Joseph Willard – Sermons, 1775-1777

Administrative Information

Biographical Sketch

Related Collections


Scope and Content Note

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Series Description and Folder Listing

1.5 document boxes
Processor: Christopher J. Lenney
.63 linear feet
Date: January 2005

Acquisition: The Sermons of Joseph Willard were received by the Cambridge Historical Society in 1911. Formal accession records for the collection are lacking, but an annotation on sermon no. 161 indicates it was the gift of Miss Susanna Willard (1845-1923), the granddaughter of Joseph Willard.

Access: There are no restrictions to items in this collection.

Permission to Publish: Requests for permission to publish from the collection should be made to the Executive Director.

Copyright: The Cambridge Historical Society does not hold copyright on the materials in the collection.

Biographical Sketch:

Joseph Willard was born on 29 December 1738, the youngest son of the Reverend Samuel and Abigail Willard of Biddeford, Maine. Upon the death of his father, his mother remarried, and he grew up in the household of the Reverend Richard Elvins of Scarborough. Intent upon a medical career, and encouraged by a local schoolmaster, he entered Harvard, where his tuition was defrayed by a classmate’s father. In his studies Willard acquitted himself as “unquestionably the best geometrician, the best astronomer, and the best classical scholar of his class.” Upon graduation in 1766, he remained at Harvard as college butler, and then tutor, and only finally decided upon a life in the ministry at the urging of professor of divinity Edward Wigglesworth. In 1772 he answered a call to the First Church in Beverly, Mass., where he served as minister until 1781. While there, Willard did “much to kindle and keep alive the general flame of patriotism,” and it has been stated that Beverly’s deployment of two militia companies to the battle of April 19, 1775 was due “in no small part to his exertions and influence.” (See: Thayer, 1868.) In 1781 he was installed as President of Harvard University, and remained in that capacity until his death on 25 September 1804.

Willard was a man of considerable scientific acumen. He kept a school in navigation at Scarborough, published an almanac for the year 1766, and for a time contemplated an inland expedition to observe the transit of Venus, but in the end did not go. While minister in Beverly, he calmly and publicly made scientific observations during the “Dark Day” of May 19, 1780 and allayed the superstitious fears of the townspeople. (This phenomenon, which brought a midday darkness throughout New England, is now generally ascribed to a dense pall of smoke from western forest fires.) Willard was a founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, long served as its corresponding secretary, and wrote several articles on mathematical and astronomical subjects. As President of Harvard he oversaw the establishment of the Medical School, and was eager to foster scientific contacts with Europe. With good reason it has been stated that “without question…he would have preferred a career in science had one been possible.” The spirit of rationalism and the Enlightenment makes itself felt in the mild manner of his sermons.

Willard’s theology was unexceptionable, but on controversial points often enigmatic. “He could not be seriously faulted by the Calvinists, for he believed in the real divinity of Christ and the Atonement, but he avoided dogmatic theology, metaphysics, and the threat of hell fire.” Willard believed that “the spirit of Christ and his Gospel is love, meekness, and gentleness to all men.” Religious belief for Willard was based in reason, and was a deeply personal, indeed private matter: even his own son did not know where he stood on the Arminian (Universalist) controversy of the day. With respect to his oratorical gifts, a contemporary remarked that he spoke “with a singular infelicity of manner and of matter, with a tiresome monotony, and with ceaseless repetitions of the most commonplace thoughts.” Another described him as “awkward enough in the pulpit. In prayer he frequently hesitates, and sometimes recalls a word, yet on the whole he performs the duty in a judicious and sensible manner.” Willard did not speak well extemporaneously, and this perhaps accounts for the care with which he prepared his sermons. He is known to have prepared over 325 sermons between 1768 and 1792, about three-quarters of which survive, either at the Cambridge Historical Society or the Harvard University Archives. (See Related Collections below.)

Several of Willard’s sermons were published in his lifetime, most notably A Thanksgiving Sermon Delivered at Boston December 11, 1783, which is marked by a patriotic fervor that bears comparison to sermon no. 167 in this collection.

(Unless otherwise attributed, quotations in this sketch are taken from Shipton, Biographical Sketches, cited below.)

Related Collections:

The Papers of Joseph Willard, 1768-1804 are held by the Harvard University Archives in Cambridge, Mass. and include sermons nos. 2-100; 201-325 (with gaps), dated 1768-1792.

