Early American Faith: Reverend Ezra Stiles (Part Two)

Ezra_StilesThe study of the Hebrew language was a long-held tradition at Yale since its founding in 1701. It had, however, fallen out of favor with students and Ezra Stiles was determined to change that.  As noted in last week’s article (read it here) he wasn’t entirely successful in mandating the study of Hebrew since by 1790 it had become a voluntary course offering due to student protestations and a lack of interest.

Still, Ezra was a great admirer of the Semitic languages, Hebrew in particular.  He wrote his presidential inaugural address in Hebrew, translated it into English and then delivered it in English.  Three years later he gave an address entirely in Hebrew, and not just “casual” Hebrew.  He endeavored to deliver his Hebrew orations in the rabbinical tradition.

His skills as a Hebrew orator were not derived from merely studying language and grammar books.  Rather, he became a “participant observer” amongst the Jews of Newport.  He attended prayer services and spoke at least once to a Jewish congregation.  As Shalom Goldman pointed out in his book God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew and the American Imagination, Ezra “made the study of Hebrew and its cognate languages the focal point of his rich intellectual life.”

After receiving an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from The University of Edinburgh, upon the recommendation of his friend Benjamin Franklin, Ezra relearned the Hebrew alphabet at the age of forty, determined to become an “Hebrician”.  In 1773 he began a close relationship with Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal who was in-residence in Newport for six months.  Through that relationship his Hebrew language skills improved and he and Carigal corresponded in Hebrew.

Ezra spoke highly of the rabbi in his personal diary, including long passages about Carigal’s mannerisms, dress and personality.  Carigal, the first rabbi to visit the colonies, was described by Stiles as “dressed in a red garment with the usual Phylacteries and habiliments, the white silk Surplice; he wore a high fur cap, had a long beard.  He has the appearance of an ingenious and sensible man.”

Ezra extended an invitation to his friend Aaron Lopez, a Jewish merchant, to meet Carigal and the two Jewish men met frequently thereafter until Carigal departed for his homeland.  Lopez was a Portuguese Jewish merchant and the wealthiest person in Newport at the time.  He was born Duarto Lopez in 1731 in Lisbon to a family of “conversos”, those who although professed Catholics practiced their Jewish faith in secret.

Lopez’s business interests were so diverse and successful that Stiles described his friend as “a merchant of the first eminence . . . the extent of [his] commerce probably [was] surpassed by no merchant in America.”  His business interests with the British began to decline, however, as tensions mounted in the mid-1770’s.

In 1761 Lopez had applied to become a naturalized citizen of Rhode Island under the auspices of the Naturalization Act of 1740 which stated anyone who had lived in the colonies for seven years could become a British citizen.   However, Catholics were excluded by the law, although special provisions allowed Quakers and Jews to bypass those rules.  His request was nevertheless denied.

When he and another Jewish man appealed to the Rhode Island General Assembly, the lower legislative body handed down a ruling that they would be allowed to become citizens but not be allowed to vote or serve in civic offices.  An appeal to the Superior Court for full citizenship was denied, citing that a 1663 Rhode Island law allowed only Christians to become citizens of the state.  To circumvent the Rhode Island law, Lopez moved to Massachusetts, became a citizen and returned to Newport.  He is believed to have been the first Jew to become a naturalized Massachusetts citizen.

Ezra Stiles was a man of many interests, known as one of the most intellectual men in America.  His friendships, many and varied, extended to those of other faith traditions as well as to the revered founders of America.  He shared a love of science with Benjamin Franklin.

Stiles began recording temperature readings after Franklin brought him a thermometer upon his return from London in 1762.  Stiles and Franklin had exchanged long letters back and forth discussing the elements of heat vs. cold – for instance, was cold merely an absence of fire or a separate element altogether.  From 1763 until his death in 1795, he made those recorded observations, amassing six volumes of data which included wind direction and general weather conditions.

Their shared intellectual pursuits were not the only matters of mutual interest.  Stiles was interested in how Benjamin Franklin concerned himself with spiritual matters as well.  He had inquired as to his friend’s religious beliefs in 1790 and Franklin responded:

Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe.  That He governs it by his Providence.  That he ought to be worshipped.  That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children.  That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this.  These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.

