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Ezra Stiles

Ezra Stiles

Stiles, Ezra, 1727-95, American theologian and educator, b. North Haven, Conn., grad. Yale, 1746. He studied theology, was ordained in 1749, and tutored (1749-55) at Yale. Resigning from the ministry, he studied law and practiced in New Haven from 1753 to 1755, when he returned to the ministry for 22 years. He was pastor at Newport, R.I. (1755-77), and Portsmouth, N.H. (1777-78), and from 1778 until his death was president of Yale. While holding his pastorates, he studied science and European and Oriental languages and literature and corresponded with many scholars. At Yale he also was professor of ecclesiastical history and divinity and lectured on philosophy and astronomy. Stiles encouraged the sciences at Yale. Using equipment donated to the college by Benjamin Franklin, he conducted the first electrical experiments in New England. His more important writings are History of Three of the Judges of King Charles I (1794), Literary Diary (ed. by F. B. Dexter, 1901), Extracts from the Itineraries and Other Miscellanies, 1755-1794 (ed. by F. B. Dexter, 1916), and his Letters and Papers (ed. by I. M. Calder, 1933).

See biographies by his son-in-law, Abiel Holmes (1798), and E. S. Morgan (1962); F. Parsons, Six Men of Yale (1939).

The Rev. Ezra Stiles (November 29, 1727 - May 12, 1795) was a Congregational clergyman, theologian and president of Yale College from 1778 to 1795.

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

"From my first accession to the Presidency ... I have obliged all the Freshmen to study Hebrew. This has proved very disagreeable to a Number of the Students. This year I have determined to instruct only those who offer themselves voluntarily."
The valedictorians of 1785 and 1792, however, did deliver their speeches in Hebrew.

Yale's legacy from this interest of Stiles' includes a portrait of Carigal by artist Samuel King, and the Hebrew words "Urim" and "Thummim" (אורים ותמים) on the Yale seal.

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.

A book he authored, The United States elevated to Glory and Honor was printed in 1783. (Online full text)

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.

References

  • Ezra Siles The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, D.D., President of Yale College...Jan. 1, 1769-May 6, 1795. Edited by Franklin B. Dexter. (1901).
  • Edmund S. Morgan, The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727-1795 (1983)

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