Ezra Stiles rarely makes even an obscure footnote in most American history texts, yet he was probably the most broadly learned man on the continent during the era of American independence. His book, The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor, presented here, is a showcase of his tremendous intellectual gifts, his foresight, and his tireless zeal.
Stiles’s prodigious abilities shone early in his life. At age eleven, he calculated the age of the earth to be 5,700 years, and by examining the rock cliffs near New Haven, CT, he was assured that the flood of Noah had happened exactly 4,032 years prior to his time. He entered Yale College at age 18, was ordained a Congregationalist minister at 21, and immediately began tutoring at the College. After a two-year respite from ministry to study law, he would serve as a minister for the rest of his life, including a 22-year pastorate of the same church in Newport, Rhode Island, from 1755 to 1777. After this, he served in that role for which he is best remembered: President of Yale College for seventeen years, 1778–1795.
He wrote this book originally as an election-day sermon preached before the General Assembly of Connecticut. Considering the theme of the future hope and glory of the United States, the timing is of interest: given in 1783, it would have come four years before the Constitutional Convention. This gives Stiles’s ideas and predictions a considerably different political context than later works on a similar theme. Most of the writings that have survived under the label of “Christian America” date from the latter half of the nineteenth century and represent a government-driven American empire more than a biblical worldview. And many times, this counterfeit patriotism is read back into the works and intentions of the earlier framers of the Constitution. Preaching prior to this period and even before the Constitution itself, Stiles is generally free from the partisanship that would result from it. His prediction of America’s future glory and honor stems from a many-faceted examination of national morality, liberty, commerce, demographics, biblical doctrine and culture, and much else. And far from shrinking from the idea of a Christian society and system of civil polity—as so many modern Christian leaders do—Stiles refers more than once to the ideal of “Christendom” and places America squarely within it.
In this effort, Stiles develops biblical themes, applies much of his own scientific research, and makes some startlingly accurate predictions. For example, he predicted the eventual independence of India from Britain. This would break Britain’s imperial power and allow the rise of a European union.
Likewise, based on “the present ratio of increase” and “the enterprising spirit of Americans for colonization and removing out into the wilderness and settling new countries,” Stiles predicted that in two to three centuries, America would be covered by three hundred million people—an amazingly accurate foresight. (According to the 2010 census—coming two and a quarter centuries after Stiles’s prediction, the U.S. contains three hundred eight million souls.) Stiles placed this hundred-fold increase in the context of a biblical worldview, calling it “a new enlargement of Japheth” in reference to Noah’s prophecy for his sons (Gen. 9:26–27). The Reverend rightly believed this enlargement would lead to greater dominion and the cultivation, and resulting monetary appreciation, of what was at that time largely wilderness.[get_product id=”1408″ align=”right” size=”small”]
He went on to predict that combined international interests would eventually lead to free trade throughout all of the Atlantic, and that America would lead the world in commerce, manners, and science “beyond anything heretofore known,” and rightly foresaw that America would, as a result, become a melting-pot assimilating people from all nations. He expanded this too far, however, in believing such proliferation of free commerce would bring an end to war itself, so that “even the navies will, within a century, become useless.”
The Ornament of the Age in Scholarship
With his unassuming frame of about 5’ 4”, 130 pounds, and with somewhat of an elongated nose, Stiles could hardly commandeer a room in the way of a Jefferson, Hamilton, or Washington—all standing stately, over six feet—rare at the time. No, politics, the military, and statesmanship were out of the picture for the slight Stiles. Yet his insatiable curiosity, accumulation of knowledge, ceaseless study, attention to detail, broad interests, gentle spirit, and tremendous sociability combined to make Stiles successful in his callings for several decades. While not a statesman or military hero, Stiles’s was a born academician—an extraordinary one at that—and most importantly, he acknowledged and embraced the role.
His unique service as a public intellectual garnered the attention of many of his more famous peers. Stiles’s house often served as the favorite evening stop-over for dignitaries travelling between Boston and New York, Philadelphia, or Virginia. Over the years, Stiles entertained Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, John Adams, a young John Quincy Adams, Baron von Steuben, General Nathanael Greene, Henry Marchant, and others.
