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Nathaniel W. Taylor

Nathaniel TaylorNathaniel W. Taylor presided over the creation of the Yale Divinity School and created what came to be known as "New Haven theology." Taylor had been among those mentored most closely by Dwight: "Professor Taylor considered himself the spiritual and theological child of President Dwight" (145). In 1822, the Yale Divinity School was created, and Nathaniel W. Taylor was appointed its first professor, to the "Dwight Professorship of Didactic Theology" (146). He became "the central figure in the Seminary, in the minds of the students" (147).

One of Taylor's official functions was to preside over the Divinity School's "Rhetorical Society," a debating group attended by the entire student body. An evening would be framed with a question. Two sides would debate it, the presiding officer (Nathaniel W. Taylor) would decide a winner. The students assembled would then vote for or against the presiding officer's decision.

The following questions were debated. The opinion of the "President" is here always that of Nathaniel W. Taylor; the opinion of the "Society" is that of the students' reaction. Through these debates, which occurred as late as 1853, less than a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War, Taylor shaped a generation of Yale students.

Here are some of the recorded disputations (148):

October 19, 1842
Does the greatest good of the greatest number justify the continuance of slavery at the South?

In view of his present knowledge the President [Taylor] was rather of the opinion that the greatest good of the greatest numbers justified the further continuance of the system. The Society ... declined voting on either side--and in compliance with a wish of the President to vote--voted that they did not know.

November 22, 1843
Does the greatest good of the greatest number justify the continuance of slavery at the South?

President-"Perhaps it may";
The Society did not vote.

December 6, 1848
Does the greatest good of the greatest number justify the continuance of slavery at the South?

President-Affirmative ... Society sustains him.

January 22, 1845
Is it right to assist a slave to run away?

President-negative; Society-negative.

October 15, 1851
Has Slavery in this country been, on the whole, an evil?

President, negative . . . but not confirmed by the Society, which seemed to be nearly equally divided in opinion. At a late hour (not far from half past 10pm) the Society adjourned.

October 27, 1852
Is the Fugitive Slave Law contrary to the Law of God?

President-negative; Society-negative.

January 12, 1853
Is Uncle Tom's Cabin a valid argument against Slavery?

Negative-President and Society.

The most surprising aspect of these debates is their date and their location. They were held inside Yale and were led by Nathaniel W. Taylor, who then presided over the Yale Divinity School and supported slavery into the 1850s. The majority of the students often (though not always) reaffirmed his support for slavery. Late in life, Taylor's support for slavery decreased, and two years before he died he stood up publicly and supported efforts to prevent Kansas from being admitted as a slave state.

The Taylor debates were not the first time that Yale faculty led debates announcing an "official" position in support of slavery. As early as 1768, the following question was used for the final disputations for the M.A. degree:

An mancipia sub servitute perpetua retinere liceat?
Translation: Is one allowed to sell a person into slavery forever?

The correct answer to this question must have been "Yes," for Ezra Stiles received a letter of objection, stating "I do not like it that they should publickly assert ye lawfulness of keeping slaves." (149)

Trained by Timothy Dwight, both Nathaniel W. Taylor and Moses Stuart became public figures and educators who used their positions at Andover and Yale to further their pro-slavery ideologies as late as the 1850s, the decade just prior to the Civil War.




Yale Divinity School

Nathaniel W. Taylor

Moses Stuart

Leonard Bacon


Numbers in parentheses refer to notes. See the notes page.