A small collection of five manuscript sermons, Joseph Willard Sermons, 1774-1780, is held by the Massachusetts Historical Society.


Love, William DeLoss, The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895, pp. 342; 502-504.

Shipton, Clifford K., Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College in the Classes 1764-1767. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1972, pp 253-265. (= Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, vol. 16)

Stone, Edwin Martin, History of Beverly, Civil and Ecclesiastical. Boston: J. Munroe, 1843, pp. 234-235.

Thayer, Christopher T., An Address Delivered in the First Parish, Beverly, October 2, 1867, on the Two-Hundredth Anniversary of its Formation. Boston: Nichols and Noyes, 1868.

See also:
Willard, Susanna, “Extracts from Letters of the Reverend Joseph Willard, President of Harvard College, and of Some of His Children, 1794-1732,” Cambridge Historical Society, Proceedings, vol. 11, pp. 11-32.

Scope and Content Note:

The collection consists of thirty-nine sermons written by the Reverend Joseph Willard while minister of the First Church in Beverly, Mass. The earliest, no. 156, is dated 2 April 1775, but the remainder were all originally preached between 28 January 1776 and 27 April 1777. Many were subsequently repeated until the last year of his life. They are written in a meticulous hand on single, sewn, signatures of uniform length. At some point the sermons were dated, arranged in chronological order, and numbered. This collection represents the sermons numbered from 150 to 200, twelve of which are missing (nos. 163; 173-179; 184; 189-190; 194). Some bear later annotations, possibly by another hand. Sermon no.156 is dated 2 April 1775, but was numbered and sequenced with 1776. The most important sermon, no. 167, on the Declaration of Independence, is not clearly dated (discussed below).

The sermons are all roughly 5,000 words long, and likely took about an hour to deliver. Occasionally two were given on the same day. The majority are theologically mild, agreeably phrased, and generally devoid of contemporary references to people, events, social conditions, or even the daily life of his parishioners. There are occasional exceptions, as when he condemns the widespread usage of profanity in Beverly: “Even the children about the streets in their diversions are frequently guilty of it” (no. 164). The moderate tone and otherworldly subject matter of the vast majority of the sermons makes the two Fast Day sermons (nos. 167 and 168) preached on revolutionary events all the more remarkable.

No. 167, occasioned by the Declaration of Independence, takes as its text: “Great have been the revolutions among the states and kingdoms of this world.” This is not a sermon, but a political diatribe, which strongly echoes the Declaration, with a revolutionary rhetoric that rivals, and sometimes exceeds it. “Are millions tamely to allow themselves to be trampled upon—oppressed—loaded with injuries—destroyed, to satisfy the pride, ambition, avarice[,] lust of power of a ruler or rulers?” It concludes with the hope that “there never will be wanting those among us who will be ready to jeopard themselves in the high places of the field in their country’s cause, in defence of the United States of America.”

There is some ambiguity about the date of this important sermon. It is inscribed: “1776 Fast Day, not long after the declaration of independence.” Yet at the end it reads: “Fast day—1776 or 1777.” A proclamation issued on 4 July 1776 by the Massachusetts Council appointed that a fast day be observed on 1 August 1776. This is the only recorded province-wide fast day “not long after the declaration of independence,” and the Declaration of Independence was actually read aloud in many Massachusetts churches on that day. Yet the sermon Willard preached on that occasion appears to be no. 168, which is clearly marked “Fast Aug. 1 1776.” This latter sermon makes clear reference to the build-up of Hessian troops on Long Island in July, 1777, as well as to a “bloody and destructive plot at New York,” the nature of which is not specified, but which likely alludes to some event in the early stages of the British siege of that city.

An examination of the sermons held at Harvard showed that Willard did occasionally deliver two sermons on the same Fast Day (e.g., 28 August 1777). It also revealed that other sermons preached on political events were likewise undated (as on the surrender of Burgoyne and on the Treaty of Paris).

At the end of each sermon was appended a list of the dates and places where it was subsequently repeated. These suggest the extent of Willard’s travels, his favorite theological themes, and the ministerial circles in which he moved. The most frequently delivered sermon in this collection was no. 199, which was preached 26 times, on a text from Matthew (“Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”) On the evidence of these sermons, Willard supplied the pulpit in many churches around Beverly, and in places as far as Concord and Durham, N.H., Scarborough and Wiscasset, Maine, and, most distantly, in Philadelphia in 1784 (after he had become President of Harvard).

