In June 21, 1663, the men of Groton, Massachusetts voted to make Samuel Willard their pastor "for as long as he lives." Samuel had preached to the little frontier town for a few months during the illness of its last pastor, John Miller. Now he accepted the offer cautiously, saying he would remain unless "a manifest Providence of God" took him away.
Providence did take him away, thirteen years later. By then, Samuel had married and produced a fine Puritan family. Groton had grown to a town of almost 400 people. Other towns in Massachusetts were growing, too.
In 1675, native americans, troubled by white encroachment on their lands, formed an alliance under King Philip, second son of Chief Massasoit. They hoped to exterminate the colonies. For two years they ravaged the towns and villages of New England. Samuel wrote to the authorities in the east, pleading for a garrison of soldiers in each town. Major Simon Willard, Samuel's father, with just forty troops was attempting to protect Lancaster, Groton and Sudbury.
On February 10th, Lancaster fell to Indian attack. On March 10, 1676 the Indians attacked Groton and Sudbury, killing several people, but doing little other damage. Puritans throughout the colony fasted and prayed. The relieved people of Groton may have felt that they had had their turn and come through with little harm. If so, they deceived themselves, for on this day, March 13, 1676, four hundred Indians attacked Groton a second time.
With Major Willard and his force off on an expedition, the Indians burned most of the houses. Samuel's house escaped, because it was fortified. Nonetheless, the Indians burned the church and then taunted the preacher, asking, "What will you do for a house to pray in now we have burned your Meeting-house?" The Indians remained in the town overnight. Next morning, they desecrated a few corpses and set heads up on poles. By the time Major Willard returned four days later, they were long gone.
With over forty homes and many other buildings burned, the survivors decided to abandon the town. Samuel took his family to live with a sister. About two months later, he was offered a position as assistant pastor at Boston's prestigious Old South Church.
The change was significant not only for him, but for New England. His new position brought him into the forefront of the fight for Puritan orthodoxy (which opposed Arminianism and Unitarianism). Having dealt gently with a case of witchcraft at Groton, he was a strong critic of the Salem Witch Trials. He played a prominent part in the synod of 1679 which insisted on holding to strict Calvinism. Eventually he became the acting president of Harvard College, although he continued to serve as pastor to South Church. It was in his capacity as minister that he baptized an infant named Benjamin Franklin.
Samuel died the year after he baptized Franklin. Thomas Prince and another follower printed his lectures on the Shorter Westminster Catechism in a thousand-page volume titled A Complete Body of Divinity.
- "Historical Sketch of Groton, Massachusetts l655 - l890" http://www.genexchange.org/historyreg.cfm?state=MA &ID=947
- "Samuel Willard (1640-1707)." http://www.sdgbooks.com/sdgbooks/hall4_willard.html
- Van Dyken, Seymour. Samuel Willard, 1640-1707; preacher of orthodoxy in an era of change. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.
- "Willard, Samuel." Fire and Ice: Puritan and Reformed Writings. http://www.puritansermons.com/bio/ biowilla.htm
Last updated June, 2007.