Sunday, December 10, 2017

Great grief and distress

Ezra Stiles, an 18th century American pastor who did much to modernise Yale College in its early years, was born 290 years ago today. He had eight children by his first wife who died tragically young, leading Stiles to write in his daily diary ‘It is a day of great Grief & Distress, such I never before knew.’ His diary provides a valuable first hand testimony of society at that time, but particularly of the Revolutionary War and late 18th century developments in education.

Stiles was born on 10 December 1727 in North Haven, Connecticut. His mother, daughter of a poet pastor, died days after his birth, and he was brought up by his pastor father and a stepmother. He studied theology at Yale, and was ordained in 1749. He taught at Yale until 1755 when he became pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport. He also acted as Librarian of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum. In 1757, he married Elizabeth Hubbard, daughter of a physician. They had eight children. In 1764, he helped establish the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (now Brown University) by contributing to the drafting of its charter and by serving with 35 others as a founding trustee. Elizabeth died in 1775, and the following year, with the start of the American Revolutionary War, and Newport harbour being full of British warships, Stiles and his children left Rhode Island for Dighton, Massachusetts.

After a year of preaching in and around Dighton, Stiles accepted the pastorship of the First Congregational Church of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But, shortly after, he was offered the presidency of Yale College. Despite some doubts as to his qualifications for the role, he accepted, moving to New Haven in mid-1778, and remaining in the position for the rest of his life. Initially, he found the college lacking in public funding, and in severe financial trouble. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1781, and, the following year, he married the widow Mary Checkely (née Cranston). In 1783, he published The United States elevated to Glory and Honor. It was not until 1792, that Connecticut endorsed the modernising changes brought in by Stiles and restored the college’s state funding. provides this assessment: ‘Stiles not only strengthened Yale but also secularized it, took it through the war successfully, and saved it financially. One important accomplishment of his administration was a change in the charter that allowed several state officials to become college board members and ensured state financial aid for the college. He not only performed well as an administrator but also taught classes in Hebrew, ecclesiastical history, theology, philosophy, and science, and even though he was not a minister of a specific church, he continued to perform ministerial duties until his death.’ Further information can also be found at Wikipedia, Yale College, or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required).

Stiles was a committed diarist, writing entries nearly every day from his early 40s until his death. Under the terms of his will, he left his diary notebooks (and other manuscripts) to his successor in the Presidency of Yale College. However, it would be a century before they were edited by Franklin Bowditch Dexter and published (in 1901) in three volumes by Charles Scribner’s Sons as The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles. All three volumes are freely available online at Internet Archive (January 1769 to March 1776, March 1776 to December 1781, January 1782 to May 1795).

Here are several extracts.

22 October 1770
‘This day I finished reading the Old Testament in the Original Hebrew, which I began to read in Course near three years ago, or Janry 30, 1768. I have all along compared the English & hebrew together, and am able from my own knowledge to say, that the English Translation now in use is an excellent & very just Translation & needs very few corrections. And was it again to be translated I cannot expect it would be better done. I have cursorily examined the late Quaker Translation, which is by no means equal to that in use; which was really made by Tindall: For tho’ his Transl was burnt, yet I have seen one of Tindall’s copies preserved in the Easton Family on Rhode Isld; & have compared the Great Bishops Bible, & find that that & K. James in use, are truly but Revisions of Tyndall. I do not wish to see another English Transl, till the English Dialect of the two last Ages shall have become obsolete & untilligible to posterity. But this will not be till English America is fully settled from the Atlantic to Mississippi, When the English of the present Idiom may be spoken by One hundred Million, all of whom may be able to read the Scriptures in Tyndall’s Translation.

Probably the English will become the vernacular Tongue of more people than anyone Tongue ever was on Earth, except the Chinese, who are above one Quarter of the human Race, being seventy Million fencible Men, implying above Two Hundred & Fifty Million souls.

This day fifteen years ago I was ordained, by my Father, Mr. Torrey, & Mr. Burt. Thro' the Patience of Gd. I am still continued an unworthy Pastor under the great Head of the Church.

I am the third Minister in the second Congregational Chh in Newport Rhd. Isld, which was gathered above 42 years ago or Apr. 11, 1728, when Rev. Jn° Adams was ord. Pastor, to whom Rev. James Searing’ succeeded, to whom I succeeded.’

