Lane Theological Seminary

From Academic Kids

Lane Theological Seminary was established in the Walnut Hills section of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1829 to educate Presbyterian ministers. It was named in honor of Ebenezer and William Lane, who pledged $4,000 for the new school, which was seen as a forward outpost of the Presbyterian Church in the western territories of the United States. Prominent New England pastor Lyman Beecher moved his family (including daughter Harriet and son Henry) from Boston to Cincinnati to become the first President of the Seminary in 1832.

Lane Seminary is known primarily for the "debates" held there in 1834 that influenced the nation's thinking about slavery. The event resulted in the dismissal of a group of students, a professor and a trustee and was one of the first significant tests of academic freedom in the United States and the right of students to participate in free discussion. Several of those involved went on to play an important role in the abolitionist movement and the buildup to the American Civil War.


A Time of Conflict

Lane Seminary was founded during a time of rising social, political and religious conflict. The school was at the center of the "Old School" - "New School" debate in both the churches and contemporary politics. While known for his fiery sermons, Beecher's calls for social activism were tempered by a pragmatic desire for mainline support. His opposition of revivalist Charles Finney's views led him also to refuse demands that arose from a group of students led by Theodore Dwight Weld at the Seminary in 1834.

Slavery Debates

Weld was an active supporter of "immediate emancipation" abolitionism, as opposed to colonization, which proposed sending blacks "home" to Africa. Despite the fact that the Seminary had its own colonization society, over a period of several months Weld convinced nearly all of the students individually of the superiority of the abolitionist view. When the merits of the proposed solutions to slavery were debated over 18 days at the Seminary in February, 1834, it was one of the first major public discussions of the topic, but it was more of an anti-slavery revival than a "debate." The two specific questions addressed were:

  1. "Ought the people of the slaveholding states to abolish slavery immediately?", and
  2. "Are the doctrines, tendencies, and measures of the American Colonization Society, and the influence of its principal supporters, such as render it worthy of the patronage of the Christian public?"

Each question was debated for two and a half hours a night for nine nights. Among the participants:

  • Eleven had been born and brought up in slave states.
  • Seven were sons of slaveholders.
  • One had only recently ceased to be a slaveholder.
  • One had been a slave and had bought his freedom.
  • Ten had lived in slave states.
  • One was an agent of the Colonization Society.

Arguments addressing the first question in favor of the immediate abolition of slavery included:

  • Slaves long for freedom.
  • When inspired with a promise of freedom, slaves will toil with incredible alacrity and faithfulness.
  • No matter how kind their master is, slaves are dissatisfied and would rather be his hired servants than his slaves.
  • Blacks are abundantly able to take care of, and provide for themselves.
  • Blacks would be kind and docile if immediately emancipated.

One of the most stirring speeches of the first nine nights was given by James A. Thome, the son of a slaveholder in Kentucky. His first-hand experience of the brutal realities of the slave system helped convince many of the students that there was no other remedy for them than the immediate and complete overthrow of slavery.

In response to the second question, Reverend Dr. Samuel H. Cox, who had served as an agent for the Colonization Society, testified that his view of the Society's plan changed when he realized that no black, despite the claims of those who ventured to speak for them, would ever consent to be removed from their native country and transplanted to a foreign land. He reasoned, therefore, that the plan could only be enacted by a "national society of kidnappers."[1] (

At the end of the debate, many of the participants concluded not only that slavery was a sin, but also that the policy of the American Colonization Society to send blacks to Africa was wrong. As a result, these students formed an antislavery society and began organizing activities and outreach work among the black population of Cincinnati. They intended to attain the emancipation of blacks, not by rebellion or force, but by "approaching the minds of slave holders with the truth, in the spirit of the Gospel." (Fletcher, p. 154)

The "Rebels" Depart

As Cincinnati businessmen, the members of the school's board of trustees were quite concerned about being associated with such a radical expression of abolitionism. President Beecher did not want to escalate the matter by over-reacting, but when the press began to turn public opinion against the students that summer, he was in Boston. In his absence, the Executive Committee of the trustees issued a report recommending the abolishment of the school's antislavery society, stating that "no associations or Societies among the students ought to be allowed in the Seminary except such as have for their immediate object improvement in the prescribed course of studies." They further urged the adoption of rules to "discourage...such discussions and conduct among the students as are calculated to divert their attention from their studies." The committee underlined their position by dismissing professor John Morgan for taking the side of the students. In October, without waiting for Beecher to return, the board ratified the committee's resolutions. (Fletcher, pp. 158-60)

On his return, Beecher and two professors issued a statement intended to assuage the anger of the students regarding the action of the trustees, but it was regarded by the students as a faculty endorsement. Within a week, approximately 40 students and trustee Asa Mahan requested dismissal from the school. The "Lane Rebels," as they came to be known, established an informal seminary of their own for a time and then accepted an invitation to join Oberlin College, which became an interracial institution committed to the emancipation and education of African Americans. The stand taken by the "rebels" not only challenged the school's unchecked authority over student and faculty activities, but also marked a shift in American antislavery efforts from colonization to abolition, and many of them became ministers, abolitionists and social reformers across the country. (Fletcher, pp. 161-63)

Shifting Ties

Following the slavery debates, Lane Seminary continued as a "New School" seminary, cooperating with Congregationalists and others in mission and education efforts and involved in social reform movements like abolition, temperance, and Sabbath legislation. They admitted students from other denominations and pursued educational and evangelistic unity among Protestant churches in the West.

At the end of the 19th century, Lane Seminary was reorganized along more conservative lines. In 1910, it became affiliated with the Presbyterian Seminary of the South, and the Seminary continued as a small but respected school, though financial pressures continued to increase. Following a brief period of growth in the 1920s, it became apparent that Lane could no longer survive as an independent school. In 1932, it became part of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. While a permanent Board of Trustees for Lane Theological Seminary has remained in service, the faculty, library collections, and students were transferred to Chicago, and the last remnants of the Cincinnati campus were destroyed in 1956.

Historical Re-enactments

The Lane Debates have been re-enacted in recent years by historians from Yale University[2] (, the University of Connecticut and Oberlin College[3] (



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