Oberlin Theology


Background Information

The Alsatian Lutheran pastor Johann Friedrich (Jean Frederic) Oberlin, b. Aug. 31, 1740, d. June 1, 1826, is known for his philanthropic efforts and educational innovations. Educated at Strasbourg, he was pastor of Waldersbach, Ban-de-la-Roche, in the Vosges from 1767 until his death. Influenced both by the Enlightenment ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau and by the Christian mysticism of Emanuel von Swedenborg, he promoted engineering, agricultural, and educational reforms within his parish. His work eventually won international recognition, especially his principles of infant education, as developed by Johann Pestalozzi. Oberlin House in Potsdam, Germany, and Oberlin College in Ohio are named for him.

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Kurtz, John W., John Frederic Oberlin (1977).

Oberlin Theology

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Oberlin Theology was the fruit of a strong revivalistic, perfectionistic, and reforming tradition in nineteenth century American evangelical life. It was closely associated with the work of Charles Finney, America's most famous antebellum revivalist, and with the faculty at Oberlin College, Ohio (founded 1833), of which Finney was a part. But the theology also contained emphases that were shared widely in American Christianity among New School Presbyterians, Methodists, many Baptists, members of Disciples and Christian churches, and even some Unitarians.

Finney's theology was shaped by his own experience (a dramatic conversion in 1821) and by his early approval of the work of Congregationalist N W Taylor. With Taylor, Finney came to conclude that individuals possessed the power within themselves to make the choice for Christ and for holy living. Finney's own evangelism stressed the fact that, with God's help, strenuous personal effort could lead to the spread of the gospel. Early in his ministry he also explored the effects of such conversions on the reform of society. After Finney left the Presbyterians and took a pastorate in New York City, he came to the conclusion, as he put it, "that an altogether higher and more stable form of Christian life was attainable, and was the privilege of all Christians." Shortly after this Finney encountered John Wesley's Plain Account of Christian Perfection, which confirmed his belief in "entire sanctification." When Finney became professor of theology at Oberlin College in 1835, he carried with him the outlines of a distinctive theological emphasis. And in 1839, during a revival season at Oberlin, the emphasis received distinct articulation as a perfectionistic theology.

Along with Finney the Oberlin theology was promoted by Asa Mahan, first president of the college and a driving force in its establishment; Oberlin professor Henry Cowles; and many of the students who went out from Oberlin to evangelize and reform America. The theology emphasized a belief in a second, more mature stage of Christian life. This second stage carried different names, "entire sanctification," "holiness," "Christian perfection," or even "the baptism of the Holy Ghost." Finney took it to be more a matter of perfect trust in God and commitment to his way rather than complete sinlessness. And he also came to feel that this state of spirituality would be reached through steady growth rather than through a single, dramatic "second blessing." Other teachers emphasized more a distinct second work of grace and spoke as if the state of the sanctified would be nearly without sin. In these discussions, which also included a consideration of the relative place of human exertion and God's free grace in going on to sanctification, the Oberlin theology showed remarkable parallels with the development of Methodist theology stretching back to the time of John Wesley.

The Oberlin theology represented an immensely important strand of nineteenth century evangelical belief, not only because of its influential convictions but also because of its practical effects. Finney had earlier pioneered new measures in revivalism (including the "anxious bench" and the protracted meeting). And he also had actively encouraged a heightened concern for reforming evils in America like slavery, intemperance, and economic injustice. The perfectionistic emphases of the Oberlin theology greatly aided its revivalistic and reforming concerns. Some of its exponents also believed that the millennial age was at hand, and this conviction also added to the widespread social impact of the theology.

The Oberlin theology retained an important place at Oberlin into the twentieth century. It contributed also to many strands of modern evangelicalism such as the Holiness Movement, more indirectly to Pentecostalism, and to the Higher Life and Keswick movements as well.

Mark A Noll

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

C C Cole, The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists, 1826 - 1860; J H Fairchild, Oberlin: The College and the Colony, 1833 - 1883; J E Johnson, "Charles G Finney and Oberlin Perfectionism," JPH 46; T L Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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