The Reverend Ezra Stiles (1727-1795) was born in North Haven, Connecticut, the son of Isaac Stiles, a Yale-educated Congregational minister. Ezra entered Yale himself at age fifteen and graduated at nineteen. Three years later he entered the ministry. As a young man he also studied law and conducted experiments in electricity.
In 1755, at the age of twenty-eight Stiles took an assignment as minister of Newport’s Second Congregational Church where he served with distinction for over two decades. Stiles was a first-rate preacher described as “always tolerant and distressed by sectarian bickering.” During his tenure in Newport, Stiles became an intellectual and civic leader. He served as librarian of Redwood Library and, though a Congregationalist, wrote the initial draft of the charter for Rhode Island College (later Brown University) which called for mutual tolerance and religious liberty and prohibited all religious tests for either faculty or students.
In the decade prior to the Revolution, Stiles became a spokesman for the patriot cause and left Newport in December, 1776 when the British came to occupy that town. Stiles was an indefatigable note-taker and writer. In 1769 he began a literary diary which reached fifteen volumes by the time of his death in 1795. This record is a major source for events in pre-Revolutionary Rhode Island and for the progress of the war in New England. In addition, Stiles wrote six volumes of manuscript notes on this travels (“Itineraries”) from 1760 to 1794 and a host of other papers which he donated to the archives of Yale University.
Because of Stiles reputation as one of the most literate and learned men in New England, in 1778 he was called to his alma mater, Yale, to become its president and a professor of ecclesiastical history. In his later years, his sermons and writings were notable for their espousal of democracy and their opposition to slavery. In May 1795, at the age of sixty-seven, the still active and enormously productive Stiles, contracted a fever and died within a week. His notable career is detailed in a fine biography by Edmund S. Morgan appropriately entitled The Gentle Puritan (1962).
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