DePaul University Special Collections and Archives recently accepted a remarkable volume of sermons titled A Compleat Body of Divinity (1726), by one of colonial America’s most renowned theologians, Samuel Willard (1640-1707). This substantial work was generously donated to the collection by Dr. Richard Yanikoski, who served DePaul for nearly twenty years, including as director of DePaul’s Department of Institutional Research and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs.
Samuel Willard began his career in the church when he moved to the frontier settlement of Groton, Massachusetts to become the town’s minister after completing his studies at Harvard in 1662. It was in Groton that Willard first published a work on the mystery of his faith. Willard’s 1673 Useful Instructions is a collection of sermons given to reassure the town at a time of particularly heightened anxiety. When 16 year-old Elizabeth Knapp began to show signs of demonic possession, Willard attempted to deliver her from her troubles while rigorously noting his observations. In the published work that followed, Willard advocated for a practical combination of prayer and cross-examination in cases like Elizabeth’s. Historians have lauded Willard for his “clinical” and “level-headed” approach to demonic possession and historian Perry Miller even speculated that had Willard’s report “been studied [it] might have cured the Salem Witches.” Willard continued to campaign for a measured and prudent response when accusations of witchcraft were reported in Salem nearly two decades later. His protégé, Ebenezer Pemberton, said of him “In that Dark and Mysterious Season [the Salem witch trials of 1692], when we were assaulted from the Invisible World…how Singularly Instrumental he [Willard] was in discovering the Cheats and Delusions of Satan, which did threaten to stain our Land with Blood, and to deluge it with all manner of Woes.”
Although Willard’s historiography is heavily focused on his thoughts regarding demons and witches, this salacious subject only makes up a small fraction of his theological tracts. The scope of Willard’s writing distinguishes him as the colonial theologian who most systematically and thoroughly expounded on the whole circle of religion. After moving to Boston as a result of King Philip’s War, Willard gained a great deal of fame for his sermons and was asked to serve as a pastor of the Old South Church (where he baptized Benjamin Franklin) and as acting president of Harvard. It is not surprising, therefore, that after his sudden death in 1707 there was a great demand for a published edition of his sermons. The resulting book was appropriately titled A Compleat Body of Divinity and is now housed in DePaul University Special Collections and Archives.
Willard’s monumental tome spans over 1000 pages and took a team of compilers, editors, and printers 18 years to complete. Owing to the relative infancy of the colonial presses, no one print shop could successfully produce the work; instead, a coordinated group of printers simultaneously printed portions of the work. At the time of its creation, this unprecedented effort was the largest book printed in the American Colonies, other than collected volumes of laws. In the preface to the work the reader is told that many were eager for the publication and that their desire “…had very strangely rather increas’d than declin’d for these Eighteen Years among us; so as hardly any Book has been more passionately wish’d for, till this growing Country is become now capable of taking off the Impression of so great a Work, the largest that was Printed Here.”
Special Collections and Archives is honored to receive the gift of such a considerable work which will support students studying a range of subjects from early American history and reformed theology to print history and history of ideas. For additional information about A Compleat Body of Divinity, or other rare book or archival materials, please contact Special Collections and Archives at firstname.lastname@example.org or stop by our department in the John T. Richardson Library, Room 314.