Oren Burbank "O. B." Cheney (December 10, 1816 – December 22, 1903) was an American politician, Free Will Baptist clergyman, and academic. He initially gained fame and influence in the 1850s through his religious leadership and academic endeavors. Cheney was a leader in the New England antislavery movement and played an active role in the empowerment of African Americans and women in the American Civil War and decades beyond. He served as a representative in the Maine House of Representatives in 1851, through the Free Soil, Whig and Independent voter party in Augusta, Maine. He was also vocal about the antislavery movement in the Maine State Legislature and the United States Congress. He was an editor for the Morning Star, a Free Will Baptist magazine that was prominent in the abolitionist movement in New England. His contributions to the political and religious landscape of Maine and Massachusetts proved to be influential and changed the notions of equality in the United States.
Born in Holderness, New Hampshire, Cheney was raised in a deeply religious household and was educated at the Parsonsfield Seminary, a Free Will Baptist preparatory school. He enrolled in Brown University, but due to high levels of racial intolerance, he transferred to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire to avoid mob violence. He went on to found the Maine State Seminary. Due to the rapid economic growth of Lewiston, Maine, Cheney's school attracted Boston capitalist Benjamin Bates, who helped finance the new college. On March 16, 1864, Cheney, along with the Maine State Legislature chartered Bates College. He is known as one of the earliest proponents of civil rights for women and African Americans in the United States and was a significant figure in the debates regarding emancipation.
Early life and family
Birth and ancestry
Oren Burbank Cheney was born in Holderness, New Hampshire, on December 10, 1816. He was born to Abigail and Moses Cheney, who were prominent abolitionists. His father was a paper manufacturer and also a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Moses Cheney held important positions in the church and served many times in the state legislature. Cheney's mother had a significant impact on his religious views, he was often quoted as saying, "my mother used this bible to worship all that is holy, I shall cease when I arise to the heavenly skies that welcome me," later in his life as president of Bates College. His household was deeply religious and he credited his "Godly upbringing" with forming his philosophical ideologies and personal convictions.
Early in his life he was known as a "humble, patient, and soft-spoken boy." When he was eight years old, he was enrolled in Sunday School in Holderness, and his parents were criticized for sending him to a newly founded school, as it was started by a cashier who found God later in life and was not considered "God's child from birth." He began to work at age nine at the school and spent his allowance on honey and ginger bread, considered luxuries at the time. His rebellious side was exposed on numerous occasions, most notably when a Free Will Baptist came to the family's house to recite lessons, Cheney jumped and stabbed the windowsill with his jack-knife scaring everyone in the room, which formed an ongoing reputation of the young boy. Soon after Sunday School, Cheney began to work at his father's paper mill, tending to the engines, and housekeeping, at night. The paper he would form would go on to print the very first copy of the Morning Star, the single most important newspaper of Free Will Baptists. At age thirteen, he attended the New Hampton Institute, which was five mile away, his mother's decision to send him so far way was partly based off Cheney's unhealthy interest with knives; he cut the end of his thumb while husking corn. Cheney's demanding personality was developed quickly as he taught at elementary schools during his time at New Hampton. A notable example of this was when a drunken father stumbled into the school yard accusing a young Cheney of disciplining his child in unfair ways, Chaney drew his measuring stick and quieted the man. While at the New Hampton Institute, he was exposed to Free Will Baptism at personal level through his studies, and peers, and soon after returned to his father's mill. After the mill was sustainable through the hiring of other local school boys, Cheney was sent to Parsonsfield Seminary, which was 14 miles away; a three-day trip.
While going through Parsonsfield, he was surrounded by racial segregation and religious oppression and later in life, sought an educational institution that catered to everyone that required it, that would take the form of a rigorous, and academically prominent school. He was interested in the temperance movement early on and founded his school's temperance society.
Education and early teaching career
In 1836, Cheney enrolled in Brown University, but while in Providence witnessed mobs violently treating people with the same religious and political beliefs as he had. Although he was excited by the commotion involved, he decided he was better off studying at a school that offered him a higher degree of physical safety. He transferred to Dartmouth College, due to their significant tolerance of abolitionism. His choice was also heavily influenced by the Dartmouth College v. Woodward case which would later become a guiding case in the foundation of Bates College. Soon after being admitted, he accepted a teaching position in Canaan, New Hampshire but his goals were hindered before he could seriously impact the communities' politics. During the night, the townspeople rode ox with the building strapped to wooden rollers into the swamp and left it there unattended. Cheney enrolled in Dartmouth in 1836, and founded a missionary organization that helped in the education of Indians. He felt a deep connection with the college, and was reported meditating near the grave of Eleazar Wheelock, the founder of the college. While at the college, he participated in numerous outings with classmates to anti-slavery meetings in Hanover. He described the events as:
A crowd of men and boys with drums and horns for the purpose of making a disturbance... Boys were allowed to vote at the age of twenty-one, so they voted in the interest of the anti-slavery movement... The waving of handkerchiefs by women young and old, and the cheers from the crowd showed how great a victory we had over the pro-slavery spirit that was thought to have crushed us.
