Rev. J T Kirkland, DD
On July 6, 1809, when our founders first gathered, Rev. John Thornton Kirkland was the pastor of the New South Church in Boston, and had been there for some 16 years. In just a few short months, after the sudden death of fellow founder Samuel Webber, Rev. Kirkland would be selected to succeed Rev. Webber as president of Harvard.
Born with a twin brother in New York on Aug. 17, 1770 while his father was a missionary to the Native Peoples of that state, Rev. Kirkland lived among the Oneida for the first two years of his life. The area then became unsafe for a young family and the boys were removed with their mother to her native home in Windham, Connecticut. Looking for the nearest settlement to the Hudson, the family then purchased a home in Stockbridge, where Rev. Kirkland remained, receiving a frontier education, mostly from his mother. Kicked by a horse at only four years old, he retained the scar on his forehead for the rest of his life.
At age thirteen he went to Phillips Academy in Andover and was placed under the care of fellow MBS founder, Eliphalet Pearson. With no money in the family, young Kirkland was taken in by Samuel Phillips (later Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts) who boarded him and paid his tuition. At fifteen, he began his studies at Harvard College, where his tuition was eleven pounds and five shillings, the lowest tuition allowed by the government. In his junior year, after the death of his mother, he took the summer to join the small army that put down the Shays rebellion. He graduated in 1789 with particular expertise in Latin and metaphysics, returning to tutor in those subjects from 1792-94. In 1793 he became the pastor of the New South Church in Boston. He received his D.D. from Princeton in 1802.
Of his preaching, Alexander Young, in his discourse on the life of President Kirkland, wrote: “He always spoke from a crowded and overflowing mind. Although he said so much, you felt that there was much more behind unsaid. He poured himself forth in a full stream of thought, which evidently flowed from a living and inexhaustible fountain. Chief Justice Parsons used to say that Dr. Kirkland put more thought into one sermon than other ministers did into five. A single sermon of his would sometimes contain a whole body of divinity.”
On November 14, 1810, Rev. Kirkland became the President of Harvard. Of his presidency Young writes: “Under his administration the course of studies was remodeled and enlarged, and the qualifications for admission and the standard of scholarship were raised. The Institution became, for the first time, in reality as well as in name, a University. The Law School was established, the Medical School resuscitated and reorganized, and the Theological School erected into a separate department; and able and learned professors and lecturers were placed in the chairs of the several Faculties. Four permanent professorships were added, endowed, and filled, in the Academic department, and the salaries of all the instructors were augmented.” After a stroke in 1827, President Kirkland was forced by his health to resign. He died on April 26, 1840.