John Jay Shipherd: The Unlikely Progressive

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Oberlin College is one of the nation’s great bastions to progressive ideals and left-leaning politics. It is also the oldest co-educational institution in the United States. It is fairly ironic, then, that the founder of this Ohio-based college was himself a decidedly conservative man whose social activism was largely pursued from the minister’s pulpit and included strong advocacy for prohibition.

Salt of the Earth

Born in Granville, New York in 1802, the son of an attorney and former Federalist congressman, John Jay Shipherd was a diligent student and a hard worker. In his teen years, he also established a devout sense of religious faith.

All of these virtues were challenged when, as a student at Vermont’s Middlebury College, Shipherd swallowed saltpeter, mistaking it for Epsom salt (because apparently, that’s a thing that could happen in 1822). The substance damaged the lining of his stomach and impaired his eyesight. Unable to read without experiencing intense pain, Shipherd was forced to discontinue his studies. His father assisted him in founding a marble business, which he subsequently ran into the ground.

Trailblazing for the Lord

It seemed Shipherd’s true calling was the ministry. So dedicated was he to his theological studies that he hired fellow students to read his texts to him. In fact, the ministry seemed his path to profound educational influence as well. As the General Agent of the Vermont Sabbath School Union, he traveled throughout the state establishing and organizing Sunday schools, even earning an honorary degree in 1830 from the college he departed prematurely eight years prior.

In 1832, Shipherd reconnected with an old friend from his prep school days named Philo P. Stewart. The two bonded over the idea of creating a colony and educational institution in northern Ohio guided by Christian values and tenets. In a moment somewhat mythologized in the origin story of Oberlin College, the two men rode out into Ohio’s virgin forests in search of a site for their colony. Stopping to pray under an elm tree along the way, the two were convinced that God had led them to this very location for a reason.

Opening Oberlin

The elm tree became the starting point to the new colony, (and would stand in Oberlin’s Tappan Square until 1965). Thereafter, Shipherd departed on his own for what could only be termed a crusade. Over eight months, the man ventured through frontier lands in search of funding, faculty, and future students. Upon his return, he, his wife, his four sons and another family moved into the basement of the college’s first building, Oberlin Hall. Classes began in 1833 and Oberlin College became official two years later.

Endowing Olivet

Shipherd served as the school’s pastor through its inaugural years. And though his health was rapid decline, he determined in 1836 that it was his mission to found more schools and colonies like Oberlin throughout the country. Most notable among them would be Olivet College. Once again venturing out in search of a plot of land the old fashioned way — this time in Michigan — Shipherd became despairingly lost, wandering in heavily wooded circles for hours. The third time he came upon the very same forest-covered hilltop, he resolved that this was a sign from God. Accordingly, he set up camp and called for members of the Oberlin faculty to join him.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Sadly, Shipherd would give his very life for this campus, struck down by a malaria outbreak in September of 1844. In spite of losing their spiritual and practical leader, his followers succeeded in opening Olivet to classes just two months later.

Part of the Legends of College History Series

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Campus Characters: Legends of College History

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