Who was Nathaniel Willis?

Who Was Nathaniel Willis?

by Marvin Olasky

In 1800 some printers, inspired by French revolutionary ideas, contemplated bringing guillotines to America. Nathaniel Willis, born in 1780, edited in Maine from 1802 to 1807 a radical newspaper, the Eastern Argus. He was happy to “spend Sabbaths in roving about the fields”—but one Sunday he went to hear what he thought would be a political speech by a minister. Surprise: Willis heard a clear presentation of the Gospel, and he was “much interested.” 

Willis eventually came to believe “that the Bible is the Word of God – that Christ is the only Savior, and that it is by grace we are saved, through faith.”

Applying that understanding to his occupation, Willis decided that good journalism required biblical reporting on sin and how to fight it. In 1816, he began publishing a newspaper, the Boston Recorder, that emphasized individual responsibility rather than social revolution. He argued that civil government has strictly limited jurisdiction: Families, churches. and charity groups should lead the way.

Years ago I had a great afternoon in an archive basement flipping through original copies of the Recorder, all in great shape because they were printed on paper with a high rag content. Willis pushed for stories covering bad news but noting redemptive threads.

He declared that all kinds of articles provided “occasion to record many signal triumphs of divine grace over the obduracy of the human heart, and over the prejudices of the unenlightened mind.” The Recorder, he wrote, was a record of “these quickening influences of the Holy Spirit.”

Willis was not shy about reporting disasters. An article in 1819 headlined “Shocking Homicide” reported that a man had killed his own son after being “for a long time troubled with irreligious fears, and a belief that his sins were too numerous to be pardoned.” An 1820 article criticized U. S. Admiral Stephen Decatur for fighting a fatal duel and forgetting “that there is no honor, which is valuable and durable, save that which comes from God.”

Willis liked reporting that was high on specific detail and low on the ladder of abstraction.

The Recorder coverage of an earthquake in Syria in 1822 included a first-person account of destruction: Reporter Benjamin Barker wrote that he was racing down the stairs of a crumbling house when another shock sent him flying through the air, his fall broken when he landed on a dead body. He saw “men and women clinging to the ruined walls of their houses, holding their children in their trembling arms; mangled bodies lying under my feet, and piercing cries of half buried people assailing my ears; Christians, Jews, and Turks, were imploring the Almighty’s mercy in their respective tongues, who a minute before did not perhaps acknowledge him.”

The sensational scene included “hundreds of decrepit parents half-buried in the ruins, imploring the succor of their sons,” and “distracted mothers frantically lifting heavy stones from heaps that covered the bodies of lifeless infants.”  Sounds included “the crash of falling walls, the shrieks, the groans,” but also many persons “falling on their knees and imploring the mercy of God.” 

Willis continued editing the Recorder until 1844. In 1827 he started The Youth’s Companion, a Christian newspaper for children, and continued publishing that for 30 years. For 20 years he served as a deacon at Park Street Church in Boston, which some non-Christians derided as “Brimstone Corner.”

Willis died in 1870 at age 90: a New York Times obituary with some exaggeration reported that his Recorder was “the first religious newspaper in the world.”