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  • Jack Bowerman

Osmon Cleander Baker - The University’s Namesake

Was Baker named after someone who gave millions to endow the University? Or was it named after some larger than life historical figure? In reality, Baker’s namesake is a man from New Hampshire who lived there all of his life, but he was famous in the right circles at the right time in history. This is his story.

Osmon Cleander Baker was born to Isaac and Abigail Kidder Baker on July 30, 1812 in Marlow, New Hampshire, the youngest of five children. Osmon’s father was a doctor and able to give his son a good education. At the age of fifteen, he entered the Wesleyan Academy at Wilbraham, Massachusetts. (This school still operates today as the Wilbraham & Monson Academy a coeducational boarding school.) He spent three years there. During this time, the Reverend Wilbur Fisk, one of the leading educators of the Methodist Church, was principal of the Academy. In 1831, Fisk was invited to become President of the newly chartered Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut (which still operates today) and Osmon entered the University as a member of the first class. Osman spent three years at the University until failing health forced him to leave without completing his studies. Nonetheless, because of his scholarship, he received his degree. During his time at the University, he was licensed as a local preacher and worked diligently at his duties as a pastor.

On July 24, 1834, Osman married Mehitable Perley in Lempster, New Hampshire. They had five children , two of which Mary Frances Baker and Osma Cornelia Baker, survived to adulthood.

In 1834, he became a teacher at the Newbury Seminary in Newbury, Vermont in its first year of operation. The Seminary had been established not for educating pastors, but as a “literary institution,” which operated as a high school and in 1839 Osmon was elected principal. Osman’s wife, Mehitable was also a teacher at Newbury. That same year a meeting was held at the Bromfield Street Church in Boston to discuss the issue of clergy education and the possible establishment of a theological Institution. After a two-day discussion, it was determined that it was important to seek to establish a Methodist Theological Seminary in New England. Following the meeting in Boston, Osmon started a biblical studies program at the Newbury Seminary and the program became known as the Newbury Biblical Institute. Though other schools were considered, the Newbury Biblical Studies Institute was in the strongest position to be the home of the new Methodist Seminary envisioned by the Boston meeting group. However, the established governing structure of the school made proper ministerial oversight of the program difficult, so though the Newbury Biblical Institute received support during the 1840s, another solution to the seminary issue was sought.

During this period, Osmon became a local and then an itinerant preacher and with the conviction that his duty lay in this direction, he resigned as principal at Newbury. He was appointed pastor of the church in Manchester, New Hampshire and 1846, rising rapidly in the church hierarchy, he was named as presiding elder of the Dover district. In 1847, the vision of the Boston meeting group for a seminary was realized in the form of the Methodist General Biblical Institute in Concord, New Hampshire. The students, finances and library from the Newbury Biblical Institute were relocated to Concord and Osmon was asked to become one of the professors there. He accepted this chair reluctantly because he was devoted to pastoral work, but he did so well in duties at the school that he was elected President.

The group supporting the Institute began to focus their attention on the establishment of a Methodist university in Boston to be centered around the seminary. In 1867, the Biblical Institute was moved to Boston and became the Boston Theological Seminary and in 1869 the Boston University began classes. In 1871 the Seminary and the University were officially merged, and the Seminary became the Boston University School of Theology. Osmon is honored as one of the leading figures in the establishment of the Seminary and the University with a stained-glass window in the Marsh Chapel on the University campus.

By this time, however, Osmon’s career had taken a different turn. In 1852, he was made a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church and resigned his professorship in the Methodist General Biblical Institute. At the time, there were only seven bishops in the country. As a bishop, he was by nature a scholarly, unassuming man, but an excellent presiding and administrative officer, and proved himself highly efficient. As a preacher he was able, though not impassioned, and was an earnest advocate of thorough training for all ministers. In 1855, he published “Guide-Book in the Administration of Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church. During this time, he received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.

One of the primary responsibilities of the bishops was to preside over annual Methodist conferences in every established state or territory. As a result, Osman traveled widely to preside over a number of conferences each year, and in 1856 he was assigned the task of presiding over the first meeting of the Kansas-Nebraska Conference of the Church. The conferees were no doubt honored to have such a distinguished personage in their midst. On October 23, the 13 charter members of the Conference met at Lawrence with Osman presiding. Osman described the conference in a letter: “Our conference at Lawrence was an occasion of deep interest. It was held in a tent, on the border of the town, where our people hold their regular worship. In the center of the tent was a stove, which rendered us quite comfortable. A table, placed on a low platform, served as a pulpit, and the seats, made of black walnut, would be deemed really elegant if this timber was not abundant in that country. Between twenty and thirty preachers were in attendance.” Among the issues discussed was a report from the Committee on Education that the Conference “should avail itself through its members of the earliest opportunities to secure favorable sites of seminaries of learning or universities under our own immediate management and control.”

On March 17, 1857, the Educational Convention of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Kansas Territory met at the home of James Still at Blue Mound and the next day met again at the home of Henry Barricklow in Palmyra (which had been the home of Kibbee). There they considered proposals from Blue Mound, Prairie City, Centropolis, Topeka, Palmyra and Lawrence to be the home of the proposed University. The Palmyra proposition was selected as follows: “The Palmyra Association agrees to secure to the Trustees of the Methodist University, said University to be located in Palmyra, 800 acres of land near and adjoining the city of Palmyra.” By motion of Reverend Abraham Still, M.D., the University was named “Baker University” by unanimous vote in honor of Bishop Osmon C. Baker, the president of the first session of the Kansas-Nebraska Conference. An Educational Association was formed to receive the land given by Palmyra and apply the proceeds of the sale of the lots surrounding the University property to the erection and endowment of the University. The Reverend Levin B Dennis was named President of the Association.

