You are here

Engaging the Past as Courage for the Future

Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
Jun 17 2012


Nancy S. Taylor (the Twentieth Senior Minister) on Thomas Thacher (First) and Samuel Willard (Second)

Over the course of the past seven years I have spent much time in the company of this league of extraordinary gentlemen. I have endeavored to know them, learn from them and, not least, through their sermons and prayers, their deeds and their decisions, gain access to the times in which they ministered.

They say that so much depends on one’s formative years ... on how one is nurtured and guided from infancy. Under the leadership of our first two ministers, Thomas Thacher and Samuel Willard, Old South got a very, very good start.

Our first minister was Thomas Thacher. Born in England, himself the son of a minister, Thomas’s father was prepared to send him to Oxford of Cambridge. However, as young Thomas identified with the religious dissenters, he availed himself of the opportunity of sailing with his uncle to New England. After a two-month voyage he arrived here in 1630 at the grand age of 15 years-old. He soon came under the tutelage of the scholar, Charles Chancy (who would become the second president of Harvard).

Over time Thacher grew to become an eminent scholar in his own right. Versed in ancient tongues (Syriac, Hebrew, Greek and Latin), his powers of dispute and debate were formidable. Among the most popular preachers of his day his sermons were described as “elaborate and affectionate.” Cotton Mather said of his prayers that they were like “heaven upon earth, that his tongue was touched with a coal from God’s altar”. He composed a Hebrew lexicon and authored a catechism for new Christians.

A father to three sons and two daughters, Thacher read the scriptures to his family both morning and evening. In his leisure, he built time-pieces, clocks and watches.

Like many of the New England divines, Thacher trained as both doctor and minister. In the manner of Jesus, he was physician both to the body and to the soul.

In 1677, there came upon New Englanders a horrifying outbreak of the measles and small pox. With too few doctors and far too little medicine, many hundreds would die. Thacher, acting quickly, wrote “A Brief Rule to Guide the Common People of New England How to Order Themselves and Theirs in the Small Pox or Measles”. Addressing the medical trinity of diagnosis, treatment and prevention he wrote out everything this desperate and under-doctored population needed to know. He took it to a printer, had numerous copies published, and posted them widely.

Shortly thereafter, while visiting a fevered patient, Thacher himself took ill and died.

Among the tributes to his memory, is a Greek verse written by Eleazor, an Indian youth studying at Harvard (translated here):

Though earth contains his dust, his name is yet immortal :
It shall light the future ages as o’er the past it beamed :
While his soul set free from prison, seeks the ever-open portal
Where the shining ones are waiting to welcome the redeemed.

Thacher’s Brief Rule was the single most important publication of its day. It was published twice more, posthumously, during subsequent epidemics.

Johns Hopkins Medical School avers that Thacher’s medical broadside was the first patient information brochure on this soil. They count our Thomas Thacher among the important contributors in the history of modern medicine.

Our second minister, Samuel Willard, graduated Harvard in 1659. Like his predecessor, Samuel Willard was a scholar-pastor. Among the brightest clerics of his day, he wrote and published “A Complete Body of Divinity: composed of two-hundred and fifty expository lectures.” In this, the largest tome ever published in the Colonies, often called New England’s Summa Theologica, he summarized the faith of the Puritan fathers.

Willard was serving a church in Groton, MA, when the entire town was dispersed by Indians during King Philip’s War. Willard and his family fled to Boston. Old South minister Thomas Thacher was ailing and they turned to Samuel Willard for help. When Mr. Thacher died shortly thereafter, Mr. Willard was appointed to the pastorate.

Fourteen years into Willard’s pastorate a strange hysteria broke out 18 miles from here, in the town of Salem. Regrettably, our Church was not so far away as to escape the madness. Some of our members were accused of witchcraft (including such respected personages as John Aldan and Mrs. Thacher, widow of our first minister). Others of our members were accusers. Four of our members served as judges in that appalling miscarriage of justice.

With a keen mind and a good heart, Samuel Willard studied the phenomena and determined its foolishness. At the risk both of his reputation and his life, he placed himself between accused and accuser. Employing his pastoral and learned voice, and his erudite pen, he urged New Englanders to regain their reason.

He chastised the judges. He and other clergy were eventually successful in forcing the Governor to dismantle the special court of Oyer and Terminer, the court established to hear “spectral evidence”.

Thirty-two so-called witches were executed in New England in 1692. Thirty-two. Had it not been for a handful of courageous clergy like our Samuel Willard, many more would certainly have perished. After all, at the same time across Europe, tens of thousands were executed.

Concurrent with his obligations as the Minister to this church, Willard served for six years (until his death) as the acting president of Harvard. Why acting? Harvard required of its President that he lived on their side of the Charles. Willard, pastoring on this side of the Charles and well-ensconced in our parsonage, had no intention of moving. Harvard liked him so well, however, that they kept him, but were prevented by statute from naming him president. Yet for six full years he served as with distinction as Harvard’s president in everything but title.

In his sixty-seventh year, Mr. Willard took grievously ill. On September 12, 1707 Samuel Sewell writes, that he “saw my dear pastor expire” and reports “There was a doleful cry in the house.” On September 17th the funeral procession wound through town. Fellows and students of Harvard led. The Governor and his lady were there, as were a great many townspeople and parishioners. Mr. Sewell was laid in tomb No. 160 in the Granary Burying-ground.

Our first two pastors set a remarkable tone for this congregation. In a season of desperation, Rev. Thacher delivered urgently needed medical information without charge. Rev. Willard served as an ad hoc public defender of those accused of witchcraft. From the very first, our ministries were never insular, always expansive; never merely private, but also public ... equal parts mercy and justice, intellect and heart, courage and conviction ... a favorable combination of tender pastoral affection twined with disciplined intellect and a sure moral compass.

On this Father’s Day, I give God thanks for our first fathers: for Thomas and Samuel.

Complete Sermon Transcript

with Jeff Makholm, Old South Church Historian; Rev. James W. Crawford, Senior Minister Emeritus; Peter H. Meek, son of Rev. Frederick M. Meek; Guilliaem Aertsen, former Old South Church Trustee; and Pamela Roberts, former Old South Church Moderator.