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Future Harvard President Writes Fellow Alumnus about Harvard and Preaching
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John T. Kirkland writes from Harvard College to fellow Harvard graduate Abiel Abbot, who is serving as a missionary and pastor in the remote District of Maine, then a part of Massachusetts. Although Kirkland thought Abbot would remain there, a year later, Abbot was at Harvard as a tutor, perhaps even replacing Kirkland, who became pastor of the New South Church in Boston.

[HARVARD UNIVERSITY]. JOHN T. KIRKLAND. Autograph Letter Signed, to Abiel Abbot, September 29, 1793, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 3 pp., 6 x 7¼ in.

Inventory #25141       Price: $1,950

Complete Transcript

                       Cambridge Sepr 29, 1793

My Dear Sir,

            From April 26, when your letter was dated, which I received soon after to Sepr 29 is a long time for me to have been preparing to answer your entertaining epistle; but I really don’t feel ready yet; for you tell me that ‘I am surrounded with the solids of science, decorated with the most beautiful flowers; have learned authors, learned friends, all combining to explore the areana of the universe: from this great centre of Scientific Light, you require me to scatter rays upon you”: Whenever I have read this passage the high estimation you make of my advantages; The large demand you put in consequence of them being contrasted with my scanty resources, has made me defer the answer till now, & now, I make it, without any of the rays of knowledge, you require: However other things have had some influence—indolence, apathy dejection, procrastination, to-morrow; (a cheat <2> & rascal, a baffler of all good designs)—A better reason that all is that, Brother Abbot, I am a preacher, as well as you. The Sixth Sabbath since I was delivered of my first born has past: & I had as few throes & pangs as, I suppose, usually accompany theological parturition[1] in the first instance. The Congregation of the New South in Boston, I am engaged to supply a few Sabbaths more: I was not provident enough to be supplied with a sufficient number of sermons before-hand, & I have been obliged to draw upon my poor bankrupt invention for several in the month past: so that letters the less were obliged to give way to Sermons the greater:

            We move on with regularity in <3> College System at present. The time for excentricities I think must soon arrive. May Kind Heaven post-pone it:

            I conceive that you must feel ye want of books greatly: I wish I could lend you a thousand or two of ours: I would buy a library, were I in your case: From information I conclude you will be invited to settle, where you are. its remoteness from ministers, churches &c are inconveniences; but such as will continually lessen: everything around you is on the progressive order; agriculture, trade, arts; sciences; manners & religion, & you will have it in your power to do great good, & which is synonymous, enjoy great happiness; the pleasure enjoyed by your heart is exactly proportioned to that which you communicate. Any commands, with which you will entrust me, I will rejoice to execute.

                                                                        I am yours sincerely

                                                                        J. T. Kirkland

Mr A. Abbot


[Address:] Mr Abiel Abbot V.D.M.[2] / Penobscot.

[Docketing:] J. T. Kirkland / Sepr 29-93 / Ocr 9 —

Historical Background

Although beloved by students at Harvard University, John T. Kirkland was known to be disorganized. Part of the oral tradition surrounding Kirkland, as recorded by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (1809-1894), is that he stored his sermons in a barrel, where they became separated and mixed. When preparing to preach, he would retrieve the number of pages he thought would be about enough for the sermon and patch them together as best he could.

Eighteen years after Kirkland wrote this letter, Abbot was dismissed from his church in Coventry, Connecticut, for heresy in denying the deity of Jesus Christ. In response, Kirkland wrote “a vigorous defense of the Reverend Abiel Abbot and severe criticism of the Assembly which ‘decreed that he forfeited both his parish and his office.’”

John T. Kirkland (1770-1840) was born in Oneida County, New York, to a missionary among the Native Americans. His parents placed him in Phillips Academy in 1784, when he was thirteen years old. Kirkland graduated from Harvard College in 1789 with high honors and became a tutor of logic and metaphysics at his alma mater in 1792. While teaching in Cambridge, Kirkland also delivered sermons at Boston’s New South Church; he would serve as that church’s pastor from 1794 to 1810. He served as president of Harvard University from 1810 to 1828. Under his leadership, Harvard became national in scope, attracting students from the South and West as well as New England and New York. The university expanded rapidly with new professors, new buildings, and the founding of the Law School (1817) and Divinity School (1819). Kirkland established new areas of instruction in chemistry, mineralogy, anatomy, physiology, and elocution. Faced with riots over who was to give the commencement address in 1823, Kirkland expelled half the senior class just prior to graduation. Public backlash to the disorder led to the removal of the state subsidy of $10,000 in 1824 and an investigation of the University’s finances. The investigation found Harvard a fiscal fiasco, and economies including pay cuts for professors followed. When criticized by the corporation in 1828, Kirkland resigned and traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East until 1832.

Abiel Abbot (1765-1859) was born in New Hampshire and graduated from Harvard College in 1787. He served as an assistant and later principal at Phillips Andover Academy from 1787 to 1789. Licensed to preach in 1790, Abbot served as a missionary in Maine and New Hampshire, including time in Penobscot and Castine, Maine in 1793. He served as a tutor at Harvard College in 1794-1795, and served as pastor in Coventry, Connecticut, from 1795 to 1811, when he was dismissed for heresy. From 1812 to 1819, he was the principal of an academy in Byfield, Massachusetts and later a teacher. From 1827 to 1848, he was pastor of the Congregational Church at Peterborough, New Hampshire. There in 1833, he was instrumental in the founding of the first free public library in the world supported by taxation. He received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Harvard in 1838. [Abbot is often confused with Abiel Abbot (1770-1828), who graduated from Harvard University in 1792, taught at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1793, and pastored churches in Haverhill, Massachusetts (1794-1803) and Beverly, Massachusetts (1803-1828).]


Very good condition overall; several tears and splits professionally mended.

[1] Childbirth.

[2] Verbi Dei Minister, or Minister of the Divine Word.

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