Oberlin, Jean Frederic
Oberlin, Jean Frederic
one of the most noted of French Lutheran divines, was born August 31, 1740, in Strasburg, formerly the capital of Alsace, near the Rhine. Blessed with pious parents and reared under Christian influences, Frederic from his childhood exhibited evidences of consistent piety, and was noted for the benevolence and gentleness of his disposition, his coinstant desire to protect the weak, to relieve the suffering, and to promote the comfort and happiness of the race. On the completion of his preparatory course, he entered the university for the purpose of prosecuting his studies, with a view to the Christian ministry. While a student he attended upon the religious instructions of one who was distinguished for the earnestness with which he preached "Christ and him crucified." A permanent change in the character of the young man was effected; impressions and influences at that time were made upon his mind which were never effaced. He was thoroughly awakened to the claims of the Gospel, and brought to make a full surrender of himself to Christ. At. the age of twenty, in a solemn covenant, he consecrated himself to the service of God. This act of self- dedication, written and signed January 1, 1760, and renewed ten years afterwards, gives us some idea of his earnest Christian principles at this very early period, the key-note of his unfaltering devotion to Christ and his cause. On the conclusion of his theological course he was ordained to the work of the ministry, but he did not immediately enter upon it. He was for several years employed as a private instructor in the family of a physician, with whom he incidentally acquired a. large amount of medical knowledge, which proved of great value to him in his subsequent labors. In 1766 he was appointed chaplain in the French army, which position he had concluded to accept, and was already preparing himself for its duties when he received a most earnest appeal to labor in the interests of the parish of Waldbach, in the Ban de la Roche. This changed his plans. So fine a prospect of usefulness was here presented, that with his views of duty he could not disregard its claims, and he at once determined to occupy this field of labor. Waldbach was at the time a desolate, scarcely civilized village in the bleak, wild, and mountainous Ban de la Roche, which derived its name from a castle called La Roche, or the Rock, which the Ban or district surrounds. It is also known by the German name of Steinthal, the Valley of Stone. The district had suffered severely in the Thirty-years' War, and the population that survived its ravages were reduced to poverty and debased by ignorance. It was only in 1750 that any effort was made for the moral improvement and social elevation of this obscure and degraded people. He commenced .his labors by combining faithful diligence in the ordinary duties of the pastorate, with wise and earnest endeavors to advance the education and general prosperity of the community. He projected more extended plans of improvement than his predecessor had attempted, and, as the best means of preparing the way for his pastoral instructions, he determined to teach the people the ordinary arts and comforts of life. His efforts at first met with great opposition. The people had been accustomed to indulge so long in an indolent life that they could not believe that their happiness would be increased by exertion. Some of the more malicious too, united in a plot to lie in ambush for their good minister, and inflict upon him personal violence. Having been informed of their intentions and the time they had selected, he preached as usual, from the words, "But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil; but whoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also," and inculcated the lesson of Christian patience and submission under injury. At the conclusion of the services the conspirators gathered together, wondering whether the preacher would act in accordance with his principles when they were brought to the test; but, to their surprise, in the midst of their discussion he made his appearance among them. "Here am I, my friends," he said. "I know all about your designs. If I have violated the rules which I have laid down for your government, chastise me. It is better that I should deliver myself into your hands than that you should be guilty of the meanness of lying in wait for me." Deeply touched by his simple address, and ashamed of their conduct, they implored his forgiveness and mercy, and promised never again to oppose his kind and well-meant efforts. Only a few weeks afterwards another scheme was concocted, in one of the other villages in the district, to seize him as he was returning from the services of the sanctuary and beat him. Having heard of the plot, he preached on the safety of those who put their trust in the Lord, and .of the sure protection promised them in all the trials and conflicts of life. He returned home after the exercises by the usual way, although he knew that those who had plotted against him lay concealed in the bushes, and were awaiting his approach. He felt, however, that the everlasting arms were underneath him. Undaunted he passed by his enemies, and so completely were they discomfited that not one ventured to touch him. These incidents had a salutary influence, and greatly aided him in his benevolent mission. Confidence in the man and his work was increased; and these very individuals who had been detected in their wicked designs subsequently became his most devoted