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Serious American students of theology and divinity, particularly in New England, regarded Hebrew as a classical language, along with Greek and Latin, and essential for study of the Old Testament in the original words. The Reverend Ezra Stiles, president of the College from 1778 to 1795, brought with him his interest in the Hebrew language as a vehicle for studying ancient Biblical texts in their original language (as was common in other schools), requiring all freshmen to study Hebrew (in contrast to Harvard, where only upperclassmen were required to study the language) and is responsible for the Hebrew phrase אורים ותמים (Urim and Thummim) on the Yale seal. A 1746 graduate of Yale, Stiles came to the college with experience in education, having played an integral role in the founding of Brown University in addition to having been a minister. Stiles' greatest challenge occurred in July 1779 when hostile British forces occupied New Haven and threatened to raze the College. However, Yale graduate Edmund Fanning, Secretary to the British General in command of the occupation, interceded and the College was saved. In 1803, Fanning was granted an honorary degree LL. D. for his efforts.

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