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REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

A Brief Biographical Overview
of the Life of Timothy Dwight *

by Shannon Green

Even during his earliest years, Timothy Dwight showed signs of true genius that in the present time would be amazing. He was born on May 14, 1752, in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was the son of Major Timothy Dwight, a merchant, and of Elizabeth Edwards, the third daughter of Jonathan Edwards. Under her guidance Dwight learned to read the Bible by age four, and he was preaching to the Indians near his home at age six. At age eight, the remarkable child mastered Latin, and by age thirteen (1765) he was enrolled at Yale. During his first year, Dwight developed a short-lived penchant for card-playing and had an overall diversion to studying at all. But by his second year he had re-committed himself to his studies and worked for fourteen hours each day. It was in this way that he began to ruin his eyesight, and as the years passed he became almost blind. (John Willson, Lecture)

When he turned nineteen in 1771 he became a tutor at Yale, lecturing in literary style and composition. During that same year he wrote several of his less famous pieces including a "Song," "America," "The Trial of Faith," and "Esther and Mordecai," most of which he waited ten years to publish, perhaps because of a keen subtlety toward criticism and the wariness he harbored against his own ambition. He also began the writing of The Conquest of Canaan, a biblical epic in which he correlated prophesy found in the Bible with the present circumstances his own world was facing. Throughout this period of his life he would only eat twelve mouthfuls of vegetables three times each day because he believed that would keep him sharp-minded and able to write and comprehend better (Willson, Lecture). In 1772 he received his M.A. from Yale and gave "A Dissertation of the History, Elegance, and Poetry of the Bible" at the public commencement ceremony. Here he praised the uncomplicated elegance inspired by the Holy Spirit which biblical poets and writers convey over the stagnant prolixity of some Classical writers.

In 1774 Dwight entered the college church, and that summer he suffered about twenty progressively extreme attacks of bilious colic, giving his father reason and worry enough to take him back home to North Hampton for some rest and recovery time. In March of 1777 he married Mary Woolsey, and in June he became a licensed preacher, preaching at Weathersfield and continuing his teaching at Yale.

By August of the same year he had completed a draft of The Conquest of Canaan, endorsed by and dedicated to George Washington around the year 1778. Dwight used the precedents of Homer, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and the Bible in constructing what he had planned on being an American epic. He fell short of his goal, and according to John Willson that happened because he tried to "create" heroes, not "celebrate" them (4). His work was based on the story of the Israelites' exodus from slavery in Egypt to Canaan, the land promised to them by God. However, Dwight's intention was for his poem to be an allegory: America plays the role of Israel and England is Egypt. It was not a success. Willson states that one critic described the allegory of Joshua leading the Israelites into the land of Canaan as being "full of eighteenth-century Americans with Hebrew names who talked like Milton's angels and fought like prehistoric Greeks" (5). In other words, the work was cumbersome and difficult to follow, and the Americans who the Israelites were supposed to represent in the allegory did not fit with the mold into which they were cast.

In September of 1777, he was named chaplain to Parson's brigade and soon left to join the main army at White Plains. In October his father passed away en route to Natchez where with his sons he was planning to found a settlement closely resembling Connecticut. However, the elder Dwight came down with a fever and died, and Timothy's brothers were robbed by Indians. On top of everything, Spaniards chased down his brothers and stole the title papers to the family's landholdings. Timothy Dwight was then left with a newborn son, a young wife, twelve siblings, and his mother, all of whom needed his care. Leaving the army, he returned home to Northampton, only to find the Dwight name sullied by his father's refusal to fight the American Revolution or declare a loyalty to either side. The elder Dwight was a judge appointed by the British, and while not a Loyalist, he refused to go against the vows he took in allegiance with Great Britain. Dwight's father had in some respects been fleeing to Natchez, so that left the younger Dwight to contend with accusations of Toryism from people in Northampton. Some of the neighbors even burned the family's fields and scattered the oxen out of spite.

For five years Dwight remained in Northampton, supporting his whole family by holding down several jobs including pastoring, running a school, working on his father's fields, and by selling some of his father's numerous landholdings. In 1781-1782 he was elected to serve on the state legislature; obviously to be popular enough to win the election he had cleared his family's name and through hard work he steadied their financial situation. He was nominated as a candidate for the Continental Congress but refused because he would not make the inevitable yield of his own ideals for the sake of any party. In 1783 he took on a role as pastor at the tiny rural church of Greenfield Hill in Fairfield, Connecticut, where his salary would be substantial ($500/yr) and he would have all the time necessary to begin writing again. During his stead at Greenfield Hill many of his writings begin to reflect a disheartened Dwight, sick of the modernist tides sweeping American soil such as infidelism, democracy, and dandyism, stemming from the New World's subordination to "that foul harlot, Europe" (Silverman, 48).

