Timothy Dwight, Yale president

I read last night about Timothy Dwight, who was president of Yale from 1795-1817. He was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the leading figure of the First Great Awakening and regarded as America’s greatest theologian.

He came to Yale at a time when many of the educated in American were being carried away by the influence of French Rationalism that had inspired the French Revolution.

Dwight knew how to do things. Check this out:

The first thing President Dwight did was to fire all faculty members espousing the French Rationalist point of view. Then, with the windows of Connecticut Hall thrown open and the sounds of spring mixing with the streams of sunlight coming through them, he started holding frank and open-ended discussions with the undergraduates. He encouraged the young men in his charge to speak their minds, and by his willingness to listen carefully to their side, with no recriminations for anything they would say, he elicited rare candor from them. But then, they were obligated to pay him the same courtesy, and he presented cogent, well-reasoned rebuttals of all the Rationalist arguments, following with strong appeals for life-changing Christianity, which, as President of the college and an ordained minister, it was his place to give…

If the hearts of his young listeners responded to this message, few made open professions of faith in these first years. Nevertheless, as his illustrious grandfather had before him, Dwight toiled on in the vineyard, never compromising, never flagging. And finally, in 1802, his efforts were rewarded. Like a thunderclap, revival fell upon Yale. In March the first new student confessed his faith in Christ as his Savior, and in April there was the second. By the end of that summer there were no less than fifty! And by the time the senior class was ready for graduation, half of them had committed their lives to Christ, and a third went on to careers in the ministry. Indeed, Dwight personally witnessed the formal conversion of half the student body. Dr. Heman Humphrey, later to become president of Amherst College, was a student at Yale, when the storm broke:

“It came with such power as had never been witnessed within those walls before.  It was in the Freshman year of my own class.  It was like a mighty rushing wind.  The whole college was shaken.  It seemed for a time as if the whole mass of students would press into the kingdom…It put a new face on the college.  It sent a thrill of joy and thanksgiving far and wide into the hearts of its friends who had been praying that the waters of salvation might be poured into the fountain from which so many streams were annually sent out…In the four preceding classes, only thirteen names of ministers stand, against sixty-nine in the next four years—nearly, if not quite all, of them brought in by the Great Revival.”

(From Sea to Shining Sea, Peter Marshall and David Manuel, p. 108-112)

Notice how he exercised his authority with grace.  As president, it was his job to shepherd the students.  He first took care of the wolves who were in the sheep pen.  But then he handled the students gently, listening to them and their ideas, and responding in grace with rebuttals and the claims of Christ.

I’m sure he was roundly criticized in the more liberal circles for firing the Rationalist professors.  I can hear it now, “What about academic freedom?!”  “Why is he forcing the whole college to adopt his narrow view?!”  But Dwight was playing for an audience of one.  He loved his savior and he loved the students that had been put under his care.  Well done, good and faithful servant.

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