Jedidiah Morse

Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826), American geographer and clergyman, was most influential for his dissemination of geographical knowledge about the American continent.

Jedidiah Morse was born in Woodstock, Conn., on Aug. 23, 1761, the son of a Congregationalist minister. Early training at home and in the local academy provided his education before he went to Yale, from which he graduated in 1783. While in college Morse decided to become a clergyman, and in order to help support his studies he served as a schoolmaster. As a teacher, he was dissatisfied with the deficient, inaccurate geographic information about America contained in the only available textbooks, which were European.

Morse compiled materials on American geography and published them as Geography Made Easy (1784). This work, the first geography by an American, launched his fame as a geographer. It had reached 22 editions by 1820. His subsequent efforts in gathering authentic, accurate, up-to-date information, particularly about American geography, provided material for more detailed compilations. These included information not only about the geography of the new country but also about the general and natural histories of all its regions. By revising his works periodically, he kept them current with the nation's expansion.

American Geography appeared in 1789. This was followed by The American Universal Geography (1793), The American Gazetteer (1797), and The New Gazetteer (1802). Because his works were widely adopted in schools, colleges, and libraries and were used in thousands of households, Morse remained foremost in the field for several decades.

Meanwhile Morse had completed his preparation for the ministry, and he had accepted a permanent post with the First Congregational Church in Charlestown, Mass., in 1789. About the same time, he married Elizabeth Ann Breese of New Jersey. As a clergyman, Morse was very active in defending orthodox religious tenets against the theses of Unitarianism. He participated in founding a seminary at Andover, Mass., so that orthodox Congregational theology would continue to flourish. Religious controversy caused him to leave the ministry in 1819.

For the next three years Morse attended to the plight of the American Indian as a U.S. War Department agent investigating their conditions. His report, including a plan for remedying Indian problems, was presented to President James Monroe and to Congress in 1822. It was subsequently published at the author's own expense. The last years of Morse's life were spent preparing further publications in American history and geography. After several years of ill health he died on June 9, 1826, in New Haven. The inventor Samuel F. B. Morse was his eldest son.


Further Reading on Jedidiah Morse

The standard biography of Morse is William Buell Sprague, The Life of Jedidiah Morse, D.D. (1874). A fairly clear account of his life as a clergyman and his participation in the New England religious controversy is in James King Morse, Jedidiah Morse: A Champion of New England Orthodoxy (1939).

Additional Biography Sources

Moss, Richard J., The life of Jedidiah Morse: a station of peculiar exposure, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.