University Bible Fellowship of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania
A Study on Spiritual Leaders

Timothy Dwight (1752-1817)

by Stephen Fox

"For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.'' --- Ezra 7:10

Introduction

Timothy Dwight God used George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards powerfully in their day. As the influence of the first great awakening waned, other challenges faced the infant nation of America. God, it seems, had called America to be a city on a hill. Yet, during the period of the revolution and the two decades after, America faced deep spiritual struggles. The war brought hardships, economic chaos, and uncertainty which resulted in a kind of moral chaos as well. The expansion west had begun, and the frontier life led to a situation somewhat like that of Israel, ``In that day Israel had no king. Each man did what was right in his own eyes. Many feared that such moral malfunction would spread back into the entire nation, destroying the piety of the established communities. New England, the intellectual fountainhead in America, faced a more subtle foe. The French Rationalist movement, espoused by the leaders of the French revolution and carried like disease in the soldiers of that country who supported America's cause, began to spread rapidly through the people and the intellectual leadership of the nation. Such thinking taught that the Scripture was mere fable, that divine revelation was non-existent, and that human reason was the sole judge of right and wrong. The philosophy exalted man and ignored God. It proclaimed the innate goodness of man, while inviting lawlessness, and tempted the same men it exalted into debasing self-indulgence and sin. In the face of these challenges, God did not abandon New England. God raised up Timothy Dwight as the intellectual, and faithful leader of the second series of revivals in New England. The revivals began, in part, at Yale college where God used Dwight to bring about the conversion of perhaps more than half of the student body of Yale. These were the men who would lead New England spiritually and in some cases socially for decades to come. We, of course, in this day face a very similar situation as Dwight and the church of his day. The universities, that is, the foundry of leadership in our society, is largely given over to secular humanism, the exaltation of man above God, and to spiritual apathy among the students. A nation boasting such and educational foundation will never become or remain a light of the gospel to all nations. In fact, as we hear loudly proclaimed from many distant shores, America is exporting not light, but darkness. Yet, through repentance and faith, God will use this very generation to stand in the place of leadership, to be salt and light among our own pears, and those who will come after us so that the university, and thus the leadership of America may be filled with the vision of God to be a city on a hill, a lamp that will not be hidden. We must study Dwight to learn how God used him to turn a spiritually bankrupt university into a city on a hill, and a light to New England and the world.

Who was Timothy Dwight?

On May 14th, 1752, Mary Edwards Dwight gave birth to her first child, Timothy. George Washington then was twenty years old; Francois Voltaire was fifty-eight, and Thomas Jefferson was nine years old. Timothy would spend most of his life in the halls of academia and began his teaching career early. Once, when Timothy did not show up for dinner, his worried parents searched earnestly, only to find him safe and sound under an apple tree with a group of Native Americans gathered around him. He was teaching them to recite the --- no doubt, Calvinist --- catechism. He explained to his mother that he had met them on the street and had asked them if they would like to hear about God and religion. They went to the orchard to begin, and he had forgotten the time, that was all. Except that he was four years old.

Timothy was educated both at home and in schools. From age four to six he learned classic literature at a school and secretly taught himself Latin. The school closed when he was six, and his mother took over his studies until he was eleven. Under his mother's direction he studied geography, history, and grammar. He had already studied the biblical histories, and proceeded then to study Josephus, Hookes history of Rome, histories of Greece and England, etc. At the age of eleven his parents sent him to live with Reverend Enoch Huntington under whom he continued his study of Latin and Greek. Such was the extent of his secondary education. What most classical scholars study at the universities, Timothy had finished by the modern sixth grade. It makes me wonder, ``What did I do in grade school?''

Timothy entered Yale at thirteen, graduated four years later, continued at Yale for graduate study, and was later hired as a Tutor at the college. During his time as a tutor, Dwight's pursuit of knowledge reached a fever pitch. He stopped exercising in the interest of reserving more time for his studies. He slept four hours a night, and began to begrudge even the time he spent eating. In order to maintain his mental edge, he limited himself to twelve mouthfuls of vegetables for dinner. After about a year of this, his body gave up the fight and collapsed. He suffered for several months in sickness, at one point near death, and almost lost the use of his eyes. From this point until the end of his life he could read only with severe pain and headaches. He needed the services of an amanuensis to write. That means he dictated everything to another writer. Although at first it seems a tragedy, the importance of this development in his life cannot, I think, be underestimated. Dwight was now a fabulous scholar, who could not read. This turned his interest to people. Rather than reading, he talked to people, he listened and probed through his questions. Rather than disappearing into the study in order to meditate on the complications of contemporary theology, he met farmers and talked about gardens and politics. Through this long ordeal of his near fatal illness, and through the all but complete loss of his eyes, Dwight began to connect his unmatchable intellect to the practical spiritual needs of his contemporaries. He knew the fear of death, he knew the concerns and passions of the generation God had called him to serve. Dr. Dwight returned to Yale, continuing to serve as a Tutor until the death of the then Yale President, Dr. Daggett. At that time the students petitioned for Timothy, then age twenty-five, to be made president. He suppressed the petition. Instead, he joined the First Connecticut Brigade of the Continental Army. He served for approximately one year, never carried a rifle, serving instead as Chaplain. Although he served for only one year, it was from this experience that he drew countless of his illustrations, examples, and insight into the character and plight of man. The war revealed the character of men in hardship and fear. The presence of death brought the theology of his early years near to the practical needs of men. This training, combined with his earlier sickness, secured Dwight's role as a shepherd, rather than as a metaphysical Calvinist theologian. Such a man, God would use greatly.

