Holley, Horace and Mary Austin

Horace Holley (February 13, 1781-July 31, 1827) was a Unitarian minister, a popular orator and President of the University of Transylvania in Lexington, Kentucky. Mary Phelps Austin Holley (October 30, 1784-August 2, 1846) was an advocate of Texas independence and statehood. She wrote the first history of Texas in English. Her diaries and sketches are valuable resources for students of early Texas.

Horace HolleyHorace Holley was born in Salisbury, Connecticut, the fourth son of Luther and Sarah (Dakin) Holley. His father was a prosperous farmer, merchant and founder of the Holley Iron dynasty. Although the Holleys were a churchgoing family, the parents never pressured their children about religion. As a student at Yale, Horace was caught up in a religious revival led by Yale President Dr. Timothy Dwight, known for his strong opposition to deism. At his graduation Holley gave an address entitled “The Slavery of Free Thinking.”

Mary Austin HolleyMary Austin was born in New Haven, Connecticut to Elijah and Esther (Phelps) Austin. Her father was a shipping merchant and one of the first Americans to open trade with China in the port of Canton. Mary’s childhood was a happy one. She treasured memories of attending Trinity Episcopal Church. According to her biographer, Rebecca Lee, “She cheerfully believed that the Austins and the Phelpses and all other good people would go to heaven when they died.” She held to this belief throughout her life. Although she became a Unitarian as an adult, all her life she occasionally enjoyed worship at an Episcopal Church.

In 1794, when her father died of yellow fever, the Austins lost their home. Mary went to live with her uncle, Timothy Phelps, another New Haven merchant. Under Phelps’s care she went to good schools, took music and dancing lessons and developed talents in writing and art.

Horace began to court Mary Austin when he was a law student by serenading with the Yale College Corps at her window. He practiced law in New York for less than a year, and then returned to Yale to study for the ministry. As soon as Horace graduated and was licensed to preach by the North Haven Association, he and Mary were married—on New Years Day, 1805—at Timothy Phelps’s home.

From 1805-08 Horace served the Congregational Church in Greenfield Hill, Connecticut. At first Mary wondered how her kind and sensitive husband could believe the grim messages he preached. Yet her love and admiration for him did not allow her to question him. Nor did he pressure her to convert to his religion. Gradually, however, Mary began to notice a change in him. Long walks, marveling at God’s creation, tutoring young children and exposure to Mary’s exuberant and tolerant spirit contributed to the evolution of his faith. He embraced a more liberal theology and began to preach a more loving God. In Mary’s words he learned to “trust to his own powers, look with his own eyes, and think his own thoughts.” By 1808, when he accepted a call from the Hollis Street Congregational Church in Boston, he was a Unitarian. (Horace’s brother, Myron Holley (1779-1841), a builder of the Erie Canal and a founder of the Liberty Party, also became a Unitarian.)

The years in Boston were good ones for the Holleys. Horace’s oratory made him a popular speaker. He served on numerous committees and boards, including the Boston School Committee, the Harvard University Board of Overseers and the Washington Benevolent Society of the Federalist Party. During the War of 1812 he was a chaplain. While the Hollis Street Church’s large new building was under construction, Horace shared the pulpit with William Emerson at First Church. He made acquaintance with other prominent men, including John and John Quincy Adams. The latter, in his memoirs, told of a religious controversy he had with Holley at a dinner party. “[T]he table-talk was almost engrossed by us, and the attention of the whole table was turned to us, much to my disadvantage, the topic being one upon which he was much more exercised and better prepared than I was. Mr. Webster, Mr. A. H. Everett, and one or two others occasionally relieved me by asking a question; but Holley was quite a match for us all.”

Mary, busy with the care of their daughter Harriette, also made many friends. She enjoyed Boston’s spirit of religious tolerance and thrived on intellectual discussions.

In 1818 Horace was offered the presidency of the small and struggling Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. He had attracted the notice of politicians and university board members who wished to make Lexington into the “Athens of the West,” though some of the more religiously conservative trustees opposed him. Horace was fascinated with the challenge of Transylvania. On a visit to Lexington he was well received by the committees and Whig leader Henry Clay, who gave him a tour of the town. Holley’s personality and oratory won over even his conservative opponents. He returned to Bostona to fetch Mary, Harriette and their infant son, Horace.

