Page images

this he was dissuaded by his father, and willingly addicted himself to a course of study suitable for a more peaceful pursuit. French, his vernacular tongue, he learned to write with great force and elegance; and besides the German language, he acquired a proficiency in Latin and Greek, with a competent knowledge of general science, and various other accomplishments. Partly from the wishes of his parents, who were of the reformed or Lutheran church, and partly from his own inclinations, he resolved on devoting himself to the duties of a clergyman. For this purpose he attended a course of theological study at the university of Strasburg, and in 1760 was ordained to the sacred ministry.

Being still young, and possessing little experience of the world, Oberlin did not feel warranted in immediately assuming the pastoral office; for the space of seven years he devoted himself to private teaching, and for some time acted as tutor in the family of a distinguished surgeon, where he obtained that knowledge of medicine and surgery which proved so valuable to him in afterlife. While thus occupied, he was offered the chaplainship of a regiment, and this he was about to accept, as likely to place him in a sphere of considerable usefulness, when a new field of operation was laid before him by his friend M. Stouber, and the idea of a military chaplaincy was abandoned.

M. Stouber had been, since 1750, the curé or pastor of a wild hilly canton among the Vosges, called by the French the Ban de la Roche, from the castle of La Roche, around which the Ban or district extends; and named by the Germans the Steinthal, or Stoney Valley, from the rocky and generally sterile appearance of its surface. The canton oomprised two parishes, Rothau, in which was

one church, and another in which were three churches, distributed among the villages of Foudai, Belmont, Waldbach, and Bellefosse. The principal part of the district was Lutheran, and enjoyed the privileges to which we have already adverted.

As respects its physical features, the Ban de la Roche formed part of the western declivities and ramifications of the Haut Champ, an isolated group of mountains, rising 3600 feet above the level of the sea, and separated by a deep longitudinal valley from the eastern side of the chain of the Vosges. Waldbach, the principal village, is placed on the acclivity of the Haut Champ, at the height of 1800 feet; and Rothau is 1360 feet. The other villages or hamlets already mentioned occupy points more or less elevated. From the great height of the district, it possesses various climates, from that of a southern latitude on the lower slopes, to that of an extreme northern one in the higher parts. Such is the difference between the seasonal influences in the lower and upper tracts, that at Belmont the harvest is a month later than at Foudai. The whole canton contains between eight thousand and nine thousand acres, of which from three thousand


to four thousand were covered with wood, two thousand occupied as pasture, and the remainder was enclosed. At the time to which we refer, sixteen hundred acres were under cultivation, producing principally rye, oats, and potatoes; and fourteen hundred were laid out as meadow and garden ground. To some extent this disposition of the land was an improvement on what had been its condition at the beginning of the reign of Louis XV., when the whole district was in the wildest state, and almost inaccessible, there being no road even from village to village, and scarcely any land under cultivation.

When M. Stouber went to the canton in 1750, cultivation had made some little progress; but the general aspect of affairs was miserable in the extreme. Although situated within a day's journey of Strasburg, the Ban de la Roche was in as primitive and backward a condition as if it had been a hundred miles from any civilised spot. The people, holding little intercourse with the world beyond their mountains, were deplorably ignorant and wretched, and without any wish to be otherwise. Being shocked with their low intellectual condition, one of Stouber's first inquiries was for the principal school-house; and he was shown à miserable hut, crowded with children, without books, and apparently having no instructor. 66 Where is the master ?” he asked. “There he is,” said one of the pupils, pointing to an old man lying on a bed in a corner of the cottage. " What do

you teach the children, my good man?” asked Stouber. “Nothing, sir.” “Nothing! —how is that?" “ Because I know nothing myself,” answered the old man. “Why, then, have you been appointed schoolmaster ?” “Why, you see, sir, I was the pigkeeper of Waldbach for many years, and when I was too old and infirm for that employment, I was sent here to take care of the children !" Such was the chief educational establishment in the Ban de la Roche, and the others were little better, for they were schools kept by shepherds, and open only at certain seasons of the year.

To remedy this lamentable state of affairs, Stouber set about the institution of proper schoolmasters; but this was attended with great difficulty; for so low had the profession of the teacher sunk in public estimation, that no one would undertake the office. He at length, by an ingenious device, proposed to abolish the name of schoolmaster, and institute that of regent in its stead; which was readily assented to, and Messicurs les regents were forthwith named." He then drew up a set of alphabet and spelling books for the use of the pupils; but never having seen such works before, the peasantry imagined they concealed some species of heresy or divination. That which chiefly puzzled and alarmed them, were the rows of unconnected syllables, which meant no sort of language; and on this account they long opposed the introduction of the lessons. When they began to perceive that, by conquering the syllables, the children were able to read whole and connected words, their jealousy of the strange lesson-books gradually gave way; and finally, when they saw that the children could read any book fluently, they not only abandoned all opposition, but begged to be taught to read also. A great victory had now been achieved : a bigotted prejudice, the result of ignorance, had, by, kindness and perseverance, been successfully rooted out. Having thus brought the population into a reading humour, M. Stouber procured fifty Bibles from Strasburg, and dividing each into three parts, strongly bound in vellum, he was able to distribute a hundred and fifty books among the families throughout the canton. The taste for reading the Scriptures being by this means created, there soon arose a demand for Bibles, and some hundreds were advantageously disposed of.