friends, and were most faithful in their cooperation. One of Oberlin's first enterprises for the improvement of the people was the construction of a road, so that their territory might be accessible, and communication effected with the more civilized districts of the country. The proposition at first was listened to with astonishment and incredulity. Its execution seemed to the ignorant and benighted peasants impossible, and they began to make excuses for not participating in the labor. But when they saw the worthy pastor take up a pick-axe and vigorously engage in the work, they all soon joined him. He continued to direct and share their labors, until a road was opened to Strasburg, and a bridge thrown over the intervening river. When this was accomplished, he easily persuaded the people to make other roads, by means of which communication with all the fire villages was established. He also introduced among the people the mechanical arts by selecting from the older boys the best qualified, and apprenticing them to mechanics at Strasburg. He likewise improved their dwellings; neat cottages and comfortable homes were gradually substituted for the miserable cabins, which had generally been hewn out of the rocks or sunk into the sides of the mountains. He made them also acquainted with the improved methods of cultivating the soil, and infused among them a taste for rearing fruit- trees, so that in a few years a marvelous change was wrought in the appearance of this wild and sterile country. After instructing them in the various arts of agriculture, of which they were before totally ignorant, in 1778 he formed an agricultural society, which, in addition to providing books and instruction on the subject, also instituted prizes for successful competition in this department of labor. His principal efforts were, however, directed to the moral and spiritual improvement of the community. His labors were all made subordinate and tributary to this one great object. On the Lord's-day he carefully instructed them in the principles, doctrines, and duties of the Christian religion, and neglected no opportunity of improving their character, reminding them of their natural depravity, of the necessity of repentance, and the consecration of all their powers to the Savior. His labors on behalf of the rising generation were most faithful and effective. His confidence in God was so strong that he commenced the erection of a schoolhouse in each of the villages, although without the means necessary to defray the expenses. He firmly relied on the divine promises. Fervent in spirit and earnest in prayer, he felt that success was sure. His expectations were not disappointed. Assistance came from various directions, and the people cordially supported him in his measures. The buildings were erected, teachers were specially prepared for their work and evidences of a marked change in the community were everywhere visible. The face of the country was completely renovated. Poverty and misery were supplanted by rural happiness and contentment. But Oberlin, in his desire to perfect the system of instruction, so as to make it beneficial to all ages, having observed with concern the disadvantages from which the younger children suffered while their elder brothers and sisters were at school and their parents busily engaged in their daily avocations, presented a plan for the organization of infant schools, the first established of which there is any record. For each village he appointed a female teacher. In the exercises, amusement and instruction were blended, very much on the same principle on which these schools at the present day are conducted. Two women were employed in each school, one to direct the manual tasks, and the other the lessons, and amusements of the children, whose ages were from two to seven years. When they became weary, the teacher would exhibit and explain to them pictures relating to scriptural subjects, natural history, and geography. The children were also taught to sing hymns, and to avoid the use of the barbarous patois which was their vernacular tongue. Thus trained, in due time they entered the higher schools, in which a more advanced course of instruction was adopted. He also instituted Sunday- schools. The children of each hamlet assembled in rotation every Sunday in the church to sing the hymns and to recite the religious lessons which they had learned during the week, and to receive the counsels of their minister. Besides this meeting, all the scholars were once a week collected at Waldbach and examined in their studies. His friends at-Strasburg contributed liberally in aid of his schools, so that he was enabled to procure books for a library, and also philosophical apparatus and mathematical instruments. At a certain period the scholars were required, each one to plant at least two trees, for the purpose of impressing upon the youthful mind the duty of contributing something to the general prosperity. He also organized in 1782, for the religious improvement of the people, a Christian Society similar to the Young Men's Christian Associations of the present day. The exercises consisted chiefly of prayer and religious conversation. Among the regulations of the society we find one requiring the members on the first day of every month to pray for the success of missions; and another proposing. that every Sunday and Wednesday, at five o'clock P.M. the members offer supplication on behalf of all connected with the society, that they and their households may be saved; also for all God's children of every