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William E. Barton Letters

An inventory of his letters at Syracuse University

Overview of the Collection

Creator: Barton, William E. (William Eleazar), 1861-1930.
Title: William E. Barton Letters
Inclusive Dates: 1861-1924
Quantity: 1 folder (SC)
Abstract: Correspondence (incoming) of the American Congregational minister and author and a few pieces of writing by others, including short pieces by poets Frank Dempster Sherman and Walt Mason.
Language: English
Repository: Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries
222 Waverly Avenue
Syracuse, NY 13244-2010

Biographical History

William Eleazar Barton (1861-1930) was an American Congregational minister, author, teacher and lecturer. He was born June 28, 1861 in Sublette, Illinois, to Jacob and Helen (Methven) Barton. When Barton finished high school at sixteen he convinced his father to send him to college, and in 1880 he and his sister Mary arrived at Berea College in Kentucky where his uncle Bruce Methven had taught. Although he originally intended to enter the law and perhaps politics, an invitation from the American Missionary Association to preach as a home missionary turned his thoughts to the ministry, and he was ordained in June of 1885. In doing so he carried on a family tradition -- his father held a license to preach and although he never had a church he would sometimes conduct neighborhood funerals or services and occasionally filled in at the local church, while his uncle Bruce Methven was a minister.

The following month Barton married Esther Treat Bushnell, a teacher who shared his literary interests, and the new couple relocated to Robbins, Tennessee. Here Barton served as circuit-riding preacher and conducted mission work for seven churches in the mountainous region for two years, and he and Esther added a son, Bruce, and two adopted African-American children to the family.

In 1887 Barton entered Oberlin Theological Seminary. He lectured and preached to support his growing family (another son and a daughter) and graduated with a degree in divinity in 1890. Three years at a church in Wellington, Ohio followed, and then in 1893 Barton was named minister of Boston's Shawmut Church. As minister of one of the major Congregational Churches in the city Barton's circle of acquaintances included Julia Ward Howe, Edward Everett Hale, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He became Vice-President of the American Peace Society and began to acquire a reputation for impatience with doctrinal quarrels and an ability to bring opposing factions together (as well as a small but solid reputation as historian and scholar).

When Barton was offered the pastorship of the First Congregational Church of Oak Park, Illinois, in 1902 his mediating skill was put to the test with a congregation both divided and in debt. Barton eventually succeeded in reuniting his parishioners and revitalizing the church, and served as their pastor for more than 20 years. Despite opposition to Sunday movies and supporting a ban on liquor sales in town, Barton was not a Puritan; instead his liberal theology led him to state that it was permissible for Christians to "modify the form in which they phrase their faith, and that they should interpret Christ in the light of the twentieth century's experience." In 1921 he was elected moderator of the National Council of Congregational Churches and he taught at several seminaries. He and his wife fostered many charitable projects including the assembly hall of a mission compound in Madura, India and a hospital in China.

In 1924 Barton retired from the church in Oak Park. Four years later he accepted an appointment as lecturer at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, where he also organized and served as pastor of the Collegeside Congregational Church. He died in 1930.

Throughout his career as a clergyman Barton continued to write voluminously - boys' stories, novels, sermons, articles, humor, history -- and conducted exhaustive research on Abraham Lincoln, culminating in six books on Lincoln including a respected biography. (Barton's extensive collection of research material relating to Lincoln is now held by the University of Chicago.)

Fried, Richard M.. The Man Everybody Knew: Bruce Barton and the Making of Modern America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005.
Ribuffo, Leo P.. "Jesus Christ as Business Statesman: Bruce Barton and the Selling of Corporate." American Quarterlyy, no. 33 (1981): 206-231.

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Scope and Contents of the Collection

The William E. Barton Letters consists of correspondence and a few pieces of writing by other authors. Correspondence contains incoming letters, most concerning poems, sermons, or other writings Barton had sent to them, or discussing Barton's interest in their own work. Correspondents include American poets Lizzie York Case, Frank Dempster Sherman, and Walt Mason. There is also an invitation to give the invocation before a speech by President Taft at the Hamilton Club in Chicago. Writings consists entirely of writings by others: a short rhyming essay by Walt Mason entitled "Poisoned Booze," a poem by Frank Dempster Sherman, and a poem by Adeline Dutton Train Whitney. Also included are a few paragraphs on world peace by Norman Angell (author of Europe's Optical Illusion, 1909) in which Angell argues that "nothing will induce these great nations [of Europe] to take the immense risk of using their preposterous military instruments if they can possible avoid it." The piece is dated July 29, 1913.

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Arrangement of the Collection

Correspondence is arranged chronologically. Writings are arranged alphabetically by author.

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Access Restrictions

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

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Subject Headings


Angell, Norman, 1874-1967.
Barton, William E. (William Eleazar), 1861-1930.
Case, Elizabeth York.
Mason, Walt, 1862-1939.
Sherman, Frank Dempster, 1860-1916.


Authors, American.
Clergy -- Massachusetts -- Boston.
Clergy as authors.
Poets, American.

Genres and Forms

Letters (correspondence)



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Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

William E. Barton Letters,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Finding Aid Information

Created by: MRC
Date: 25 Sep 2007
Revision history:

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SC 206 1861-1924, undated
Writings (by others)
SC 206 Miscellaneous (4 items)

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