1814: William Buell Sprague to Rev. Abiel Abbott

Early 19th Century Drawing of Yale College and State House in New Haven, CT

This letter was written by William Buell Sprague (1795-1876) — a native of Hebron, Connecticut. “After preparing for college as a protégé of the Reverend Abiel Abbot, Sprague attended Yale College, graduating in 1815. In 1816 he traveled to Woodlawn in Virginia, where he became a tutor for the family of Major Lawrence Lewis, who was a nephew of George Washington. Sprague continued tutoring until he entered Princeton Theological Seminary, where he was a student until 1819.

On August 25, 1819, William Buell Sprague was ordained and installed as an assistant to the Reverend Doctor Joseph Lathrop, pastor of the Congregational Church of West Springfield, Massachusetts. Upon Dr. Lathrop’s death in 1820, Sprague became the pastor of Congregational Church, serving for ten years. His second pastorate was the Second Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York, which he assumed in 1829. During his forty years as pastor of this church he became one of the most widely recognized American clergymen of his day. Sprague was known as an eloquent speaker, a scholar of Protestant history and biography, a prolific author of more than 150 titles, and an avid collector of autograph manuscripts.

Sprague’s most enduring work, his nine-volume Annals of the American Pulpit (1857-1869), continues to provide invaluable information regarding Protestant ministers in America through 1850. Sprague’s other publications included numerous biographies, collections of his sermons and addresses, as well as two compilations of letters, Letters from Europe (1828) and Visits to European Celebrities (1856), which chronicled his travels and encounters during two excursions to Europe.

As a collector of pamphlets, manuscripts, and autographs, Sprague’s tenacity was unmatched. At the time of his death, Sprague had amassed more than 40,000 autographs, including 1,500 George Washington letters, which he had been allowed to select during his days at Woodlawn, a collection considered the largest and most valuable in the United States at that time. During his lifetime he had acquired a complete set of autographs of signers of the Declaration of the Independence and the Constitution, as well as generals of the American Revolution.

After his resignation at Albany, Sprague made his home with a son at Flushing, New York, where he died on May 7, 1876.” Source: Malone, Dumas (ed.) Dictionary of American Biography. Volume IX. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964. pp. 475-477.

Sprague wrote the letter to his mentor, Rev. Abiel Abbot (1765-1859) — a Unitarian minister who is said to have originated the idea of a free, tax-supported public library. A Harvard graduate in 1787, Abbot taught in Phillips Andover Academy until 1789, studied theology, and worked as a missionary in Maine. In 1794 he tutored Greek in Harvard. In 1795, he was ordained a minister of a church in Coventry, Connecticut, and the following year (1796), he married Eunice, eldest daughter of Ebenezer Wales of Dorchester. Abbot was dismissed from Congregationalist ministry in Coventry for his Unitarian views — a case publicized in The Panoplist by Jedidiah Morse, leading opponent of the liberals. Until 1819, he taught at the Dummer Academy, then became a farmer in North Andover until 1827, when he became pastor of church in Peterborough, New Hampshire, until 1848. In 1829, Abbot wrote the History of Andover, and in 1847 he wrote the Genealogy of the Abbot Family.

Stampless Cover


Addressed to Reverend Abiel Abbot, Principal of Dummer Academy, Newbury, Massachusetts

Yale College
August 12th 1814

Dear Sir,

Page 1

You may think I am unassailable in troubling you so often with my letters — especially as they contain not much that is interesting, & the views of a collegian scarcely extend beyond his reading room. I confess that my motives are selfish for I have no other means of hearing from you than your letters & I am disposed to do every thing in my power to obtain them.

I returned here a few weeks ago with an intention to remain until commencement if my health permits. I am sorry to say, however, that my complaints have increased with the heat of the season, & I am too much of an invalid to pursue my studies to advantage. My appetite for food fails & of course my strength with it so that I am unable to take much exercise or of a kind which is the most beneficial. The government of college are quite indulgent — especially my tutor who gives me leave to dispose of my time as I choose & to be absent from any college exercises which my health requires. We have an examination towards the end of the term; otherwise I should go home before commencement. I have forced myself under the care of Dr. Ives, & am going through with a regular course of medicine under his direction. If that fails, I have some reason to fear that my disorder will terminate unfavorably. I have a fever which returns at a certain time regularly every day, & many other complaints which make me afraid that I am inclined to be hectical. I shall not dissolve my connection with college until I am obliged to as the studies of next year are easy & will not require close application. Vacation is approaching, & I hope that a change of air will affect my health favorably.

Page 2

Yesterday there was a meeting of our societies in which was discussed the question “Whether Jesus be the supreme God?” I was concerned, and the only person who dare risk his reputation for orthodoxy by appearing on the ______. I made very copious extracts from Christian Purity & some other Unitarian writers & I think I may say, without assuming any improper vanity, that I compiled a tolerably good dispute. I was not under the necessity of giving credit to these authors, as nobody had heard of them before; & of course I could take the hour to myself & claim to be quite original. I had the pleasure to observe that my arguments were more easily laughed at & ridiculed than answered. The discussion continued 4 hours & was the warmest one which I have ever heard. I fatigued myself very imprudently, & today am hardly able to go about. It was a good cause, however, & one which deserves to be supported at the hazard of health. Perhaps I have never made myself quite so obnoxious before, but I could not have avoided it without incurring the imputation of a coward.

Page 3

[Rev.] Mr. [Joshua] Huntington of Boston preached here this week & with the majority of his audience was quite popular. His preaching appeared to me but little else than “Sound & fury signifying nothing.” ¹ It is not strange, I suppose, that orthodox preaching should be rather ungracious to heretical ears. Dr. [Timothy] Dwight has been preaching several sermons on the doctrines of original sin & total depravity. Last evening he told us the number of prostitutes in London, Paris, New York, &c. It was the famous sermon which procured him so much disgrace among the ladies at Hartford. I should think he might as well be employed in doing something towards effecting a reformation as to be always harping upon depravity. Mr. [Matthew Rice] Dutton, who was expected to have succeeded to the theological professorship, is soon to be ordained in Stratford.

I have lately heard from Joseph. He is well and appears to be quite happy. [Jared] Sparks is absent from college on account of ill health. Joel thinks of exchanging his situation in the course of the next year. Will you write soon and direct to this place. Please to make my regards to Mrs. Abbot & the young ladies, & believe me yours with affection, — William Buell Sprague


¹ “Sound & Fury, signifying nothing” is a line from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


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