denomination, that they may be united more and more in Christ, that the kingdom of Satan may be destroyed, and the kingdom of God established among the heathen and nominal Christians; also for teachers and magistrates, for all pastors and laborers in the vineyard of the Lord, and for the young, that they may be preserved from the seductive influences of wicked example and early led to a knowledge of the precious Redeemer. Another of the rules required that every Saturday evening all the members should pray for God's blessing on the preached Word the following day. He also selected various mottoes and topics which he desired the members to consider and remember; among them were such as these, "Bring forth much fruit;" "Lose no time;" "Love not the world, neither the things of the world;"' "Search the Scriptures diligently." Texts from the Bible were to be seen everywhere on the walls of his house. It was his constant aim to omit no occasion of doing good, or of impressing upon the heart and conscience important religious truths. He also established in his parish a Bible Society, auxiliary to the British and Foreign Bible Society. Stated meetings were held and collections taken for the parent institution; the Scriptures were also read and prayer offered for the success of the cause. Female Bible societies were likewise formed, the members of which loaned the sacred volume to their neighbors, and read it to those who could not read it for themselves. His success in reconciling differences and adjusting difficulties among the people was most remarkable. So much confidence was reposed in the integrity of his character and the judiciousness of his counsels that all seemed disposed to trust his decisions and follow his advice. He successfully terminated an angry controversy which had existed for eighty years between the peasantry of Ban de la Roche and some proprietors of the territory in reference to the woodland which covered their mountains. The lawsuit originating from this dispute was a source of constant annoyance, a great drawback to their industry, and a loss to the whole community. After years of acrimonious conflict, the contest was abandoned on terms regarded by both parties as advantageous. The magistrate of the province, who had so signally failed in settling the controversy, was so deeply impressed with the power of the good pastor that he begged him to preserve in his study the pen with which the amicable agreement had been signed, as a memorial of the triumph which Christian virtue and principle had secured over bitter prejudices and long-continued hostilities. During the period of the French Revolution, when almost every interest suffered, and religious worship of every kind was interdicted, this good man was unmolested in the discharge of his faithful duties. His house was the asylum of the persecuted and oppressed, of the many who had fled for refuge from the cruel scenes and bloody persecutions which were elsewhere enacted. All men had confidence in his integrity. His consistent piety, active benevolence, and untiring energy everywhere made a deep impression. About this time so deeply was his heart touched by the reports in reference to the wretched condition of the slave population in the West Indies that he resolved no longer to use sugar or coffee, because they were the product of slave labor; and this resolution he faithfully kept during the remainder of his life, although its observance required the practice of great self-denial, inasmuch as from his infancy he had been accustomed to these luxuries. But he was so much under the influence of Christian principle that, no matter how great the sacrifice, he was ever willing to make it, in obedience to his convictions of duty. The missionary spirit, also, was so strongly awakened in his breast, as the pathetic appeals reached him from distant-lands, that his heart yearned towards those who were perishing in their sins, ignorant of the glad tidings of redemption through Jesus Christ.
When he heard of the spiritual destitution that existed among brethren of his faith in the United States he was ready to respond to the earnest Macedonian cry, "'Come over and help us."' He had determined to immigrate to 'this country, where, it seemed to him, there was so much work to be done for the German population, and his arrangements were nearly completed, when his designs, greatly to his sorrow, were frustrated by the American Revolution. His work evidently was not yet done in the Ban de la Roche, or Providence would have opened the way for his departure. As the population of the Ban increased, Oberlin introduced among the peasants cotton-spinning and weaving, the art of dyeing, and various branches of manufacture. The flourishing settlement began to attract attention from abroad, and in 1818, in testimony of his services to mankind; and especially in the science of agriculture, a gold medal was presented to the worthy pastor by the Royal Agricultural Society of Paris. The decoration of the Legion of Honor was also awarded him by Louis XVIII as an appreciation of his services to humanity. He was visited, too, by distinguished travelers from different parts of Europe, who expressed their utmost gratification with the order and happiness which prevailed, and their astonishment at the great changes that had been effected. Oberlin's influence over his parish continued to the last. As he advanced in years, and physical infirmities increased, he resigned to his son-in-law his more active duties; but there was no abatement of his interest in the work. With