Nisha Rathode (Editor)

William Holland Wilmer

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Preceded by
John Augustine Smith

Washington College

Educator, priest

Succeeded by
Adam Empie


Richard Hooker Wilmer

William Wilmer

William Holland Wilmer

October 9, 1792 White House Farm, Chestertown, Maryland, United States (

Harriet Ringgold (d. 1812) Marion Hannah Cox (d. 1821) Ann Brice Fitzhugh (surviving)

Alma mater
Washington College (circa, 1802) Brown University

1827, Williamsburg, Virginia, United States

William Holland Wilmer (October 9, 1782 – July 24, 1827) was an Episcopal priest, teacher and writer in Maryland and Virginia who served briefly as the eleventh president of the College of William and Mary.


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Early life and education

The fifth son of Simon (an Anglican priest) and Ann (Ringgold) Wilmer, William Holland Wilmer was born on October 29, 1782 at the family's ancestral "Stepney Manor" in Kent County of Chestertown, Maryland. He graduated from Washington College there in Chestertown, Maryland in 1802 or 1803. Rev. William Smith had founded the college, but left twice, eventually becoming the first provost of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Wilmer's schoolmates likely included future Maryland Governor, Thomas Ward Veazey, future Maryland Episcopal bishop William Murray Stone and future Methodist bishop John Henry. After graduation, Wilmer went into business with his sister's husband, T. Cannell, for six years.


Although he had attended Methodist prayer meetings as a youth, Wilmer decided that his life's work was to preach the gospel through the established Episcopal Church. He accordingly studied privately, and in 1808 was ordained a deacon by Bishop Thomas Claggett. Wilmer's first assignment was his home parish in Chestertown, and during his four years there, he established what had been the Chapel of Ease in the town's center as the parish's main church, as the previous parish building five miles out of town went to ruin.

In 1812, shortly after the death of his first wife as he himself reached the age of 30, and after ordination as a priest, Wilmer accepted the joint invitation of Bishop Claggett and William Meade (a newly ordained deacon and who later became the third Episcopal Bishop of Virginia), moved to Alexandria, Virginia and took charge of the recently organized St. Paul's Church. For a year, Wilmer also served as the first rector of St. John's Church, on Lafayette Square across from what was then called the President's House in the newly created and laid out national capital of District of Columbia, but resigned that position to concentrate on his ministry in Alexandria.

After the First Great Awakening, the disestablishment of the Episcopal Church in Virginia after the Revolutionary War (particularly the loss of "vacant" church lands circa 1801), and the death of Bishop James Madison as another war with Britain began in 1812, the Episcopal Church was at such a low ebb in the Commonwealth that its priests had not convened since 1805 and Madison's preferred successor, John Bracken, rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, declined the offer. Meade had crossed the Potomac River to study for ordination under Rev. Walter Addison (who succeeded this priest's uncle Rev. James Jones Wilmer and Rev. Obadiah Bruen Brown as Senate Chaplain), but weak eyes had forced him to pause his studies for a time. By that date only about half of Virginia's Episcopal parishes had priests (most serving several churches), and the diocese of Maryland was little better off.

Wilmer (and the Second Great Awakening) revitalized the Episcopal Church in the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River region. Wilmer helped Virginia's second bishop Richard Channing Moore (whom he, Meade, Edmund Lee and Bushrod Washington convinced to accept the position headquartered at Monumental Church in Richmond) reinvigorate it more broadly. The Evangelical Anglicanism movement of William Wilberforce as well as the moderation of Calvinist doctrine advanced by Charles Simeon influenced all these clergymen. In 1814, Virginia's Episcopal priests and laity convened and formally elected Bishop Moore. During the diocesan convention, Wilmer delivered the first sermon at the newly rebuilt Monumental Church, followed the next Sunday by then Rev. Meade. In June 1817, Wilmer's Alexandria congregation having outgrown its building, the cornerstone was laid for a new building, designed by Benjamin H. Latrobe of Baltimore and with an interior patterned after a Christopher Wren building (St. James Church, Piccadilly, London) and which would seat 600. Through that summer and winter, Wilmer and Richard Baxter (a leading Jesuit of Georgetown University published a total of 53 learned letters under pseudonyms in the 'Alexandria Gazette' debating Evangelical Lutheran doctrine, which were collected and published together in 1818.

