Presbyterians of the Past

Ezra Stiles Ely, 1786-1861

Ezra Stiles was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, June 13, 1786, to Rev. Zebulon and Sarah Ely. Zebulon tutored his son to prepare him for college at Yale which was the haven of New England theology. Following graduation from Yale he returned home for a period of theological studies with his father. Ezra was licensed to preach by the Standing Committee of the Congregational Association of Windham on December 12, 1804 and then ordained to serve the thirty-member Congregational Church in Westchester, Colchester, near his home town. The ordination service occurred on October 1, 1806 with Ezra’s father delivering the sermon, “A Gospel Minister, Though Young, Should be Respectable by His Example,” from 1 Timothy 4:12. When Pastor Ezra Ely resigned his first charge his interest in bringing the Gospel to the poor, infirm, and disenfranchised led to his ministry as the stated preacher of the Hospital and Almshouse in New York in 1810. 

Ely became Dr. Ely in 1813 when he was honored with the Doctor of Divinity from Washington College in Tennessee, Washington County, near North Carolina. The college had grown out of an academy founded by Samuel Doak in 1785. East Tennessee was a stronghold of the New School in the South when the Presbyterians divided in 1837.

Pastor Ely’s pulpit skills contributed to his being considered by the Third Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia (Old Pine Street Church) to replace their recently resigned pastor. Having ministered in Third Church for just six years, Archibald Alexander was moving to New Jersey to become the founding professor of the seminary in Princeton. Ely accepted the call and was installed September 7, 1814, and that same year he and Mary Ann Carswell were married.

At the time of Ely’s installation the country was fighting the British in the War of 1812 and the month before Ely’s move to Philadelphia the nation had been shocked by the British burning of Washington. Dr. Ely was entering a particularly challenging ministry in two areas—filling the pulpit from which Archibald Alexander had so effectively preached to give spiritual direction, and then also providing counsel to the flock as it faced the fearful political situation in the war with Britain. The war did not last much longer and it ended with American victory, but Ely’s ministry extended over twenty years.

In June 1835, the congregation of Old Pine Street Church reluctantly concurred with Dr. Ely’s letter of resignation and the Second Presbytery dissolved the call. During Ely’s ministry the church had added 666 new members with 575 of them having joined through profession of their faith in Christ. Maybe effort to find another member somewhere on the role would have been appropriate in the light of Revelation 13:18. Why he resigned when he did was possibly influenced by the debates between the historic confessionalists known as the Old School and the New England Theology influenced group that were the New School. Also, his friend Albert Barnes was the current center of attention because of his views contrary to the Westminster Confession and he would soon be tried for heresy. Ely resigned the stated clerk’s office at about the same time he left Old Pine Street. The plan was to accept a new call, but this call would require relocating a considerable distance.

Many residents of the eastern cities were heading west with hopes for a better life with new opportunities, and Ely hoped that an opportunity in Missouri would provide him with a different type of ministry in a frontier location. So, the household left Philadelphia for Dr. Ely to become the Professor of Polemic Theology, Biblical Literature, and Sacred Criticism in Marion College which was named for Francis Marion of Revolutionary War fame. The college was located on land just a few miles west of the Mississippi River and its curriculum included not only traditional subjects but also vocational training. Marion was operated by Presbyterians and a congregation was formed on the campus with the first members received in May 1836. The next year the Old School and New School officially separated resulting in Ely becoming a member of the St. Charles Presbytery, Synod of Missouri, New School. Despite Ely’s polemical work against the New England theology, A Contrast between Calvinism and Hopkinsianism, earlier in his life, he found his church home in the New School. The time in Missouri was challenging with Marion College struggling. Its founder and president, David Nelson (1793-1844), a Tennessean, was fired in 1836 for his abolitionist preaching in the local church in the slavery-torn border state. During 1842 both Ely’s mother and Mary Ann died. The next year Dr. Ely married Caroline Holmes of Virginia, so it appears that he left Marion College by 1843.

