Williams College President 1821-1836
To many people in 1821, Edward Dorr Griffin was considered the savior of Williams College. There had been many debates regarding whether or not Williams College should be removed from its present location to Northampton. The presidency of the college had been offered to two prominent men from other institutions, but both had declined. No one thought that someone of such importance as Edward Dorr Griffin would accept the presidency of a college that seemingly had no future. But Griffin was present at Commencement 1821 and spoke to the crowd of students, a sparse crowd for many young men had already left Williams for the new Amherst Collegiate Institution.
Griffin was born in 1770 in East Haddam, Connecticut, the son of a farmer. Since he was almost constantly sick during his childhood, he was always at school. When he was sixteen, Griffin entered Yale, graduating in 1790 as the school’s first Phi Beta Kappa student. He studied theology under Jonathan Edwards, and completed his Doctorate of Divinity from Union College in 1808.
Griffin was made head of gospel ministry in Newark and was later inaugurated as the Professor of Sacred Rhetoric in the Theological Seminary at Andover. He would become well known, even while president of Williams, as a revivalist, and he brought this fervor to Williamstown and the college. Griffin claimed that the new interest in religion that sprouted up among the Williams students in 1825 was a clear sign that God wanted the school to stay where it was, so he held a giant revival. During his years at Williams, he also encouraged the growth of missionaries, believing that ” it would be the duty of all the Christians in America to go in a body to carry (the pagan) the gospel.”
There were only two professors at the college when Griffin arrived: one who wanted to move elsewhere, and the other with his “foot in the grave” with severe consumption. Griffin was determined to save the failing college, however. He raised $25,000 to keep the college afloat, and hired two professors who would become emblematic of the institution: Mark Hopkins and his brother, Albert Hopkins. Griffin also left his mark on the campus in the form of the college chapel, a building completed in 1828 and later named Griffin Hall. Some believe that he was responsible for the design of the building, but there is no proof to support this speculation.
President Griffin was described by many admirers as a “striking man,” “full six foot three in height? without any undue obesity,” all adding up to a very commanding presence. Griffin gained the respect of townspeople and demanded respect of Williams College students. If any young man should fail to look Griffin in the face during one of his Sunday sermons or fall asleep during the service, Griffin reprimanded or awakened the student by name.
In early 1836, President Griffin notified the college trustees of his failing health and resigned the following August. Edward Dorr Griffin died in Newark, New Jersey in 1837.
By Elizabeth O’Grady