a face habitually serene, his life presented one of the finest specimens of happy old age. When he could no longer labor, with unfaltering devotion he prayed for his beloved people; and that no one might be passed by, he was accustomed to keep a list of his parishioners and pray for them individually; and frequently he would write on his door the names of such as claimed special attention, lest they might be forgotten. He also spent a portion of his time in epistolary correspondence, and in writing essays on religious subjects for the instruction of his people. Every sentiment he uttered seemed animated by the spirit of the Master — an earnest desire to do good and to fulfill the object of life, by simple-hearted faith in God and patient submission to his will. His last illness was brief. On the morning of June 2,1826, in the eighty-sixth year of his age, and the sixtieth of his ministry in the Ban de la Roche, he gently passed to his rest, the place "which sin can never touch nor sorrow cloud." As the intelligence of the good man's death spread through the district it was received with unfeigned sorrow. The peasants in a vast concourse came from all directions, through drenching rains and muddy roads, to look for the last time upon the countenance of their father and friend, to pay their tribute of gratitude and affection to the memory of him who had been so closely identified with their interests, and who had steadfastly and enthusiastically dedicated his life to their moral elevation. When the procession with the corpse, on which were placed the Bible from which he had so long preached and the robes which he had worn in the pulpit, preceded by the oldest inhabitant carrying a cross designed to be placed by the grave, reached the church — a distance of two miles — the mourners had not yet all left the house. At the funeral services in the church, which, although closely packed, only a small portion could enter, a paper written by Oberlin many years before in prospect of this event was read. Among other things, the following tender and impressive language occurs: "God will neither forget nor forsake thee, my dear parish! He has towards thee, as I have often said, thoughts of peace and mercy. All things will go well with thee. Only cleave thou to him. Forget my name, and retain only that of Jesus Christ, whom I have proclaimed to thee. He is thy Pastor; I am but his servant. He is the Good Master who sent me to thee that I might be useful. He alone is wise, good, and almighty; I am but a poor, fallen, wretched man. Pray, my friends, that you may all become the beloved sheep of his pasture. There is salvation in none other than Jesus Christ. Jesus loves you, seeks you, and is ready to receive you. Go to him just as you are, with all your sins and infirmities. He alone can deliver you from them, and heal you. He will sanctify and perfect you. .Consecrate yourselves to him. Whenever any of you die, may you die in him and may I meet you, with songs of triumph, in the mansions of the blessed, before the throne of the Lamb." There is much that is attractive in the faithful labors of Jean Frederic Oberlin, and the lessons derived from his useful life may be profitable in their relation to our own personal efforts to do good. There have been men of more brilliant talents, of greater erudition and more varied attainments, but few individuals have been more earnest and devoted to their work, or more successful in the influence which they wielded and the results they accomplished, than this humble Lutheran minister. He was the ideal of a good pastor — holy, harmless, separate from sinners; a man of warm heart and generous impulses, of great simplicity, of a frank, genial nature, uniform kindness, and unsullied integrity. He possessed energy, industry, unconquerable perseverance, and a wonderful power of endurance. He was a man of methodical habits, a lover of order and subordination, sincere and unreserved in his intercourse, practical in his character, and entirely consecrated to the service of the Master. His career was one scene of active benevolence and zealous piety, an exhibition of a loving heart, a blameless life, and a tireless hand. He was thoroughly evangelical in his views, importunate in prayer, and strong in faith, and strikingly illustrated in his own walk and conversation the power and blessedness of the Gospel. Notwithstanding the comparatively obscure and humble sphere which he occupied, he became the: beloved patriarch of a renovated country and a regenerated people. His fame as a philanthropist has extended over the world, and his example has stimulated and guided others in their Christian efforts to advance the welfare and elevate the character of the race. See North Amer. Rev. 1831, p. 453; Princet. Repos. 1830, p. 532; Bullet. Theol. Oct. 25, 1869, p. 310; Neander, Ziige aus dem Leben u. Wirken des Pastor Oberlin (1835); Merlin, Le Pasteur Oberlin (1833); Rothert, Leben J. F. Oberlin's (1847); The Ban de la Roche and its Benefautor (Lond. 1820).; Lutteroth, Notice sur . F. Oberlin (1826); Stoeber, Vie de J. F. Oberlin (1834); Schubert, Ziige aus dem Leben Oberlin's (1854); Sims, Brief Memorials of Oberlin (Lond. 1830); Memoirs of Oberlin (8th ed. Lond. 1838); Menzoirs of John Frederick Oberlin, Pastor of Waldbach, in the 'Ban de la Roche; compileil from authentic sources, chiefly French and German, with a dedication and translation, by the Rev. Luther Halsey (N.York, 1855); Blackie, Morals, p. 270; Hurst's Hagenbach, Ch. Hist. of the 18th and 19th Centuries, ii,:380sq. (M.L.S.)