It is the 1st of June, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
This show- and the Christian church is familiar with the lure of utopias. After all, we came from Eden and have a longing to return. We pray “Thy kingdom come” and that “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
But ask our own Gillespie, who has vacationed in numerous former American utopian cities. They are “former” for a reason. Infighting, open marriages, a prophet gone mad… it seems there is just enough sin hanging around to doom any overly optimistic settlement. But what if I told you that there was a village in the Alsace- caught between France and Germany amongst the Vosges mountain range- that, for a season, flourished and would forever be transformed by their pastor? He was J.F or Jean Frederick Oberlin. There are cities and colleges named after the man who evangelized and organized an impoverished village and has become a byword for rural cooperation.
Jean Frederic was born in Strasbourg in 1740- at the time, a French city (between 1681 and the present, it has gone French, German, French, German, and French again since 1944) He spoke French with a German accent. He was known as both Jean-Frederic and John Frederick. He attended the University of Strasbourg, where he undertook “general studies,” a hodgepodge of topics from literature and philosophy to ecology and animal husbandry. After graduating, he worked as a tutor for a leading physician in Strasbourg, where he was able to utilize his library and learn practical medicine. He went back to school, received a degree in theology, and was ordained at the age of 27. As a Lutheran in the pietist and Brethren tradition, he did not shy away from difficult work as a means of discipline. He took a call to the difficult Ban de La Roche in the Vosges Mountains. 5 villages known for their poverty, illiteracy, and poor soil- amongst Oberlin’s friends in the ministry, it was known as “the Alsatian Siberia.”
Oberlin began his project with children. He opened a schoolhouse with donations from outside the village. He tied the lives of the church to the life of the school- giving awards to children and encouraging parents to attend night school to learn to read and then training adults- even women- to be teachers. He raised a tax amongst the villages to keep the schools up, to bring in tradesmen to teach trades and take apprentices. He encouraged a smallpox vaccination when the disease was wiping out populations in rural areas. He built irrigation systems to improve the soil, offered interest-free loans, and opened what appears to be the first-ever kindergarten.
For Oberlin, it was the vocation of a pastor, but also all Christians, to love their neighbors in practical ways. He believed the freedom of a Christian should be a great equalizer- all become servants, and thus, he ran the church and villages democratically. As the French Revolution approached, he was torn- he believed in the tenets of liberty, but for him, the centrality of the church was important. He sought a middle way between the Revolution and its attack on the church. He believed the church could not be destroyed but may take different forms as needed. To comply with the state, he closed his church and opened an identical citizens club that happened to meet at the same time and place. He was no longer “pastor” but “president.” Unfortunately, he was discovered operating what was, in reality, a church and was arrested. He was saved from the guillotine with the death of Robespierre. He went back to the Ban de La Roche, where he continued his work until his death in 1826. He was buried, and a cross erected at his grave reads, “Papa Oberlin.” His story would inspire later towns and schools. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, one character suggests an idyllic rural community “… it would be as if the spirit of Oberlin had passed over the parishes to make the life of poverty beautiful!”
It was a kind of beautiful poverty- not utopian perfection but neighborly cooperation and love inspired by their pastor- John Frederick Oberlin- he was 86 years old when he died on this the 1st of June in 1826.
The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary from 2 Timothy.
8 Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 1st of June 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man creating his own Utopia in Random Lake: coffee roasting, sound engineering, and the unaltered Augsburg confession- He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who has lived most of his life in planned communities and really hopes there are no HOAs in heaven. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.