KIRBY, (Rev.) WILLIAM, (deceased), one of the founders of Illinois College and a pioneer congregational clergyman, was born July 2, 1805, in what is now Middletown, Conn., the son of Elisha and Betsey (Spencer) Kirby. On both sides of the family the ancestry may be traced for many generations. Elisha Kirby, his father, a resident of Middletown for many years, and afterward of New Haven, Conn., was a son of Jonathan, who was a son of John, who was a son of Joseph. The latter was a son of John Kirby, who came from Warwickshire, England, sailing from London on the ship "Hopewell", September 11, 1635, and becoming the founder of this branch of the family in America. His final location in this country was at Middletown, Conn., where several generations of the family resided. The name Kirby is probably of Danish origin, and was originally spelled Kirkby, from "kirke", meaning church, and "bye," meaning dwelling.
Early in life William Kirby decided to enter the Christian ministry, and all the early years of his life were spent in earnest preparation for the work. In 1827 he was graduated from Yale College with one of the high honors. The following year he entered Yale Divinity School, from which he was also graduated. On March 22, 1831, he was ordained to the ministry at Guilford, Conn., and thence at once started overland for Illinois for the purpose of assisting in the foundation of Illinois College. On November 28, 1832, he was joined in matrimony with Hannah McClure Wolcott, who was born June 7, 1811, at East Windsor, Conn. She was a daughter of Elihu Wolcott, a lineal descendant of a brother of Oliver Wolcott, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Elihu Wolcott was a son of Samuel and Jerusha Wolcott. Samuel Wolcott was a son of Gideon and Abigail (Mather) Wolcott; Gideon was a son of Henry; Henry was a son of Simeon, who was five years of age when his father, Henry Wolcott, Jr., an English merchant, emigrated to Boston, where he became prominent in the early public affairs of Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was born January 21, 1610 (Old Style), and was admitted as a freeman of the colony in 1634. Elihu Wolcott married Rachel McClintock, the youngest daughter of Rev. David McClure, D. D., of South Windsor, Conn.
Soon after taking up the work of teaching in Illinois College, ill health impelled Mr. Kirby to abandon his labors and resume the ministry. In the spring of 1833 he began preaching at Union Grove, Putnam (now Whiteside) County, and soon afterward was placed in charge of the church at Hadley or Blackstone's Grove, Will County, Ill. In May, 1836, he was installed as pastor of the congregational Church at Mendon. While officiating at that place he was chosen a delegate to the first anti-slavery convention in Illinois, held at Upper Alton, October 26, 1837, and helped to draft the constitution of the State Anti-Slavery Society then organized. In 1845 he resigned the charge at Mendon and became General Agent of the American Home Missionary Society, continuing in the work incidental to this post until his death, which occurred at Winchester, Ill., December 20, 1851, while he was engaged in the establishment of a Presbyterian Church near Naples, Scott County, Ill. At this time he was still a resident of Jacksonville, however, which had been his home since 1845.
William Kirby was regarded as one of the strong men of the Congregational Church in Illinois. Although for many years in comparatively feeble health, he gave unremittingly of his time and labor to the work which he had elected as his life's career, and his all too brief life was characterized by the greatest devotion to the high calling of the ministry. He was a pioneer, a missionary, a preacher and a teacher at a period in the history of Illinois when practically the only reward he could expect was the consciousness of having assisted in the work of erecting a firm foundation for the super-structure which his successors have been able to build.