Despite his own congregation's growth, Wilmer remained concerned about the continued shortage of educated Episcopalian priests. In June, 1818, a year after the national General Convention approved the creation of the General Theological Seminary in New York City, Wilmer became the first President of the Society for the Education of Pious Young Men for the Ministry of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Maryland and Virginia, a position he held until leaving Alexandria for Williamsburg in 1826. The previous year, Wilmer had been one of three men delegated to raise funds for the General Theological Seminary in New York, with particular responsibility for fundraising in the southern dioceses, and he served on the GTS board of trustees from 1820 until his death. Another Education Society founder was Reuel Keith (1792-1842), rector of the newly founded Christ Church (in the District of Columbia but part of the Diocese of Maryland), who had studied at Middlebury College and the recently founded Andover Theological Seminary (mostly Congregational) in Massachusetts before being ordained by Bishop Moore in 1817.

In 1819, Wilmer began publishing and editing the 'Washington Theological Repertory'. and the following year received a doctor of divinity degree from Brown University. The journal was designed to "disseminate the principles of religion and piety," and Wilmer also became involved in several tract and prayer book societies. In 1822 Wilmer published in Baltimore (with the imprimatur of the clerk of the Diocese of Maryland), The Episcopal Manual: A Summary Explanation of the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America. The popular manual may have first been published as early as 1815, and was republished at least four times, including in 1829, shortly after the author's early death.

Meanwhile, in 1821, the Virginia convention of the Episcopal church pledged its support for a regional seminary. Acquiescing to lobbying by the College of William and Mary since at least 1815, the Virginia convention recommended the seminary be located in Williamsburg, to involve the Diocese of North Carolina, as well as those men from the District of Columbia and Diocese of Maryland who had been working together through the Education Society. However, the convention of the Diocese of Maryland failed to concur. Meanwhile, Keith had moved from Georgetown to Williamsburg in 1820 to teach history and classics at the College of William and Mary, as well as to lead Bruton Parish Church—but his classes seemed unpopular and he never had more than one theological student at a time. In 1823 he left for his native Vermont. Moreover, enrollment had so declined at the College that its president, John Augustine Smith recommended it be moved to Richmond, which led to considerable controversy, Smith's resignation and move to New York.

The committee appointed by the Virginia convention changed its mind about the proposed seminary's location—and accepted Alexandria after Hugh Nelson arranged significant funding and Wilmer offered space and persuaded Rev. Keith to return and become its first professor and dean. Thus, Wilmer and Meade (and Bishop Moore) helped found Virginia Theological Seminary(VTS), where Wilmer taught theology and church history from 1823-1826. The first class included thirteen candidates for holy orders, and three years later 23 men were studying at VTS.

In 1826, after lobbying by Moore (but refusing his offered position in Richmond), Wilmer moved to Williamsburg to become professor of moral philosophy and rector of Bruton Parish Church. He served as the historic College's interim president from June 1826 to October 1826, when he was elected its eleventh president. He served until his death the following July of "bilious fever"—a two-week illness after a long journey in driving rain. His successor was Adam Empie.

Wilmer also served five times as President of the House of Deputies at the General Convention (1817–26), somewhat to the dismay of those with High Church predilections.


Wilmer's biographers do not discuss his views upon slavery, although his uncle and mentor Rev. James Jones Wilmer, as a Swedenborgian must have opposed the peculiar institution. During the first census in 1790, Simon Wilmer (either Wilmer's father or grandfather, for the name was used through several generations) owned 19 slaves and had five free male whites under age 16 in his Kent County, Maryland household. Although Wilmer's salaries were considered large for the time, according to his son's biographer, he spent considerable amounts buying and freeing slaves, so when he died unexpectedly at age 44, the family was forced to rely upon the parish's generosity, and his widow moved back to Alexandria and taught school for several years to support the young family.

