Papers from Hillsdale College
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

A Small Introduction to
Timothy Dwight

by Hilary Kirk

Timothy Dwight was important to American Religion both in his own right and through his influence on others. As a pastor and teacher, he developed a theology the execution of which impacted his society and future American society through those to whom he taught and ministered.

Overview of the Life of Timothy Dwight

At an early age Timothy Dwight exhibited the gifts God had given him as a preacher and teacher. When Timothy was only six years old, his family found him preaching to local Indians; the rest of his life reveals how he put those gifts to use.

After graduating from Yale, Timothy became a tutor in 1771, when only 19 years old. In 1774, failing health forced Dwight to leave Yale for a short time. This brought him to a place of rededication to the Lord and of membership to College Church. This became a catalyst for the rest of his life, in which he desired first and utmost to please God -- the duty taught him by his mother from his childhood.

He returned to Yale and began studying theology, under his uncle Jonathan Edwards, Jr. Dwight's theology, therefore, bears traces of Jonathan Edwards, Jr.'s theology. Notable, especially, was Edwards Jr. view that human sin is the result of the `individual's actions' and not an inheritance from Adam.{1}

During the critical years of the fight for America's independence 1777-1783, Dwight helped bring his family, town and state through great trials. After marrying and spending a year as an Army chaplain for the Continental Army, he returned to Northampton, Mass. with his new family to help his mother and siblings at the death of his father. He worked two family farms, opened a school in Northampton, and preached every Sunday for various Connecticut Valley congregations. Dwight's dedication to duty and love for God, his family and country restored his family's standing and reputation. During this period, he also was involved in politics in his town and in his state legislature.

In 1783, forced to decide between politics and his love of preaching, Dwight made his decision to pastor without hesitation. With his mother and siblings cared for, he moved his family to Greenfield Hill, CT, which came to reflect for him all that should be loved of the American culture, specifically the New England culture.{2}

After over ten years at Greenfield Hill, he accepted the presidency of Yale, in 1795, realizing he would be able to have a greater impact for the Lord. He spent his last twenty-two years building Yale into a university which would continue.

Influence of Timothy Dwight{3}

The repercussions of the theological doctrine on original sin which Dwight learned from his uncle Jonathan Edwards, Jr. were far reaching. Dwight's system of theology is often viewed as a foundation of Evangelical Protestantism of the nineteenth century. Yet it has been said of Dwight's theology, it captured a generation and brought them through; it also laid the basis for the "eventual eclipse" of Evangelical Protestantism.{4} An influence of the Enlightenment lies mixed with Dwight's Puritan roots in his theology. Natural reason in support of Christianity became a large component of the American Evangelical Protestantism.

Therefore, man seen as a rational creature was in his perfect state -- that is, perfectly rational -- when he perfectly followed God and His laws. This obedience flowing from rational choices is the source of happiness in the life of mankind.{5} Sin is irrational, because in disobedience, misery is incurred, and a rational being will desire happiness and peace over unhappiness and chaos. The fact that history reveals that man "`is undeniably, and always has been an evil, odious being; disobedient and ungrateful to his Maker; unjust, insincere, and unkind, to his fellow Man. . .'"{6} is not proof of original sin. Rather, the behavior not the nature is `odious' and is proof of disobedience and human failure and not of "an inherited evil disposition."{7} Adam's descendants do not suffer because of their guilt for Adam's sin. Rather, they suffer from the consequences of Adam's sin and the result of their own "inability to cope with the consequences of Adam's act,"{8} revealed in their committing the same act of disobedience toward their Creator.{9}

The reason obedience to God's law is rational is because He has established universal precepts along with the universal call to obedience. He has also provided the means of salvation, which will enable obedience, through Christ.

Dwight's view of predestination is that God benevolently places certain people in an environment that enables regeneration -- i.e., the "benefical environment of a Christian society."{10} A civilized society does not guarantee a resulting Christian behavior, yet they support each other. Dwight believes education and training are important in securing salvation. Dwight often reminded that civilization and Christianity were blessings -- gifts from God -- and could not be taken for granted. Dwight challenged his listeners to defend against those who believed that civilization and Christianity could be divorced from each other.{11}

This belief was the fire behind his war against "infidels" at Yale. Dwight saw the idea that man could get to this perfectly rational state apart from obedience to God and His salvation, as a threat to the way of life that he loved and wanted others to cherish as a gift from God. As president of Yale, Dwight faced a college that had left its Biblical basis, and found in its stead a student body accepting of the European Enlightenment view of man.