But Stiles was no “flatterer of princes.” Von Steuben brought to his house the Ambassador of France, La Luzerne, but “Stiles found him ‘not a great character’”; the Reverend then spent most of the visit speaking with one of the Ambassador’s attendees, questioning him “because France did not give more religious liberty to the Huguenots.”
It was not usually for new insight into political or foreign affairs that people called upon Stiles—he was rarely, despite his great gifts, an original thinker—but for the pure breadth and enormity of his knowledge, the sheer joy with which he pursued, collected, considered, and disseminated it liberally, and his unique ability for engaging everyone, even unsolicited audiences. Many times a would-be suitor would show up keen to see one of Stiles’s daughters only to find himself “drawn aside by the president to hear strictures on Lord Kames or a disquisition on a newly discovered planet”—and the young men would grow more interested in the father than the girl. Indeed, when Stiles left a group, as one friend wrote, “all perceived a void, which their sociability could not fill up.” One student, James Kent—later a high-ranking judge in New York—would label his president “the ornament of the Age as a Scholar.”
His interests bridged every discipline and personality, bringing light to the even the greatest minds of the era, and subsequently drawing upon them to enlighten himself and others further. For example, despite later considering Stiles “too credulous” (for his beliefs in creation and revelation we assume), Jefferson corresponded with Stiles in regard to fossils and other archaeological artifacts, as well as books and political developments in Europe.
Stiles followed the works of Benjamin Franklin with great interest, and was among the most eager to adapt his findings in electricity to the College curriculum, both formally and informally. On one occasion, a violent thunderstorm interrupted a lecture to his students and, Stiles said, “threw us into some Consternation.” Stiles seized the opportune moment:
I laid aside my usual Lecture, and gave an extemporaneous philosophical Lecture on these three points: 1. The philosophy of Rarefaction, the Elevation of Vapor into Clouds and their Descent in Rain. 2. The Theory of Thunder and Lightning according to the principles of Electricity. And, 3. Dr. Franklin’s pointed Metallic [Lightning] Rods for the Defense of Buildings and Ships.
Since Franklin enjoyed international scholarly honors and connections, Stiles often requested of him to secure honorary degrees for his peers. Franklin surprised the Reverend by obtaining for Stiles himself the degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology from Edinburgh. It came with a bittersweet tinge, however, for the University had found Stiles perfectly sound in every science except theology, for he had not yet learned Hebrew.[get_product id=”1168″ align=”right” size=”small”]
Stiles took the exposure of his “deficiency” very seriously and applied himself to the study of Hebrew from that moment on. He would almost immediately become one of the most prominent Hebraists in America during his time. And as with most things, Stiles would take his learning in this area to an extreme: he perfected not only Hebrew, but also Arabic and Aramaic. He then made Hebrew mandatory for his students at Yale, and began delivering addresses in it. After nine years of this academic torture, Stiles recognized the error of his ways and made the study of Hebrew elective—not required.
Aside from perfecting the Semitic languages, Stiles worked on French and Italian as well; and judging by the sermon herein he seems also to have acquired a working knowledge of Chinese, Punic, Phoenician, Persian, Gaelic, German, some American Indian languages, and, of course, Greek and Latin, and perhaps others.
Stiles taught as broadly and deeply as he learned. In a single day one could find him teaching astronomy, mathematics, and church history, while also attending to administration. In one diary entry he writes:
Spent five hours incessantly in communicating Instruction to some of the Senior Class in Astronomy, the Calculus and Delineation of a solar Eclipse; calculating . . . Jupiter’s Eclipses, the Place of Saturn and the other planets, and the Trajectory and places of Comets both heliocentric and geocentric. By my Direction the Tutors examined a Freshman but found him deficient; so I directed that he should be turned by and not admitted. At 5 p.m. I gave a Lecture on Ecclesiastical History—Enumerating the principal Corruptions of the Romish Church.
Stiles continued “incessantly” learning new things every day of his life, constantly growing and expanding in every possible facet of knowledge and practical application—until a fever closed his books for good. But on May 12, 1795, after struggling ill for four days, Ezra Stiles ascended to a whole new plane of knowledge.
