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COLLECTION Identifier: UAI 15.876

Papers of Joseph Willard


Joseph Willard (1738-1804) was a Congregational minister, a scholar of ancient Greek, astronomy, and mathematics, and the twelfth president of Harvard College, serving from 1781 to 1804. This collection primarily documents Willard’s religious work, as it contains over two hundred of his sermons. It also contains two pieces of Willard’s student work as a Harvard undergraduate, correspondence regarding his clerical responsibilities, a few letters to family members, administrative correspondence and memoranda from his Harvard presidency, notes for an unpublished Greek grammar, and a few pieces of personal memorabilia.


  • 1764-1804, 1838.


Conditions on Use and Access

The Papers of Joseph Willard are open for research use. Access to fragile original documents may be restricted. Please consult the reference staff for further details.


5 cubic feet (11 document boxes, 1 flat box, 1 artifact box, 2 volumes)

The collection contains over two hundred of Willard’s sermons delivered while serving as a Congregational minister and during his tenure as president of Harvard. It also contains two pieces of Willard’s student work as a Harvard undergraduate, correspondence regarding his clerical responsibilities, a few letters to family members, administrative correspondence, memoranda, and stock certificates from his Harvard presidency, notes for an unpublished Greek grammar, and a few pieces of personal memorabilia.


Joseph Willard (1738-1804) was the twelfth president of Harvard College, serving from 1781 to 1804.

Willard was born in 1738 in Biddeford, now in Maine, to the Reverend Samuel Willard and Abigail (Wright) Willard. After the death of his father, Willard and his two older brothers were raised in poverty. To help provide for his family, Willard taught school. Samuel Moody, a local schoolmaster, recognized Willard’s academic aptitude, helped him to prepare for college and arranged a scholarship to Harvard.

During his years as a student (1761-1768), Willard was noted as the best scholar in his class, with a particular talent for mathematics and astronomy. He worked his way through college, serving as a waiter and as Scholar of the House, a student position responsible for the repair of damage to student rooms. He also taught school in Lancaster, Massachusetts. In 1765, he was appointed College Butler, managing the storeroom for beer, other beverages, and College utensils. Willard received an A.B. degree in 1765 and an A.M. degree in 1768. From 1766 to 1768, Willard served as a tutor in Greek. He served as a member of the Harvard Corporation for one year (1768).

Willard resigned his position as tutor in 1772 to serve as minister of the First Church of Beverly, Massachusetts. According to a contemporary account, he was well-liked for being open-minded and non-dogmatic in religious matters.

Willard married Mary Sheafe, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1774. Of their thirteen children, Sidney (Harvard A.B. 1798) joined the Harvard faculty, and Joseph (Harvard A.B. 1816) became a prominent Massachusetts attorney.

One of Willard’s great interests was science. In addition to writing a number of articles on astronomy and mathematics, he kept in contact with American and European scholars. A founding member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he served as its first corresponding secretary beginning in 1780. He also held memberships in the American Philosophical Society, the Royal Society of England, the Medical Society of London, and the Royal Society of Göttingen.

In addition to mathematical and scientific interests, Willard was a scholar of ancient Greek and began research for a Greek grammar in 1781. Although he compiled extensive historical notes and analyses of the language, the grammar was never published.

Willard’s distinction as a scholar helped to recommend his appointment as president of Harvard in 1781. Although considered somewhat austere and autocratic by students, Willard earned their respect and that of the faculty for his conscientious attention to administrative matters. Under Willard’s leadership the University’s reputation grew. University entrance requirements were raised, instruction was updated with the introduction of new courses and texts, daily sermons were discontinued, additions to Harvard Hall were built, and the Harvard Medical School was established. Moreover, the University’s financial stability improved with several substantial gifts.

Willard fell ill in 1798 and spent the next several years in semi-retirement. He died in 1804. His wife Mary died in 1826.

  1. Cohen, Sheldon S. Willard, Joseph; 01/01-00973.html; American National Biography Online February 2000. Access Date: Friday February 4 11:51:47 EST 2005.
  2. Joseph Willard. Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936. Biography Resource Center. 4 February 2005.
  3. Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936.
  4. Shipton, Clifford K. Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College in the Classes 1764-1767, Sibley's Harvard Graduate Series, Vol. XVI. Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society,1972.
  5. Willard, Joseph and Charles Wilkes Walker. Willard Genealogy, Sequel to Willard Memoir. Edited by Charles Henry Pope. Boston, Massachusetts: Printed for the Willard Family Association, 1915.
  6. Willard, Sidney. Memories of Youth and Manhood. Vol. 1. Cambridge, Massachusetts: John Bartlett, 1855.

