Philip Lindsley (1786-1855)

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Philip Lindsley was born December 21, 1786, into a cultured New Jersey family that honored education as the highest virtue. The boy was sent away early to boarding school, advancing from Robert Finley’s Academy to the junior class at Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey) at the age of fourteen.1 He graduated in 1804 and earned his MA in 1807.2  Hired as a tutor by Princeton, he remained for seventeen years as teacher-librarian, renowned as an “earnest and impressive preacher”3 and an inspiring professor of linguistics and theology.

Philip Lindsley served as Princeton’s interim president for a year but refused the presidencies of Transylvania University, Ohio University, and Dickinson College. “I infinitely preferred my peaceful classical chair at Princeton,” he wrote.4 The Trustees of Nashville’s Cumberland College pursued him for months before he finally accepted their offer. “Throughout the [Southwest] there exists not a single college,” he explained to friends. “The time has arrived when they must have the means of education at their own doors.”5 On December 24, 1824, he moved his wife and four children to Tennessee.

The Nashville area was educationally unique. Within five years of its first permanent settlement (1779-1780), as the community still faced Indian attacks, Thomas Craighead presided over Davidson Academy. The school became Cumberland College in 1806; its main campus building opened in 1808.7 Craighead was succeeded by James Priestley, who soon suspended the financially unstable school’s operations.8 Lindsley had much to overcome.

First Presbyterian Church of Nashville (photograph from NHN collection)

President Lindsley was inaugurated on January 12, 1825, at Nashville’s First Presbyterian Church.9 He revised the school’s charter in November 1826 and renamed the institution the University of Nashville. He first proposed opening a medical college in 1829. The committee he appointed in 1843 to study the prospect recommended the immediate establishment of a medical school.10

For twenty-five years Philip Lindsley taught two dozen class hours a week while also struggling with complex financial and administrative challenges. Disciplinary issues in this boisterous frontier college made harsh demands on the gentle educator. School records are full of “expulsions and midnight riots in which heads were bruised and equipment destroyed.” 11

By 1850 a series of conflicts and losses had sapped Lindsley’s energy. The deaths of his wife and nine-year-old son had devastated him.12 His faculty was aging; Professors James Hamilton and Gerard Troost had died. The university neighborhood had deteriorated, and the Board wanted to rebuild elsewhere.13 A cholera epidemic and competition from Cumberland College in Lebanon diminished enrollment, and no funds were available to build the coveted medical school that Lindsley had dreamed of.14 The Board rejected Lindsley’s 1849 offer to resign,15 but pressures and criticisms continued to grow.

In April 1849 Lindsley married Mary Ann Ayers, widow of the founder of New Albany Theological Seminary. When the Seminary Board offered him a professorship, he accepted, moving to Indiana in December 1850.16 He taught there until shortly before his death.

Philip Lindsley suffered a stroke in Nashville on May 23, 1855, and died two days later, attended by the University of Nashville Medical Faculty.17 (2014)


1 Lindsley, Philip. The Works of Philip Lindsley, D. D.: Volume III, Miscellaneous Discourses and Essays. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1866, 11.

2 Lindsley, Volume III, 14.

3 Maclean, John Jr., Princeton President 1854-68, quoted in Lindsley, Volume III, 16.

4 Lindsley, Volume III, 23.

5 Lindsley, Volume III, 24.

6 Crabb, Alfred Leland. The Historical Background of Peabody College. Nashville: George Peabody College for Teachers, 1941, 9.

7 Crabb, 9.

8 Crabb, 10-11.

9 Lindsley, Volume III, 27.

10 Crabb, 18.

11 Crabb, 17.

12 Lindsley, Philip. Journal.  Lindsley Family Papers, ca. 1812 – [1840-1940] – 1953, Box 2, Folder 33.  Tennessee State Library and Archives.

13 Conkin, Paul K. Peabody College: From a Frontier Academy to the Frontiers of Teaching and Learning. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002, 68.

14 Conklin, 69.

15 Crabb, 18.

16 Lindsley, Volume III, 54.

17 Lindsley, John Berrien. Diary, Volume 4, 1849-1856.  Lindsley Family Papers, ca. 1812 – [1840-1940] – 1953, Box 1, Folder 21.  Tennessee State Library and Archives.