Regrettably, Stiles published little of what he had learned. He “was one of those scholars who never cease to gather materials for a book but cannot bring themselves to write it.” This, coupled with his natural sociability, kept him occupied with study and conversation instead of writing. Indeed, “in chance conversations and formal lectures, Stiles talked away the books he should have written.”
He did leave behind a gem in his Literary Diaries—three volumes of day-to-day thoughts, notes, and comments—but these are piecemeal in nature mostly, and not meant as anything didactic or systematic. His analysis of the three judges who condemned Charles I to death, appended with Stiles’s justification for regicide in cases of tyranny, was published at one time, and perhaps needs to be edited and republished after these long generations of neglect.
Aside from these things, his only published work (known today only among specialists) is the sermon-book presented here: The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor. While limited in its original occasion, application, and influence, this work bears a profound message that reaches all the way to the United States of today.[get_product id=”1408″ align=”left” size=”small”]
It behooves us, then, to consider this remarkable oration—not only as a work of American Christian scholarship, but as the best of American scholarship in general at the time, and an example in many ways of how Christian leaders should drive to excel and influence the public square.
The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor
Stiles considered America at the time as a parallel to—perhaps even an extension of—God’s covenant promises from deep in the Old Testament. He begins with the text found in Deuteronomy 26:19:
And to make thee high above all nations which he hath made, in praise, and in name, and in honor; and that thou mayest be a holy people unto the Lord thy God.
With God’s covenant as the foundation, Stiles refers to “God’s American Israel”; he returns to this motif several times throughout the sermon, connecting America metaphorically, and sometimes literally, to Old Testament patriarchs.
To this, Stiles added that obedience to God was required for national happiness and prosperity (citing Deut. 29:10, 14; 30:9, 19). Conversely, national disobedience would lead to “the judicial chastisement of apostasy.”
Based on these ideas, Stiles ordered his message to the state house according to two heads: 1) On what basis could America expect God’s blessings, and 2) that dominion and civil polity will remain imperfect unless “the true religion” is diffused among the people.
In other words, civil government is not an end in itself, but rather should be, along with the people themselves, a servant of God. As Stiles sums, “Holiness ought to be the end [i.e., goal] of all civil government.” And for such holiness to become manifest, men who hold public office must not be “merely nominally Christians, but of real religion and sincere piety.”
Upon such a divine foundation, Stiles envisioned unbounded potential for American prosperity and freedom. He foresaw the potential for a peaceful abolition of slavery (which he called “unrighteous”). Stiles commended the American political system at the time, and prescribed, following Calvin, a “democratical aristocracy.” This should be further tempered by a majority of the people owning land and electing their leaders annually. Thus, government should be representative. With the profusion of liberty would be a profusion of free markets and international commerce: “Our trade opens to all the world,” and though tenuous at first, “commerce will find out its own system, and regulate itself in time.”
Stiles added, however, that such prosperity would come only if there were sufficient effort among those involved. He called for “universal industry” in which “the whole continent is activity, and in the lively, vigorous exertion of industry.” And while Stiles had not yet quite arrived at a theory of a truly free market (he exhorted the politicians to busy themselves “establishing manufactories”—which is a beginning of corporate welfare—and he also encouraged the public funding of education and religion), he nevertheless warned sternly against two common civil errors that destroy commerce and freedom: unnecessary war and national debt.
As for war, Stiles declared that “all wars” in history, with the exception of a very few defensive wars (and a tiny handful of divinely mandated offensives), were illegal and unrighteous. He despised a standing army. While some nations in history were right in defending themselves against invasion, oftentimes the war spirit itself changed the character of that nation to its own ruin: “After the spirit of conquest changed the first governments, all the succeeding ones have, in general, proved one continued series of injustice, which has reigned in all countries for almost four thousand years.” This fact, for Stiles, means that nearly every modern nation at the time had been “founded in rapacity, usurpation, and injustice” so that no one can determine legitimate public right and liberty—“all is confounded and lost.” Indeed, as “none of them have any right.” Thus, because of their history of warfare and conquest, Stiles announced the illegitimacy of nearly every modern State of his time.
