Philo Penfield Stewart
Born on July 6, 1798 in Sherman, Connecticut to a farming family, Penfield (as he was most often called) was from the beginning clever, skilled and a hard worker. His father died when he was quite young and his mother with few options to support her large family sent her son to live with his maternal grandfather in Vermont. Penfield concluded that while he was not afraid of hard work, farming was not for him. He next went to live with his uncle John Penfield where he was to learn the trade of harness making and attend Pawlet Academy. It was at Pawlet Academy that Stewart would find both his Faith and a friend, John Jay Stewart.
At the Academy, Penfield first felt the need to make his faith a living, active one. Missionary work called him twice to the field. He approached the American Board Missionaries and was sent to Mississippi to work with the Choctaw Nation. He showed himself to be both a hard worker and frugal when it came to spending the Board’s funds. “Why should I spend my pennies for what I do not need?” he is quoted as saying. However, his nature wasn’t miserly. He would tell stories of his frugality but ended his tales by saying, “Nature made me a miser, but the grace of God made me love to give.”
After completing his first mission where he became very ill with bilious fever, the effects of which he never fully recovered, he returned home to Vermont where he tried to engage in more secular pursuits. He would, however, soon be back in the field, toiling for the Lord. He took several young people out to the field with him. One young lady, Eliza Capen, would become his wife. After concluding his second mission Stewart attempted to try his hand at preaching the gospel but soon found his lungs were not strong enough to allow him to be an effective preacher. He then thought that perhaps he could teach younger, stronger men to do just that.
Soon after Penfield communicated with his dear friend from Pawlet Academy days. He wrote to John Jay Shipherd, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Elyria, Ohio asking whether or not there was a need for his work in the West. Shipherd wrote back that “There is; come at once, and we will look about and find it.” In the Spring of 1832 Stewart made his way to Elyria and it would not be long before the seeds of his dream to create a Christian colony and school would come to fruition.
The following comes from “A Stove Less Ordinary” a blog by Howell Harris:
Over the winter of 1831-1832 they [Stewart and Shipherd] and their wives lived and prayed together and conceived a grand plan: Stewart wanted to found a coeducational school operating on the manual labor principle, i.e. it should be open to poor students who would work to make the institution as self-sufficient as possible rather than having to pay fees. Shipherd's enthusiasm was for a cooperative utopia – a godly community improving itself away from the world, living frugally by its own labor. The two ideas were complementary: as Stewart put it later, “He needed my school to grace his colony, and I needed his colony to sustain my school. He left out his proposed 'common property' feature from his plan, and I added the collegiate feature to my school, and thus we combined and harmonized both plans.” Oberlin Institute (now College) was born.