Timothy left the Continental Army for grievous reasons. His parents and family were suspected of sympathizing with the British. In order to avoid the conflict, Dwight's father had decided to buy land near the Mississippi river and resettle. He traveled in advance of the family, died in Mississippi, and two of his sons, Timothy's brothers, had virtually walked across Georgia to reach safety. Thus, Timothy, as the eldest, retired from the Army to take care of his mother, and the two farms. When the farms, and the war, had settled to a reasonable degree Dwight accepted a call to pastor a community in Greenfield Hill. He began in 1783. His time at Greenfield Hill may be characterized by three aspects:

Pastoring the church, Teaching at an academy he established, and speaking and writing against Deism. He kept this position until 1795 at which time he accepted the call to Yale. Although an able pastor for the entire community, Dwight's true joy seems to have been teaching. Both at Northhampton and at Greenfield Hill he established schools. Against the current of the times, Dwight spoke strongly for the education of women along with men, and not in any reduced fashion. Having been educated himself at the feet of his mother, he knew the influence such women had on the development of their children. Although many women were educated in fashion, romance novels, and in proper etiquette, Dwight thought it ruined them by teaching them only to dream of a world they would never inhabit. He claimed that such education focused not on who one is, but rather on who one appeared to be. Such a person, he thought, might make a good dancer, or frolicker, but never a good wife. Instead he thought women should be educated in earnestness and seriousness so that they might more deeply know the gospel and struggle together with their husbands to raise godly households. In this sense, Dwight was about 150 years ahead of his time. While preaching and teaching at Greenfield Hill, Dwight recognized the battle at hand. In 1794 he published ``A Discourse on the Genuineness and Authenticity of the New Testament'' as a defense against the French Deistic influence which had spread rapidly through the young colonies. In 1795 God called, through the Yale Corporation, Dwight to the presidency of Yale.

Reclaiming Yale College

Of all of Dwight's accomplishments, the most important, in terms of the spiritual history of America, is his defense of Christianity against French infidelity, and his attack directly upon the doctrines of atheism, deism, and Unitarianism. Through his sermons and publications, Dwight provided a light for the mind of the general populace. But through his influence upon the students and professors of Yale he profoundly guided the intellectual leadership of New England for decades after his death. Yale was to be the final testing ground of forty-three years of shepherd training. Here Dwight would bring to bear his razor sharp mind, broad education, and practical understanding of humanity on the guiding and discipline of twenty-two classes of Yale graduates. When Dwight arrived at Yale, the moral and scholarly atmosphere of the school was, to say the least, in a valley. Membership in the college church hovered near, well, near zero. Most undergraduates avowed themselves skeptics. One of the students of that day later wrote, ``intemperance, profanity, and gambling were common; yea, and also licentiousness.'' Some of the students had taken to calling each other not by their given names, but rather by the names of Voltaire, D'Alembert, Diderot, and of other French and English infidels. The campus supported not one but two societies dedicated to the reading and distribution of literature by deist Tom Paine. One might think that in such an atmosphere of ``reason'' and of worship of the exalted human nature order and self-discipline might have also been prominent on campus. As with the French revolution, however, such talk in its practical application degenerated into pleasure seeking, and gratification of the true nature of humanity. Once, near the end of his term, when the previous president of Yale had brought a visitor to the chapel for an assembly, he, being late, found the students yelling, whooping, carousing, and generally out of control. The president forced his way to the podium and wore himself out shouting and pounding on the stage with his cane until the cane splintered. It was some time before order was restored. The guest, I'm sure, was not very impressed with the men of such a fine institution as Yale. Into such a mess rode Timothy Dwight. In that time, the President not only ran the college, but also taught the Senior class. In Dwight's case, he was also the professor of Divinity. Part of the senior curriculum was a discussion class consisting of debates on such questions as capital punishment (an old college staple) foreign immigration (things haven't changed much) Ought religious tests be required of Civil Officers? Do specters appear? Is a lie ever justifiable? Is man advancing to a state of Perfectibility? Now, Yale's laws of that day stated, "If any Scholar shall deny the Holy Scriptures, or any part thereof, to be of divine authority; or shall assert and endeaveour to propagate among the Students any error or heresy subverting the foundations of the Christioan religion, and shall persist therein, after admonitino, he shall be dismissed.''

