History of First Church

Off to one side of Tappan Square, facing east, stands the grand old orange brick meetinghouse, Oberlin’s First Church, once the moral center of a mission to spread perfection through the new American West. First Church was built from plans by Richard Bond, a prominent New England architect, whom Charles G. Finney met while recruiting faculty in Boston. The structure that went up in 1843-44 was actually a mix of Bond’s specifications, Finney’s dreams, and the will of the congregation, expressed by majority rule. Finney wanted an interior with circular seating, similar both to the arrangement in the New York City church from which he came to Oberlin in 1835 and to the revival tent he used on Tappan Square during his first years here. His dream survives only in the curve of the balcony.

Building the church was a massive community effort, directed by Deacon Thomas P. Turner, a Vermont-born craftsman. Most of the locally fired bricks came from a farm just south of town. Huge whitewood roof beams, 12 inches square and 75 feet long, spanned the brick walls, and pine rafters and shingles enclosed the meetinghouse. The tower, taken from an Asher Benjamin pattern book, was added in 1845.

Finney served for 37 years as pastor to the congregation, which by 1860 was the largest in the United States. Beginning in 1852 with a visit to Oberlin by John P. Hale, Free-Soil candidate for president, the house opened for political and secular meetings. Over the next half-century, such eminent Americans as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Carl Schurz, Horace Greeley, Henry George, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington and Woodrow Wilson spoke here. More information on Charles Finney can be found here.

Although the auxiliary buildings north of the church have changed and expanded steadily over the years (the most recent addition going up in 1965), the outlines of the meetinghouse itself remain virtually intact. Remodellings occurred in 1882 when stained-glass windows were installed, to be replaced in 1927 by clear bubbly glass; in 1892 when 12 thick Doric columns supporting the balcony gave way to the present iron posts; in 1927 when the pulpit and organ loft were redesigned; in 1983 when a new ceiling went in; and in 2004 when a new organ was installed.

First Church is a City of Oberlin Historic Landmark, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Several short video clips concerning the history of the First Church in Oberlin are available here.

FROM THE MEETING HOUSE ARCHIVES

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On February 7, 1957, the 28-year-old Martin Luther King came to speak at First Church. It was his first visit to Oberlin, and it came within months of the successful conclusion of the 382-day Montgomery bus boycott, which he led. In one day, he gave two talks in the Meeting House: "Justice Without Violence," and later in the day, "The New Negro in the South." He spoke in Finney Chapel the next day at noon. This was less than a month after the organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and at the beginning of his voter registration efforts.

Peter Pindar Pease, well-known first settler in Oberlin, moved his family into a log cabin near the southeast corner of Tappan Square on April 19, 1833. One month later, on May 19, 1833, Rev. E.J. Leavenworth of Brecksville preached the first sermon ever heard in Oberlin to an audience of 50 - the Pease family, possibly one or two other new settler families, and farmers from the surrounding communities: Brownhelm, Amherst, and Pittsfield. Why Leavenworth? Because John Shipherd was traveling in search of teachers and money to support the Oberlin Colony's mission.