Timothy Dwight was the grandson of the great theologian of the Awakening, Jonathan Edwards. He believed there could be no national virtue without national religion, and these beliefs led to him being made the president of Yale College and bringing about religious revival there. The grandfather’s mantle had descended on the grandson’s shoulders.
Dwight: Early Life
Timothy Dwight was born on May 14, 1752, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Northampton was the Congregationalist parish once presided over by the great theologian of the Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, and had been the intellectual epicenter of the Awakening in New England.
As befitted a grandson of the great Jonathan Edwards, Dwight toddled right away into learning, mastering Latin sufficient to pass the Yale College entrance exam at age eight, although not actually matriculating at Yale until the more seasoned age of thirteen.
But it was poetry, not theology, which was young Dwight’s long suit, and at Yale, he formed one angle of the trio—along with Joel Barlow and David Humphreys—who became the Connecticut Wits. They were ardent Federalists, and in 1786, they began publishing at Humphreys’ prompting a twelve-part mock epic, The Anarchiad, in condemnation of Shays’s Rebellion.
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Religion in Colleges
However, Federalism was not necessarily a better tonic to religion than Jefferson and Madison, nor were colleges like Yale a safe haven for old-time Awakening religion.
Ashbel Green remembered that, at Princeton, there was nothing in Nassau Hall that had the appearance, or the name, of a religious revival. The military spirit that pervaded the whole land was exceedingly unfriendly to vital piety, among all descriptions of the citizens.
Before the colleges of the country were broken up, as the most, if not all of them were, in the course of the revolutionary war, military enthusiasm had seized the minds of the students, to such a degree that they could think of little else than warlike operations.
By the time the cloud of war had passed over, the colleges were more enamored of Deism and the French Revolution’s Cult of the Supreme Being than of orthodox piety.
The youthful Lyman Beecher recalled that when he began as a student at Yale in 1793, the college church was almost extinct. Most of the students were skeptical, and rowdies were plenty. Wine and liquors were kept in many rooms; intemperance, profanity, gambling, and licentiousness were common.
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Dwight and Connecticut Congregationalism
That was also the year that Timothy Dwight came in a dramatic way to the attention of the General Association of Connecticut, the governing body of Connecticut Congregationalism.
Dwight had taken his degree at Yale in 1769 and stayed on somewhat aimlessly as a tutor at Yale until 1777 when he was swept off into the Revolution. Still, without much direction, he came home to Northampton to manage his father’s estate and served two brief spells in the Massachusetts legislature.
At some point, however, he became convinced he should enter the Congregational ministry, and in 1783, was ordained as minister of Greenfield parish, in Fairfield, Connecticut. He at once took up cudgels against “infidelity” with an energy which would have made his grandfather Edwards proud. Unlike grandfather Edwards, Dwight still loved his poetry; but poetry now became a weapon to be used in defense of the Great Awakener’s piety.
National Virtue with National Religion
Not poetry, however, but somber analysis formed the address Dwight delivered to the General Association of Connecticut, and he made it clear that there could be no national virtue without national religion.
“The whole end singly aimed at in the New Testament, is manifestly to make mankind virtuous,” Dwight said, and nothing will promote virtue better throughout society than Christianity. “The history, doctrines, precepts, and ordinances, unitedly urge men to nothing but piety to God, a reasonable government of themselves, and justice and benevolence to each other.”
That was enough to convince Connecticut’s domines that the great Edwards’s grandson was the man to muck out the intellectual stables at Yale.
Dwight as President of Yale
After the death of Yale president Ezra Stiles in 1795, Dwight was duly installed as his successor. Lyman Beecher watched his fellow undergraduates greet Timothy Dwight’s arrival with skepticism—but not for long.
They thought the faculty were afraid of free discussion, Beecher remembered. But when they handed Dr. Dwight a list of subjects for class disputation, to their surprise he selected “Is the Bible the word of God?” and told them to do their best. He heard all they had to say, answered them, and there was an end. He preached incessantly for six months on the subject, and all infidelity skulked and hid its head.
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Religious Revival at Yale
From there, Dwight went on the offensive, denouncing unbelief as “the genuine source, the Vesuvius” of the French Revolution.
“There can be no halting between two opinions,” he demanded of the college. “Will you enthrone a Goddess of Reason before the table of Christ? Will you burn your Bibles? Will you crucify anew your Redeemer?”
In short order, Yale College was moved by an outbreak of religious revival that confirmed that the grandfather’s mantle had descended on the grandson’s shoulders.
“The whole college was shaken,” wrote Heman Humphrey, one of the College converts. “It seemed for a time as if the whole mass of the students would press into the kingdom. It was the Lord’s doing, and marvelous in all eyes. Oh, what a blessed change. It was a glorious reformation.” Another convert, Noah Porter, marveled that such triumphs of grace, none whose privilege it was to witness them, had ever before been seen.
So sudden and so great was the change in individuals, and in the general aspect of the college, that those who had been waiting for it were filled with wonder as well as joy. And those who knew not what it meant were awe- struck and amazed. Wherever students were found in their rooms, in the chapel, in the hall, in the college-yard, in their walks about the city, the reigning impression was, “Surely God is in this place.”
Common questions about Timothy Dwight and Religious Revival
Timothy Dwight was the grandson of the great theologian of the Awakening, Jonathan Edwards. He became the president of Yale College in 1795.
The youthful Lyman Beecher recalled that when he began as a student at Yale in 1793, the college church was almost extinct. Most of the students were skeptical, and rowdies were plenty. Wine and liquors were kept in many rooms, and intemperance, profanity, gambling, and licentiousness were common.
In the address Timothy Dwight delivered to the General Association of Connecticut, he made it clear that there could be no national virtue without national religion.