Philip Lindsley, an educator, Presbyterian minister, and classical scholar, was born in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. He was educated at private academies and at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and joined the faculty as Latin and Greek tutor in 1808. In 1813 Lindsley was made professor of Languages, Librarian, Inspector (Dean), and secretary of the Board of Trustees. The same year he married Margaret Elizabeth Lawrence, daughter of Nathaniel Lawrence, the attorney general of the State of New York.
By the time he was elected vice-president of the College of New Jersey in 1817, Lindsley was recognized as one of the foremost classical scholars in the United States. In 1822 he was made acting president of Princeton. The next year he was offered the permanent presidency not only of Princeton, but also of several colleges and universities, including the struggling Cumberland College in Nashville, but he declined them all. In 1824, though, he changed his mind and accepted the position in Nashville. The next year, at Lindsley’s instigation, the college’s name was changed to University of Nashville.
The institution’s new name was an indication of Lindsley’s aspirations. He wished to create a center of learning and civilization in the midst of a region, the Old Southwest, that was barely out of its frontier phase. It was Lindsley who first suggested that Nashville be the “Athens of the Southwest,” a sobriquet changed to “Athens of the South” seventy years later at the celebration of the Tennessee centennial. In his effort to develop the university into a nationally prominent institution of learning, Lindsley brought some of the most eminent scholars of the day to teach classics, languages, mathematics, and geology, among other subjects. Early in his administration, he unveiled an ambitious plan for the implementation of many new academic programs, so that the university might truly live up to its name by encompassing the “universe of learning,” with appropriate colleges for each division of knowledge.
In many areas of endeavor and thought, Lindsley was ahead of his time. His attitude toward education reflected his forward-looking philosophy. He was among the first academics to urge the formal training of teachers in special colleges, then called normal schools. He was also an early advocate for education of all citizens. In a pamphlet he wrote during the 1830s entitled A Lecture on Popular Education, he urged that school children receive a well-rounded education in Greek, Latin, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, geography, and English. As much as any one man, Lindsley can be credited with bringing an appreciation for learning to the Old Southwest, helping to raise the standards of education in the region. He planted the seeds; his influence was enduring.
In 1850, after Nashville’s cholera epidemic decimated the ranks of students, the university suspended operation and Lindsley resigned as president. Four years after his first wife died in 1845, he married Mary Ann Silliman Ayers, widow of Elias Ayers, the founder of New Albany Theological Seminary. Lindsley moved with his wife to New Albany and became professor of Ecclesiastical Polity and Biblical Archaeology at the seminary. His son, John Berrien Lindsley, became chancellor of the University of Nashville when it was revived in 1855. Philip Lindsley died that year while visiting Nashville as commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.
John F. Woolverton, “Philip Lindsley and the Cause of Education in the Old Southwest,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 19 (1960): 3-22