Oren B. Cheney

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The Honorable
Oren B. Cheney
Oren B. Cheney in 1855
President of Bates College
In office
Succeeded by George Colby Chase
Member of the Maine House of Representatives from the 86th district
In office
Constituency Augusta, Maine
Personal details
Born (1816-12-10)December 10, 1816
Holderness, New Hampshire
Died December 22, 1903(1903-12-22) (aged 87)
Lewiston, Maine
Alma mater Dartmouth College

Oren Burbank 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 congressman 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 also 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 the provinces of Massachusetts proved to be influential and changed the notions of equality in the United States.

Born in Holderness, New Hampshire, Cheney was raised in an 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. Upon graduating, he began to establish himself as religious leader and academic, but quickly learned that the Parsonsfield Seminary had burned down due to an inexplicable fire. He founded the Maine State Seminary which provided the young men and women of Maine a Free Will Baptist education that was ill found at the time. Due to the rapid economic growth of Lewiston, Maine, Cheney's school attracted Boston capitalist Benjamin E. Bates, who helped finance the new college. On March 16, 1855, Cheney, along with the Maine State Legislature chartered Bates College. His establishment of such an institution provided the backdrop to increased racial equality, the formalization of women rights and educational reform. The college was one of a kind with regard to educational platform and admissions. It was the first coeducational college in New England and graduated its first female graduate in 1869.

Cheney was instrumental in the academic expansion of Bates College because he sought trustees that possessed not only money, but academic and political influence. Cheney garnered the support of Senator William Frye, Governor Nelson Dingley, U.S. Secretary of State James Blaine and Governor Alonzo Garcelon. After befriending U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, he became more influential in his rejection of slavery. 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.[1] Cheney was known for public displays of defiance, during his time as a state legislator, he invited Frederick Douglass multiples times into his home defying strong social and racial normalities.

Early life[edit]

Dartmouth during the 1800s

Oren Cheney was born in Holderness, New Hampshire, to Abigail and Moses Cheney, who were prominent abolitionists. His father was a paper manufacturer and also a conductor on the Underground Railroad.[2] While going through Parsonsfield Seminary, he was surrounded by racial segregation and religious oppression and subsequently sought an educational institution that catered to everyone that required it, that would take the form of a rigorous, and academically prominent school.[3]

In 1836, Cheney enrolled in Dartmouth College (after briefly attending Brown), due to their significant tolerance of abolitionism. He had transferred from Brown to Dartmouth after seeing mob violence on campus against abolitionists. 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.[4] After graduating he began to establish himself as an educational and religious scholar, throughout New England.[5] News that the Parsonsfield Seminary mysteriously burned down forced him to acknowledge that many young men and women were without educational guidance.[6]

Bates College in 1857

On September 22, 1854, he created the Maine State Seminary. This was done a decade into the statehood of Maine, due to the Missouri Compromise.Presenting the need for such a school he stated, "We do not propose an Academy but a school of higher order, between a college and an Academy."[7] 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. Caroline died in 1846, while he was studying at Whitestown. 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.[2] The following year, the widower Cheney married Nancy S. Perkins. They had two children, Caroline and Emmeline. Nancy died in 1886. In 1892, Cheney married Emeline S. Burlingame, a widow, who survived him.

Abolitionism and temperance[edit]

Influenced particularly by his mother, Cheney developed core beliefs in the causes of abolitionism and temperance. He supported these causes throughout his life as an abolitionist, teacher, Freewill Baptist minister, state legislator, editor of The Morning Star, an abolitionist paper; and as founder and president of Bates College. 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.

