After the contentious tenure of Dr. John Augustine Smith, Dr. William Holland Wilmer became the eleventh president of William & Mary. In searching for a new president and professor of moral philosophy, the Board of Visitors returned to the tradition of selecting Episcopal ministers.
Rev. Wilmer, rector at St. Paul's in Alexandria, had been involved with earlier efforts to revive the chair of theology and establish an Episcopal theological seminary. When plans faltered at William & Mary, Wilmer instructed students at a seminary founded in Alexandria. As the Second Great Awakening revived the Episcopal Church in Virginia, Wilmer's standing grew. Upon Smith's resignation from the presidency, Bishop of Virginia Richard Channing Moore sought to reaffirm the connection between the college and church. Moore began actively petitioning the Board of Visitors to elect Rev. Wilmer, and contacted Wilmer to ensure his acceptance of any offer. On October 16, 1826, the Board invited Wilmer to accept his election as president, in response Wilmer accepted, believing "a call from heaven to the presidency of William & Mary."
With a clergyman again the president, semiweekly prayer meetings in private homes and crusades of conversion replaced Williamsburg's formal balls and horse racing. A popular minister of stature and undoubted piety, Wilmer became enormously popular at the school and in the community. The future appeared brighter, until a series of events brought a renewed period of uncertainty and instability. Rev. Wilmer's sudden death following the session of 1826-1827 from "bilious fever" shocked the community, his replacement Rev. Adam Empie received unanimous election by the Board of Visitors.
A silhouette of Wilmer is part of the Muscarelle Museum of Art's collection. The silhouette is cut into fine paper laid over black fabric and the image measures 5 1/8 x 4 1/2 ins. It is not in a frame, it is currently archival hinged and matted and in a Solander box. The condition is fair though -- the paper is generally discolored and there are some smudges on the original as well.
Material in the Special Collections Research Center
- William Holland Wilmer, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library.