(1815-1821) Moore, Zephaniah Swift

Williams College President 1815-1821

Zephaniah Swift Moore, the second president of Williams College, was born in 1770 in Palmer, Mass.  When young Zephaniah was eight years old, his father, Lieutenant Judah Moore, moved the family to Wilmington, Vermont, a remote town where it was difficult to get quality schooling.  The Moores had always been respected for their intelligence and guidance, and they wanted their inquisitive and bright son to have a strong education so that he could go on to college.  In the 1780’s, it was impossible for a young man to get into college without knowing Greek and Latin, so Moore’s parents sold their oxen so that their son could attend “Clio Hall,” a preparatory school located in Bennington, Vermont. After learning Greek and Latin in Bennington, Zephaniah went to New Hampshire to attend Dartmouth in 1789.

Upon graduating, Moore felt strong urges to preach and teach, so he began to study preaching and Hebrew under Rev. Dr. Backus in Connecticut.  He attained some success as a preacher, filling the pulpit of a Presbyterian church in Leicester, Mass. for eleven years, but never decided to make preaching his chosen profession.  Moore’s sermons affected his listeners greatly, for “his voice, though not loud, was clear and pleasant, and in animated conversation and in the pulpit pitched upon the tenor key.”  One could tell that he felt very passionately about what he was sermonizing because he would begin to talk more rapidly and his voice would become “shrill and tremulous” and full of emotion.

In 1811, Zephaniah was called upon to return to his alma mater and become a professor of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.  This stay at Dartmouth was short, for he was elected by contingency to the presidency of Williams College in 1815.  The College was failing and it looked like it was on the verge of being relocated closer to the Connecticut River Valley.  When Moore accepted the offer, “he stated at length that, at the time he accepted the presidency, he had no idea that the College was to remain in Williamstown, but had all the while supposed that it was to be removed someplace in Hampshire County.” Moore became a highly successful disciplinarian and a popular president, all the while believing that “the college could not flourish in this narrow valley, and his expressions never wavered in regard to its removal.”  He supported one proposal that Williams join Amherst Academy in Amherst, and he was always involved in Trustee discussions that concerned the removal of the college.

In August of 1819, resolutions of the Board of Trustees were accepted to move the college to Northampton, but a meeting of Berkshire gentlemen in October countered with a statement that Williams College remain in Williamstown.  The citizens of the town and Berkshire County appealed to the State Legislature and proceeded to raise $17,500 to support the college.  In 1820, the Trustees wrote to the Legislature, “nine out of twelve of the present trustees, are decidedly of the opinion that the interests of the College would be greatly promoted by the removal; and that it will languish, and expire, in its present location.”  But even the majority vote could not move Williams from its spot, and the State Legislature announced that it was “unlawful” to remove such an institution to another location.

Seeing that the College was going to remain in Williamstown, Moore gave his resignation to the Board of Trustees on July 17, 1821, commenting that “I would now only say, that divine providence had clearly opened the way for my leaving this college, and that I had made up my mind that I should leave it at this next commencement.”  The students were shocked that their beloved president was leaving them, and forty students decided to follow him to Amherst or go on to other institutions*, thus causing the beginnings of the “ill blood” between Williams and Amherst.

As the first president of Amherst, Moore had to travel a great deal to Boston to attend to college business.  Travel and a heavy workload became highly stressful for him.  He died on June 29, 1823, of “overtaxed constitution” and “bilious colic,” serving as Amherst president for only two years.


By Elizabeth O’Grady

* It is rumored that President Moore began the library of Amherst College with books stolen from Williams, but there is no proof that this actually occurred. Neither did Moore steal faculty and staff from Williams upon his departure, but rather hired them later.

(See: Baird, Theodore and Wikander, Lawrence. “Alleged Origin of Amherst College Library?,” 1971.