By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
Timothy Dwight brought about a change in individuals, and in the general aspect of the Yale College, through his preaching. However, Dwight was shrewd as well as pious. America was now a republic, and if he really wanted to undercut “infidelity”, he was not going to do it in the old tones of hierarchy.
Shrewdness of Dwight
Timothy Dwight was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the great theologian of the Awakening. His opinion was that there could be no national virtue without national religion. As president of Yale, he preached incessantly, leading to an outbreak of religious revival at the college.
However, along with being pious, Dwight was an astute man. Knowing that America had become a republic, he realized that the old hierarchical methods would not work with the people now.
Instead, he cultivated “a general blandness of expression and a sedulous courtesy of manner, which were always conciliating.”
Learn more about Jefferson’s fierce critiques of religion.
Changes at Yale
The students Dwight “addressed and treated as young gentlemen,” recalled his own son, Sereno Edwards Dwight, and in place of the rule which required Yale undergraduates to doff their hats at five, eight or ten rods to faculty depending on the faculty rank, Dwight now stipulated “no other marks of respect than those which gentlemen, of course, render to each other.”
Student ranking, which in colonial days had been done on the basis of social status, was now based on academic performance; hazing of freshmen was abolished; and in place of fines “for neglect of study and other violations of duty, Dwight substituted private remonstrance” and “appeals to the conscience of the delinquent.”
Nor was Dwight an anti-intellectual enthusiast. He shunned the more radical followers of Jonathan Edwards, known as the “New Divinity,” and he began hiring new faculty, and not theologians, either: Jeremiah Day, professor of Mathematics, James Luce Kingsley in classical languages, and above all, the pioneer of American scientific education, the chemist Benjamin Silliman.
“The kingdom of God is a kingdom of means,” Dwight wrote, and that included secular means to sacred ends.
In a republic where ordinary citizens were free to choose their own affiliations, Dwight understood that wooing, not commanding, was the new order of the day.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Dwight had a lot of trouble translating his hostility toward the French “Vesuvius” into practical politics. As President of Yale, Gardiner Spring, Yale class of 1805, thought Connecticut Federalism “revolved around Dwight as the centre of that circle of intelligence and excellence.”
Upon his ascent to the Yale presidency, Dwight began purging pro-French—and pro-Jeffersonian Republican—faculty, starting with Josiah Meigs, the professor of mathematics, in 1797. He turned his rhetorical guns on the Democratic-Republican Societies in 1798, denouncing them as “nothing but infidelity, irreligion, faction, rebellion, the ruin of peace, and the loss of property.”
But the prospect of Thomas Jefferson as president was the worst omen of all. “Unless you make some exertions,” Dwight exhorted Connecticut’s Federalist senator, James Hillhouse, “you will lose perhaps the only and certainly best, opportunity of securing the public safety. Mr. Jefferson will ruin the Republic.”
Nevertheless, Dwight found that he could not stop the Jeffersonian juggernaut in 1800; he could not, in the end, even command Yale’s students to toe the Federalist line. But Jefferson’s victory did not mean the doom of virtue, either.
Learn more about Republican societies.
Disciples of Timothy Dwight
Timothy Dwight stayed at the helm of Yale College until his death in 1817, and in the process, he mentored a generation of virtue-hungry activists and scholars. All of them stood at the headwaters of a second great awakening that would break over the republic in the 1820s; all of them joined in a campaign which, if it did not successfully Christianize American government, certainly Christianized American culture.
While Jefferson and Madison ensured public sponsorship for Christianity would never get so far as actual federal tax support, the disciples of Timothy Dwight would orchestrate a number of indirect gestures of support for Christian institutions in the form of local and state laws punishing Sabbath-breaking and blasphemy, the introduction of religious exercises in state schools, restrictions on the movement of the mail on Sundays, and proclamations calling for days of public thanksgiving.
And beyond the pale of government, the heirs of Timothy Dwight would create an interlocking empire of voluntary societies and associations for foreign missions, Bible distribution, and moral improvement.
No matter, by 1825, the American Bible Society was distributing the Bible in 140 languages; the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had a budget twice the size of Harvard College; between 1780 and 1820, American religious denominations built 10,000 new churches, and, beginning with Andover Theological Seminary in 1807, created 50 seminaries to train new volunteers for the ministry.
By defining Christianity as virtue, Christianity could be treated as a necessary component of republican government, whether Thomas Jefferson liked it or not.
Common Questions about Timothy Dwight’s Secular Means to Sacred Ends
Dwight addressed and treated the students as young gentlemen and asked that no other marks of respect than those which gentlemen render to each other be given to faculty as well; he made student ranking be based on academic performance than on social status; and in place of fines for neglect of study and other violations of duty, he appealed to the conscience of the delinquent.
Dwight denounced Democratic-Republican Societies, considering them as “nothing but infidelity, irreligion, faction, rebellion, the ruin of peace, and the loss of property.”
Dwight’s disciples arranged a number of indirect gestures of support for Christian institutions in the form of local and state laws punishing Sabbath-breaking and blasphemy, the introduction of religious exercises in state schools, restrictions on the movement of the mail on Sundays, and proclamations calling for days of public thanksgiving.