-first century, Oberlin College had a total enrollment of 3,100 students. Five hundred of these students participated in the renowned Conservatory of Music Program. Placing emphasis on the liberal arts and encouraging well-rounded students, Oberlin College continues to emphasize improving the lives of others.
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