Timothy Dwight

Timothy Dwight (1752-1817), an American Congregational minister, was president of Yale College and New England's leading religious politician.

Timothy Dwight was born in Northhampton, Mass., into one of New England's most extraordinary families on May 14, 1752. His maternal grandfather was the famed theologian Jonathan Edwards. His mother, a woman of great intellect, educated him according to her own ideas. A child prodigy, Timothy was ready for college at 8, but Yale did not enroll him until he was 13. Studying 14 hours a day, he earned highest honors at graduation in 1769 but also developed an eye ailment that plagued him all his life.

Dwight assumed the headship of the Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven, Conn., for 2 years before returning to Yale as a tutor. There he joined the brilliant "Connecticut Wits," John Trumbull and Joseph Howe, who were patriotic belles-lettrists ambitious to make America "the first in letters as the first in arms." When Yale's aging president was forced to resign in 1777, Dwight, only 25, was pushed by some for the presidency. But the Yale Corporation had other opinions of the witty young man and called for his resignation instead. Before he left, Dwight married Mary Woolsey on March 3, 1777.

The following October the U.S. Congress appointed Dwight chaplain of the Connecticut Continental Brigade. A year later, on his father's death, he returned to his family in Northampton. He spent 5 vigorous years running two farms, preaching, sitting in the Massachusetts Legislature in 1781 and 1782, and founding a coeducational academy in 1779 to teach modern subjects as well as Latin and Greek. He left the school for the pulpit of Greenfield Hill, Conn., on July 20, 1783, where he established another school.

Dwight's journalistic assault against Yale started in 1783 in the Connecticut Courant; he used the pen name Parnassus. But when Yale's president Ezra Stiles prevented any legislative "intermeddling in college affairs," Dwight returned to the writing that had earned him prominence among the Connecticut Wits. The Conquest of Canaan, written earlier but published in 1785, was the first epic poem produced in America.

On June 25, 1795, Dwight accepted the presidency of Yale, a few weeks after the death of Stiles. For almost 22 years "Pope Dwight" (as the unregenerate called him) administered the college with great ability, ushering it into its modern era. No scholar himself, he had the vision to appoint men who were or would become scholars, and he allowed greater faculty participation in college government, traditionally the monopoly of the Yale Corporation and the president. Student relations were significantly improved, though Dwight held autocratic sway. Besides administering an exuberant college and giving counsel of weight in the affairs of state to visiting dignitaries, he taught the moral philosophy course to the seniors, supplied the college pulpit twice a Sabbath, and served as professor of divinity.

On Jan. 11, 1817, Dwight ceased to reign. His stormy life had personified the contradictions and strengths of New England Puritanism wedded to Federalism.

Further Reading on Timothy Dwight

The definitive biography of Dwight is Charles E. Cunningham, Timothy Dwight, 1752-1817 (1942). Kenneth Silverman, Timothy Dwight (1969), is a scholarly study. See also Leon Howard, The Connecticut Wits (1943). Ralph Henry Gabriel, Religion and Learning at Yale: The Church of Christ in the College and University, 1757-1957 (1958), contains a chapter on Dwight and American Protestantism.

Additional Biography Sources

Cuningham, Charles E., Timothy Dwight, 1752-1817: a biography, New York: AMS Press, 1976.

Wenzke, Annabelle S., Timothy Dwight (1752-1817), Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1989.