Religion and Social Movements

John Shipherd, Philo Stewart: Bringinng Education and Religion to the West

As businessmen from the East were busy reaping the profits of the expansion to the American West in 1830s and 40s, another group of New Englanders was less worried about accumulating earthly rewards and far more worried about the expansion of morals and education westward – of rather the lack of it.

1837 sketch of Oberlin College.

1837 sketch of Oberlin College.

That concern sparked a westward migration of missionaries and educators who would establish colleges that dot the American Midwest.

Two such men were John Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart. Shipherd, from New York, and Stewart, from Connecticut, had attended school together in Pawlet, Vt. Their friendship flourished. Both men went on to become Presbyterian ministers, and later missionaries.

Visiting Ohio together in 1832, the two men were alarmed. As families were leaving the East behind, they seemed to be also leaving behind their Christian values. The two men vowed to take action.

Relying on wealthy donors from New England and New York, they procured land and funding to establish Oberlin College in Ohio.  From its earliest days, the men insisted that Oberlin be open to anyone, men or women, black or white. It’s mission was to bring education, enlightenment and Christian values to the West.

Having established Oberlin College in 1833, Shipherd and a party of faculty from New England decided to push onward in 1837 to Olivet, Michigan. Legend has it that Shipherd found Olivet by accident when he got lost and repeatedly circled back to the spot. Believing that God was perhaps telling him he was destined to establish his new college there, he called the hill he was standing on Olivet and settled down.

Originally living in the ruins left by prior settlers, 39 men and women from Oberlin began building, by hand, the new college.

Olivet College’s early days were difficult. Pledges for support could not be collected because of the depression that settled over America in the late 1830s. In 1844, Shipherd died in Olivet, still working on his college. The school had failed to win a charter as a college and was temporarily proceeding as a two-year school.

But Shipherd had passed the torch to other men who would push on. A colleague of the Rev. Oramel Hosford of Thetford, Vt. noted that he had no doubt Hosford and his friends would make Olivet a success.

“Those Olivet people are bound to succeed in building up a college,” he said, “for I found Prof. Hosford and his colleagues in the bottom of a brook shoveling up sand with which to plaster a new college building. Men who will dig like that are bound to succeed.”

In 1859, 15 years after its first students started attending, Olivet College won its charter. Both Olivet and Oberlin were early progressive voices in the new West and were hotbeds of abolitionist thinking in the expanding nation.

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