On December 1, 1841, Williston Seminary opened its doors to its first group of students. For the dedication address, Samuel Williston invited the Rev. Mark Hopkins (1802-1887), President of Williams College, Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy, and one of the nation’s leading thinkers on education and educational reform. Hopkins was known as a gifted teacher, who favored Socratic engagement over lectures. One of his Williams protégés, President James A. Garfield, commented that an ideal college comprised “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.”
True to the oratorical tradition of the time, Hopkins spoke for well over an hour. His subject was the condition of education in the United States, of the need for a variety of reforms, and how Williston Seminary, of which he was a founding Trustee, might address them. It is a fascinating and valuable document. (Readers who wish copies of the full text may email the archivist.)
One passage, on pages 7 and 8 of the printed speech, concerns the importance of an educated citizenry, arguing that anything less constitutes a danger to democracy itself. It is reproduced below. Notwithstanding the optimism of the last excerpted sentence, Hopkins’ words continue to resonate, 176 years after he spoke them.
A recent social media discussion among members of the Class of 1968 recalled Horace Thorner, English master from 1943 to 1970, a scholar whose breadth of interests and talents was truly extraordinary. Thorner was a poet of frequent insight and technical virtuosity. Some of his work has already appeared on this blog. (See “The Round World Squared.”)
For the school’s 125th anniversary in 1966, Thorner was asked to write a celebratory “Ode to Williston.” Commemorative poetry is tricky; it is hard to avoid either hyperbole or mawkishness. Thorner was reasonably — though not entirely — successful. But his chapter on founder Samuel Williston is especially perceptive; Thorner, writing for an audience that perhaps expected the old hagiographic legend, captures the essential conflicts in the man better than others have managed using many more words (see “The Button Speech” ).
II. The Founder
Who was this man? There is no simple rule
To separate the warm flesh and the blood
From such another statue, pale and cool,
As since the time of ancient Athens stood
In lifeless grandeur in the public square,
Defying time and tempest, lightning, flood,
But never living, never quite the bare,
The unadorned, the simple human truth,
Standing in unabashed completeness there.
Indeed, he was ambitious as a youth,
A start for marble statues, but God's will
To spoil his eyes left him uncouth,
Compared to what he wanted for his goal,
To preach, just as his father had, to strive
With old New England devils for the soul.
He had his children, none of whom would live,
And felt God's wrath, but trusted and was brave,
Adopted others Emily would love —
A stern man but a just one and no slave
To outward polish in his speech or act,
Never forgetting that his father gave
A life of service to the church, a fact
That well accounts for all the generous years
He took such care his parish never lacked.
We see the flesh through marble, know his fears
To board a ship on Sunday well may show
A man whose God laughed little, lived on tears.
He may have driven bargains hard. We know
The history of most great fortunes proves
The man who rises, steps on some below,
And afterwards he finds that it behooves
That he appease his conscience by his tithes.
Some great philanthropists had cloven hooves.
But whether conscience prospers or it writhes,
The good it does lives after it, and so
They well deserve their shining laurel wreathes.
Williston wrote his conscience long ago
Into the charter of his school. The words
Still shine upon the fading page and glow
With all the brightness of crusader's swords.
"Knowledge without goodness" — so they read —
"Is powerless to do good." The phrase affords
An insight to the sturdy heart and head
Of Williston, for they were words he chose,
Although, indeed, they had been elsewhere said.
On this foundation, then, the school arose
Between the winding river and the hill
That speak God's strength in action and repose.
Horace E. Thorner
Naples, Italy, February 1966
All eight sections of Horace Thorner’s “Ode to Williston” are too long to publish here. Readers who would like copies of the entire poem may email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently one of our better students asked me whether I knew of any good quotes from Samuel Williston that he could insert into a term paper. “Don’t know,” I responded. “What’s the paper about?” “Doesn’t matter,” he said; “I’ll work them in.” Suppressing my instinct to initiate a conversation about such pedantries as relevance, context, and provenance — the kid was, after all, in a hurry — I dug out a document prepared at the request of former Head of School Brian Wright back in 1991, and in reviewing it, realized that it was good blog fodder. So . . . here is Samuel Williston (the fodder of us all), in his own words.
“Whereas God in His Providence has bestowed upon me a goodly portion of this world’s possessions, which I ought to use for His glory, for the dissemination of the Gospel of the blessed Redeemer, and for the greatest good of my fellow-men — and, whereas, I desire to be instrumental in promoting the cause of correct and thorough literary and Christian education, and for that purpose have lately followed an Institution which is established at Easthampton, Massachusetts, and incorporated by the name ‘Williston Seminary’ […]” Preamble, Constitution of Williston Seminary, 1845
“Believing, that the image and glory of an all-wise and holy God are most brightly reflected in the knowledge and holiness of his rational creatures, and that the best interests of our country, the church, and the world are all involved in the intelligence, virtue, and piety of the rising generation; desiring also, if possible, to bring into existence some permanent agency, that shall live, when I am dead, and extend my usefulness to remote ages, I have thought I could in no other way more effectually serve God or my fellow-men, than by devoting a portion of the property which he has given me, to the establishment and ample endowment of an Institution, for the intellectual, moral and religious education of youth.” Continue reading →
It was one small item from a legislative day filled with similar minutiae. But 175 years ago, Easthampton manufacturer Samuel Williston and a few associates petitioned the General Court to form a corporation “devoted exclusively to the purposes of education.” On February 22, 1841, the legislature approved the petition, Governor John Davis signed it into law, and Williston Seminary came into being.
Samuel Williston, like Governor Davis, was an influential member of the Whig Party — and Williston, perhaps conveniently, was a month into his only term as Easthampton’s Representative. Of the other incorporators, Heman Humphrey was President of Amherst College; Emerson Davis, Minister of the First Congregational Church in Westfield, Mass., John Mitchell, Pastor of the Edwards Church, Northampton; William Bement, Pastor of the Easthampton Congregational Church. Luther Wright (see 1848: Responding to the World) was Samuel’s boyhood friend, lately the Principal at Leicester Academy, and would serve as the Seminary’s first Principal. The only non-clergyman in the group was Samuel’s younger brother John Payson Williston (see Firebrand). These men would become the core of Williston Seminary’s first Board of Trustees.
There was much to be done — indeed, it seems remarkable that ground would be broken for the first seminary building the following June 17, and that classes would meet in December. But consistent with their times, Williston and friends believed in action, sometimes at the expense of deliberation. Thus, it should perhaps be no surprise that Samuel Williston, who had strong feelings about education, took his time putting his thoughts to paper. But it needed to be done. Samuel expected his vision to provide direction to the Board and, as shall be seen, not only during his lifetime. A statement of mission was required. It took three years, but in 1845 Samuel Williston published The Constitution of Williston Seminary.Continue reading →