In spite of this, most Yale men scoffed at the idea of divine revelation. For Dwight's first disputation class he requested a list of questions from the seniors. He would then choose from among the questions the one he thought most suitable for debate. Even though it was outlawed, the Seniors included the question, ``Are the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament the word of God?'' It was clearly a test of the new President. Dwight met the challenge head on. He chose that very question and told the seniors to do their best. He would not assume that any of the opinions expressed were their own. He did require, however, that they treat the subject with the respect it deserved. All of the seniors chose to answer the question negatively. After all of the students had spoken, Dwight began to critique their arguments, slowly and methodically showing the class how weak the deist arguments really were. He then proceeded to answer the question positively in the affirmative, and not only so but also preached incessantly on the subject for six months in the chapel, and delivered additional lectures on the subject of Evidences of Divine Revelation. The next year only one freshman was a professing Christian, none of the sophomores (typical), one of the junior class, but of the senior class eight to ten. Dwight's influence had begun.

From the class of graduate theology majors Dwight chose several to train as staff officers in order to help preserve the faith of students who had escaped the net of infidelity. After seven years of such preaching, a revival broke out on campus. Of 230 students, one third were converted. Thirty of these entered the ministry. Others were prominent in New England life. One of Dwight's disciples later wrote, "Dwight, through the blessing of God, changed the college from a sink of moral and spiritual pollution into a residence not only of science and literature, but of morality and religion, a nursery of piety and virtue, a fountain whence has issued streams to make glad the city of God.''

Such a change could not be accomplished by preaching alone. Dwight's attitude toward the students was one of paternal concern. When dealing with miscreant students, Dwight would call the young man to his office. There he received an earnest and genuine discussion of the imprudence of his actions. I think it must have been quite like receiving an entire sermon directed specifically and personally to you. On one occasion, a student had become so distressed by the thought of his salvation eluding him, that a student went, late in the evening, to find Dr. Dwight. Dwight came to the student's room and recited with him, for some time, the invitations of the gospel, and then prayed for him. ``A sweet serenity'' overcame him and later turned to full joy as he found confidence of his salvation in Christ. Another student, so shaken by a professor's correction that he imagined that he could see his corpse and coffin before him and hell ready to receive him, went to see Dr. Dwight personally. He also received at first calmness, and later confidence in Christ.

Timothy Dwight provided for the spiritual life of the students not only through his personal concern and example, but also through the environment he fostered among the faculty. As the sciences grew in importance at the universities of America, Dwight convinced the corporation of Yale to support a professor of Chemistry. Dwight also convinced them to hire for the position Benjamin Silliman, then a tutor at Yale and preparing for entrance to the Connecticut bar as a lawyer. He had virtually zero knowledge of Chemistry. Dwight chose him for his character and for the potential Dwight saw in him. Another example is the establishment of the professor of Medical studies. The corporation had nominated Nathan Smith, a man of unquestioned ability and national esteem. Dwight refused to accept his nomination because he had fallen under the influence of Deism while studying in England. Dwight would have nothing of Deism or Infidelity among his professors. Later, after a sincere and genuine conversion and recantation of his previous beliefs, Smith was reconsidered for the position, and readily accepted.

Dwight fought hard against the influence of Deism at Yale and in New England for the rest of his life. As the university grew, however, he and others realized the need for specialized training for the ministers coming up through the ranks. They rightly considered that the ministers should be trained more thoroughly than even lawyers and physicians because the importance of their work and influence was eternal, rather than temporal. Moreover, Harvard had been lost to the Unitarian influence as early as 1805 when the overseers of Harvard appointed a Unitarian to the Professor of Divinity. The next year they elected as president of Harvard a man with strong inclinations toward the idea. This election caused no small alarm among the Christian denominations. Such concerns led to the founding of Andover Seminary. The founding board consulted Dwight on the appointment of faculty, and the curriculum, and the overall plan of the seminary. Eventually they asked him to serve on the governing board. So it was that Dwight's influence spread from Yale to the first theological seminary in America. Through Dwight, God raised up generations of ministers and shepherds for the New England people. He preserved the intellectual leadership of the country for his work to raise up America as a blessing to many nations. We, of course, are responsible for this generation. We must have a vision for God to use our prayers and studies to raise up professors and even college presidents in order to reclaim the university as a place of hallowed ground. Let us pray for the third great awakening to begin in the campuses of the East Coast as did the second.

Bibliography
  • DeWolfe Howe, "Classic Shades,'' Little, Brown, & Co., Boston. 1928.
  • Charles E. Cuningham, "Timothy Dwight,'' The MacMillan Co., New York. 1942.
  • Peter Marshall and David Manuel, ``From Sea to Shining Sea,'' Fleming Revell Co., Tarrytown, NY. 1986.



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