Oberlin was founded in 1833 by two Presbyterian ministers, John Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart. The pair had become friends while spending the summer of 1832 together in nearby Elyria and discovered a shared dissatisfaction with what they saw as the lack of strong Christian morals among the settlers of the American West. Their proposed solution was to create a religious community that would more closely adhere to Biblical commandments, along with a school for training Christian missionaries who would eventually spread out all over the American frontier. The two decided to name their community after Jean-Frédéric Oberlin (1740 - 1826), an Alsatian minister whose pedagogical achievements in a poor and remote area had greatly impressed and inspired them.
Shipherd and Stewart rode south from Elyria into the forests that covered the northern part of Ohio in search of a suitable location for their community. After a journey of approximately eight miles, they stopped to rest and pray in the shade of an elm tree along the forest, and agreed that this would be a good place to start their community. Legend has it that while they prayed, a hunter saw a family of bears climb down from a nearby tree. The bears saw the two men, but turned away without harming them. On hearing this story from the hunter, the two ministers took it to be a sign from God that they had selected the right place for their community and school.
Shipherd traveled back East and convinced the owner of the land to donate 500 acres of land for the school, and he also purchased an additional 5000 acres for the town, at the cost of $1.50 per acre. While in that part of the country, he visited many of his friends and persuaded some to join in his adventure, and others to contribute money towards the construction of the community.
The motto of the new college was "Learning and Labor". In those days the words were taken quite literally: tuition at Oberlin College was free, but students were expected to contribute by helping to build and sustain the community. This attracted a number of bright young people who would otherwise not have been able to afford tuition. Eventually this approach was deemed inefficient; the motto, however, remains to this day.
Towards the middle of the 19th century, Oberlin became a major focus of the abolitionist movement in the United States. The town was conceived as an integrated community, and blacks attended Oberlin College from 1835, when brothers Gideon Quarles and Charles Henry Langston were admitted. Their younger brother John Mercer Langston, in 1888 the first black elected to the United States Congress from Virginia, also graduated from Oberlin. Many Oberlin College graduates were dedicated abolitionists who traveled throughout the South working to help slaves escape to the north.
In 1834, in response to a series of slavery debates at Lane Theological Seminary, the trustees of the Cincinnati, Ohio school voted to prohibit antislavery agitation among its students and faculty. As a result, the "Lane Rebels", a group of about 50 students, trustee Asa Mahan, and professor John Morgan, left the school. Arthur Tappan, financial agent of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, and co-founder John Shipherd saw an opportunity to solve Oberlin's financial problems by inviting the rebels (including Mahan and Morgan) to come to Oberlin. The rebels agreed under three conditions: that Oberlin accept students regardless of color, that Oberlin respect students' freedom of speech, and that Oberlin not "interfere with the internal regulation of the school." In the fall of 1835, Oberlin opened a new theology school with Asa Mahan as President, Charles Finney as Professor of theology, and the Lane Rebels among the first theology students.
By 1852, the town of Oberlin was an active terminus on the underground railroad, and thousands had already passed through it on their way to freedom. This effort was assisted by an Ohio law that allowed fugitive slaves to apply for a writ of habeas corpus, which protected them from extradition back to the southern states from which they had escaped. In 1858, a newly elected Democratic state legislature repealed this law, making fugitives around Oberlin vulnerable to enforcement of the Federal Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed southern slave-catchers to target and extradite them back to the South.
This situation came to a head with the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, a pivotal event described in Nat Brandt's book The Town That Started the Civil War. On September 13, 1858, a fugitive named John Price was captured by federal officials and held in neighboring Wellington, Ohio. A large group of Oberlin residents, consisting of both white and black townspeople, students and faculty, set out for Wellington to release Price from captivity.
The men took Price back from the arresting US Marshall, and eventually smuggled him to Canada, but the authorities were not content to let the matter rest. United States President James Buchanan personally requested prosecution of the group (now referred to by sympathetic parties as "the Rescuers"), and 37 of them were indicted. Twelve of those were free blacks, including Charles H. Langston. State authorities arrested the US Marshal who had captured Price. In negotiation, the state agreed to free the arresters, and the federal officials agreed to free all but two of those indicted. Simeon M. Bushnell, a white man, and Charles H. Langston were both tried and convicted by an all-Democrat jury. Langston's eloquent speech against slavery and injustice persuaded the judge to give them light sentences. They appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, but on May 30, 1859, their petition was denied.
The political ferment resulting from the case led to a number of major protests throughout the northern part of the state, and an unprecedented boost to the anti-slavery Republican party in the 1860 State elections. The governor of Ohio wrote to the new Republican President Abraham Lincoln urging him to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law. Though in point of fact, Lincoln declined this request, his decision did little to prevent a number of Southern states from seceding, and America was soon embroiled in the Civil War.