Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Legacy Department


Committee Chair/Advisor

Grant, H. Roger

Committee Member

Grubb , C. Alan

Committee Member

Burton , Orville V.


Founded as a quasi-utopian society by New England evangelists, Oberlin became the central hub of extreme social reform in Ohio's Western Reserve. Scholars have looked at Oberlin from political and cultural perspectives, but have placed little emphasis on religion. That is to say, although religion is a major highlight of secondary scholarship, few have placed the community appropriately in the dynamic of the East and West social reform movement. Historians have often ignored, or glossed over this important element and how it represented the divergence between traditional orthodoxy in New England and Middle-Atlantic states, and the new religious hybrids found in the West. While Oberlinians traced their religious heritage to Puritan Calvinism, they and other western evangelicals fused different theologies to create an ecclesiastical mechanism for gaining converts, promoting universalism, and combating sin. This was in contrast to traditional eastern orthodoxy where denominations remained pure.
Although Oberlin was exceptional for its time, even by Western Reserve standards, it properly embodied the religious zeal found in western settlements such as Galesburg, IL, and Olivet, MI. These communities espoused a belief in religious activism and universalism shared by their Ohio brethren. Much of the primary source material here comes from traditional religious sources; the works of Charles G. Finney, the doctrine of Perfectionism and Perfect Love, and the writings and speeches of activists. To contrast the relationship between East and West, it was important to incorporate Lyman Beecher and other orthodox churchmen as well as religious compacts such as the 1801 Plan of Union.
This study has led to several conclusions. First, that egalitarian democracy was shared between the orthodox and non-orthodox, but those empowered to partake greatly expanded in the West. This was due to the impact of non-orthodox Calvinism where Arminian theology demanded human agency for salvation. Secondly, Puritanical aspects of universal education encouraged the challenge of authority to expand the rights of others. Finally, universal agency and citizenship radicalized the women's rights and antislavery movements, empowering women and the growing black elite and middle class to sue for equality through conventional and non-conventional means. Thus, the Puritan foundation of democracy and religion fostered practical expression in the West, in contrast to the East where they remained theoretical.



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