Having expressed his doubts, Franklin was nevertheless confident that the “Goodness of that Being, in conducting me prosperously thro’ a long Life, I have no doubt of its Continuance in the next, tho’ without the smallest Conceit of meriting such Goodness.”

The letter was written on March 9, 1790 and signed “With great and sincere Esteem and Affection, I am, Dear Sir, Your obliged old Friend and most obedient humble Servant.”  A month later on April 17, Benjamin Franklin died at the age of eighty-five.

Likewise, Ezra shared his love of science with Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson also corresponded openly of his diplomatic pursuits abroad.  In 1784 Jefferson visited Yale and met Stiles, offering his services both to his friend and the college.  Ezra remained a friend and admirer and in 1790 wrote a letter expressing his desire that Jefferson become the next president of the United States.

Ezra was a fan of George Washington as well.  In an Election Address given before the Connecticut Assembly on May 8, 1783, he lauded Washington:

[I]n 1776 and 1777, we sustained ourselves against the British army of sixty thousand troops, commanded by Howe, Burgoyne, and Clinton, and other the ablest generals Britain could procure throughout Europe, with a naval force of twenty-two thousand seamen in above eighty British men-of-war.  These generals we sent home, one after another, conquered, defeated, and convinced of the impossibility of subduing America.  While oppressed by the heavy weight of this combined force, Heaven inspired us with resolution to cut the gordian knot, when the die was cast irrevocable in the glorious act of Independence.  This was sealed and confirmed by God Almighty in the victory of General Washington at Trenton . . . Who but a Washington, inspired by Heaven, could have struck out the great movement and maneuver of Princeton – that Christmas eve when Washington and his army crossed the Delaware? . . . The United States are under peculiar obligations to become a holy people unto the Lord our God.

In April of 1781, about six months before Cornwallis’ surrender to General Washington at Yorktown, Ezra wrote a personal letter on behalf of Yale in which school officials had unanimously conferred upon his “Excellency the Degree of the Doctorate in Laws.”  He continued: “We cannot add to the Accumulation of Glory which shines around the Name of Washington, and of which none but himself think unmerited.  But we are ambitious of the Honor of enrolling his Name in our Register and Archives, among those whose literary Merits entitle them to the highest academical Dignities.”

A few weeks later George Washington replied, accepting Yale’s honorary degree and added: “That the college in which you preside may long continue a useful seminary of learning – and that you may be the happy instrument in the hands of Providence for raising the honor and dignity, and making it advancive of the happiness of mankind, is the sincere wish of, Sir, Y’r most obedt & most Hble Serv’t, Go. Washington.”

Ezra Stiles certainly lived an interesting life and obviously impacted American history not only with his spiritual legacy but his scientific and intellectual pursuits as well.  Even as Yale’s president he still regarded himself as a minister of the gospel, even after his official connection to the church at Newport had been severed.  He continued to perform baptisms, conduct communion and visited and prayed with the sick of New Haven.

His views toward other faiths like the Quakers also softened somewhat through the years, although he never quite overcame his earlier distrust of the Anglicans, according to Edmund Morgan (The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727-1795).  His views regarding slavery shifted dramatically in the years before his death.  He had freed his slave Newport before moving to New Haven, and in 1790 he and other ministers and patriots of Connecticut formed a society “for the promotion of freedom and for the relief of persons unlawfully holden in bondage.”

Ezra Stiles had great hope that the practice of slavery would be abolished, but of course it would take several years and a rending of the country before that happened.  To the end of his life he remained engaged in broad intellectual pursuits, including an interest in the state of world affairs.

Ezra Stiles was a patriot, who although had once admired and revered the British monarchy, had evolved and grown into a champion of democracy with a great vision for the future of America.  As Morgan ended his book, he wrote that Ezra’s “mind never stopped grasping at the next idea until a bilious fever struck him on May 8, 1795.  Four days later he ceased to grow.”

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

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.


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