Porter, Noah


Fortunate is the man who has back of him an ancestry honorable and distinguished and happy is he if his lines of life are cast in harmony therewith. In person, in talent and in character Dr. Noah Porter was the scion of a distinguished race and his own life record added new laurels to an honored name. He ranked with the eminent scholars that America has produced and as the eleventh president of Yale he promoted the standards of an institution which has been the pride of America since its foundation.

A native of Connecticut, Dr. Porter was born at Farmington, in Hartford county, December ]4, 1811. His father, Rev. Noah Porter, D. D., was also a native of Farmington, his natal year being 1781. He was graduated from Yale University with the highest honors as a member of the class of 1803 and in 1806 he was ordained pastor of the Congregational church in Farmington, administering that charge until his demise in 1866. He was a man of exalted Christian character, zealous and devout, and a theologian of rare learning. It was in his study at Farmington on the 5th of September, 1810, that the American Board of Com-missioners for Foreign Missions was organized and held its first meeting. For more than a generation he was a member of the Corporation of Yale College and during the greater part of the time served upon its most important committees. He married Mehitable Meigs, who also passed away in Farmington, where both were laid to rest. Their children included Samuel Porter, who was a well known educator, winning world-wide fame in connection with his professorship in the National Deaf Mute College at Washington, D. C. Another member of the family, Miss Sarah Porter, was the founder of the Porter School of Farmington, Connecticut.

Dr. Noah Porter, also of this family, received his early training under Simeon Hart, who was principal of the Farmington Academy, and for a short period was under the instruction of John H. Lathrop, who was afterward chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Porter likewise studied under the direction of Elisha N. Sill. In 1824 an arrangement was made with his uncle, Dr. Humphrey, president of Amherst College, whereby he was received into the family of Dr. Humphrey, one of whose sons took the place of Noah Porter in the home at Farmington. This was an arrangement common among New England families at that period. While at the home of his uncle Dr. Porter studied under the direction of Ebenezer Snell, who afterward became professor of natural philosophy in Amherst College. He also spent a term or two in the school at Middletown, Connecticut, and when sixteen years of age he became a freshman in Yale College, matriculating as a member of the class of 1831, which possessed an unusual number of students of marked ability. He took high rank as a scholar and his course during his college days won him the high esteem of the authorities of the university, while at the same time he had the confidence and friendship of his classmates, among whom he formed many warm attachments that proved lifelong.

Following his graduation Dr. Porter became the rector of the Ancient Latin school in New Haven, which had been founded in 1660 and which is known as the Hopkins grammar school. There he won an enviable record for his ability as an instructor and especially for his success in administering discipline in a school which was proverbially unruly. In 1833 he was elected tutor in Yale and served in that capacity for two years as the Greek instructor of the somewhat famous class of 1837. While tutoring there he pursued the regular course in theology in the Yale Divinity School under Dr. Nathaniel W. Taylor and in April, 1836, was ordained to the ministry, after which he became pastor of the Congregational church in New Milford, Connecticut, one of the largest churches in the state. For nearly seven years he remained as its pastor and became recognized as one of the eminent divines of New England. It was while settled in the country parish that he began his writings, which were published so extensively in the leading periodicals of the day and which attracted to him wide attention as an original and vigorous thinker on theological and philosophical subjects.

In the same year in which he accepted his pastorate at New Milford, Dr. Porter was married in New Haven to Miss Mary Taylor, a daughter of the Rev. Nathaniel W. Taylor, D. D., of that city. They became the parents of four children: Martha Day, who resides at the old family home on Hillhouse avenue; Rebecca Taylor, deceased; Nathaniel Taylor, who died in early childhood; and Sarah, who died just before reaching womanhood.

In 1843 Dr. Porter left New Milford to become pastor of the South Congregational church at Springfield, Massachusetts, where he remained for four years. In 1846 he was called to the professorship of mental and moral philosophy in Yale and after occupying that chair for twenty-five years, on the resignation of Professor Woolsey in 1871, Dr. Porter was elected president and entered upon his duties as the head of the institution. It was considered at that time a very fortunate circumstance that a president was secured who was acquainted with all the traditions of the college and was in thorough sympathy with them. His views on the subject of collegiate education were set forth in his inaugural address and in his writing on American colleges. His ideas were conservative although he was by no means indisposed to seek for improvements on the past, as is shown by the fact that during his administration very important changes were made in the methods of instruction. During his presidency the college prospered exceedingly, several costly buildings were erected and the corps of instructors was much enlarged. The department of philosophy and the arts was reconstructed so as to include instruction for graduate students and the different departments of the college were officially recognized by the corporation, having "attained to the form of an university." Dr. Porter continued as president of Yale until 1886, when he was succeeded by Dr. Dwight. However, he retained his professor-ship of philosophy and maintained his active interest in the university up to the time of his death.

He was a most clear and virile thinker and as a writer was indefatigable. His work covered the widest range and a complete bibliography includes at least one hundred and twenty-seven separate volumes, essays, reports and lectures, including his works on "The Human Intellect"; "Books and Reading"; "Science and Sentiment"; "Elements of Moral Science"; "Life of Bishop Berkeley"; and "Kant's Ethics," a critical exposition. He also edited the successive editions of Webster's Dictionary from 1847 until his death. His repu-tation as a philosopher and theologian was world-wide, while his knowledge of the classics, of New England history and of English etymology was exceptionally deep. He also published in 1840 a "Historical Discourse in Commemoration of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Settlement of Farmington," and he was the author of the "Educational System of the Puritans and the Jesuits," published in 1851, and a "Review of the Philosophy of Herbert Spencer" and "Evangeline," published in 1882.

Dr. Porter was undeniably one of America's most scholarly metaphysicians. His labors as a lexicographer in connection with the revision of the second and later editions of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary of the English language were very arduous and brought him great fame as well as universal recognition of his scholarly attainments. The degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred upon him by the University of the City of New York in 1858 and that of Doctor of Laws by the Western Reserve College in 1870, by Trinity College of Connecticut in 1871 and by the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1886. After coming to New Haven, Dr. Porter located with his family on Hillhouse avenue, where his wife passed away April 14, 1888, while his death occurred on the 4th of March, 1892, their remains being interred in the Taylor family lot in the Grove Street cemetery. His record reflected the utmost credit upon the city of his residence and the state of his nativity and "When the weary wheels of life at length stood still" he left to his state a priceless legacy in his contribution to the literature of the world and in the effective work which he had done for the upbuilding of one of America's greatest educational institutions. There was nothing spectacular in such a career, but the seeds of thought which germinated through the stimulus of his efforts, becoming a living thing. will have their influence upon the world's history through all the cycles of the centuries.

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A Modern History of New Haven
Eastern New Haven County
Volume II
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The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company
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Anne Taylor-Czaplewski
May 2002