First Church celebrates 175 years


An orange brick meetinghouse, also known as Oberlin’s First Church, has stood on the northeast corner of the city since the 1800s. This year marks the 175th anniversary its cornerstone.

The public is invited to attend a celebration on Oct. 8 to commemorate the 175th anniversary. The conjoined worship service will reenact the history of the Meeting House by unifying all the churches in Oberlin.

“Churches are the most segregated institutions in the country,” said coordinator Rhys Price Jones. “I’d love to see Oberlin lead the way in unsplintering the congregation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to unite the people?”

The history of First Church is essentially the history of Oberlin, said Laurel Price Jones, history chair of the church.

Until 1855, the Meeting House was the only place of worship in Oberlin, and many historians say it was the largest west of the Allegheny mountains, said Jones.

The pews held a multiracial congregation of 2,500 and all residents worshiped together. By 1860, it was the largest congregation in the United States, as all Oberlin College students were required to go to church.

First Church was built from plans by Richard Bond, a prominent New England architect, and Charles Finney, who served as pastor of First Church for 37 years. He became the pride of the college and the town, said Jones. He taught at the college and was head of the theological department, serving as its second president from 1851 to 1866, during which its faculty and students were activists for abolition, the Underground Railroad, and universal education.

The church structure that went up in 1843 was a mix of Bond’s specifications, Finney’s dreams, and the will of the congregation, Jones said.

Finney wanted an interior with circular seating, similar to the revival tent he used on Tappan Square during his first years here. He also wanted a movable platform to look parishioners in their eyes during his sermons. His dream survives only in the curve of the balcony. In 1927, a fixed pulpit took place.

Building the church was a massive community effort, with many college professors donating half their paychecks to the project, Jones said.

Most of the locally-fired bricks were made on Hamilton Street, and the sandstone used to build the front steps came from Amherst. The tower was added in 1845.

Although remodeling has occurred steadily over the years, the outlines of the meeting house itself remain virtually intact.

Many historic events have taken place there including graduations, concerts, and a celebration of those freed in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858.

The congregation was reluctant to permit political gatherings, but such opposition soon melted away in 1852 when John Hale, free-soil candidate for president, visited Oberlin and opened the house for political and secular meetings.

Over the next half-century, eminent figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Rutherford B. Hayes, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Woodrow Wilson gave lectures there.

Today, First Church shares its space with more than 75 community organizations, including Alcoholics Anonymous groups, blood drives, book signings, and choral groups, and houses benefit concerts and homeless families. There are 335 members in the congregation.

Provisional plans for renovations include the replacement of the original front steps, repainted bricks, and a new cupola. Some parishioners have expressed interest in adding a clock or bell to the tower, said Jones.

Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.

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Rhys Price Jones
http://www.theoberlinnewstribune.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/44/2017/09/web1_Rhys.jpgRhys Price Jones

Laurel Price Jones
http://www.theoberlinnewstribune.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/44/2017/09/web1_Laurel.jpgLaurel Price Jones

For many years, the Meeting House was the only place of worship in Oberlin. This year marks the 175th anniversary of its establishment.
http://www.theoberlinnewstribune.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/44/2017/09/web1_FirstChurch.jpgFor many years, the Meeting House was the only place of worship in Oberlin. This year marks the 175th anniversary of its establishment.

Laurie Hamame | Oberlin News-Tribune

Wrap-around seating was a request of pastor Charles Finney and now houses the choir members during Sunday worship.
http://www.theoberlinnewstribune.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/44/2017/09/web1_InsideChurch.jpgWrap-around seating was a request of pastor Charles Finney and now houses the choir members during Sunday worship.

Laurie Hamame | Oberlin News-Tribune

By Laurie Hamame

lhamame@aimmediamidwest.com