Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
College History

Academics

1879-1880

Martha W. Sprague

Hired in 1879 with the help of a commercial employment agency, Martha Sprague‘s tenure as principal seemed doomed from the start. A Midwesterner, she was not sympathetic to New England Puritan traditionalism. Passed over a second time, the popular assistant principal Miss Briggs resigned, so Miss Sprague brought in her own assistant, Alice King.  Cast as outsiders, she and Miss Sprague failed to create a cohesive atmosphere among the teaching staff. In fact, she unintentionally offended teachers by asking them to lead morning and evening devotions and perform other tasks for which they had never before been responsible.

Sprague was suspected for her emphasis on private, individual involvement in the Christian religion instead of public commitment.  Miss Sprague’s greatest mistake, one that incurred the displeasure of Mrs. Wheaton as well as most of the Trustees, was allowing study during the morning and evening “half hours,” making private devotion optional.  This was viewed as a detriment to the Seminary’s “Christian atmosphere.”

In December 1879, the teaching staff rebelled. Clara Pike, Class of 1866 and science teacher, and A. Ellen Stanton, teacher of French, acting as spokeswomen, approached the Trustee Committee of Instruction.  They charged that Miss Sprague discouraged use of the library, probably because she was not well educated herself.  Her rough, unladylike, and ungrammatical speech were deplored, but her worst offense was suggesting that Mrs. Wheaton overstepped her role by reviewing and approving the appointment of teachers.

To everyone’s surprise and satisfaction, Martha Sprague voluntarily resigned in March of 1880.  Her assistant, Miss King, also left, leaving the Trustees in a quandary.  Should they bring in an entirely new administration from the outside, or promote someone from among the staff that had rebelled against Miss Sprague?

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