Early American Faith: Reverend Ezra Stiles

Ezra_StilesThe subject of today’s Early American Faith article was a minister, a lawyer for a brief time, one of the founders of Brown University, the president of Yale University and an aspiring scientist who corresponded with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.  His list of accomplishments are many; Edmund Sears Morgan called him “the gentle Puritan”.

Ezra Stiles was born on November 29, 1727 to parents Reverend Isaac and Kezia (Taylor) Stiles in North Haven, Connecticut.  His mother died five days later and Ezra was nursed by Mrs. Abigail Ray, a neighbor until the following year when Isaac married Esther Hooker, great-granddaughter of Thomas Hooker, the founder of Connecticut.

Soon after Ezra was born Isaac attempted unsuccessfully to farm the valuable piece of land he owned.  According to Edmond Morgan in his book The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles 1727-1795, Isaac had little interest in learning how to farm and his family relied only on his yearly salary as a minister, until in 1739 he purchased a Negro couple and put his wife in charge of directing the affairs of the farm.  With Esther’s oversight the farm was successful, but Isaac was still critical of her, according to Morgan.

Ezra’s memoir written in 1760 noted that his father was hard to live with, so it must have been a relief for Ezra to leave home and enter Yale College.  His mother Kezia had bequeathed him a piece of land in Glastonbury which would pay for his tuition.  Morgan points out that Ezra, conversant in Latin, was well-educated enough to have entered Yale three years earlier at the age of twelve but his father objected.

Isaac, the son of a farmer, had trained to be a weaver until Reverend Timothy Edwards, the father of theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards, convinced him to study for the ministry.  He was a skilled weaver, finished his schooling in three years instead of four, but was never quite comfortable with his abilities as a minister.

As Morgan put it, “perhaps Timothy Edwards spoiled a good weaver (it was said that Isaac could weave fourteen yards in a single day) to make an unhappy minister.”  Ezra would write of his father years later that, “[H]e read much, but digested almost nothing.  His mind was stored with rich and valuable Ideas, but classed in no Order, like good Books thrown in Confusion in a Library Room.”

Ezra sympathized with his stepmother who was a good wife, possessing an ability to manage the affairs of the household and their farm more than adequately, despite the criticism she endured from Isaac.  He observed that Isaac, although respectful of his superiors, never seemed to treat his own father (as would have been the custom of the day) with the same respect.  Perhaps it was no wonder that Ezra struggled to honor his own father.

Ezra was received into Yale College on September 9, 1742 and studied the classic liberal arts curriculum which included classical languages, mathematics, philosophy, ethics and divinity.  He entered college in the middle of The Great Awakening, a period of time marked with not only spiritual renewal but great debate.   His father, considered an “Old Light”, was not a fan of George Whitefield or other revivalists of the Great Awakening, the “New Lights”.

Yale rector Thomas Clap was an “Old Light” who had allowed Whitefield and others to preach at the school.  Ezra’s father was an outspoken critic of the New Lights and Morgan noted that Ezra, despite his irritation with his father’s “domestic tyranny”, agreed with his position on the Great Awakening.  Still, Ezra’s temperament was strikingly different than his father’s, taking a friendly and diverse interest in everything and everyone.  He made friends with New Light classmates and was always on friendly terms even years later.

He graduated third in his class in 1746 and remained at Yale for three more years to study theology.  In 1749 he received a masters degree and was appointed a tutor at Yale for the sum of twenty-three pounds a year.  The following May he was licensed to preach by the New Haven County Association of Ministers.

Then, Ezra decided he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be a minster.  He continued his work as a tutor while reading law at Yale, and in November 1753 was admitted to the New Haven bar.  However, when a call came to become rector of the Second Congregational Church in Newport, Rhode Island, he accepted the position after negotiating a salary of sixty-five pounds a year plus firewood and a house (in the beginning the church had offered only fifty pounds).

In 1756 Ezra became the librarian of the Redwood Library which expanded his intellectual interests in the sciences of astronomy and chemistry.  That same year Ezra traded a hogshead of rum (106 gallons), which he sent with Captain William Pinnegar to Guinea, to purchase a ten-year old Negro slave he named “Newport.”  However, it seems contradictory since he joined another Newport minister, Samuel Hopkins, in condemning slavery.

In 1757 he married Elizabeth Hubbard of New Haven and together they had eight children: Elizabeth, Ezra, Kezia, Emilia, Isaac, Ruth, Mary and Sarah.  Ezra was a naturally intellectually-curious man who studied Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian and French, raised silkworms, read through the Bible eight times with his family, kept a detailed diary, wrote copious amounts of correspondence in addition to his sermons, conducted hundreds of pastoral visits each year and trained his children; held special meetings for both men and women and attended the spiritual needs of slaves by inviting them into his home for Bible study and singing. (Encylopedia.com).  Whew!

As if that weren’t a busy enough schedule, Ezra also began to think about founding another school in New England.  In 1762 he began planning a Baptist college with James Manning and in  1764 the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (Brown University) was established.

Ezra was a patriot and a staunch defender of liberty and no fan of the King.  In 1749 he gave the valedictory address at his masters ceremony, defending the proposition that the hereditary right of kings was not by divine authority.   Elizabeth died in 1775, and as the rebellion against England heated up many of his parishioners fled that same year.  In March of 1776 Ezra and his children also decided to leave and went to Dighton, Massachusetts for about a year.

In 1777 Ezra agreed to become the minister of one of the largest churches in New England, the First Congregational Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Because he hoped to return to Rhode Island after the war’s end, he agreed to remain for only one year.  In September of that year, just as he was thinking of soon returning to Newport, an unexpected offer came his way.

It was a difficult decision, requiring much soul-searching on his part, but Ezra, with the encouragement of friends and family, accepted the position as president of Yale.  He was aware it would be a challenging and, at times burdensome, task.  He wrote on September 19, 1777: “An hundred and fifty or 180 young gentleman students, is a Bundle of Wild Fire not easily controlled and governed – and at best the Diadem of a President is a Crown of Thorns.”

Before moving to New Haven, he freed his slave Newport on June 9, 1778.  In 1782 he hired Newport as a servant and indentured Newport’s two-year old son until he reached the age of twenty-four.  That same year Ezra married Mary Cranston Checkley.

His first years at Yale were challenging as he expected.  Before the Connecticut Assembly exempted students from military service he was concerned about whether he would have an adequate enrollment and fees to run the school.  Still, parents were asked to provide food during times of shortages and at one point students were sent home for a two-week vacation due to a lack of supplies.  In July of 1779 the students were again furloughed as the British anchored forty ships off the coast of West Haven.

One of the first things Ezra changed was adding the study of Hebrew to the curriculum.  The curriculum by that time was leaning toward a more scientific and secular approach, so when students were required to memorize biblical texts open rebellion ensued.  President Stiles had a response to students who were balking at committing several Hebrew Psalms to memory — those Psalms would be the first they heard sung in heaven, and he would be ashamed should any of them be entirely ignorant of that holy language.  (God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew and the American Imagination, p. 70).

Yale survived both the Revolutionary War and the curriculum war, although with reluctance Ezra gave up the Hebrew requirement by 1790 as he yielded to student rebellion and offered the courses on a voluntary basis.  He was no doubt deeply disappointed, given his love of the Semitic languages.

In fact, he had special relationships with two men, Jewish Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal and a Portuguese Jew named Aaron Lopez, a “converso” (historically, people of the Jewish faith who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition which began in the late fifteenth century).

Come back next week for the conclusion and more about Ezra Stiles’ special relationship with those of the Jewish faith and American patriots like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.


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