In the spring of 1844 Ely was back in Philadelphia where he took charge of the First Presbyterian Church of the Northern Liberties, Third Philadelphia Presbytery, New School. His ministry was limited due to health problems, but he preached when he was able until a stroke paralyzed him in August 1851. For almost a decade he survived with the limitations produced by the stroke. Ezra Stiles Ely, D.D., passed away June 18, 1861. His close friend Albert Barnes preached the funeral. The Barnes heresy case had been one of the wedges that split the Presbyterian rock in 1837. The church had failed to convict Barnes for his views that included among others, denial of the foundational doctrines of original sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

Ezra and Mary Ann had three daughters and four sons, and then when he married Caroline there were two daughters and three sons added with the Ely surname. Caroline survived him. He had been a member of the Board of Trustees of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia for several years. His service as stated clerk was from 1825 until 1835, and in 1828 he vacated the clerk’s chair to take the moderator’s gavel. He was a director of Princeton Seminary, 1822-1836. Alfred Nevin, in his Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian Church, described Ely as a man “of a mercurial temperament, which was never completely overcome, in or out of the pulpit. No one went to sleep under his preaching.” Dr. Ely is a particuarly interesting figure in that his early ministry included refuting aspects of the New England Theology and succeeding the Old School seminary founder Archibald Alexander in the Old Pine Street pulpit, but then he was sympathetic to the New School as seen in his friendship with Albert Barnes and then when the Presbyterians split–Ely was a member of the New School.


Note that in some cases the middle name of Ely is spelled either one of two ways, “Styles” or “Stiles.” The Marion College Church Register from the church in Philadelphia, Missouri, covers the dates 1836-1857, and is available in the Missouri Digital Heritage collection of the Secretary of State of Missouri. See “Synod of Pennsylvania Minutes, New School, 1865” on this site which includes a brief description of the views of the Old School and New School.

Sources include Dictionary of Early American Philosophers; the series Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College: With Annals of the College History, vol. 5, part 2, June 1792-September 1805, Franklin Bowditch Dexter, 1885; Hughes Oliphant Gibbons, A History of Old Pine Street, Being the Record of an Hundred and Forty Years in the Life of a Colonial Church, Philadelphia, 1905. The NYPL Digital Collection provided the signed portrait of Ely, and the map of Missouri is from Campbell’s New Atlas of Missouri, 1873.

Publications by Ezra Stile Ely

A Sermon for the Rich to Buy, that they may Benefit themselves and the Poor, New York, 1810, the text is Revelation 14:13.

A Contrast between Calvinism and Hopkinsianism, New York, 1811.

The Journal of the Stated Preacher to the Hospital and Almshouse, in the City of New York, for the Year of Our Lord 1811, New York, 1812, provides some of Ely’s experiences working among the poor, and it was republished in London in 1813 with the title Visits of Mercy. Then, The Second Journal of the Stated Preacher to the Hospital and Almshouse, in the City of New York, for a part of the Year of our Lord 1813, Philadelphia, 1815, was published. These two journals were reprinted in later years in American editions as a two-volume set titled Visits of Mercy.

Ten Sermons on Faith, Philadelphia, 1816.

The Quarterly Theological Review. Conducted by the Rev. E. S. Ely, D.D., Philadelphia, 1818-1819, 2 volumes.

A Synopsis of Didactic Theology, Philadelphia, 1822.

Memoirs of the Rev. Zebulon Ely, A.M. of Lebanon, Connecticut; Compiled from his Own Writings, Philadelphia, 1825.

Retrospective Theology, or the Opinions of the World of Spirits, Philadelphia, 1825.

A Discourse Delivered at the Opening of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, on the 21st of May, A.D. 1829; this was his retiring moderator’s sermon during the General Assembly in 1829. His Scripture text was Romans 15:19.

A particularly involved project for publication was The Collateral Bible; or, A Key to the Holy Scriptures…[etc.], 1826-1828, which is a three-volume work that has inserted the full text of verses from other portions of the Bible associated with the subject verse (see Hathi Trust for the set).

Conversations on the Science of the Human Mind, 1819.

Zebulun Ely’s sermon at his son Ezra’s ordination was published in A Gospel Minister, Though Young, Should be Respectable by his Example. A Sermon, Delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Ezra Stiles Ely, to the Pastoral Care of the Church in West-Chester, in Colchester, October 1, 1806.

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