As the Educational Association set about its task of funding the new first University in Kansas, Bishop Baker was trying to identify individuals who could serve as patrons to the new school. In his travels, the Bishop had met a wealthy Methodist businessman named John Baldwin who had already founded a University, Baldwin University in Berea, Ohio (the school is known as Baldwin Wallace University today). Through their conversations, the Bishop found that Baldwin might be interested in helping to build Baker University on the frontier. The Bishop contacted Reverend Dennis and urged him to reach out to Baldwin. An excerpt from Reverend Dennis’s initial letter to Baldwin dated October 28, 1857: “Dear Brother: Though a stranger, at the solicitation of Bishop Baker, I address you a few lines. From the information received from Bishop, I learned that you are likely to visit our lovely territory at no distant time. He also informed me that you are anxious to do something for the benefit of Educational interests in our country. . .. I think that after you have examined the whole matter, you will find our foundation a pretty good one, and one worthy of patronage. . .. I would just remark, that we have not named our city yet, and at our last meeting I was appointed a Committee to make propositions for a name. We have concluded that whoever will make us the largest Donation shall have the privilege of naming it . ”

Apparently, there was no reply to Reverend Dennis’s letter, but sometime thereafter, Bishop Baker and Ira Blackford, a member of the Educational Association, traveled to meet with Baldwin in Ohio. On Christmas Day, 1857, Blackford wrote a follow-up letter to Baldwin: “I take the liberty to write you and communicate a few facts unofficially, as Brother Dennis was appointed by our Educational board to write you. I am happy to say that your interview in Elyria (Ohio) with Bishop Baker and myself results in action being taken by the board and giving the name to our beautiful town Site upon which is located Baker University, “Baldwin City.” We are pleased with the name thus far and hope to never regret this act. . ..” Reverend Dennis sent a letter a few days later officially informing Baldwin of the decision to name the new town “Baldwin City” and added that “Learning that you were ever ready to lend a helping hand in Educational as well as Religious matters; and also learning that you had some means to aid in these things in the Southwest, we thought that you would be likely to give us a portion . . . “

John Baldwin visited his namesake city for the first time in April 1858 and upon returning to Ohio, he began making plans to construct a saw and grist mill which he felt was the growing town’s greatest need. Baldwin returned to Baldwin City in May to begin the construction of the mill (the mill was located near the intersection of Indiana and Fifth Streets). At the same time, work on the new College Building (which is known as Old Castle today) to house Baker University was ongoing. His son, Milton, was appointed to take charge of the Preparatory Department of Baker University, and he arrived in June. In August, Bishop Baker, wrote to Baldwin that he was pursuing the acquisition of a bell for the new University. Amidst all of this activity in the booming new town, disaster struck. Milton Baldwin died on August 30, 1858 after having been ill for only three days. Not long thereafter, grief-stricken John Baldwin left his namesake city and returned to Ohio. In his absence, the mill began operation in January 1859. Baker University had welcomed the first class of students in November 1858 under the administration of the new President, Werter R Davis.

Baldwin returned to Baldwin City in May 1859, but he left to go back to Berea before the end of the summer, leaving bills owed to the settlers for labor unpaid. The mills had not made enough to pay off back debts. The mill continued to operate in Baldwin’s absence overseen by a series of managers, but the operation continued to struggle financially, and the workings of the mill began to deteriorate. Eventually, Baldwin sold the mill and some years later it ceased operation. Baldwin never returned to Baldwin City and there is no record of any substantial gifts to the City or the University credited to him.

Bishop Baker’s bell did arrive in 1862. However, during the University’s financial difficulties in the 1860’s, the bell was either lost or sold. It was replaced some years later by a smaller 75-pound bell and finally a larger bell, which became known as the 10 O’Clock Bell, was acquired and installed in the belfry of the Old Science building (now Parmenter Hall). However, it shook the belfry so badly that it had to be removed and the bell now stands on a stone platform in the space between the Osborne Chapel and the Boyd Center for Collaborative Science Education.

Bishop Baker continued to discharge his bishopric duties with diligence and success until 1866 when he was attacked with partial paralysis while on his way to attend the Colorado Conference. He returned home suffering from extreme exhaustion and after some time he was sufficiently recovered to enable him to preside at a few annual conferences and attend semi-annual meetings of the Board of Bishops for two more years. He lived on for three more years, but declining health made him unable to travel and carry out his normal duties. He died December 8, 1871 at the age of 59.

Matthew Simpson, who was made a bishop at the same General Conference, wrote this of his colleague Osman Cleander Baker: “In his general character he was distinguished for regularity and symmetry. His temperament was even and quiet; he was possessed of sound judgment and retentive memory, and combined calmness with firm religious convictions. As a teacher, he was assiduous; as a preacher, he was persuasive in manner, chaste in style, and often his ministrations were attended with divine power. As a Bishop, he was impartial and judicious, and his administration was marked by a clear understanding of the constitution and laws of the church. His published work on the Discipline indicates his thorough knowledge of the administration of the church.”

While there is no evidence that Osman ever saw the University that was named after him, it stayed in the forefront of his mind and he did what he could to help build it. He would no doubt be proud of the University that bears his name today.

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