Ezra received his early education at home and entered Yale College in 1742 with twelve other freshmen. He studied the classical curriculum of liberal arts: classical languages, logic, rhetoric, geometry, geography, natural philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, metaphysics, ethics, and divinity. After graduation in 1746 he stayed at Yale to study theology to prepare for the ministry, and in 1749 he received a masters degree. He made as many as 1, 000 pastoral visits a year and also catechised children, held special monthly meetings for men and for women, and attended to the spiritual needs of slaves by inviting them to his home for Bible readings and singing.
Trinity Church, the Anglican Church in Newport, Rhode Island, asked Stiles to become its minister, but he turned the offer down. Instead, in 1755, he became pastor of the Second Congregational Church, also in Newport, where he also served as Librarian of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum.
In 1764, Stiles helped establish the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the original name for Brown University) by contributing to the drafting of its charter and by serving with 35 others.
Stiles was a proponent of American liberty, and when the war broke out, he supported the American cause. In May 1775 his wife Elizabeth died, leaving him with the care of their children. This personal tragedy was followed by the rapid dispersal of his congregation following the start of the rebellion against Great Britain. One hundred of the 130 families in his church had fled in 1775, most of them Patriots like himself. By March 1776 Stiles and his children also decided to leave and moved to Dighton, Massachusetts, where they stayed about a year. In May 1777 he was offered the ministry of the First Congregational Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which was one of the largest in New England, with a congregation of 230 families. No sooner had Stiles and his family settled in Portsmouth than he received a new offer in September to serve as president of Yale College. He did not accept the position right away. His salary was set at £120 plus the president’s house and other compensations - roughly the same as his last salary as a minister had been. War. At the time Stiles assumed the presidency in 1778, he faced several problems. One issue was the potential loss of students to the army. When Stiles arrived, the enrollment of the college was 132, but when the Connecticut Assembly exempted college students from the militia, he no longer had to worry about administering an empty college. Also since the fees from students made up most of the revenue of the college, this was encouraging news. The students, who had been sent to three Connecticut towns in 1777 to remove them from possible dangers, had to be reassembled in New Haven even though the threat of attack and the food shortages were still troublesome. In July 1779, when a British fleet of forty vessels anchored off West Haven, Stiles sent the students home for an indefinite period. The British raided New Haven, and though they did not remain, they continued to harass other Connecticut towns, so Stiles did not reopen the college until October. He had other, internal problems at Yale, especially with the board of directors, but after the war, in 1784 the college was flourishing with an enrollment of 270 students, the largest of any American college. The income from student fees and tuition was about £1, 200. Stiles not only strengthened Yale but also secularized it, took it through the war successfully, and saved it financially.
His book The United States elevated to Glory and Honor was printed in 1783.
Member of the Society of the Cincinnati (1784)
Stiles married twice (Elizabeth Hubbard and Mary Checkley Cranston) and had eight children. Stiles' son Ezra Stiles was educated first at Yale College, then at Harvard College, where he studied law, graduating in 1778. Ezra Stiles, Jr. , subsequently settled in Vermont, and served to establish the boundaries between Vermont and New Hampshire. He died prematurely at Chowan County, North Carolina, on Aug. 22, 1784, and his two daughters by his wife Sylvia (Avery) Stiles of Vermont (and formerly of Norwich, Connecticut) had their uncle Jonathan Leavitt appointed their guardian. His daughter Emilia married Judge and State Senator Jonathan Leavitt of Greenfield, Massachusetts. His daughter Mary married, in 1790, Abiel Holmes, a Congregational clergyman and historian and a 1783 graduate of Yale College. By the second marriage to Sarah Wendell, Abiel was the father of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.