Dwight dealt with this obstacle not tyrannically, which would likely drive the students further into their beliefs against authority and Christianity. Instead, he brought to them arguments, making them reason into the truth. He was highly successful eventually. His famous sermons are from the years of this debate -- 1795-1801. The result was beginning in 1799, a unique revival. "It was a revival particular to the place and the revivalist. There was `nothing enthusiastic, nothing superstitious, nothing gloomy, morose or violent. All those, who have been affected, have plainly improved in their dispositions, and in their conduct.'"{13}

With the renewal of Christianity on campus, Dwight encouraged his students that the civil liberty which was so recently won, could not be divorced from the institutions and principles which gave this liberty. Therefore, he taught unceasingly the necessity of the Christian foundations for the preservation of the new emerging American culture. "`More free than we are,' he often told his graduating seniors, `man with his present character cannot be. If we preserve such freedom, we shall do what never has been done. The only possible means of its preservation, miracles apart, is the preservation of those institutions from which it has been derived.'"{14} The individual must be rightly related to God and his fellow man before a society can succeed or continue.

As people moved West and expanded America, they adopted the view that having God's morality as the basis of a new civil government and society is necessary to have a peaceful and organized society. This alone was not a bad teaching; but through the years, the moral government of God came to displace God Himself. When God is lost as the focus and love of individuals and a society, it is not long before the moral government of God also begins to be misunderstood and lost. So that unfortunately, "Instead of making the ordinary holy, Dwight succeeded in making the holy ordinary, of making God subordinate to the maintenance of the social order. God legitimated the social order but did not live in it."{15}

He laid the foundation in the church and society for a view of God that was not as personal and intimately involved, rather it was One who was a "Moral Governor." Dwight saw God's moral government as the framework "by which free, rational creatures could be governed."{16} Dwight took one part of Reformed doctrine -- God's moral government -- and made it the center of the Christianity he taught, using persuasive reasoning to win men to the view. Therefore, in the long-run, undermining the fundamental basis of the Christian message, upon which all else stood, Christ and the Cross as the center and most necessary part of life.{17}

Dwight's mixing of Enlightenment views with his Puritan Christian precepts created the basis for a mystical Christianity, which can be seen to have eventually undermined American Christianity. While fighting the "infidels" of the European Enlightenment, who rejected God, he adopted the "English Enlightenment" and through the use of reason fought his fight. This is not entirely harmful, since God gave reason, but he also did not realize that the means which he adopted were the pre-cursor of what he was fighting. For when man's reason is only necessary, God is not.

Dwight's immediate influence was beneficial and his emphasis on the necessity of a Christian moral government came out of his personal love and devotion to God and love for his country. If Dwight had been able to see the long range repercussions of what he taught, it may be questioned whether he would have emphasized government over Christ.

NOTES 1. Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1992. p 159
2. See Willson, John. We the People Essays on the Major Documents of the American Founding: Number Four Timothy Dwight's Greenfield Hill. Hillsdale College Press, Hillsdale, Michigan, 1995. Chapter 1.
3. Some of this view of Timothy Dwight may not be entirely accurate but was what I understood from the few sources available to me at this point.
4. Wenzke, Annabelle S. Timothy Dwight (1752-1817). The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY, 1989. p. 19.
5. "`To serve, love, and honor God, is the most rational, and desirable employment, which is possible. It was, therefore, man's highest interest, as well as indispensable duty, to obey. In no other manner, could he be either virtuous or happy.'" - Wenzke 191-192 quote of Timothy Dwight
6. Wenzke, 192. (Timothy Dwight quote)
7. Wenzke, 193.
8. Wenzke, 193
9. "`Every descendent of Adam must, of course, be an inhabitant of the world, which was thus cursed; and must of necessity be a partaker of the very evils, denounced in this curse. When the sentence was declared, therefore, it was certainly foreseen, that all those, who would afterwards share in the sufferings, which it disclosed; that is all the children of Adam; would be sinners.' [Dwight quote] In a sense, Dwight reverses the consequences of Adam's original sin. Although his descendants could not be guilty for Adam's act, they would suffer the consequences, sin, suffering and death, which in turn would guarantee that they participate in the same evil behavior. . ." - Wenzke, 193.
10. Wenzke, 197
11. See Wenke 195-199
12. Wenzke, 44. (quote by Cuningham)
13. Wenzke, 48. (single quotes Dwight)
14. Willson, 28-29. (Dwight quote)
15. Wenzke, 20.
16. Wenzke, 17
17. Wenzke, 17

Return to Jonathan Edwards Links at Hillsdale College

Last updated: 8 March 1998