This meant, for him, that revolution—the throwing off of tyrannical yokes by the people in these lands—was a right that lay inherent in the people in these cases. Stiles saw the American Revolution as an example to all peoples oppressed in this way, and he hoped America would become a shining light to all the world for freedom, self-government, and opportunity.[get_product id=”625″ align=”right” size=”small”]
Stiles also warned against the dangers of a national debt, as he rightly saw 1) most nations use them to finance more wars, 2) it leads to oppressive taxation, and 3) it quickly grows impossible to pay off. These conditions combine to turn a free nation into a nation of de facto slaves. He pronounced, “May God preserve these States from being so involved.” Stiles was, however, overly-optimistic. He thought the Americans in their hard-won self-government would never succumb to such bondage: being free from the taxing whims of a single monarch, he said, “the people tax themselves, and therefore cannot tax themselves beyond their abilities.”
This particular naïveté does not diminish Stiles’s warning against the dangers of national debt in general. The lesson endures:
It will not, however, be wise to consign posterity so heavy a debt; lest they should be tempted to learn, like other nations, the practice of public injustice, and broken national faith.
Stiles’s optimism, his interest in civil society and civic virtue, and his concern for the future generations all stem from a form of postmillennial vision. While he does not lay out his views of prophecy and end times in any detail, it shows through in his rhetoric:
Great things are to be effected in the world before the millennium, which I do not expect to commence under seven or eight hundred years hence; and perhaps the liberal and candid disquisition in America are to be rendered extensively subservient to some of the most glorious designs of Providence, and particularly in the propagation and diffusion of religion through the earth, in filling the whole earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. A time will come when six hundred millions of the human race shall be ready to drop their idolatry and all false religion, when Christianity shall triumph over superstition, as well as Deism, and Gentilism, and Mohammedanism.
This could only be accomplished by an advance of Christianity in society:
While we have to confess and lament the vice rampant in Christendom, we have reason to believe that the more Christianity prevails in a country, civil society will be more advanced, ferocious manners will give way to the more mild, liberal, just, and amiable manners of the gospel.
For these reason and ends, among many others—not the least of which was her late deliverance from Britain—Stiles concluded that American not only could become, but was under obligation to become a holy nation unto the Lord (Deut. 4:34).
We have only here touched on the many insights and themes with which Stiles enlightened and charged the statesmen and ministers on that election day, May 8, 1783. The reader will encounter many more, as well as potential circuits for many more yet, in the text and notes supplied. We today have much to learn from Stiles’s input, as well as from his example in both success and failure.
The Challenge of Liberty
Despite the characterization of Yale College by many at the time as rigidly dogmatic, Stiles practiced academic freedom to a generous degree. He would frequently pose questions that had controversial implications to his senior students. After Shay’s Rebellion, when the financiers and politicians of the State of Massachusetts had labeled the tax revolt as both treason and a failure of national government, Stiles had his senior students discuss, “whether it would be good policy to pardon the Massachusetts Convicts.”[get_product id=”384″ align=”right” size=”small”]
The elite party—interested in a much stronger National government—then used Shay’s Rebellion as an example of the anarchy which would inevitably result if the National government and finances were not greatly consolidated. This argument was used by Henry Knox, for example, to persuade the key personality of George Washington to support the Convention in Philadelphia. Knox recounted a badly distorted version of the events to Washington, painting the episode as a communist revolt. He argued that the government needed drastic new powers, for Americans had proven themselves needful of “brutal force to support the laws.”
About the same time, Stiles wrote to Washington with mixed emotions: “I know you must feel solicitous for the Tumults in Massachusetts,” but, he added, “They are doubtless magnified at a distance.” He believed that there was “Wisdom in the Legislature of that State sufficient to rectify the public Disorder and recover the public Peace and Tranquility.”
With mild skepticism, Stiles judged that the “Rebellion” was being a bit overblown, and thus when the Constitutional Convention was catalyzed in reaction, “he thought the action a little premature.” Stiles soon challenged his senior class: “Whether the States acted wisely in sending delegates to the General Convention now sitting at Philadelphia.” He certainly saw that the crisis was being leveraged to mold public sentiment, but he does not seem to have been hostile to the overall goal. He encouraged Washington,
Perhaps all things are cooperating and conspiring to effect the public Conviction of the Expediency and Necessity of a Cession of further Powers to Congress, adequate to the political Administration of a new and great Republic, to whose Origination your great services have so highly contributed.
