« PreviousContinue »
SAMUEL JOHNSON, D. D., the first president of King's (now Columbia,) College, New York, was born at Guilford, Conn., Oct. .14th, 1696. His father and grandfather were both residents of Guilford, and both deacons of the congregational church in that town. great-grandfather, Robert Johnson, was one of the original settlers 0. New Haven. From a very early age, he manifested a great fondness for books, and his father, after a trial of four or five years, finding it impossible to reconcile him to the idea of business, finally complied with his earnest wishes, and allowed him to prepare to enter Yale College, then recently organized. He fitted for college under Mr. Eliot, who afterward settled at Killingworth, as a preacher. Mr. Chapman, who succeeded Mr. Eliot as a teacher, at Guilford, and Mr. James, a very eminent scholar of Guilford. At the age of fourteen, he entered Yale College, then located at Saybrook, receiving instruction from Messrs. Noyes and Fisk, at that time tutors in the college, as the rector of the college, Mr. Andrew, then resided at Milford, and only instructed the senior class. In 1714, he took the degree of A. B., having, in addition to the ordinary college studies, made some progress in Hebrew.
The early part of the eighteenth century was a period of great depression to all the interests of learning in New England. The emi. nent scholars of the early emigration were dead, and most of those who came over, at the period of the restoration, had also passed away; since the revolution of 1688, the causes which had led to emigration had been removed, and more returned to England than came from thence; the generation upon the stage at the time of Mr. Johnson's graduation, were almost entirely educated in this country ; and, though the course of study at Harvard College was respectable for the time, and the circumstances of a colony, whose existence was yet numbered by decades of years, yet it was far from being up to the standard of European culture. Yale College had maintained a sort of nomade existence, for some thirteen years; its trustees were among the most eminent scholars of the colony, and they were disposed to do what they could to make it a reputable school of learning; but its course of instruction was extremely limited. At the time Mr. Johnson took his degree, all that was attempted, in the way of classical learning, was the reading of five or six of Cicero's orations, as many books of Virgil, and a part of the Hebrew Psalter. In matbematics, only common arithmetic, and a little surveying were taught; in logic, metaphysics and ethics, the doctrines of the schoolmen still held sway, and Descartes, Boyle, Locke, Newton, and Bacon, were regarded as innovators, from whom no good could be expected or hoped. In theology, Ames' " Medulla,” and “ Cases of Conscience," and “ Wollebius," were the standards.
With, perhaps a pardonable vanity, Mr. Johnson, who had stood very high as a scholar in his class, regarded bimself as possessing superior attainments ; but his good opinion of his own abilities was very suddenly lowered, when, a year or two later, chance threw in his way, a copy of Lord Bacon's “ Advancement of Learning," then a very rare book in this country. Humbled by the sense of his own ignorance, which that book gave him, he was still much enlightened by it, and, to use his own language," seemed to bimself like a person suddenly emerging out of the glimmer of twilight, into the full sunshine of open day." His mind being thus prepared for further culture, he soon had an opportunity for its subsequent development. A collection of books made in England by Mr. Dummer, the agent of the colony, amounting to about eight bundred volumes, was sent over to the college. Among them were the works of Sir Isaac Newton, Blackman, Steele, Burnet, Woodward, Halley, Bentley, Kennet, Barrow, Patrick, South, Tillotson, Sharp, Scott, and Whitby. To a mind, as earnest as was his to acquire knowledge, these books furnished indeed “a feast of fat things.” In company with Messrs. Cutler, Eliot, Hart, Whittelsey, and his classmates, Wetmore and Brown, he devoted all his leisure to their perusal.
Meantime, the college was in great danger of extinction. The students, complaining of the unfitness of their tutors, scattered themselves in different parts of the colony, studying under such teachers as they chose; a part, including those living in the vicinity of Connecticut River, placed themselves under the direction of Messrs. Woodbridge and Buckingham, the ministers at Hartford, who were trustees of the college, and at their instigation, Messrs. Williams and Smith, two young ministers, were persuaded to set up a collegiate school at Wethersfield, in the hope of obtaining a removal of the college thither; and to this school, the students of the river towns resorted. Those belonging to the towns on the sea-shore, put themselves under the tuition of Mr. Johnson, at Guilford.
Under these circumstances, a meeting of the trustees was held, in the spring of 1716; a majority of the trustees present, as well as the governor, Mr. Saltonstall, of New London, were in favor of establishing the college at New Haven; but the minority were very bitter in their opposition, and a vote was passed, referring the matter to the general court, which was to be held at New Haven, in October of that year. This meeting of the trustees was not attended by Messrs. Woodbridge and Buckingham, the Hartford ministers, and they protested against its legality and its action.