2 July 1771
‘Catechising 19 Boys 44 Girls 8 Negroes. Tot. 71.’

19 August 1771
‘This Afternoon my Wife sat to Mr King for her Picture. Mr Ellis of Compton here. He told me a story of an Event formerly on the Cape, I think at Barnstable. Two Brethren of the Chh had unhappily got into a Lawsuit, & in prosecuting it had become guilty of such Indiscretions & broken peace, as that it came into the Chh - & seemed impossible to reconcile. Two other Brethren of that or another Chh observing it, marvelled that such irreconcileable Enmity should arise among Christs Disciples for a Lawsuit - & were confident they could go to Law & not quarrel. They make the wicked Attempt: & for sake of Trial commenced a Lawsuit one with another. But they soon embroiled their Spirits, and the Thing proceded & ended in total Breach of Friendship and most irreconcileable Enmity. Dangerous to tempt Satan, & try our own strength!’

1 June 1773
‘At IX A.M. I preached at the Courthouse in Greenwich on Mat. v. 20 without Notes, as desired. The Quakers general Meeting broke up yesterday and few were gone home. I had about 200 Hearers. After Lecture I rode 7 miles and dined at Mr. Nath Greens1 at the Iron Works in Coventry.’

29 May 1775
‘Early this morning at IVh 50’ my Dear Wife Elizabeth Stiles departed this Life aetat. 44. It is a day of great Grief & Distress, such I never before knew. Merciful God support me by thy Grace.

My Wife Elizabeth Stiles was the oldest Daughter of Col. John Hubbard of New Haven & Elizabeth his first Wife, where she was born July 3, 1731, O. S. Her Mother was a Woman of Ten Thousand for Sense, Discretion, Resolution & true Greatness: and died 1744 Aug 25, aet. 42. Her Father was an ingenious sensible Man, of a fine Taste for Poetry & polite Writings, and an eminent Physician. She inherited the Quintessence of both Parents - the Discernment Sagacity & Sensibility (but not the scientific Taste) of her Father, with the Nobleness & true Greatness of Spirit the Resolution, Discretion, Prudence, Economy & Judg of her Mother. She was thro’ some Hardships in youth bro’t up to Industry, spinning & all parts of female Industry. From her Infancy to her Mothers death she was educated delicately, kept to School for Sewing & Needle Work: afterwards from aet. 14 to her Marriage she was accustomed to all the Variety of Business in female Life, which qualified her for the Scene of usefulness she exhibited at Newport. Directed by the supreme Lord of the Universe I was bro’t to make Choice of her for a Wife. We were married Febry. 10, 1757. It pleased Gd to give us Eight Children, of whom seven are now living. In 1753 aet. 21½ she gave up herself to Jesus in the Profession of the Faith & came to the Lords Table. And ever since has continued a steady Christian, walking before Gd with fear, Conscientiousness, Integrity & Reverence. She had an Aversion to Fraud & Dishonesty & never could bear Hypocrisy in any. She was perhaps unexampled for her Love of Integrity. She had the highest the sublimest Conceptions of the personal Excellency of the divine Emanuel, whom she accounted the chief among 10 Thousds & altogether lovely. [. . .]’

9 January 1777
‘A solar visible Eclipse. I observed it at Dighton.’

29 December 1777
‘Col. Langdon presented me with two yards of Genoa Velvet for a Jacket. The selling price here now is Twenty five Dollars Continental p yard. Tea is now 15 Doll, a pd. I had presented me to day 2lbs Tea, 2 Loafs Sugar, & Sundries to the amount of 70 Dollars, & inclusive the Velvet 120 Dollars. Wood is 15 Doll. a Cord, Ind Corn 2 Doll, p Bushel, Pork 1/6 Poultry 1/the pound, Beef 9d & 1/, Tea 12 Doll.’

9 September 1778
‘Anniversary Commencement at Yale College: when I conferred the academic Degrees upon 41 Bachelors and 42 Masters. I presented the Diplomas in the Chapel, it being a private Commencement. The 41 Bachelors were Alumni nostri besides one Harv. Of the 42 Masters 4 were from Harvd & Dartmo ad eundems. Mr. Benedict presented me with 30 Doll. Contin. Bill - the highest gratuity besides was 13, some ten, some 4 Dollars. I threw up my fee & referred myself to the Liberality of the Graduates for this Commencement, only this to be no precedent in future. Of the 84 I gave away a dozen degrees besides my sons: and 71 had Diplomas - about 15 absent. Gurley one of the Students which lately went home sick, died a few days since.’

26 February 1784
‘Giving Directions respect the Planetarium six feet Diam. now construct in the College Library by Joseph Badger a Jun. Sophister of a mechanical Genius, and a Joyner. We have been describing the Zodiac & signs & adjusting the Perihelia & Eccentricities & drawing the Ellipses of the orbits of Saturn & Jupiter, and the 3 Comets of known Revolutions. The Planet Herschel is put on. The whole is constructed with an internal Wheel Movement to exhibit the Places of the Planets revolving on the face of the Planetarium.’

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