Categories: Belief, Education, Everyday Life, New Haven, North Haven

Ezra Stiles Captured 18th-Century Life on Paper

Map of the invasion of New Haven
Detail from a [Map of the invasion of New Haven, July 5, 1779] by Ezra Stiles – Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Educator and theologian Ezra Stiles authored numerous scholarly publications and went on to serve as president of Yale University. Among his greatest contributions to history, however, are the journals and records he kept detailing daily life in 18th-century New England. Through an examination of these resources, historians learn about everything from local temperature readings to population growth, marriages, the role of the Jewish community in society, and the relationships New Englanders had with the area’s Native American tribes.

The future theologian was born the son of a minister in North Haven, Connecticut. Stiles mother died in childbirth but his father, Isaac, soon remarried, and Stiles spent his childhood under the watchful eye of his stepmother, Esther Hooker, great granddaughter of Connecticut founder, Thomas Hooker.

Ezra Stiles

Ezra Stiles – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Yale Graduate Helps Establish Brown University

Stiles graduated from Yale in 1746, but he remained at the school studying theology until receiving his master’s degree in 1749. After tutoring for a number of years, Stiles resigned from the ministry and briefly practiced law in New Haven before moving to Newport, Rhode Island, in 1755 and returning to the pulpit.

While in Newport he became pastor of the Second Congregational Church and went on to write a charter establishing an institution that eventually became Brown University. He also published numerous works on religion, including 1760’s A Discourse on the Christian Union, which helped earn him an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh in 1765. He remained in Newport for over 20 years before moving to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1777 and then returning to Connecticut to become president of Yale in 1778.

Stiles Returns to Yale as Its President

While president, Stiles also served as a professor, teaching ecclesiastical history, philosophy, and astronomy. In addition, he used some equipment donated by his Yale classmate, Benjamin Franklin, to conduct the first electrical experiments ever recorded in New England.

By this time, Stiles was also busy keeping daily records of 18th-century life. For 32 years he recorded daily temperature highs and lows, gathered population figures, and records of births, deaths, and marriages. In addition, he conducted interviews with Native Americans and members of the Jewish community—recording their experiences for posterity.

Ezra Stiles continued to serve as president of Yale right up until his death from fever in May of 1795. He left behind a legacy of educational advancement among the finest of its time. Today, his preserved records fill 42 boxes and make up 22 reels of microfilm housed at the Yale University Library. Ongoing digitization efforts have also made materials from the collection accessible online.

LEARN MORE

Documents

Stiles, Ezra. “Catalog Record of the Ezra Stiles Papers (ca. 1727-1795).” Yale University Library, 2013. Link.
“Digitized Images of Papers from the Ezra Stiles Collection.” Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, 2013. Link.

Books

Stiles, Ezra. Extracts from the Itineraries and Other Miscellanies of Ezra Stiles, D.D., LL. D., 1755-1794 with a Selection from His Correspondence. Edited by Franklin Bowditch Dexter. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1916. Link.
Stiles, Ezra, and Harold E Selesky. Ezra Stiles Papers - Microform. New Haven, CT: Yale University Library, 1976.
Morgan, Edmund S. The Gentle Puritan; a Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727-1795. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962.
Holmes, Abiel. The Life of Ezra Stiles, D.D. LL. D. Boston, MA: Thomas & Andrews, 1798. Link.
Stiles, Ezra. The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, D.D., LL.D.: President of Yale College - January 1, 1769-March 13, 1776. Edited by Franklin Bowditch Dexter. Vol. 1. 3 vols. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s sons, 1901. Link.
Stiles, Ezra. The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, D.D., LL.D.: President of Yale College - January 1, 1782-May 6, 1795. Edited by Franklin Bowditch Dexter. Vol. 3. 3 vols. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901. Link.
Stiles, Ezra. The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, D.D., LL.D.: President of Yale College - March 14, 1776-December 31, 1781. Edited by Franklin Bowditch Dexter. Vol. 2. 3 vols. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s sons, 1901. Link.
Enjoyed reading this? Share it with friends »