At the meeting of the general court, (or colonial legislature,) a majority of the members of both houses were found to be in favor o. establishing the college at New Haven, and an act of assembly was passed for that purpose. The majority of the trustees then met, and appointed Mr. Johnson, who was then but twenty years of age, one of the tutors, and, with a view of reconciling the minority, selected Mr. Smith, one of the Wethersfield teachers, as the other. They also commenced a subscription to obtain the means of erecting a college building, and procured an architect from Boston, to oversee the building
The minority, however, were inexorable; Mr. Smith and all his party refusing to consider any overtures for a union, and the Wethersfield school was maintained. The students along the sea-coast, about twenty in number, came together at New Haven, and Mr. Johnson began his course of instruction there, assisted by Mr. Noyes, the minister of the town. On the 12th September, 1717, a commencement was held at New Haven, and the same day at Wethersfield, and degrees were conferred in both places. The trustees at New Haven, chose Mr. Brown, a classmate of Mr. Johnson, as a second tutor. Harmonizing fully in their views, these two young men exerted themselves to the utmost, for the improvement of the students under their charge, extending the course of mathematical study, introducing the works of Locke and Sir Isaac Newton, into the college course, and substituting the Copernican for the Ptolemanic system, which had hitherto been taught. It was a fortunate circumstance for them, that the troubles without, withdrew public attention from these innovations within. The succeeding year, (1718,) the trouble which had existed between the two parties at New Haven and Wethersfield, was settled by & compromise. The degrees given at Wethersfield were confirmed ; a tract of land belonging to the colony was sold, and of the avails £200 currency, was given to the college at New Haven, and £800 currency to Hartford, toward the erection of a state house, as an offset for the loss of the college. As a result of this settlement, the Wethersfield students came to New Haven, and though somewhat turbulent, there was but little subsequent trouble with them.
The same year, Rev. Timothy Cutler, at that time pastor of the congregational church in Stratford, and an intimate friend of Mr. Johnson, was chosen rector of the college, and having received a very liberal donation from Elibu Yale, of London, the trustees gave to their new building, the name of Yale College. In a little more than a year after the appointment of Mr. Cutler to the rectorship, Mr. Johnson resigned his tutorship, to enter upon the duties of the pastorate, and was ordained and settled at West Haven in March, 1720, rejecting several more eligible offers, in order that he might be near the college, and have the advantage of its library, and the society of its teachers.
Of the change which soon after took place in his religious views, and which led him, and several of his friends, to seek ordination in the Anglican church, it is not our province here to speak at length; it was unquestionably the result of an honest, conscientious, and sincere belief in the error of his previous creed, and when we consider that its result was to cut him off from the sympathy and regard of all his previous friends, and to deprive him of the fairest opportunities of preferment and reputation, which were ever perhaps offered to a young man in his position, we can not avoid doing honor to the moral courage which led to the step, however we may regard the creed he adopted. Suffice it to say, that in November, 1722, rector Cutler and Mr. Brown, having resigned their offices, set sail in company with Mr. Johnson, for England, to receive ordination from an English bishop. Mr. Wetmore, another classmate of Mr. Johnson, followed, a few months later. In March, 1723, they were ordained by the Bishop of Norwich, and the week after Mr. Brown died of the small pox.
In May, Mr. Cutler received the degree of Doctor of Divinity, and Mr. Johnson, of Master of Arts, from the University of Oxford, and soon after, the same degrees were conferred on them by the University of Cambridge. Dr. Cutler and Mr. Johnson returned to this country, in the summer of 1723, and Mr. Johnson, having received an appointment as missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, settled over the Episcopal church, at Stratford, Conn. The change in his views subjected him to considerable opposition, but his equable temper, his cheerful and benevolent disposition, and the marked purity and dignity of his character, disarmed the enmity of those who opposed him, and caused the people to esteem him highly. In 1725, he married Mrs. Charity Nicoll, the daughter of Col. Richard Floyd, and widow of Benjamin Nicoll, Esq., of Long Island, by whom she had had two sons and a daughter.
It was the fortune of Mr. Johnson to be on terms of intimacy and correspondence, with many of the most eminent scholars of his day, both in England and this country. Among the most intimate of his friends, at this period of his life, was Governor Burnett of New York, a son of the celebrated Bishop of that name, and a man of great learning and genius, but eccentric both in his views and his mode of reasoning. The Governor having embraced the opinions of Clarke, Whiston, and others, on the subject of the Trioity, and of Bishop Hoadley, Jackson and Sykes, on the subject of ecclesiastical authority, sought to win his friend Johnson to his views. Mr. Johnson's mental habits were such, that he would neither receive or reject any theory or doctrine, until he had carefully and patiently examined it on all sides; and he accordingly bent all his fine powers to the investigation of the questions discussed by the authors already named; the result was to confirm him in his previous views, though with a large charity for those who differed from him in opinion. In 1729, soon after the conclusion of this investigation, Bishop Berkeley, then dean of Derry, Ireland, came to this country, and resided for two and a half years near Newport, R. I. During his residence here, Mr. Johnson often visited him and was on terms of close intimacy with him, and often in his after life referred to these interviews, as having been of great advantage to him, in the improvement of his mind, by free intercourse with so eminent a scholar, and philosopher. When the Dean was about leaving America, Mr. Johnson paid him a final visit, and in the course of conversation, took occasion to commend to his notice Yale College as a deserving institution, and to express the hopo that he might send the college some books. The commendation was remembered ; two years after, the Dean and some of his friends sent to the college a present of nearly a thousand volumes of choice books, two hundred and sixty of them folios. The value of this gift was not less than two thousand five hundred dollars. About the same time he forwarded to Mr. Johnson, a deed conveying to the trustees, his farm of ninety-six acres on Rhode Island, the annual income of which was to be divided between three bachelors of arts, who, upon examination by the rector of the college, and a minister of the church ou England, should appear to be the best classical scholars; provided they would reside at the college, the three years between their bachelor's and master's degrees, in the prosecution of their studies; and the forfeiture, in cases of non-residence, were to be given in premiums of books, to those that performed the best exercises. For many years after the return of Bishop Berkeley, to England, Mr. Johnson's life passed smoothly, in the performance of his parochial duties, and