The following is excerpted from “Noah Webster, Founding Father of American Scholarship and Education”, by Rosalie J. Slater, pages 19-21 in Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language, Facsimile First Edition. Chesapeake, VA: Foundation for American Christian Education (www.face.net), 1967. This dictionary was originally published in 1828. The Facsimile Edition is available for purchase at http://www.facebookstore.net/.
But, as is so often the case in the lives of dedicated men and women, just at the moment when human help seems to be exhausted God moves into the picture. During the winter of 1807 an event occurred which would forever after provide Noah Webster with that peace and security which the world can neither give nor take away. His own words written to Judge Thomas Dawes, brother-in-law, best describe the significance of that winter:
“For a number of years just past I have been more and more impressed with the importance of regulating my conduct by the precepts of Christianity. Of the being and attributes of God I have never entertained a doubt and my studies as well as frequent contemplations on the works of nature have led my mind to most sublime views of His character and perfections...
“Still I had doubts respecting some of the doctrines of the Christian faith, such as regeneration, election, salvation by free grace, the atonement, and the divinity of Christ; these doubts served as an apology for my forebearing to make a profession of religion; for though I could never read or hear that solemn declaration of our Savior ‘Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I confess be/ore my Father who is in heaven,’ without some compunction and alarm; yet I endeavored to justify my neglect by a persuasion that I could not conscientiously assent to the usual confession required in Calvinistic churches as the condition of admission to their communion. That is, in plain terms, I sheltered myself as well as I could from the attacks of conscience for neglect of duty under a species of scepticism, and endeavored to satisfy my mind that a profession of religion is not absolutely necessary to salvation. In this state of mind I placed great reliance on good works or the performance of moral duties as the means of salvation, although I cannot affirm that I wholly abandoned all dependence on the merits of a Redeemer. You may easily suppose that in this state of distraction and indecision of opinions I neglected many duties of piety.
“About a year ago an unusual revival of religion took place in New Haven, and frequent conferences of private meetings for religious purposes were held by pious and well disposed persons in the Congregational societies. I felt some opposition to these meetings, being apprehensive that they would, by affecting the passions too strongly, introduce an enthusiasm or fanaticism which might be considered as real religion. I expressed these fears to some friends and particularly to my family, inculcating on them the importance of a rational religion and the danger of being misled by the passions.
“My wife, however, was friendly to these meetings and she was joined by two eldest daughters who were among the first subjects of serious impressions. I did not forbid but rather discouraged their attendance on conferences...
“These impressions I attempted to remove by reasoning with myself and endeavoring to quiet my mind by a persuasion that my opposition to my family and the awakening was not a real opposition to rational religion but to enthusiasm or false religion. I continued some weeks in this situation, utterly unable to quiet my own mind and without resorting to the only source of peace and consolation. The impressions, however, grew stronger till at length I could not pursue my studies without frequent interruptions. My mind was suddenly arrested, without any previous circumstance of the time to draw it to this subject and, as it were, fastened to the awakening and upon my own conduct. I closed my books, yielded to the influence which could not be resisted or mistaken, and was led by a spontaneous impulse to repentance, prayer, and entire submission and surrender of myself to my Maker and Redeemer. My submission appeared to be cheerful, and was soon followed by that peace of mind which the world can neither give nor take away.
“This, my dear friend, is a short but faithful narration of facts. That these impressions were not the effect of any of my own passions nor of enthusiasm is to me evident for I was in complete possession of all my rational powers, and that the influence was supernatural is evident from this circumstance; it was not only independent of all volition but opposed to it. You will readily suppose that after such evidence of the direct operation of the divine spirit upon the human heart, I could no longer question or have a doubt respecting the Calvinistic and Christian doctrines of regeneration, of free grace, and of the sovereignty of God. I now began to understand and relish many parts of the scriptures, which before appeared mysterious and unintelligible or repugnant to my natural pride. For instance, I was remarkably struck with the 26th verse of John 14th: ‘But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said to you’ — a passage which I had often read without realizing its import. In short, my view of the scriptures, of religion, of the whole Christian scheme of salvation, and of God’s moral government are very much changed, and my heart yields with delight and confidence to whatever appears to be the divine will.
“Permit me here to remark, in allusion to a passage in your letter, that I had for almost fifty years exercised my talents such as they are, to obtain knowledge and to abide by its dictates, but without arriving at the truth, or what now appears to me to be the truth, of the gospel. I am taught now the utter insufficiency of our own powers to effect a change of the heart, and am persuaded that a reliance on our own talents or powers is a fatal error, springing from natural pride and opposition to God, by which multitudes of men, especially of the more intelligent and moral part of society are deluded into ruin. I now look, my dear friend, with regret on the largest portion of the ordinary life of man, spent ‘without hope and without God in the world.’ I am particularly affected by a sense of my ingratitude to that Being who made me and without whose constant agency I cannot draw a breath, who has showered upon me a profusion of temporal blessings and provided a Savior for my immortal soul...
“In the month of April last I made a profession of faith; in this most solemn and affecting of all transactions of my life I was accompanied with my two eldest daughters; while I felt a degree of compunction that I had not sooner dedicated myself to God, it was with heartfelt delight could present myself before my Maker and say, ‘Here am I, with the children which thou hast given me.
“Mrs. Webster was confined at the time and could not be a witness of this scene, so interesting to her as well as to us who were personally concerned, but you may easily conceive how much she was affected the first time she met her husband and children at the Communion.
Noah Webster’s confession of faith became the basis of an evangelistic tract entitled The Peculiar Doctrines of the Gospel, Explained and Defended. It was well received by the Trinitarian clergy, among whom was Abiel Holmes, father of Oliver Wendell Holmes:
“We have been much gratified in the perusal of your Letter in explanation and defence of the ‘Peculiar Doctrines of the Gospel.’ I hope the publication of it will promote the interests of pure Christianity. Arguments used by us, who are set for the defence of the gospel, are often inefficacious, because we are considered as merely ‘labouring in our vocation.’ When men of learning and talents, in other professions, voluntarily engage in the defence of our holy religion, the world is less apt to suppose them interested, and therefore more ready to listen to their arguments. I rejoice to find you defending, not the outworks merely, but the citadel; not the truth of Christianity in general, but the peculiar doctrines of it — the truth as it is in Jesus.”
The widespread circulation of Webster’s religious convictions brought forth the venom of Unitarian Harvard and Boston who attacked not the Christian but the philologist in the hope of discountenancing the Compendious Dictionary. Moses Stuart, now a professor at Andover wrote:
“The Anthology is outrageous against you. I believe it will do good, and promote the very cause it is meant to destroy. May the Lord turn their haughty and unfriendly designs into foolishness! Be assured, the object of their vengeance is more against your religion than against you.”
Definitions in the 1828 edition of the Dictionary demonstrate the
depth of Noah Webster’s Christian faith. For example:
SAVIOR, n. savyur. [Fr. sauveur.] One that saves or preserves; but properly applied only to Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, who has opened the way to everlasting salvation by his obedience and death, and who is therefore called the Savior, by way of distinction, the Savior of men, the Savior of the world. George Washington be called the saver, but not the savior, of his country.