by Richard P. Gildrie
American National Biography
American Council of Learned Societies
Willard, Samuel (31 Jan. 1640-12 Sept. 1707), Puritan clergyman and theologian,
was born in Concord, Massachusetts, the son of Simon Willard and Mary Sharpe.
Simon Willard was one of the town's founders and its first deputy to the
Massachusetts General Court. From 1654 to 1676 he sat on the colony's Court of
Assistants. Samuel Willard graduated from Harvard in 1659, and in the early
1660s he was granted an M.A.
In June 1663 Willard became pastor at the frontier community of Groton,
Massachusetts, and was ordained on 13 July 1664 at the formal gathering of its
church. The town itself was incorporated in 1665. Several weeks after his
ordination he married Abigail Sherman, the daughter of Watertown's minister,
John Sherman. In 1671 he became involved in a case of demonic possession. His
careful record of observations and treatment of the victim, Elizabeth Knapp,
although not published until 1868, is now a classic of New England witchlore. By
the early 1670s some of his sermons were being published, a sign of prestige
unusual for a young, frontier cleric.
In March 1675, early in King Philip's War, Groton was twice attacked and
virtually destroyed. As refugees, the Willard family lived with relatives in
Charlestown while Willard himself preached in various Bay-area churches. Late in
1676 Abigail died, leaving four children. On 31 March 1678 Willard was ordained
as colleague to Thomas Thacher at Boston's Old South Church. At Thacher's death
in October 1678 Willard became sole pastor of the church, one of Boston's most
important congregations. On 29 July 1679 he married Eunice Tyng; the couple had
fourteen children. His new father-in-law, Edward Tyng, was a prominent merchant
and political figure.
A subtle but steady defender of orthodox Puritan theology, Willard nonetheless
favored pastoral reforms such as easing church membership requirements,
including the Half-Way Covenant proposals. He played an active role in the
Massachusetts Reforming Synod of 1679, attempting to forge a moral and social
reform program to perpetuate the colony's identity as a model Puritan community.
During the 1680s he was among those clergy who advocated submission to English
efforts to incorporate the colony more closely into the developing empire
without compromising orthodoxy though adopting formal religious toleration.
However, after the loss in 1684 of the Massachusetts Charter of 1629 and the
establishment of the Dominion of New England in 1686 under Sir Edmund Andros,
Willard found himself increasingly in opposition to what he and most New England
leaders regarded as an authoritarian, even papist, state. Indeed, it was Old
South Church that Andros appropriated for Anglican services, leaving Willard and
his congregation to wait outside until worship according to the Book of Common
Prayer was completed each Sunday. Andros's pressing of other royalist and
Anglican ceremonial usages on the Puritans, together with arbitrary fiscal and
judicial devices, alienated virtually the entire colony. Inspired by word of the
Glorious Revolution in England, the Boston townsfolk initiated the overthrow of
the Dominion in April 1689. Willard's role in the revolt, if any, is unknown.
Willard's most significant reaction to the crisis of the Dominion Era was to
begin, in 1688, a cycle of Tuesday lectures on the Westminster Shorter
Catechism, thus making him the first "catechism preacher" in New England on the
pattern recently established among Calvinists in Scotland, Germany, England, and
the Netherlands. His goal was to clarify and explicate the whole of Puritan
theology more fully in the face of resurgent Anglicanism. The lectures continued
almost until his death and were immensely popular with both laity and clergy.
They were published posthumously in 1726 during another period of renewed
Anglican competition as A Compleat Body of Divinity, by far the largest volume
produced by a colonial press to that date. This work is also American
Puritanism's only systematic theology.
Willard was, at Increase Mather's suggestion, made a Fellow of Harvard, one of
eight who, together with the president and treasurer, constituted the governing
board under the college charter of 1692. During the witchcraft crisis of that
year, Willard was among the leading clerical critics of the court's use of
spectral evidence and published his views in Some Misallany Observations on . .
. Witchcraft (1692). Another sign of his importance as an intellectual leader in
this crucial transition period was his 1694 election sermon, The Character of a
Good Ruler, which attempted to meld the Puritan tradition of "godly magistracy"
with the more secular realities of Massachusetts's government as a royal colony.
On 12 July 1700 Willard became vice president of Harvard, a post he retained
until he resigned due to poor health in August 1707. For much of that period he,
in effect, headed the college administration, while remaining pastor of Old
South. Always concerned to maintain the quality and prestige of the clergy, he
joined the Mathers in the unsuccessful attempt to organize a formal association
of ministers and churches. Although the effort failed in Massachusetts, a
similar movement in Connecticut led to the famed Saybrook Platform, which
permitted ministers to discipline each other and their flocks collectively. In
his publications, including a pamphlet against the Quaker reformer George Keith
in 1703, Willard continued his lifelong campaign to defend the Puritan tradition
while adapting it to changing cultural and political conditions. Soon after his
resignation from Harvard, he died in Boston and was buried in the Old Granary
In terms of both quality and number of publications, Willard was clearly one of
the leading intellectuals of American Puritanism. His importance was well
understood by his contemporaries and is reflected in the posts he held as well
as in the popularity of his sermons and pamphlets.
There are two modern biographies of Samuel Willard, Seymour Van Dyken, Samuel
Willard, 1640-1707: Preacher of Orthodoxy in an Era of Change (1972), and Ernest
Benson Lowrie, The Shape of the Puritan Mind: The Thought of Samuel Willard
(1974). For an excellent sense of the context and significance of Willard's
work, see Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture
in Colonial New England (1986), and Stephen Foster, The Long Argument: English
Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570-1700 (1991). A
convenient list of Willard's publications together with a critical introduction
can be found in James A. Levernier and Douglas R. Wilmer, eds., American Writers
before 1800 (1983).