When considering the execution day slated for those few “State Criminals” who were tried for the rebellion, Stiles seems to have desired the death penalty for at least one—not so much as a retribution for crime, but as a necessary deterrent to future rebels: “Should none be executed, Government is not established and the matter will . . . be disputed over again by the Sword; but if only one should be executed, the point is settled.”
Yet Stiles differed from the staunch Nationalists (“Federalists”) of his day in openly supporting the French Revolution as an advance of the same spirit of liberty which had prevailed in America. This feeling was popular in America until the beheading of Louis XVI in 1793, after which the ruling, quasi-monarchical party of Washington and Hamilton, arguing that democracy was the road to total anarchy, solidified their political ascendancy for the next seven years. Stiles, however, against waves of growing popular sentiment, stood firm in his view. He composed a history of the judges who had condemned Charles I in the 1640s. After all, had not the Puritans of New England defended the execution of Charles in 1649? When American newspapers reeled at Louis XVI’s fate in the guillotine, Stiles entrenched himself by writing a defense of tyrannicide. Yale historian Edmund Morgan describes the work as, “a defense which would vindicate the execution not only of Charles I but also of Louis XVI, a defense that would help people to realize that democracy is the only safe companion for liberty.”
We must be careful attributing certain views of “democracy” to Stiles. He held his view of tyrannicide not so much because he believed in “democracy”—in the modern sense of populism—as a system of government. He was too learned a Calvinist in regard to human depravity to leave government, law, commerce, and the treasury merely to a majority vote. As such, the word “democracy” nowhere appears in Stiles’s three volumes of literary diaries, and just once here in the text of his great sermon, appearing only in a negative context: “An unsystematical democracy and an absolute monarchy are equally detestable, equally a . . . terror to all around them.”
Stiles supported the French Revolution consistently because he saw the presiding spirit of liberty which had begun in America primarily as an international movement against monarchy—a value for which, perhaps, only a Puritan could see some good in the evils of the French Revolution. Yet he saw the temporary upheaval of society as a necessary step if people are to be free from autocratic rule. And since Americans had chosen to risk bloodshed rather than suffer autocracy, why should they wince when others do so as well? Stiles argued,
Why should despotism and oppression be entailed to subsequent generations? Why is it not just that the ages of tyranny should be succeeded by the ages of liberty? Under the obstinate and persevering opposition of the reigning powers this emancipation cannot be made but by the people. This must commence, and I have said, in popular societies, connected, spreading and growing up into a general popular exertion. . . . The amelioration of human society must and will take place. It will be a conflict between Kings and their subjects—This war of Kings, like that of Gog and Magog, will be terrible. It will, for there is no other way; it will commence and originate in voluntary associations among subjects in all kingdoms. Eluded supplications and petitions for liberty will be followed by armaments for the vindication of the rights of human nature. The public ardor will be kindled, and a national spirit and exertion be roused, which undiscouraged, unsubdued by many defeats, will ultimately carry all before it.
When people witness their peers in neighboring lands lifted by “Revolution” from the same oppressions under which they themselves suffer, they will not tolerate their own condition long. They will revolt as soon as they can. And since these conditions were ripe in many places across Europe at the time, and since Kings almost always refuse to relinquish their claims to power peacefully, Stiles rightly saw that the path to freedom could very well wind through fields of blood. For this belief, he did not shrink from supporting the French Revolution through its bitter processions, even when it was not popular among the intellectual elite to do so.
