Term of office: 1806-1810
In the 18 months following the death of Joseph Willard, an epochal change swept through the University as liberal-minded Unitarians captured both the Hollis Professorship of Divinity (the institution’s oldest endowed chair) and the presidency. The new Hollis Professor was Henry Ware, Class of 1785. The new president was Samuel Webber (1759-1810) (himself rising from Harvard’s second oldest chair, the Hollis Professorship of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy).
“The Unitarian victory in this double trial of strength, a logical outcome of the liberal tradition that had been slowly gathering momentum since the days of [John] Leverett and [William] Brattle [influential tutors during the Mather administration, with Leverett later becoming president in his own right], was [. . .] momentous. It ranks with the election of Charles W. Eliot in 1869, and the tipping out of Increase Mather in 1701, as one of the most important decisions in the history of the University. Orthodox Calvinists of the true puritan tradition now became open enemies to Harvard. [. . .] On the positive side, the effect was far-reaching. Unitarianism of the Boston stamp was not a fixed dogma, but a point of view that was receptive, searching, inquiring, and yet devout; a half-way house to the rationalistic and scientific point of view, yet a house built so reverently that the academic wayfarer could seldom forget that he had sojourned in a House of God.” (Samuel Eliot Morison, “Three Centuries of Harvard”)
Death claimed Webber on July 17, 1810, after just four years in office - too short a span in which to realize ambitious hopes such as building an astronomical observatory. But through his election alone, Webber cast shadows far longer than he could have imagined.