by Bernard R. DeRemer
When Timothy Dwight became president of Yale College (now University) in 1795, he was distressed at the inroads infidelity and atheism had made. The philosophy of French "enlightenment" was sweeping American colleges, and students often ridiculed the "idea of divine revelation."
But his remarkable ability as teacher, as well as his evangelical life and character, did much to raise standards at the college, where many students were saved through his ministry. In fact, he is credited with sparking the Second Great Awakening, the revival which girded up the infant nation.
Born in 1752 at Northampton, Massachusetts, Dwight was the grandson of the illustrious Jonathan Edwards, whose ministry was still influential. Growing up in an atmosphere of piety, hard work, and learning, young Dwight soon distinguished himself for scholarship. He read at age 4 and by 8 had mastered Greek and Latin!
At 13, the precocious youth entered Yale. But at first he fell into temptations so that he almost ignored his studies for two years. Then he went to the other extreme, studying 14 hours a day. Graduating at 17, he tied for academic honors.
Next he plunged into graduate studies, while teaching grade school. Later he became a tutor at Yale, where he quickly became a favorite.
The colonists' demand for freedom exploded into the Revolutionary War, and in 1777 Dwight became a chaplain. A song he wrote at the time became a theme of the period, encouraging American troops.
Afterward he undertook the burden of supporting his widowed mother, ten brothers and sisters still at home, and his wife and new baby. So he worked on farms, preached, wrote, and taught-a full schedule indeed.
In 1783 he was called to pastor the Greenfield, Conneticut, Congregational Church, while continuing his many other necessary activities. He is said to be "one of the first in America to cultivate strawberries." Within a few years he was famous throughout the country in various endeavors.
His greatest honor and responsibility came in 1795 when he was appointed president of Yale, his alma mater. There he found himself "overwhelmed by the godlessness of the campus...(where) fights, drunken sprees, and vandalism were common. The college church was almost extinct."
Dwight set to work to raise both academic and spiritual standards. Students had to understand that college "was not a playground, but a privilege." He worked hard to make his lectures in philosophy and other subjects interesting and challenging. Courses in law, science, and the Bible, among other subjects, were added to the curriculum.
The new president, described as a "rigid Calvinist and staunch Federalist," inherited a "ruined" institution, where strong rescuing leadership was sorely needed. "Physical facilities were decaying, operating funds were desperately short, and instruction was haphazard and poor in quality."
Dwight was equal to the challenge. Within a few years he had:
•Reformed the curriculum;
•Made judicious faculty appointments;
• Adroitly managed alumni donors, as well as legislators who would vote needed funds for the institution;
•Established Yale Medical School, a major and monumental achievement.
So far from rebelling, students actually welcomed his leadership. One wrote in his journal that Dwight is "a truly great man"; another called him just such a person "as every one would wish himself to be."
A contemporary recalled that Dwight's voice "was one of the finest I have heard from the pulpit-clear, hearty, sympathetic-and entering into the soul like the middle notes of an organ."
Because of failing vision, he was forced to depend on secretaries in later years. With his great powers of concentration, he could dictate to several at one time, turning from one to the other with ease, and without losing his train of thought.
No fewer than twenty titles, including various editions of the same work, by Dwight are listed in Books in Print. His hymn "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord" is still widely used today.
In 1802 a great revival came, in which a third of the students were saved. Again in 1812 and 1815 revivals swept the campus, then spread to Dartmouth, Princeton, and other colleges.
Thus began the Second Great Awakening, which produced the American Tract Society, the American Bible Society, and other organizations. From Dwight's classes came a number of pastors and evangelists.
Dwight finished his last work, Essays on the Evidence of Divine Revelation, on January 8, 1817. Three days later, the great soldier and scholar laid down his pen and entered into glory.
Indeed he had loved to the fullest "Thy Kingdom, Lord."