During the Great Awakening, Jonathan Dickinson and his colleagues made plans to found a college to train Presbyterian ministers. Today, Stephen Nichols introduces us to the first president of Princeton University.
Welcome back to another episode of 5 Minutes in Church History. On this episode, we are returning to a favorite subject of mine, Princeton University, in the old Log College. Well, here’s a question for you. How did we go from the Log College, which was over in Warminster, Pennsylvania, it was founded by William Tenet, how did we go from the Log College to Princeton University? Well, the answer is Jonathan Dickinson. Who is Jonathan Dickinson? Well, he was born in 1688 in Hatfield, Massachusetts. He was among the first students enrolled at the brand-new Yale University, and he graduated in 1706. And then he moved to Elizabethtown, New Jersey. It’s up near the New York border. It’s about 35 miles northwest of Princeton. These days, it’s simply known as Elizabeth, New Jersey. But back when it was Elizabethtown, Dickinson was there from 1709 on until his death in 1747. He was both minister and doctor in town.
He had studied two out of the three fields of study at Yale. He studied both medicine and divinity, and my hunch is he also studied a little bit of the third field, law. This church in Elizabethtown where he ministered was a congregationalist church, but Dickinson persuaded them to join the Philadelphia Presbytery in 1717. The Philadelphia Presbytery was the very first presbytery in America. Dickinson had a particular emphasis. He was concerned about nominalism. He saw it in the Anglican Church, especially in New Jersey. He saw it in the congregational churches in New Jersey and up in New England, and he even feared for it in these early Presbyterian churches. In addition to confessional subscription, Dickinson stressed conversion, and as a minister was going through ordination, Dickinson wanted to know and hear the candidate testify to his conversion, and he wanted ministers to preach for conversion. Well, along came the Great Awakening, 1741 to 1742.
We often hear of George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards as key figures in the Great Awakening. But Jonathan Dickinson was a significant figure as well, and the Great Awakening was a significant moment in the life of American Presbyterianism. It actually caused a division among early American Presbyterians and created on the one hand, the old side Presbyterians, they were opposed to the Awakening, and the new side Presbyterians, they were for the Great Awakening. As you can imagine, Dickinson was on the new side of Presbyterianism. He and a few of his colleagues wanted to found a new college to train Presbyterian ministers and the ways of New Side Presbyterianism. They petitioned the governor of New Jersey to open this college. The governor at that time was very Anglican, and so he outright denied their petition. They tried again under a new governor, and in 1746 opened the College of New Jersey. It was housed in the parsonage of Jonathan Dickinson and Elizabethtown, New Jersey.
He was indeed the first president. He was only in office for about a year. He died in 1747. That year, the College of New Jersey moved to Newark, and it was housed in the parsonage of Aaron Burr, who was the second president of the College of New Jersey. In 1756, the College of New Jersey would move to its new home, Princeton. Princeton was centrally located in the state. It was midway between New York City and Philadelphia. It was a great spot for a college and there the College of New Jersey became known as Princeton University. Aaron Burr died in 1757 and the next president? That’s right, Jonathan Edwards, third president of Princeton. But the first president was Jonathan Dickinson, the man who’s responsible for this transition from the Log College, founded by William Tenet to Princeton University over in Princeton. Well, that’s the story of Jonathan Dickinson. And I’m Steve Nichols, and thanks for joining us for 5 Minutes in Church History.