In the space of six years, a considerable change for the better was thus made on the social condition of the district, which M. Stouber expected still to improve, when he was appointed pastor of Barr in Lorraine. He was not long in this new situation, when he regretted that he had left the Ban de la Roche; and some time thereafter, when the pastorship of that canton was again vacant, he gladly returned to it, to the great joy of many of his old parishioners. He now remained four years, fulfilling his important duties, and daily improving the minds of the people committed to his charge. Unfortunately, his wife, who was an active co-operator in his plans, died, leaving him forlorn and dispirited; and being offered the situation of pastor to St Thomas's church, in Strasburg, he accepted it, though greatly fearful that, by his departure, the Ban de la Roche would relapse into the condition from which he had been instrumental in raising it. Pondering on this unhappy prospect, it occurred to him that if Oberlin, with whose abilities he was well acquainted, could be prevailed on to accept the vacant charge, no fears need be entertained for the continued wellbeing of the district.

On arriving in Strasburg, M. Stouber hastened to call on his young friend, whom he found in a humble lodging, which contained a small bed, with brown-paper curtains, and a little iron pan, with which Oberlin cooked his supper of brown bread, with a little water and a sprinkling of salt—the whole furniture being such as might be expected in the apartment of a student who preferred independence with narrowness of circumstances, to finery with dependence on others. Stouber observed at a glance that Oberlin was precisely the person he expected to find, and frankly communicated his wishes. Oberlin was charmed with the proposition. He would have declined accepting any rich and easy benefice. A parish in which all the inhabitants were poor and ignorant, was quite the thing he had been waiting for. His hour of usefulness had come. In a short time he was installed in the cure of the Ban de la Roche, and, like a primitive apostle setting out for the wilderness, went to assume the trust committed to his charge.


Oberlin arrived at Waldbach, where he was to reside, on the 30th of May 1767, being at the time in his twenty-seventh year. His parsonage-house was a plain building of two storeys, standing on the face of a woody bank near the church, with a garden adjoining, and all around were lofty hills, partly covered with pines, with here and there pieces of pasture and patches of cultivated land. It was a wild rural scene, with a stillness only broken at intervals by the faint sound of the sheep or cow-bells, swept by the breezes along the rugged sides of the mountains.

Notwithstanding the previous efforts of M. Stouber, the united parish seemed to be physically as well as socially in a condition considerably behind that of most other parts of the country. In every population there are two orders of men—one, who with little difficulty are open to a conviction that improvements are desirable, and another, who, either from excess of ignorance or perversity, can tolerate no change whatsoever. On the former of these Stouber had worked with beneficial effect; they appreciated the blessings of the elementary education he had introduced, and were willing to go into the new schemes of melioration which Oberlin proposed to execute. The enemies of innovation, the suspicious, and the prejudiced, who had all along given a grumbling opposition to parochial improvement, of whatever kind, now resolved to adopt active measures to prevent their new pastor from carrying his projects into operation. Their plan, which was quite accordant with the malignity that usually animates such persons, was to waylay their pastor, and inflict on him a severe personal chastisement. Fortunately, Oberlin procured information of their design, and his conduct on this occasion strongly marks the character of this excellent man. A Sunday was fixed on for the execution of the deed. When the day came, he took for his text that fine passage admonitory of meekness, from the fifth chapter of St Matthew: “But I say unto you that ye resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” After the service, the malcontents met at the house of one of the party, where perhaps the sermon they had just heard might furnish them matter of coarse pleasantry, in reference to the occasion which the preacher would soon find for putting in practice the lessons which he had taught so well. What must have been their astonishment when the door opened, and the pastor presented himself in the midst of them ! “Here I am, my friends,” said he, with that calmness which strikes respect into the most violent; "your design on me I am acquainted with ; you have wished' to deal with me in a practical manner, and to chastise me because you deem me culpable. If I have in fact violated the rules which I have laid down for you, punish me for it. It is better that I should deliver myself up to you, and save you the meanness of resorting to an ambuscade.” These simple words produced their full effect. The peasants, ashamed of entertaining evil intentions against so good and candid a man, intreated his forgiveness, and promised never again to cherish a doubt of his affection for them. In this manner Oberlin overcame the stubborn and evil dispositions of his more ignorant parishioners, with the best results, showing in his own conduct an exemplification of the precepts which it was his duty to enjoin. It even happened that those who had formerly been his enemies, or connived at plots against him, being anxious to reinstate themselves in his good opinion, and conscious that they had no better means of succeeding than by warmly seconding his views, were henceforward among the foremost to offer him assistance.

Aided, however, as Oberlin was by many of his parishioners, there were such difficulties to encounter in executing his benevolent plans, that only the most unwearied patience and self-denying virtue could have surmounted them. His idea of the clerical character was not alone that of a minister of the gospel. Suiting himself to the necessities of his position, he perceived that it was his sacred duty to unite, in his own person, the character of religious pastor with that of secular instructor and adviser, physician, and husbandman. To an earnest inculcation of the doctrines and precepts of Christianity, he added the principles of philosophy, and the resources of a mind skilled in practical science. One of his earliest schemes required him to combine the functions of a civil engineer with that of a day labourer. The account given of his enterprise on this occasion marks the sagacity of his mind and the humility of his disposition.

Looking around on the general condition of the canton, he observed that one of its chief defects was the want of roads communicating with the lower and more improved parts of the country. The only existing thoroughfares were absolutely impassable during six or eight months of the year; and even in summer they were in so wretched a state, that they were never used except when urgent necessity compelled the natives to repair to the neighbouring towns. So long as this state of things lasted, it was evident that there could be no solid improvement or prosperity in the district. Assured of this fact, Oberlin called together his parishioners, and proposed that they should themselves open a road a mile and a half in length, and build a bridge over the river Bruche, so that they might no longer be imprisoned in their villages three-fourths of the year. The boldness of the proposal filled the assembly with astonishment—the thing appeared to them impossible—and every one found an excuse in his private concerns for not engaging in the undertaking. Some hinted that the roads were well enough as they were; for there is

Notice of a French Memoir of Oberlin in Eclectic Review, October 1827.

« PreviousContinue »