Reverend Ezra Stiles

Inducted: 1998
Born: 1727
Died: 1795

Ezra Stiles (1727-1795) was born in North Haven, Connecticut, the son of Isaac Stiles, a Yale-educated Congregational minister, and Kezia Taylor, who died five days after his birth. Ezra entered Yale himself at age fifteen and graduated at nineteen in 1746. Three years later, he joined the ministry. As a young man, he also studied and practiced law and conducted experiments in electricity in correspondence with Benjamin Franklin.

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. Small in stature and of “a very delicate structure,” Stiles was nonetheless a first-rate preacher, described by contemporaries as “always tolerant and distressed by sectarian bickering.” During his tenure in Newport, Stiles became an intellectual and civic leader. Though a Congregationalist, he served as librarian of the Redwood Library and wrote the initial draft of the charter for the Baptist-sponsored Rhode Island College (later Brown University). His draft called for mutual tolerance and religious liberty and prohibited all religious tests for either faculty or students. At various times, he attended Quaker, Jewish, Dutch Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic services to acquaint himself with those religions.

Stiles became a spokesman for the patriot cause in the decade before the Revolution, and he left Newport in December 1776 when the British came to occupy that town. During 1777 and early 1778, he served as pastor of the Congregational church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

An indefatigable note-taker and writer, in 1769, Stiles began a literary diary that would reach fifteen volumes by the time of his death in 1795. This record is a major source for pre-Revolutionary Rhode Island events and the war’s progress in New England. In addition, Stiles wrote six volumes of manuscript notes on his travels (“Itineraries”) from 1760 to 1794 and a host of other papers he donated to Yale University’s archives

Because of his reputation as one of New England’s most literate and learned men, Stiles was called to his alma mater, Yale, in 1778 to become its president and a professor of ecclesiastical history and Semitic languages. His knowledge of Hebrew–acquired by his intellectual interaction with Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal, Rabbi Isaac Touro, and other members of Newport’s Jewish synagogue–allowed him to translate large portions of the Old Testament into English. In his later years, his sermons and writings were notable for their espousal of democracy and their opposition to slavery. Stiles engaged in an impressive variety of intellectual pursuits during his career: he was a linguist (Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, and French), an amateur scientist (electricity, astronomy, chemistry, and zoology), a theologian, and an ecclesiastical historian.

Stiles married twice, first to Elizabeth Hubbard of New Haven in 1757. Of the eight children she bore him before she died in 1775, only five outlived their father. In 1782, he married Mary (Cranston) Checkley, a widow; the daughter of Benjamin Cranston of Newport, she was a member of one of the town’s leading families.

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). Though altered, the Stiles house in Newport, at 14 Clarke Street, has been preserved.

Rev. Ezra Stiles was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1998.

For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.

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