Alison, Francis (1705–1779) educator, scholar - American Education
Francis Alison rose to prominence during the religious revivalist movement known as the Great Awakening. As in much of New England and the Middle Atlantic colonies, Pennsylvania Presbyterians were divided into a camp that promoted and celebrated the Great Awakening (“new-siders”) and another camp (“old-siders”) that feared the effects of the explosion in evangelism. Alison was a prominent old-sider who opposed the Great Awakening. Ultimately, however, he was a voice of reconciliation among the Presbyterians of Pennsylvania. Peace and Union Recommended, his only extant sermon, was preached in May 1758 to celebrate the reunion of old- and new-siders within Pennsylvania Presbyterianism. Alison chose to address the schism in general terms rather than risk reopening the freshly healed wounds within his own church. He urged all Christians to live in harmony and unity, and he listed eight notable men as exemplars of peacemakers within the faith. Among these men Alison included Gilbert Tennent, one of the leading “Awakener” ministers.
Born in 1705 in county Donegal, Ireland, Alison received an education from an Anglican preparatory school and went on to study at the University of Edinburgh. He received his master’s degree from the university in 1733 and was ordained by the Presbytery of Letterkenny, Ireland, in 1735. That fall Alison immigrated to America, and soon afterward he was named pastor of the Presbyterian Church in New London, Pennsylvania. Settling in the prosperous middle colonies, Alison married Hannah Armitage of Delaware and began a family that eventually included six children.
As the Great Awakening swept across America in the 1740s, Alison became a vocal critic of its “wild disorders” and predicted that the movement would destroy many Protestant denominations. When Presbyterian congregations did begin to split into “new side” and “old side” factions, however, old-sider Alison became a leading advocate of moderation and compromise. He opposed a move within the Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia to expel new-side representatives in 1741, for example, and actively worked for reconciliation.
In 1743 Alison established the New London Academy at New London, which later became the University of Delaware. He taught at the Academy for almost a decade, leaving the classroom only to become the Rector of the Academy and pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. When Philadelphia’s academy decided to offer college training, Alison accepted the post of vice provost and professor of classics and metaphysics at what would become the University of Pennsylvania.
Alison’s reputation as an educator and scholar spread. Benjamin Franklin respected him as a learned and honest man, and Ezra Stiles praised Alison for his support of scientific study. In 1756 Alison received an honorary degree from the University of Glasgow, becoming the first American Presbyterian clergyman to be recognized in this fashion by a European university. Other honors followed: he was awarded honorary M.A. degrees from Yale in 1755 and from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1756. Alison also received recognition for founding the first life insurance company in America, now known as the Presbyterian Ministers’ Fund. Although the fervor of the Awakening years had died away, Alison was still strongly identified with the more traditional wing of his denomination. It was this identification that cost him the presidency of the College of New Jersey in 1766 as new-siders rallied to support John Witherspoon.
Alison died in 1779 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He did not leave behind the great legacy of published sermons expected of a man of his standing within the clergy. As one of his students explained, Alison did not like to appear in print. He preferred to be remembered as a teacher.
- Alison, Francis. Peace and Union Recommended; and Self Disclaim’d, and Christ Exalted: In Two Sermons, Preached at Philadelphia, before the Reverend Synods of New-York and Philadelphia: The First, on the 24th of May, 1758. . . . Philadelphia: Printed by W. Dunlap, 1758; Early American Imprints, 8070.
- Miller, Kerby A., Arnold Schrier, Bruce D. Boling, and David N. Doyle, eds. Irish Immigrants I in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675–1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.