The sermons have been foldered in numerical sequence, with the Biblical text of each sermon, and the dates when first and last given, noted on the folder list.

Library of Congress Subject Headings:

  • Willard, Joseph, 1738-1804 — Sermons.
  • Sermons, American —18th century.
  • Fast-day sermons.
  • United States — History —Revolution, 1775-1783 —Sermons.
  • First Church (Beverly, Mass.).

Series Description and Folder Listing:

Joseph Willard, 1738-1804 Sermons, 1775-1777

Series I. Sermons, 1775-1777

[table colwidth=”5%|5%|90%”]

1|1|No. 150 (1 Corinthians 15: 8; Romans 2: 7), 28 January 1776 – December 1780

1|2|No. 151 (Proverbs 8: 34), 4 February 1776 – 10 April 1778

1|3|No. 152 (Romans 6: 23), 11 February 1776 – 31 July 1785

1|4|No. 153 (Galatians 6: 4-5), 25 February 1776 – 21 November 1779

1|5|No. 154 Fast Sermon (Psalm 146: 5-7), 7 March 1776 – 20 July 1780

1|6|No. 155 (Matthew 5: 4-1), 24 March 1776

1|7|No. 156 (Deuteronomy 23: 29), 2 April 1775 – 9 November 1795

1|8|No. 157 (Romans 6: 22), 4 April 1776 – 3 March 1791

1|9|No. 158 (Ephesians 5: 1), 21 April 1776 – 5 May 1786

1|10|No. 159 (“On the Imitation of God”), 28 April 1776 – 5 May 1786

1|11|No. 160 (Philippians 11: 4), 26 May 1786

1|12|No. 161 (1 Peter 5: 8, 9 part), 26 May 1776 – 7 November 1779

1|13|No. 162 (2 Corinthians 2: 11), 9 June 1776 – 26 March 1780

1|14|No. 164 (Proverbs 22: 6; Genesis 18: 19), 30 June 1776 – 14 June 1778

1|15|No. 165 (2 Timothy 1: 7), 14 July 1776 – 24 October 1784

1|16|No. 166 (Isaiah 42: 6-7 ), 21 July 1776

1|17|No. 167 Fast Day (1 Kings 12: 1-17), n.d.

1|18|No. 168 Fast Day (2 Chronicles 22: 1- 24), 1 August 1776

1|19|No. 169 (1 Corinthians 11: 1; Philippians 3: 7), 11 August 1776 – 14 October 1781

1|20|No. 170 (Psalms 32: 2), 11 August 1776 – 15 February 1778

1|21|No. 171 (Matthew 23: 37-38), 18 August 1776 – 1 June 1777

1|22|No. 172 (Philippians 3: 13-14), 1 September 1776 – 15 April 1798

1|23|No. 180 (Philippians 3: 13-14), 1 September 1776 – 15 April 1798

1|24|No. 181 (Galatians 5: 24), 24 November 1776 – 25 February 1781

1|25|No. 182 (Psalms 112: 7; Isaiah 26: 3), 24 November 1776 – 9 July 1780

1|26|No. 183 (Job 29: 13; Hebrews 13: 16), 1 December 1776 – 15 November 1778

1|27|No. 185 (Ezekiel 28: 31-32), 22 December 1776 – 14 September 1783

1|28|No. 186 (Ephesians 4: 1), 5 January 1777 – 3 December 1788

1|29|No. 187 (1 Peter 1: 12), 5 January 1777 – 3 December 1788

1|30|No. 188 (Psalms 14: 1), January 1777 – 23 July 1786

2|1|No. 191 (Luke 12: 4-5), January 1777 – 15 July 1804

2|2|No. 192 (Hebrews 4: 14-16), 16 February 1777 – 28 August 1785

2|3|No. 193 (1 John 3: 7), 28 February 1777

2|4|No. 195 (1 Corinthians 13), 30 March 1777 – 11 October 1789

2|5|No. 196 (1 Corinthians 13), 30 March 1777 – 31 January 1790

2|6|No. 197 (1 Corinthians 13), 6 April 1777 – 11 April 1790

2|7|No. 198 (Psalms 84: 11), 6 April 1777

2|8|No. 199 (Matthew 5: 17-18), 20 April 1777 – September 1802

2|9|No. 200 (Matthew 7: 13-14), 27 April 1777 – 22 November 1783