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An Outstanding First President

An Outstanding First President


An Outstanding First President

It was the name that first piqued my interest: Charles Nisbet. Nisbet is one of my middle names and I wondered if this might be a fellow Scot, perhaps even a distant relation. I was right about the first. Not so sure about the second!

Charles Nisbet was born in the Scottish town of Haddington, near Edinburgh, in 1736. He was licensed to preach the gospel in 1760 and delivered his first sermon in the pulpit of his friend Dr. John Witherspoon. Dr. Witherspoon was later to become the president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton and was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Charles Nisbet’s first two years as a gospel minister were spent in the city of Glasgow. Then, in January 1763, he was called to a church in Montrose, a town on the North East Scottish coast. He remained there for over twenty years until he was offered and accepted the position of first president of the newly formed Dickinson College, Carlisle.

By now aged forty eight, Charles Nisbet was regarded as among the most learned men in Scotland and was popularly referred to as ‘the walking library’. He was also – as his biographer, Dr. Samuel Miller, describes him – ‘a sound, old-school Calvinist…a devoted friend of the Westminster Confession of Faith’.

On July 5th 1785, the day after his arrival, Dr. Nisbet was formally installed as Dickinson’s first president (or principal, which was the title given in the college’s charter and laws). The new president preached on the occasion, the theme of the sermon being ‘the importance of the union of piety and learning’.

As soon he took up the duties of his office, Dr. Nisbet began to prepare and deliver four courses of lectures simultaneously. One was on Logic; a second was on the Philosophy of the Mind; a third was on Moral Philosophy and the fourth on Literature. Some time later a fifth series was added – on Systematic Theology.

Throughout the nineteen years that Dr. Nisbet was president of Dickinson College he had many difficulties to face. These were intimately connected with the unsettled and impoverished conditions of the country in the years after the Revolutionary War. Notwithstanding, Dr. Nisbet remained at his post as president of the college until his death on January 18th 1804.

In a sermon preached at his funeral, his colleague in the First Presbyterian Church, Dr. Davidson, said, ‘The study of the holy Scriptures was his chief delight…He sought not the applause of men, but the salvation of souls, and the glory of his Redeemer. Ever solicitous to exalt the love and grace of God, and to humble the pride of men, salvation by grace was his favourite theme’.

(A fuller version of this article is available in booklet form. Please contact Grace Baptist Church at 717-249-4912)

David Campbell Elder Grace Baptist ChurchDavid Campbell
Grace Baptist Church
777 W North Street
Carlisle, PA 17013