University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department

Letters from
William Buell Sprague

1834 - 1874

Manuscript Collection Number: 99 (F551)
Accessioned: Purchase, 1996.
Extent: 18 items.
Content: Letters.
Access: The collection is open for research.
Processed: January 1997 by Anita A. Wellner.

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Table of Contents

Biographical Note

American clergyman, biographer, and autograph collector William Buell Sprague was born in Hebron, Connecticut, on October 16, 1795. 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.

Although Sprague was zealous in his collecting, his own opinion of collectors is recorded thus: "I would advise you to have as little to do with an autograph collector as possible, for though there are some honorable exceptions yet, as a class, I think they rank A No. 1 in point of meanness. " (DAB, IX, p. 477)

After his resignation at Albany, Sprague made his home with a son at Flushing, New York, where he died on May 7, 1876.


Malone, Dumas (ed.) Dictionary of American Biography. Volume IX. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964. pp. 475-477.

Scope and Content Note

Two subjects, collecting autographs and compiling his Annals of the American Pulpit, dominate the seventeen letters written by William Buell Sprague in this collection. In his letters written to several clergy, Sprague solicits information on Protestant ministers who are to be profiled in Annals. In his letters to friends or acquaintances, he discusses his collection of autographs. In some cases he actually sends a coveted autograph and in other cases he offers to examine documents in an attempt to authenticate the author. Written between 1836 and 1874, these letters convey Sprague's passion for both his vocation, ministry, and his avocation, autograph collecting.

The collection also includes one letter which was not written by William Buell Sprague. Written in 1834 by I. K. Tefft to John Moir, the letter is related to the collection in that it discusses autograph collecting.

The letters in this collection are arranged in chronological order.

Contents List

Folder -- Contents

F551 Tefft, I. K.
        To John Moir
     1834 Apr 27         ALS       3p

     Sprague, William Buell, 1795-1876.
        To Unidentified
     1836 Mar 27         ALS       2p
     1837 Jan 1               ALS       3p

        To James Thomas Fields, 1816-1881.
     1843 Nov 16         ALS       1p

        To [Samuel Colman]
     1846 Jan 17              ALS       3p

        To Reverend C. Ellis
     1849 Aug 8               ALS       3p

        To [Eleazar T. Fitch]
     1851 Oct 6               ALS       3p

        To Dr. Peabody
     1855 Jun 2               ALS       4p

        To Reverend Professor Packard
     1856 Nov 25         ALS       2p

        To Dr. Hatfield
     1857 Sep 2               ALS       1p

        To Unidentified
     1859 Jan 24              ALS       1p
     1860 Oct 1               ALS       2p
          Nov 8               ALS       4p
     1866 Oct 17              ALS       1p

        To Dr. Hatfield
     1867 Oct 17              ALS       1p

        To Unidentified
     1868 Apr 30         ALS       1p
     1870 Apr 21         ALS       1p
     1874 Mar 21         ALS       1p

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