Further, Stiles linked monarchy in principle with Roman Catholicism. Being of the Puritan stripe of Reformed believer, he could not have hated Romanism more, and thus he could not have hated monarchy more. The two evils of Romanism and monarchy worked hand-in-hand, needing each other, reinforcing each other. Thus, for Stiles, the fall of monarchy would naturally mean an open door to the advance of Protestantism worldwide. We see an indication of this in Stiles’s diaries a few years prior to Louis XVI’s death. Speaking of the introduction of American settlers into the Spanish-ruled territories farther west, he mused (rather naïvely):[get_product id=”1408″ align=”left” size=”small”]
They will be the means of introducing more liberal Ideas among the Mexican Spaniards and this Communication will show them the Way to free themselves from the Tyranny of European Masters, and bring on a Revolution in Spanish America. . . . This Precedent will make way for the Protestant Religion in Mexico and old Spain.
Barely six months later, in 1790, Stiles saw the same potential all over Europe:
The Spirit of Liberty prevails and spreads in Europe. France has liberated the Monasteries and Nunneries; and given Liberty of Conscience to the Protestants. The Austrian Netherlands have declared themselves a sovereign Republic independent of the Emperor. And lest he should lose Hungary, he has made Concessions. . . . In Poland they are about rectifying their Policy so as to give Rights and Liberties to the Peasants or Body of the people which they have not enjoyed for Ages.
For Stiles, the overarching concern in all affairs—the education of his undergraduates, church government, doctrine, politics, economics, all manner of science and the arts, and much more—was this advance of biblical religion, the Reformed Christian faith. The worldwide revolutions against monarchy—a vestige of corrupt Caesaropapism—would make way for it. Not even the Pope himself was immune: “The spirit has entered Italy, and the Pope and Cardinals are in frequent Consultations how to conduct in this critical Convulsion and Struggle for Liberty. Spain and Portugal are alarmed and vigilant.” There would be no stopping the advance of God’s glory and honor, from America to the rest of the world.
For Stiles, true religion led to liberty, and only true religion could secure it. He was very zealous to extend that religion through education, and thus extend liberty.[Read the rest. . . buy the Book!]
 Edmund S. Morgan, The Gentle Puritan: The Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727–1795 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1962), 7.
 See. pp. 66–67, footnote 6.
 See p. 8.
 See p. 68.
 Edmund S. Morgan, The Gentle Puritan: The Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727–1795 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1962), 435–7.
 The phrase comes from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.20.1.
 Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 436.
 Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 435.
 Quoted in Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 435.
 Quoted in Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 435.
 Ezra Stiles, The Literary Diaries of Ezra Stiles, 3 Vols., ed. by Franklin Bowditch Dexter (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902), 3:177.
 Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 159.
 Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 443.
 Stiles, Literary Diaries, 3:35.
 Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 461.
 Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 134.
 Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 435.
 See p. 5.
 See p. 97.
 See pp. 14–15.
 See p. 25. Calvin refers to Old Testament Israel as the best model which he calls an “aristocracy bordering on democracy.” See his Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.20.8.
 See pp. 25–26.
 See p. 37.
 See pp. 37–38.
 See p. 30.
 See p. 20.
 See pp. 18, 20.
 See pp. 20.
 See p. 34.
 See p. 33.
 See p. 35.
 See pp. 91–92.
 See p. 112.
 Ezra Stiles, The Literary Diaries of Ezra Stiles, 3 Vols., ed. by Franklin Bowditch Dexter (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902), 3:267.
 Henry Knox to George Washington, October 23, 1786, quoted in Francis S. Drake, Life and Correspondence of Henry Knox (Boston: Samuel G. Drake, 1873), 92.
 Ezra Stiles to George Washington, Nov. 9, 1786, Washington Papers, Library of Congress; http://memory.loc.gov/mss/mgw/mgw4/096/0600/0633.jpg (accessed Sept. 27, 2011). See also Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 455.
 Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 455.
 Stiles, Literary Diaries, 3:267.
 Ezra Stiles to George Washington, Nov. 9, 1786, Washington Papers, Library of Congress; http://memory.loc.gov/mss/mgw/mgw4/096/0600/0633.jpg (accessed Sept. 27, 2011). See also Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 455.
 Stiles, Literary Diaries, 3:268.
 Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 458–9.
 See p. 24.
 Quoted in Morgan, The Gentle Puritan, 460.
 Stiles, Literary Diaries, 3:365.
 Stiles, Literary Diaries, 3:391–2.
 Stiles, Literary Diaries, 3:392.