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The Church in Harvard Square: The Reverend Mr. Holmes

The Reverend Mr. Holmes

Portrait of Abiel Holmes, D.D., from the First Parish in Cambridge Archives.

Portrait of Abiel Holmes, D.D., from the First Parish in Cambridge Archives.

Abiel Holmes (1763-1837), a native of Connecticut and a Yale graduate, was installed as minister of the Cambridge church and parish in 1792. A moderate Calvinist, his relationships with the liberal ministers of the Boston area were cordial until late in life when, under pressure from his evangelical colleagues, he adopted a policy of refusing to exchange pulpits with the liberal Christians. Holmes was a historian of some consequence, the author of Annals of America (1805) and a Corresponding Secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society. His first wife was the daughter of Earl Stiles, President of Yale. His second wife was the daughter of Judge Oliver Wendell; Oliver Wendell Holmes was their son. The Holmes house, pictured below, was given to Mrs. Holmes by her father, Judge Wendell, as a wedding present. It was located on the site where Littauer now stands.

From the Archives of the First Parish in Cambridge.

Letter from Holmes, 1827. From the First Parish in Cambridge Archives.(Transcription)

Protest letter from Holmes, 1829:

Cambridge 11 June 1829


I received yesterday through you, as Parish Clerk, a certified copy of the votes of the Parish, passed on the 8th instant. By these votes I perceive that my connection with the Parish, as their minister, is declared to be dissolved, that a dimission, in pursuance of the result of the ex-parte council, recently call by said Parish, is supposed to take place. As I have previously entered my protest against the jurisdiction of this council and have denied their right to take any cognisance of the complaint exhibited against me by the Parish, I now give notice to you, and through you to the inhabitants of the Parish, that I still consider myself as the lawful minister of the Parish, and hold myself ready to perform any and all the duties, in or out of the pulpit, which belong to my office as Pastor of the First Church and Society in Cambridge.

A. Holmes

You are requested to communicate this to the committee of the Parish who have cognisance of the subject; and I ask the favor of an early answer.


To William J. Whipple, Esq.
Clerk of the First Parish in Cambridge

The Holmes Residence in 1807.

The Holmes Residence in 1807.

Back ^ Letter from Holmes, 1827

Brethren and Friends,

In reply to your first memorial I am not conscious of having given occasion for the remarks and strictures in your second. Whatever may be the present difference between me and a part of my parishioners “in some important religious theories”, I am at a loss to conjecture on what ground you allege that “ this difference in a great degree is co-eval with my ordination in this Parish.” The Church and Society, with the knowledge of my religious principles, were remarkably unanimous in inviting me to become their minister. It was this unanimity, which more clearly than anything else indicated to me my duty to accept the invitation. It was this, which encouraged me to undertake the difficult and laborious work of the ministry in this place; and the dictating to my hearers what they must believe. I merely present to them what I believe to be scriptural truths inculcating it upon them to search the scriptures for themselves; to compare what is preached with the word of God; and to be “ready to give an answer to everyone that asketh a reason” of their faith and hope. As this is the duty of every hearer, so it is the duty of every preacher of the word. “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracle of God” A minister of the gospel is solemnly bound to study the scriptures diligently, to expound them clearly, and to apply them faithfully “ commending himself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. This has been, and by the grace of God shall be, my aim in this ministry. “The apostolic precept is binding upon me and upon every minister of Christ.” “Take heed to thyself and to thy doctrine, continue in them; for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee.” By any other course I could not reasonable expect to save either. As therefore I regard your salvation or my own, I must observe this precept. “Necessity is laid upon me, yea, woe is unto me”, if I preach not the gospel,”according to my understanding of it,” and of “the ability which God giveth.” Nor does my responsibility stop here. It extends to the ministration performed in my place, through my voluntary agency.

Believing therefore, as I do believe, that neither the unity and peace, no the moral and religious interests of the Church and Society, would be promoted by the proposed diversity of preaching, but, on the contrary, the most unhappy division, and the most injurious effects, to the present, and probably to future generations, I cannot either as your minister or as your friend, be accessory to it. As far as it is inconsistent with “ holding faith and a good conscience,” I would “become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.” If I seem to disregard the wishes, or the taste, of my hearers, it is because I am more desirous to save , than to please them. Nor can I ever forget the solemn declaration of an apostle — indelibly impressed upon my mind in the text; and by the Discourse upon it, at my Ordination; “Now if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.”

Gratefully remembering the assurance you have given me, that you “should be most unwilling to interfere with my conviction of duty,” I persuade myself that, on mature reflection, you will ask of me no greater pledge, than that which I gave to this church and People when they were committed to my pastoral care. This I am ready to renew, as, in the presence of God, to whom I must soon “give an account of my ministry.”

Commending you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and praying that we may mutually “endeavour to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace,”

I am,

Bretheren and Friends,

Your friend and servant in the gospel,

A. Holmes

Cambridge, 17, Nov. 1827

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Categories: Cambridge & Harvard, Congregational Polity