Transylvania University thrived under Horace Holley’s leadership. He re-organized the university and enrollment grew. A law school, a medical school, a gymnasium and an art gallery were built and a substantial library developed. By 1825 enrollment had quadrupled and the school had graduated more than 650 young men. The medical school was ranked second in the country. According to Larry McGehee of Wofford College, “In his nine years in Boone’s bluegrass wilderness, Horace Holley planted seeds of knowledge that would set the educational standard and the pace for the whole South and Midwest. He was a peerless pioneer who left a big footprint where he trod.”

Despite Holley’s successes, conservatives on the board were not pleased with his religious views. He gave expression to these in a eulogy written for his friend Colonel James Morrison, chair of Transylvania’s Board of Trustees. Noting that the end of all religion was to make men “good, useful and happy,” he lauded Morrison for “taking truth wherever he found it and giving the hand of fellowship to all good men of every country and denomination.” After this address local Presbyterian clergy began a campaign to have Holley removed. His critics also objected to his Federalist politics, his fiscal management of the university and the alleged extravagance of the Holleys’ social life. In 1826 his salary was cut. In 1827, having lost the support of the Governor of Kentucky, he resigned.

The Holleys moved to New Orleans where Horace hoped to establish an academy for the sons of Louisiana planters. He initially hoped that the students would accompany him and his family in a “traveling academy” touring Europe. When the parents declined to part with their children, he began to plan for a local college.

On the trip from Kentucky to New Orleans, a traveler asked Mary how she dared travel by steamboat on a Sunday. She retorted by asking why on Sunday God allowed the sun to shine and the river to flow.

Discouraged and miserable in the humid climate of New Orleans, Horace and Mary booked a vacation trip to New York on the ship Louisiana. On shipboard they both contracted yellow fever. While Mary was burning with fever and unaware of her surroundings, Horace died and was buried at sea.

The widowed Mary Holley had to find a way to support herself and her son. For a time she worked as governess for the wealthy Hermogene Labranche family in New Orleans and then, for the rest of her life, traveled between New England, New Orleans, Kentucky and Austin Colony in Texas. Her brother, Henry Austin and his family had gone to Texas to join their cousin Stephen F. Austin, often since referred to as “The Father of Texas.” Mary and Stephen became friends and correspondents who wrote each other long letters while they were apart. His untimely death in 1836 was a great grief for her.

During her visits to Texas Holley kept diaries and made intricate sketches. Her descriptions of early Texas are considered priceless history. She published Texas: Observations, Historical, Geographical, and Descriptive, 1833, revised and expanded as Texas, 1836. The first edition is credited with attracting new settlers to Texas. Because some pioneers were reluctant to settle in a territory lacking churches, in the second edition Holley argues that religion can and should be carried in a person’s heart and that one didn’t require a formal place of worship to be with God. She promoted the independence of Texas from Mexico and Texas statehood. Women met in her home in Kentucky to sew for the soldiers serving “the cause” in Texas. Her poem, “The Plea of Texas,” 1844, was published in many newspapers.

Mary spent her last years in New Orleans. She lived with the family of a former pupil and tutored her young children. She attended the Congregational Church whose minister, Theodore Clapp, was another Unitarian who had started out at Yale.

Like her father and her husband, Mary died of yellow fever. As she lay ill she exclaimed, “I see worlds upon worlds rolling into space. Oh, it is wonderful!”

There are Horace Holley Papers at the Transylvania University Library in Lexington, Kentucky and at the William Clements Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Some Mary Ausin Holley letters are held in the Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Louisville, in Louisville, Kentucky. There are more letters in the Mary Austin Holley Papers and the Stephen F. Austin Papers, at the Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas, at Austin, Texas. Selected letters of Mary Austin were published in Mattie Austin Hatcher, Letters of an Early American Traveller, Mary Austin Holley, 1784-1846 (1933). Her recently published or republished writings are James Perry Bryan, ed., Mary Austin Holley: The Texas Diary, 1835-1838 (1965) and Mary Austin Holley, Texas (1985), with an introduction by Marilyn M. Sibley.

The biography of Horace Holley is Charles Caldwell, A Discourse on the Genius and Character of the Rev. Horace Holley (1828), to which Mary Austin Holley contributed an appendix. Information on the history of Transylvania University can be obtained in Walter Wilson Jenning, Transylvania: Pioneer University of the West (1955) and The History of Transylvania University: 1780-1909 (1969). The biography of Mary Austin Holley is Rebecca Smith Lee, Mary Austin Holley, A Biography (1962). There is a biographical entry on Horace Holley in American National Biography and one on Mary Austin Holley in Notable American Women. David B. Gracy, Moses Austin: His Life (1987) furnishes background on the Austin family.

Article by Kathi Trask
Posted May 30, 2002