In May 1836, he walked back to his old home in Ashland, New Hampshire, a trek of 40 miles, walking due to financial restrictions, to be baptized. On his way back to Dartmouth, he began to devote himself to teaching and academia, supplementing his income by pursuing teaching jobs around New Hampshire. He returned to Parsonsfield, a stop on the Underground Railroad, for several years in the 1840s as an alumnus and went on to lead the school as its head master. He founded the Lebanon Academy in Lebanon, Maine in 1850.
Marriage and ministership
In 1844, Cheney was ordained as a Free Will Baptist minister. In 1840, he married Caroline A. Rundlett and they had one child, Horace Rundlett Cheney. He later attended the Free Will Baptist Bible School in Whitestown, New York to study theology but had to leave following his wife's death in 1846. The following year, the widower Cheney married Nancy S. Perkins. They had two children, Caroline and Emeline. Nancy died in 1886. In 1892, Cheney married Emeline S. Burlingame, a widow, who survived him.
Abolitionism and temperance
Cheney's political efficacy started at a young age, but his first official political declaration was to be his first vote in which he cast a vote for James G. Briney, to a party that was later replaced by a combination of Independent, Whig and Free Soil parties. Briney lost the elections and one year later, Cheney was nominated without his anyone telling him he was nominated. He won the elections and proved to be an able legislator; he was a strong supporter of the Maine law in favor of prohibition. Influenced particularly by his mother, Cheney developed core beliefs in the causes of abolitionism and temperance. Cheney's father Moses was the original printer for The Morning Star newspaper, and he was a friend of Frederick Douglass, the noted abolitionist. Cheney's brother Person became a U.S. Senator from New Hampshire.
He notably spoke on the issues of slavery in publications of the Morning Star often asserting:
We shall speak against slavery, as we have hitherto done. We can find no language that has the power to express the hatred we have towards so vile and so wicked an institution-We hate it-we abhor, we lather it-wedetest it and despise it as a giant sin against God.
While in the Maine House of Representatives, he accomplished numerous legislative goals, and secured $2,000 in funding to his academy in Lebanon, Maine. He went on to deal with liquor traffic, and advocated for prohibition. While serving as a legislature Cheney remained active in the Free Will Baptist community by regular attending church and giving sermons. He financially stabilized his Lebanon Academy and left it under the administration of the religious folk of the town.
Free Soil Party Convention of 1852
Upon being elected as the delegate to the Free Soil Party Convention in Pittsburgh, he publicly voiced his opinions of anti-slavery to the convention. During a convention meeting in the dining hall of the State House, the owner of the dining hall refused to let Frederick Douglass sit and eat. Upon hearing this Cheney stood up and publicly condemned the owner and asserted that if Douglass could not eat here then no delegate of the Free Soil Party would eat there either. With a fear of business loss, the owner backed down and Douglass was able to eat with the convention members. This sent a powerful message to the convention and the country.
Later political career
In 1853, he was assigned as a delegate to Free Will Baptist General Conference, and participated in numerous talks that helped establish a political link to the movement. He also continued his work in abolitionism and passed minimal and largely ineffective legislation giving rights to African Americans. One of Cheney's most famous lines regarding abolitionism was featured on the 1854 Morning Star:
Live and take comfort. Thou hast left behind powers that will work for thee, air, earth, and skies. Theres not breathing of a common mind that will forget thee. Thou has great allies.
Parsonsfield Seminary mysteriously burned down in 1853, at midnight. The overall account of the burning remains unclear with sources varying on the actual occurrences. When recounting its burning, Cheney, stated, "the bell tower flickered in flames while the children ran from its pillar-brick walls.." The fire was believed to have killed three school children, and two fugitive slaves, leading to a brief and unsuccessful investigation. The reason as to why the Seminary burned down remains unclear, with opponents of abolitionism traditionally, but not definitively, held accountable. The seminary would later go on to incorporate into the Maine State Seminary, to which early benefactor Benjamin Bates, would oppose. He advised Cheney to sell the land in Parsonsfield, Maine and reconstruct it within the newly-developing Maine State Seminary. Afterward, Cheney moved the central campus to Lewiston in 1854 to replace it with a larger Free Baptist school more centrally located in Maine.