Free Soil Party Political Party Logo

Oren Cheney was the principal at Parsonsfield Seminary, a stop on the Underground Railroad, for several years in the 1840s. He founded the Lebanon Academy in Lebanon, Maine in 1850. In 1851 Cheney was elected to the Maine House of Representatives as a Free Soil Party candidate, and was a strong supporter of the Maine law in favor of prohibition.[2]

"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"[8] Cheney's thoughts on slavery in the 1853 publication the Morning Star

Free Soil Party Convention of 1852[edit]

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 is Douglass could not eat here then no delegate of the Free Soil Party would eat their 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.[1]

Founder and President of Bates College[edit]

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.[9] The school enjoyed academic prominence through intellectualism and maintained three literary societies, the Literary Fraternity, Philomathean Society and Ladies' Athenaeum.[10] With a gaining reputation, the college was embroiled in the financial panic of the 1850s and required supplementing funding to remain operational.[11]

Hathorn Hall, the first building of Bates College

Cheney's widespread influence in Maine attracted Boston capitalist and industrialist, Benjamin E. Bates, who quickly developed a deep interest in the college. Bates extended $50,000 dollars to Cheney and subsequently became the college's namesake.[12] On March 16, 1855, Bates College was officially chartered and mainly educated the proletariat-class from the state of Maine.[13][14] 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.[15] Cheney made sure that Bates was originally affiliated with the Freewill Baptist denomination and later with the Northern Baptist churches.

Benjamin E. Bates, financier to the college

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 Chase and the Board, which allowed the college to qualify for Carnegie Foundation funding for professor pensions.[16]


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 from slave labor. The cotton and mill industries that made Bates College benefactor Benjamin E. 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.[1]

Death and legacy[edit]

The Cheney House on the Bates College campus, postcard before 1920

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.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Chapter 1 | 150 Years | Bates College". www.bates.edu. Retrieved 2015-12-13. 
  2. ^ a b c "Guide to the Office of the President, Oren Burbank Cheney records, 1857-1902", Edmund S. Muskie Archives & Special Collections Library, Bates College, accessed 31 May 2012
  3. ^ "The story of the life and work of Oren B. Cheney, founder and first president of Bates college". archive.org. Retrieved 2016-01-10. 
  4. ^ "The story of the life and work of Oren B. Cheney, founder and first president of Bates college". archive.org. Retrieved 2016-01-10. 
  5. ^ "The story of the life and work of Oren B. Cheney, founder and first president of Bates college". archive.org. Retrieved 2016-01-10. 
  6. ^ "The story of the life and work of Oren B. Cheney, founder and first president of Bates college". archive.org. Retrieved 2016-01-11. 
  7. ^ "The story of the life and work of Oren B. Cheney, founder and first president of Bates college". archive.org. Retrieved 2016-01-10. 
  8. ^ "Chapter 2 | 150 Years | Bates College". www.bates.edu. Retrieved 2015-12-13. 
  9. ^ "The story of the life and work of Oren B. Cheney, founder and first president of Bates college". archive.org. Retrieved 2016-01-10. 
  10. ^ "The story of the life and work of Oren B. Cheney, founder and first president of Bates college". archive.org. Retrieved 2016-01-10. 
  11. ^ "The story of the life and work of Oren B. Cheney, founder and first president of Bates college". archive.org. Retrieved 2016-01-10. 
  12. ^ "A Brief History | 150 Years | Bates College". www.bates.edu. Retrieved 2015-11-23. 
  13. ^ "Chapter 4 | 150 Years | Bates College". www.bates.edu. Retrieved 2015-11-23. 
  14. ^ "A Brief History | 150 Years | Bates College". www.bates.edu. Retrieved 2016-01-11. 
  15. ^ Me.), Bates College (Lewiston (1912-01-01). Catalogue: 1917/18-1921/22. 
  16. ^ Paul Monroe, A Cyclopedia of Education (Gale Research Co., 1911) Item notes: v.1, [1], p. 331
  17. ^ "Cheney House | Residence Life & Health Education | Bates College". www.bates.edu. Retrieved 2016-01-11. 


External links[edit]

Preceded by
President of Bates College
Succeeded by
George Colby Chase