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.
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.