Tag Archives: Samuel Williston

“My Dear Parents . . .” 19th Century Students Write Home

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

[Note: This post is an expansion of an article published in the Williston Bulletin in 2000.  A few of the quoted documents have appeared elsewhere in this blog.]

Anyone pursuing the history of Williston Seminary’s first four decades might assume that the task involves the study of dry, formal documents, the records of austere men shaping the serious minds of New England’s youth under the benevolent gaze of a saintly founder.  Fortunately, we have an antidote.  At a time when telephones and email were not even a dream, students wrote long, lively, personal letters, dozens of which are preserved in the Williston Northampton Archives.  Most we have in manuscript; a few are copies or transcriptions of documents in private hands.

While much was happening in the 19th century world, most students’ letters barely acknowledge events away from school and home.  Their concerns were necessarily more local: classes, friends, money.  These letters let them speak with their own voices, and provide a fascinating window into their daily lives.

The campus in 1845, showing Principal Wright’s house, the First Church, English (Middle) Hall, and the White Seminary. (Click images to enlarge.)

Their writing was hardly that of finished scholars.  Samuel Williston once admonished that “Bad orthography, bad penmanship, or bad grammar— bad habits in any of the rudiments— if they be not corrected in the preparatory school, will probably be carried through College and not unlikely extend themselves to other studies and pursuits.”  Perhaps to prove his point, we have mostly left the writers’ syntax alone, making only minimal corrections.  Indeed, as student Abner Austin wrote his family in 1856, in a sentence spectacularly devoid of any punctuation whatsoever,  “Mr. Williston is not the teacher he has nothing to do with it no more than you have he is the founder of it therefore it is called the Williston Seminary.”

By mid-century many New England towns were connected by rail, but in 1854 the line had not yet reached Easthampton.  That April, Charles Carpenter wrote his father,

I arrived safely at No. H. on Tuesday morning.  On the way, met (in the cars) with a young fellow, like myself, Williston-bound.  Had to wait in No. H. all day — crowds of students came up in the train — and several stages and teams were in readiness to convey them over.  Ten of us got into a three seated wagon.  It was most terrific going — mud and melted snow formed a horrible coalition — Could hardly get out of a walk, a single step.  We suffered the greatest trouble, however, in fear that other students would get ahead of us and engage the rooms; but after two hours we arrived — “put” for the “Sem.”  The Chief Boss of the Institution, Mr. Marsh, is absent, on account of dangerous family sickness — and everything went hurly-burly. Continue reading

“A man whose God laughs little . . .”

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

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 archives@williston.com.

Samuel Williston

The Quotable Sammy

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

WNS15ALM10_175l small lr

[Looking for links to the posts cited in the Spring 2017 Williston Northampton Bulletin?  Please click “Ford Hall Turns 100” and “Worms.”]

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.

415_1125b LR“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

(Williston founded his Seminary in 1841, but it took him four more years to publish his thoughts about what he was attempting.  See “The Constitution of Williston Seminary” for more detail.)

“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

The Constitution of Williston Seminary

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

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.

incorporation 1

incorporation 2
Acts and Resolves Passed by the Legislature of Massachusetts in the year 1841. Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, Printers to the State, 1841.

WNS15ALM10_175l small lrSamuel 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.

Samuel Williston in the 1840s (Emily Williston Memorial Library and Museum)
Samuel Williston in the 1840s (Emily Williston Memorial Library and Museum)

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