Three Abolition Towns: Yankee Reformers on the Frontier

Instructor:  Arlin Larson

  • Thursday morning
  • 9:30 – 11:30 am
  • No text required

In the 1820’s, a wave of revivals in Western New York led by Presbyterian/Congregational minister Charles Grandison Finney spawned a national wave of religious renewal and social reform known as the Second Great Awakening. The reformers formed numerous voluntary associations to pursue such causes as temperance, higher education, diet reform, national & international missions, and abolition. Much of the energy was directed toward civilizing the American frontier (at that time the Mid-West), then seen as a hornet’s nest of godlessness and immorality as well as a font of economic opportunity. One strategy employed by the reformers was to establish “colonies” to serve as “beacons on the hill” (as their Puritan forebears had thought of Boston). Under the leadership of an enterprising clergyman land would be purchased and a core of colonists recruited, often from the same town or from families in the East.

Three of these towns – Oberlin, OH; Galesburg, IL; and Grinnell, IA – were specifically devoted to the abolition of slavery and located close to the boundaries between slave and free states as if to say, “no further”. They were even blamed by the Southern press for being responsible for the Civil War. The reforming colonists were primarily New Englanders, including many from Maine. In particular, forty members of the Searsport Congregational Church under the leadership of a Bangor Seminary trained physician, Thomas Holyoke, formed the original core of Grinnell, IA. This course will study the founding of the three towns, the network of personalities and institutions that linked them, and the broader picture of revivalism and social reform in the Second Great Awakening.

No text required

Rev. Dr. Arlin T. Larson. In addition to his being the retired pastor of the church of the Grinnell colonists, Dr. Larson spent a year at Oberlin College as a campus ministry intern and has written on Oberlin history.