Dwight completed many of his best-known writings and was bestowed some honors, some praise, and some criticism during his twelve years as pastor of Greenfield Hill. In 1785 he finally published The Conquest of Canaan, which he had actually begun composing at age nineteen. In that same year he penned "Epistle . . . to Col. Humphreys," revealing his frustration at America's inability to come out from under the wing of mother Europe, and "The Critics," an essay of self-defense in which he portrayed those more critical of his writings as being much like the dogs in Cynethe, Greece who chased away a blameless upstart with their biting criticism. In 1787 Princeton awarded Dwight a Doctor of Divinity degree. In the next year Dwight anonymously published The Triumph of Infidelity, an attack on the flowering of skepticism all over New England, which he hoped helped to combat "dissipation of thought, a prostitution of reason, a contempt of religion, a disdain of virtue, a deliberation in vice, and an universal levity and corruption of soul," (qtd. in Silverman, 81). In July of that year Noah Webster wrote a heartfelt defense of The Conquest of Canaan in American Magazine against the scathe of British reviewers, but harshly criticized Triumph in that same article, apparently ignorant of Dwight's authorship. In 1794, Greenfield Hill was published, one of his most celebrated poems which had taken seven years to write. According to Silverman, this was Dwight's interpretation of "an existent utopia, the great good place achieved, the inevitable model for governing the nation at large" (53). He packaged Greenfield Hill in the style and manner of seven different poets, one for each of his seven thematic sections.

Dwight had served at Greenfield Hill for twelve years when Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, died in 1795, and Dwight was nominated to take over this position. At first he refused the nomination because technically he was voted in as pastor at Greenfield Hill for lifetime. However, the case was taken to a consociation that basically agreed to waive this requirement, so in September of that same year Dwight took over as Yale's new president. He improved many aspects of Yale and curbed the forces of infidelism with public, in-depth religious debates about the authenticity of Scripture. He also put a new disciplinary system into place; he added "professors of law, languages, ecclesiastical history, and chemistry; he instituted laboratories, a botanical garden, and a medical school" (Silverman, 96). He also made himself a professor of divinity, taking on two huge workloads, giving back over half of his two salaries into the college again. He hired professors and tutors who would instill the values of Calvin and Washington into the minds of the students, and he fired those with "infidel leanings" who did not fit into his vision for the college (Silverman, 97). He ended up tripling the enrollment of Yale, taking its numbers from around one hundred students to above three hundred students, and he successfully eradicated the fashionable mindset of infidelism, moving students toward the traditional faith and values of their forefathers.

In 1798, Jedediah Morse announced the existence of a Bavarian Illuminist conspiracy to overturn religion and liberty in America, and Dwight addressed this in his sermon "The Duty of Americans, at the Present Crisis." His intention was to separate any ties New Englanders made between French ideals and the concept of Liberty on which America was founded. According to Willson, the Bavarian Illuminists formed as an underground society in 1776

New Englanders were shocked by this conspiracy which supposedly had branched over into America and Dwight encouraged them to realize that transfering political power back to the Federalist-Congregationalist clergy was the only hope of defeat. He received much attention from his contemporaries after this sermon, and many labeled him "Pope Dwight," as he was considered the head of the Federalist- Congregationalist party, though records do not say enough about Connecticut politics to discern the amount of truth to such a title.

Dwight, however, was decidedly un-Jacobian, so the election of Jefferson in 1800 was truly a defeat of principles for him. To counter Jefferson's Jacobian influence Dwight began the Federalist Palladium, a journal he used to defend "clerical influences in politics," contributing to it instead of loading his sermons with political themes and statements which would combat Jefferson's administration (Silverman 103). Finally in 1802 a huge religious revival occurred at Yale, and for the next ten years Dwight was busy and excited, cultivating the Christian ideals and writing solely on social and missionary topics.

The War of 1812 broke out and Dwight gave his famous "Discourse . . . on the Public Fast" in which he equated the war to a punishment brought down by God, a sort of doomsday, and in which he attacked it altogether. However, the war made him renounce his nationalistic views of America: according to Silverman the Union was no longer the sort of city on a hill which Winthrop advocated also, but instead it was a "'great impulse' within the history of the west, a contribution to the general improvement of the human mind since Noah" (140). In 1815 Dwight defended American culture and asked for the union of English and Yankee forces in Remarks on the Review of Inchiquin's Letters. In 1816 he penned "Observations on the Present State of Religion in the World," praising the overflow of religious following in America and Europe, rejoicing in the increase of church-goers, missions funds, and widely read religious tracts. On January 11, 1817, at age 64 and again feeling the idealism of his youth, he died after suffering for almost an entire year from excruciating bladder cancer.

Business in New Haven was suspended for his funeral, and across the country there were services held and sermons preached in his honor. According to Silverman, he was a poor poet, but he had such a vision for America, for he "incarnated and kept alive, like no one else in his time, the character of seventeenth-century New England" (152). Really, his true gifts from God were teaching and preaching, and he did these with a zest that could change the minds of an entire college filled with enlightenment-minded young people and inspire others to serve the will of God. Dwight's early writings such as The Conquest of Canaan were and are highly criticized, but Greenfield Hill, written with more experience and the wisdom of years of learning and pastoring, is truly a triumph of early American ideals. Also his Travels in New England and New York was another such praiseworthy work, as John Willson writes ". . . it gives the persistent reader of its four volumes and nearly 1700 pages the most comprehensive picture of early America (or at least one section of it) ever written" (27). Dwight's work at Yale as a favorite lecturer and later as the president of the college, his famous speeches and sermons on political and religious issues, and his later writings like Greenfield Hill and Travels in New England and New York truly help the American of the twentieth century to understand the effect which the Enlightenment opposition of traditional New England values had upon early American life in the late 1700's through early 1800's.

* All information found in this paper, except where otherwise cited, has been taken from a biography by Kenneth Silverman called Timothy Dwight. Due to a shortage of readily available material dealing with Dwight's life, I must apologize for the lack of variety and scope in the sources consulted. Silverman is formally credited in the Bibliography, and wherever a direct quote from his book is used.

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Last updated: 17 March 1998