See biographies by his son-in-law, Abiel Holmes (1798), and E. S. Morgan (1962); F. Parsons, Six Men of Yale (1939).
Born the son of the Rev. Isaac Stiles in North Haven, Connecticut, Ezra Stiles graduated from Yale in 1746. He studied theology and was ordained in 1749, tutoring at Yale from that year until 1755. Resigning from the ministry, he studied law and practiced at New Haven from 1753 to 1755, when he returned to the ministry for 22 years. Trinity Church, the Anglican Church in Newport, Rhode Island, offered him an opportunity to become its minister, but he turned the offer down to become pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport, Rhode Island from 1755 until 1777. While in Newport, he also served as Librarian of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum and kept an informative diary of life in Newport. With arrival of British troops in Newport in late 1776, Stiles left Newport and became pastor of the Congreational Church at Portsmouth, New Hampshire from 1777 until 1778, when he became president of Yale until his death.
He was also a dedicated supporter of the American Revolutionary cause, and an avid amateur scientist who corresponded with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin about scientific discoveries. Using equipment donated to the college by Franklin, Stiles conducted the first electrical experiments in New England. He had struck up a close friendship with Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal during Carigal's six month residence in Newport in 1773, the two meeting 28 times (according to Stiles' records) to discuss a wide variety of topics, ranging from Kabbalah to the politics of the Holy Land. In addition, Stiles took the opportunity to improve his rudimentary knowledge of the Hebrew language, to the point where he and Carigal were to correspond by mail in Hebrew.
Stiles' knowledge of Hebrew also enabled him to translate large portions of the Hebrew Old Testament into English. Stiles believed, as did many Christian scholars of the time, that facility with the text in its original language was advantageous for proper interpretation. As president of Yale, Stiles also became its first professor of Semitics, and required all students to study Hebrew (as was also the case at Harvard); his first commencement address in September, 1781 (no ceremonies having been held during the Revolutionary War) was delivered in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. By 1790, however, he was forced to face failure in instilling an interest in the language in the student body, writing
He married twice (Elizabeth Hubbard and Mary Checkley Cranston) and had eight children. His daughter Emilia married judge Jonathan Leavitt of Greenfield, Massachusetts. Stiles owned at least one slave, named "Newport," whom he freed on June 9, 1778.
Named in his honor is Ezra Stiles College, one of Yale's residential colleges, and known for its successes winning the Gimbel and Tyng cups. Also noted is its Eero Saarinen design, particularly the building's lack of right angles between walls. The college's mascot is the moose, inspired by the installation in the dining hall of a stuffed moose head in honor of former college master and Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti. Adjacent to Ezra Stiles College is its near architectural twin, Morse College, named for Samuel F.B. Morse. The Ezra Stiles House in Newport is on the National Historic Register.