Dwight, Timothy

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DWIGHT, TIMOTHY (17521817), president of Yale College and leader of Connecticut orthodoxy. A grandson of Jonathan Edwards, Dwight viewed himself as within the Edwardsean "New Divinity" tradition. But by Dwight's time the Edwardsean "consistent Calvinism" had become an arid scholasticism that denigrated all human activity, or "means," used in the process of attaining salvation. As Harriet Beecher Stowe later commented, the high Calvinistic system as expounded by Edwards's intellectual followers was like a "rungless ladder" with piety at the top and no human way to ascend. "Consistent Calvinist" ministers of early national America alienated their parishioners and dampened religious fervor. On the other hand, liberal moralists of the time were compromising the historic doctrines of the reformed faith and veering toward Unitarianism. Dwight, an important transitional figure in the development of a nineteenth-century American evangelical consensus, devised a practical theology with the avowed purpose of countering America's late-eighteenth-century slide into secularism.

As president of Yale College between 1795 and 1817, Dwight forged his system of theology, which he preached in sermon form, exerting profound influence on a multitude of students who later entered the ministry. With his pragmatic approach, Dwight did not abjure such Calvinist doctrines as depravity, election, or absolute divine sovereignty, but he avoided giving them the effect of rendering humanity powerless in the process of salvation. He laid emphasis on the means by which one can attain piety, accentuating the spiritual potency of an environment saturated in "true religion." In many an emotion-laden sermon Dwight exhorted his students to repent and receive the Savior. In his revivalistic preaching and his enhancement of Christian nurture, Dwight influenced such important divines as Nathaniel W. Taylor and Lyman Beecher, both of whom studied under him at Yale. These men devised the practical, evangelistic orthodoxy that spawned the interdenominational "benevolent societies" and played a major part in spreading the Second Great Awakening. Dwight's emphasis on nurture was later picked up and expanded by the influential Hartford theologian Horace Bushnell, a forerunner of the Social Gospel.


Dwight's best-known work is his Travels in New England and New York (1823; reprint, Cambridge, Mass., 1969). In this four-volume compendium, he comments editorially on the religion, culture, and politics, as well as the geographical features of his region. Republished, the Travels has been edited and given an excellent introduction by Barbara Miller Solomon. Dwight's Theology Explained and Defended in a Series of Sermons, 4 vols. (New Haven, 1823), went through a number of nineteenth-century editions. It is the best and most comprehensive exposition of his theology. There are three modern biographical studies of Dwight, each of which views his life from a different perspective. Charles E. Cunningham's Timothy Dwight 17521817 (New York, 1942) concentrates on his attainments as educator. It is the most complete biography of Dwight. Kenneth Silverman's work, Timothy Dwight (New York, 1969) focuses on the development of his social and political views as expounded in his narrative and epic poetry. Stephen E. Berk's Calvinism versus Democracy: Timothy Dwight and the Origins of American Evangelical Orthodoxy (Hamden, Conn., 1974) considers Dwight as theologian and ecclesiastical politician, relating his career to the broader social and religious currents of his time. It contains the only detailed appraisal of Dwight's theology.

Stephen E. Berk (1987)