Samuel Willard's Sermons

Essay by 2015 Arcadia Fellow Alicia DeMaio

Samuel Willard, who graduated from Harvard in 1659, had the dubious honor of leading the university for six years (from 1701 until his death in 1707), but was never recognized as the President of Harvard. He instead retained the title of Vice President after the Massachusetts legislature dismissed President Increase Mather. Beginning on August 4, 1701, the College Books list only the Vice President in attendance at the meetings of the Corporation, rather than the President and Vice President. For the next six years, the minutes of Corporation meetings are silent about any effort to elect a new president—until the year Willard died. Then, the Corporation elected John Leverett, a resident tutor and a College Fellow, as the President of Harvard. The legislature attempted to appoint Cotton Mather as president in 1703, but the Corporation rejected their decision, arguing that they would not accept a president that they themselves had not chosen.

When Willard was not running Harvard, he was a minister at the Third Church in Boston (now Old South Church). The Third Church was Congregationalist in doctrine and formed in opposition to the First and Second Churches. Unlike the First and Second Churches, the Third Congregationalist Church approved of the Halfway Covenant and therefore practiced infant baptism. Willard was the second minister of the church, assuming the position in 1687 and holding it until his death. A notebook of his sermons from the year 1692 exists at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. Willard preaches about the saving grace of the gospel and of belief in Christ and warns his congregation to be wary of the devil, who is always willing to entice God’s children. Willard preaches on the same verses week after week, and always offers pieces of doctrine relating to the Bible verse of his choice before explaining how his congregation could apply these teachings to their everyday life.

As would be expected of ministers and Harvard graduates of his day, Willard was well versed in Biblical languages—his commonplace book, a notebook in which he made notes for his sermons, contains quotations in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as well as English. It appears that after choosing a verse, he constructed the “doctrine” sections of his sermons by carefully examining other books and translations of the Bible for a comprehensive understanding of how concepts such as the saints or grace or salvation were addressed.