As in the case of Robert Carter III, Virginians of this era often chose not to memorialize opposition to slavery. The Maryland Diocesan Archives (deposited with the Maryland Historical Society) only hold about 50 of Wilmer's letters and papers, although the first archivist, Ethan Allen, said his brief mission tour of Virginia's Northern Neck with Wilmer confirmed him in his faith and career. Five of Wilmer's sermons were published before 1820; no copies remain of the 1818 or 1820 sermon entitled "The Almost Christian".

Personal life and family

Wilmer's first wife, Harriet Ringgold, also of an established family in Kent County, died soon after their marriage. Soon after moving to Alexandria, Wilmer married Marion Hannah Cox of Mount Holly, New Jersey, who died shortly after the birth of their sixth child in 1821 (and is buried at St. Paul's churchyard in Alexandria). Wilmer caused a scandal when he married Ann Brice Fitzhugh (1801-1854), two decades his junior, on February 5, 1823, but they had two children before his death, and she raised her stepchildren.

Although Wilmer's eldest son, William Porteus, died of yellow fever at age 21 in Natchez, Mississippi shortly after his father, both his brothers ultimately became priests, and two of his sisters also married clergymen (Marion Rebecca marrying Rev. R. Templeton Brown who ended his clerical career in Rockville, Maryland; and Jane Eliza Wilmer married Rev. Samuel Buel of the General Theological Seminary in New York). Richard Hooker Wilmer (aged 11 at his father's death) also worked to support the young family before beginning his clerical career. A firm believer in slavery, he was elected Bishop of Alabama and consecrated by bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America in 1862, and ratified by the General Convention after the war. Bishop Wilmer's son, another William Holland Wilmer (1863-1936) became a prominent ophthalmologist in Washington, D.C., Johns Hopkins University, and the Military Medical Research tLaboratory in Mineola, Long Island. and benefactor of Washington National Cathedral.

Rev. Wilmer's other surviving son, George Thornton Wilmer (1819-1898), later like his father became rector of Bruton parish and a professor at the College of William and Mary, and after serving as a Lieutenant in the Virginia Home Guard, a professor of theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, though he ultimately moved to and died in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Rev. G.T. Wilmer's son Cary B. Wilmer also became a priest and taught at Sewanee.

Two of Wilmer's brothers also became Episcopal priests. Lemuel Wilmer became rector at Port Tobacco, Maryland (then a major slave trading port). His brother Simon held posts near the ancestral home in Kent County, Maryland as well as near Philadelphia (including Swedesborough, New Jersey and later Radnor, Pennsylvania) but was disciplined (silenced) by conservative (and new) bishop George Washington Doane for not giving up his affiliation with the Diocese of Pennsylvania (under Bishop William White) while serving as a supply priest for coastal New Jersey parishes without a rector since his departure from Swedesboro after his wife's death. Although this likewise evangelical or Methodist-leaning Rev. Simon Wilmer published a pamphlet in his defense, he ultimately married a rich widow and accepted a position near Washington, D.C. at Christ Episcopal Church in Accokeek, Prince George's County, Maryland. Simon's son Joseph Pere Bell Wilmer (who graduated from VTS in 1834) eventually became Bishop of Louisiana, succeeding (the Fighting) Bishop (and Confederate General) Leonidas Polk and later became known for his support of High Church practices.


Fifteen years after Wilmer's death, an updated edition of The Episcopal Manual (sometimes nicknamed Wilmer's Episcopal Manual) was published in Philadelphia. The College of William and Mary's Special Collections Research Center maintains his personal papers. Other records are held by the Diocese of Maryland.

A tablet memorializing Wilmer remains posted in Bruton Church in Williamsburg. VTS named its former library (and later reflectory) Wilmer Hall after this founder; a residence hall and campus street are now named after the founder. His former parish in Alexandria also built a hall named after their late rector in 1860; rebuilt in 1860, it housed a school (now parish offices and head start/preschool).


William Holland Wilmer Wikipedia

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