Lorenzo Snow – Mormonism and Oberlin College, part I.

The brilliant Lyman Beecher who held anti-slavery views (and whose children exceeded his own fame) was head of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1833. Beecher admitted a former slave to the school, which scandalized many residents of the city.

The following year, while Beecher was away from the school, rumors circulated that black and white students at the seminary were socializing on an equal footing. Mobs attacking the school became a real possiblity and the board of trustees immediately imposed what were essentially segregational rules. A large number of students decided to leave the school and eventually took up residence at Oberlin, Ohio and became part of the college there.

In the agreement that made the Lane students Oberlin students, color integration became a founding principle of Oberlin. It was in this environment that Lorenzo Snow (1814-1901) came to the school.

Snow grew up just a few miles from Joseph Smith’s early Ohio residence in Hiram, Ohio and Lorenzo’s sister Eliza eventually joined Mormonism with Eliza moving to Kirtland in 1835. Near the same time, Lorenzo began attending Oberlin (Oberlin is about 70 miles from Hiram). Eliza had corresponded with Lorenzo, and he had become familiar with some fundamental Mormon views in other ways as well. With the beginning of a Hebrew school in early 1836 at Kirtland, Eliza tried to lure the education-bent Lorenzo for a stint there, undoubtedly hoping that he would embrace the faith. In 1836 Lorenzo wrote to his sister about his college experience and what follows is a copy of the first part of the letter as Lorenzo reported it in his letter-book/diary. It reveals an interesting kind of liberalism in Lorenzo’s thinking that made him open to Mormonism and at least some of its early doctrines. Moreover, it shows some clear thinking about religion and the nature of revelation. Observe also the post-Millennialism that pervaded Oberlin:

Oberlin Institute March
12th 1836.
Dear Sister,
I am delighted in learning that you enjoy so much happiness in Kirtland. tho’ at present I am not disposed to exchange my location for yours: yet if the advantages of learning there were the same I think I should be almost inclined to try an exchange. For, if nothing more it would prove quite interesting to me and perhaps not unproffitable to hear those doctrines preached which I have so long endeavored to defend and support here in Oberlin. Among the Ministers and intended Ministers I have had quite good success I’ll assure you in advocating Mormonism. It is true I have not made many advocates converts as I am not one myself yet I have made some of them almost confess they perceived some philosophy in your doctrines. To remove the strong prejudice against Mormonism from the mind of an Oberlin Student is a thing not easily accomplished.

It is very difficult to convince them of its being possible for Deity to form and persue plans for conversion of the world different from those which they now, and so industriously prossecuting.

In their plans the Millennium will be effected by means of only money and learning. Students are sent here to Oberlin to study the Art or Science of making what they are pleased to call “Christians.” They must devote seven years or upwards to anxious study before they are allowed to tell to the Heathen that their is a God in Heaven – Like a Lawyer who must profess certain quallifications before he can procure permission to speak at the Bar

Your people I suppose depend more on the spirit Divine assistance than on on that which Collegiate learning affords, when preaching your doctrines

They Stoutly maintain that they possess the spirit of God, tho’ unable to show it by any external evidence. I should be quite pleased to hear your ideas in refference to this subject. (ie) whether you believe the true spirit of God is enjoyed by those who make profession of religion. Is it the Divine spirit which produces those strange efectt which we observe in Presbyterians anxious meetings, and Methodist Camp meetings &c

Or what is that which is properly the Spirit of God. & in Is it a Holy principle which is not confered upon upon the children of men in this age of the world? and if so why are people so deceived in thinking they prosses it?

Does God always confer it thro’ the medium of a second person? and after it has been confered may it be known of a certainty that it is his spirit. And its opperations on the mind or the effects which it produces distinguishable from those produced by natural causes?

The conciousness of having performed a noble and gen generous action will occasion in the mind a high degree of delight this is natural to all human mind

A person who feels obligated to do a certain action cannot have peace of mind, or, at least cannot feel perfectly easy [until] he has performed it The child is told by its parents that their is a Supreme Being who requires it to discharge certain duties; and unless it deo does these it will[1]

[1] To be continued. Spelling and punctuation as in the original (barring my own transcription errors. ;)) Oberlin College eventually became the repository of the so-called “Spaulding Manuscript” or Manuscript Story which many hoped would show that the Book of Mormon had been plagiarized by Joseph Smith or Sidney Rigdon, or anybody. Oberlin’s reputation for flouting traditional “morality” may have been somewhat of a seedbed for Snow’s sprouting Mormon alignment, but in the end he left, disgusted with what he saw as a double standard.

12 Responses to Lorenzo Snow – Mormonism and Oberlin College, part I.

  1. J. Stapley says:

    The inquiry into enthusiasm is very interesting to me.

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  3. W. V. Smith says:

    So I’ve heard. 😉 The Presbyterian “anxious meetings” (I think they were some kind of conversion fests) — he seems to paint them as enthusiastic. Were they?

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Holy Fairs gives some wonderful context to this sort of thing from the Presbyterian angle. I’ve only gotten through the first half of it, though, so I’m not as clear to what was going on in the later periods. I suspect that at that time, it wasn’t as common.

  5. W. V. Smith says:

    I meant to say repentance fests, but I suppose conversion might be ok too.

  6. Christopher says:

    This is really fascinating stuff. Like J., I am interested in Snow’s ponderings on enthusiastic religion. It sounds to me like he’s been listening to Charles Finney, the noted Presbyterian who borrowed elements of Methodist revival techniques, and ultimately pioneered an approach to revivalism that he deemed scientific. Finney started teaching at Oberlin in 1835.

  7. Christopher says:

    And, uh, that’s a picture of him that I use as my avatar on wordpress.

  8. WVS says:

    It is interesting that Snow seems to treat his discussion of Mormonism with other Oberlinites as a kind of intellectual exercise. Apparently, Lorenzo comes to the point that he feels there is a crack in what he came to regard as a facade of “openness.” Mormonism didn’t fit the improver mold maybe.

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  11. Pingback: Lorenzo Snow, His Pre-Mormon Thoughts at Oberlin « Boap.org's Blog

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