Yale’s Amazing Origins

Rev. Tony Cooke

Many in America are watching, with concern, events that are happening on many university campuses. To help prepare for an upcoming trip to Connecticut, and hopefully to the Yale campus, I just read Two Centuries of Christian Activity at Yale. Yale was established in 1701 – this book was published in 1901 and addresses events during the school’s first two hundred years. Here are some highlights.

  • “Yale College was founded by Christian ministers in the interest of education, but especially of religious education, in order that there might be an adequate supply of Christian ministers. For the first century no less than forty per cent, of its graduates became ministers of the Gospel.”
  • Yale’s seal “…is the open Bible with the Hebrew words for light and truth printed across it.”
  • “The charter of Yale established, not simply a theological seminary, but a training-school in Christian manhood. The trustees affirmed that it was their obligation, as it had been that of their fathers, to propagate in this wilderness the blessed reformed Protestant religion, in the purity of its order and worship…”
  • There were written rules of the college which ordered that “Every student shall exercise himself in reading Holy Scriptures by himself every day that the word of Christ may dwell in him richly and that he may be filled with the knowledge of the will of God in all wisdom and spiritual understanding,” and that “Seeing God is the giver of all wisdom every student shall, beside secret prayer, wherein everyone is bound to ask wisdom for himself, be present morning and evening at public prayer.”
  • “It was Jonathan Edwards, a graduate of Yale, who, in 1734, at his church in Northampton, decided, in spite of the protests of many friends, to no longer preach about Christ, but to preach Christ. His own religious experience, which dated from his college years, was the predominant note in his preaching. Edwards’s vivid appeal to the consciences of his hearers inaugurated a revival in his parish which resulted in the conversion of three hundred persons in six months. It was the beginning of the Great Awakening.”
  • The great evangelist George Whitefield also preached at Yale. “His message, delivered with great plainness in the power of God’s Spirit, that church membership does not necessarily save and that men must be born again or not see the Kingdom of God, struck terror to the hearts of thousands whose sole religion was form and creed. Whitefield’s visit awakened the students of Yale.”
  • Speaking of Whitefield’s ministry in general, the authors state that “Whitefield also possessed the unusual gift for a man of his training, of making his message intelligible to the uneducated as well as to men of letters. So popular was his preaching and so crowded the assemblies that he frequently had to be passed up over the heads of his audiences to the platform from which he was to preach.
  • David Brainerd was expelled from Yale in 1741 when he told one of the tutors that he “had no more grace than a chair.” Brainerd went on to become a renowned missionary to the Indians of Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
  • In spite of its rich spiritual heritage, the authors describe a dismal period in the late 1700’s when “French infidelity” had made significant inroads to the student body of Yale and led to a condition where “not over one in ten openly professed religion.” It was in this climate that Timothy Dwight, a godly, Bible-believing man became the new president of the college. He began holding discussions on the topic of “Is the Bible the Word of God.” He invited those critical of Scripture to state their arguments, “and told them to do their best. He heard all they had to say, answered them, and there was an end. He preached incessantly for six months on the subject, and all infidelity skulked and hid its head.”
  • “In the early spring of 1802 the effects of the great national revival, which had commenced in 1797 in Kentucky and Tennessee and soon spread over the whole country, began to be felt at Yale. Students entered the college from states which had been touched by it. A little body of young men agreed to meet day by day in earnest prayer that the college might be included in the general awakening.” The book goes on to state, “It was in the same revival that Benjamin Silliman, then a tutor at Yale, was converted. A letter to his mother under date of June in 1802, records the state of the college during the revival. ‘Yale college is a little temple: prayer and praise seem to be the delight of the greater part of the students while those who are still unfeeling are awed into respectful silence.’”
  • D. L. Moody only had a fifth-grade education, yet he made a great impact on his several visits to Yale. “At Yale Mr. Moody’s manly, genuine, whole-souled personality won the students, while his preaching went straight to their hearts. A large crowd remained to the after-meeting in the chapel… For over twenty years after this first visit, until his death, Mr. Moody came to Yale at intervals, never failing to gain the respect and love of all who heard him in each succeeding college generation.”

While Two Centuries of Christian Activity at Yale only covers the years 1701-1901, it reminds us of how much can happen over the decades and centuries. My takeaway is that we must carefully examine what we have received and ask if we are stewarding well what has been entrusted to us. I don’t study history for the sake of being nostalgic or to dwell on the past but in order to learn how we can be more effective and more faithful today.

It is great to know what God and faithful people have done in the past, but we must ask how God is leading us today, and what are his assignments for us now. It is true that Jesus said, “Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take away your crown” (Revelation 3:11), but we should not simply be on the defensive. We must pray, seek, explore, and embrace new pathways in evangelism, missions, and church planting.
In closing, here are some quotes about learning from the past, but moving forward as well.

“We ought not to look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from the past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.”
– George Washington

“You do not move ahead by constantly looking in a rear-view mirror. The past is a rudder to guide you, not an anchor to drag you. We must learn from the past but not live in the past.”
– Warren W. Wiersbe

“When one door closes another door opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the ones which open for us.”
– Alexander Graham Bell

“How you see your future is much more important than what has happened in the past.”
– Zig Ziglar