Series in the Collection

  1. Student work
  2. Correspondence
  3. Sermons
  4. Notes for Greek grammar
  5. Triennial Catalog
  6. Harvard memoranda
  7. Resolution of Harvard Corporation
  8. Stock certificates
  9. Personal memorabilia

Acquisition Information

The Papers of Joseph Willard were acquired by the Harvard University Archives through donation and purchase. Whenever possible the archivist noted the terms of acquisition in the folder list below. The acquisitions are as follows:

  1. Certificate of membership in the Royal Society of Göttingen (purchased from S.O. [Berganson?] in 1940)
  2. Letter from Joseph Willard to his parishioners, 1781 November 19 (typewritten copy, October 1909) (donated in 1909 by the Boston Public Library) The original of this letter was owned by Theodora Willard and exhibited at the BPL.
  3. Letter from Joseph Willard to John Hancock, 1785 February 19 (typewritten copy, October 1909) (donated in 1909 by the Boston Public Library) The original of this letter was owned by Theodora Willard and exhibited at the BPL.
  4. Letter from Joseph Willard to John Hancock, 1786 May 6 (donated in 1936 by Philip Spaulding)
  5. Letter from Joseph Willard to Reverend Dr. Hitchcock, 1796 December 1(donated in 1936 by the Friends of the Library)
  6. Letter from Joseph Willard to Samuel Willard, 1803 August 19 (purchased from the Howard-Tilton Memorial Libraryin 1948)
  7. Letter from Joseph Willard to Sidney Willard, 1804 January 25 (donated in 1948 by Mrs. Richard Hubbard )
  8. Notes for Greek grammar (donated on 1851 June 19 by Sidney Willard)
  9. On the power of love (donated in October 1956 by the St. James Methodist Church, Kingston, NY )
  10. Seal of President Willard (donated in 1935 by Theodora Willard)
  11. [Sermon] 2, Work out your own salvation, 1768 (donated in 1910 by Susanna and Theodora Willard)
  12. Stock certificate belonging to Joseph Willard, 1792 June 8 (donated in 1882 by Jeremiah Colburn)
  13. Triennial catalog (donated in 1818 by Israel Thorndike)
  14. Stock certificate belonging to Joseph Willard, 1792 March 16 (transferred in 2017)

Digitization Funding

Collections and items have been digitized with the generous support of The Polonsky Foundation.

Related Material

Citations to published versions of the documents in this collection are noted in the folder lists.

At the Harvard University Archives:
  1. Harvard University. Corporation. Harvard College Papers, 1st series, 1636-1825, 1831 (UAI 5.100):
  2. Harvard University. Corporation. Corporation papers, 1st series, supplements to the Harvard College Papers, circa 1650-1828 (UAI 5.120):
  3. Letter from Joseph Willard to Mrs. Mary Willard, September 12, 1802, found in George Goodspeed’s scrapbook of Harvardiana, 1734-1929 (HUA 734.11)
  4. 1799 Harvard University Commencement address / by President Joseph Willard, c1977 (HUC 6799.94)
  5. An address in Latin / by Joseph Willard, S.T.D. L.L.D. president ; and, a discourse in English / by David Tappan, S.T.D. Hollis Professor of Divinity : delivered before the University in Cambridge, Feb. 21, 1800, in solemn commemoration of General George Washington, 1800 (HUA 800.94 )
  6. Persecution opposite to the genius of the Gospel; a discourse delivered in the Chapel of Harvard College, September 7, 1785. Dudleian Lecture (HUC 5340.85)
At the Houghton Library, Harvard University:
  1. Willard Family Papers, 1797-1828
At the Cambridge Historical Society:
  1. Sermons, 1775-1777 by Joseph Willard
At the Massachusetts Historical Society:
  1. Joseph Willard sermons, 1774-1780

Inventory update

This document last updated 2021 August 4.

Processing Note

This material was first classified and described by the Harvard University Archives prior to 1980. The collection was reprocessed in 2005, with subsequent preparation for digitization in 2009. Reprocessing involved a collection survey, rehousing in size- and format-appropriate archival folders and boxes, and the creation of this finding aid. Preparation for digitization involved updates to the finding aid and the addition of links to the digital copies.

The digitization of Joseph Willard's papers was made possible in partby generous support from the Sidney Verba Fund.

Processing Information

This finding aid contains harmful language that is now considered racist and derogatory in the form of a term used at the time to describe the traffic of enslaved people. Contextual notes where this language appears are located at the folder level.

Willard, Joseph, 1738-1804. Papers of Joseph Willard: an inventory
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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