Charles Nisbet (1736-1804)

Portrait of Charles Nisbet

Charles Nisbet was born on January 21, 1736 to William and Alison Nisbet; William was a schoolteacher at Long Yester near Haddington, East Lothian County, Scotland. By 1754, Nisbet had completed studies at both the high school of the university in Edinburgh and had entered Divinity Hall to prepare for the ministry. He was licensed by the Presbytery of Edinburgh on September 24, 1760, and began preaching at churches in the Gorbals, near Glasgow. On May 17, 1764, he was ordained in the Presbytery of Brechin and assigned to a church in Montrose, in Forfar. Two years later, he married Anne Tweedie and his first son Thomas was born. The Nisbets had three more children, Mary, Alison (1773) and Alexander (1777).

Active, studious, and blessed with a remarkable memory, Nisbet could speak nine languages, and developed a high reputation in Scotland for scholarship. He became a member of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and was outspoken in his defense of strict Calvinism. He was awarded a doctorate of divinity degree from Princeton University in 1783; it was Nisbet who had recommended fellow Scotsman John Witherspoon for that institution's presidency.

These accomplishments attracted the attention of the trustees of the newly founded Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, who were searching for a man to fill the position of the College's first principal. The College's founder, Benjamin Rush, had met Nisbet while in Edinburgh. After much deliberation accompanied by the vigorous petitioning of Rush and John Dickinson, Nisbet finally accepted the position and sailed from Greenock with his family on April 23, 1785. The family arrived in Philadelphia on June 9 and in Carlisle on July 4, when the town greeted them enthusiastically. In the height of a humid central Pennsylvania summer, the Nisbets did not adjust well to their new home; the entire family fell very ill with a fever, most likely malaria. At the same time, he had significant disagreements with Rush who, Nisbet felt, had broken many of the promises that he had made to him before his acceptance of the position. All this, coupled with extreme homesickness, influenced Nisbet to resign in October 1785 and to seek a return to his homeland. For reasons described variously as fearing a winter Atlantic crossing, or refusing to sail on a ship with an Irish captain, his departure was delayed. During that time, the health of his family recovered and on consideration he requested his old position. Despite Rush's misgivings, Nisbet was unanimously re-elected as principal on May 9, 1786. For the following eighteen years, his efforts to build the new institution were untiring.

While principal, Nisbet served as professor of moral philosophy, mental philosophy, belle lettres, and logic. According to the memoirs of former students, his intellectual vigor was punctuated with cheerful and animated wit, as well as his often caustic criticisms on the unstable advance of American institutions and affairs. His course of 418 lectures in systematic theology and 22 on pastoral theology, which were composed to accommodate students preparing for the ministry, were the first of their kind given in North America.

Nisbet's outspoken views hindered his relationship with the Board of Trustees. The Board, with many of its members residing in Carlisle, allowed Nisbet and his faculty very little freedom in their policies, and he himself was not granted a seat on the Board. Nisbet adamantly advocated the improvement and expansion of the College facilities. Following the Scottish model, the Grammar School was placed under the supervision of the College and both trustee boards were combined. Also, the College obtained a seven acre plot of land to the west of the town; although the deed was not actually signed until July, the first cornerstone of the institution's new building was laid on June 20, 1799. Endemic financial difficulties delayed construction but the uncompleted building, in partial use, was completely destroyed in a disastrous fire during a snowstorm on the night of February 2, 1803. Reconstruction of a larger building, now termed West College, began in August 1803 and it was first occupied in November 1805. Nisbet was not able to witness this event, since on New Year's Day, 1804 he contracted a cold, which progressed to pneumonia. Charles Nisbet died two and a half weeks later on January 18, 1804, three days before his 68th birthday. Six years after his death, the College was still in debt to his heirs in the amount of $6000.

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Dickinson College Archives
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1785; 1786-1804