Maine State Seminary
Development and name
News that the Parsonsfield Seminary mysteriously burned down forced him to acknowledge that many young men and women were without educational guidance. Cheney met with religious leaders in Topsham, Maine, to discuss the formation of a school that catered to Free Will Baptists and was based on principles of egalitarianism, liberty, and scholarship. He began his speech by stating:
We do not propose an Academy [referring to Colby College (then Waterville Academy)], but a school of higher order, between a college [referring to Bowdoin College] and an Academy. We shall petition the state legislature to suitably endow, as well as incorporate, such an institution. We know our claim is good and intend openly and manfully and we trust in a Christian spirit to press it. If we fail next winter, we shall try another legislature. If we fail on a second trial, we shall try a third and a fourth.
The speech was well received and of the one required, twenty-four petitions were submitted to the Maine State Legislature. After minimal delay the charter was approved and appropriated with $15,000 for its conception. With the school being established Cheney wrote to Massachusetts Congressman, Charles Sumner requesting a collegiate motto, Sumner replied with "Amore ac Studio" which means "with ardor and devotion" but translated as "with love of learning".
Charter and donations
Cheney founded the Maine State Seminary in 1854. Soon after the school was located to Lewiston, Maine, which as at the time considered one of the finest pieces of land in New England. The school was established on March 16, 1855, and in 1856 opened with one hundred and thirty-seven students. The school enjoyed academic prominence through intellectualism and maintained three literary societies, the Literary Fraternity, Philomathean Society and Ladies' Athenaeum. With a gaining reputation, the college was embroiled in the financial panic of the 1860s and required supplementing funding to remain operational. In 1860, Cheney delivered the graduating dress to a class of fifteen male students, stressing "impact in a changing world."
Cheney's widespread influence in Maine attracted the resources of Boston capitalist and industrialist, Benjamin Bates, who quickly developed a deep interest in the college and town, Bates extended a principle $50,000 dollars to Cheney and subsequently became the college's namesake, after his overall contributions spaned nearly $300,000. Bates had met Cheney in the 1830s through a mutual friend while Bates was clerking for Barnabas T. Loring.
On March 16, 1855, the college was officially established and mainly educated the proletariat-class from the state of Maine. Cheney required that admission to Bates be exacting and required testimonials of good moral character, readings of Latin which included Caesar, Cicero, Vergil and elementary French. Cheney made sure that Bates was originally affiliated with the Freewill Baptist denomination and later with the Northern Baptist churches. He often noted Dartmouth v. United States, a Supreme Court case in reinforcing his beliefs that "a college can never pass into the hands of any other people or party without the consent of these churches or their proper representatives."
During the Civil War, Cheney was stirred and encouraged students to fight in the war as a test of their convictions, he said to an incoming class, "the freemen of the north are ready. Slavery must die. I am ready to die for freedom", causing them question the dynamic involved at the school as this was not a student but the President asserting such a statement.
In 1891, Cheney amended the charter to Bates to require that its president and a majority of the trustees be members of the Free Will Baptist denomination. After he retired, this amendment was revoked by the legislature in 1907 at the request of George Colby Chase and the Board, which allowed the college to qualify for Carnegie Foundation funding for professor pensions.
Source of endowment
The financial security of Bates has historically been called into question by many involved with the development or academics of the school. Cheney responded by publishing articles that denounced his critics and asserted the school's superior calling that "transcended the limited mental capacity endowed to others."
Although he was a proponent of antislavery and progressive values many underlying contradictions were cause for controversy for Cheney. Much of the capital needed for the foundation of Bates came indirectly from slave labor, as well as the accumulation of the school's endowment had ties to slave relations. The cotton and mill industries that made Bates College benefactor Benjamin Bates wealthy provided a demand for slave labor. Cheney’s acceptance of this money proves contradictory to his progressive inclinations. However, this may be attributed to the economy of Maine’s dependence on slave labor rather than Cheney’s own inclinations.
Death and legacy
Cheney served as Bates' president for 39 years, retiring at age 79 in 1894. Cheney died in 1903 and was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Lewiston.
Cheney also played a major role in founding several other Free Baptist institutions such as Storer College, a school for freed slaves in West Virginia founded in 1867; and the Maine Central Institute (MCI), founded in 1866. Cheney founded and was the first president of the Free Will Baptist Church at Ocean Park, Maine, a seaside retreat on Old Orchard Beach. In 1907, his third wife, Emeline, wrote a biography of his life, using his diaries and autobiographical articles he had published in the Morning Star. The Cheney House, built in 1875 when Cheney was president, was acquired in 1905 by Bates College. Today it is used as a dormitory, a "quiet house" for 32 students.