Henry Dunster: Harvard’s Baptist President

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The freedoms enjoyed by Baptists today were obtained at a great price. The cost of conviction has often been costly, as it was in the New World. Henry Dunster was a man of influence whose convictions cost him dearly. The first real president of Harvard, Dunster was initially an Anglican, then a Separatist, and finally a Baptist. His influence in his day was tremendous. His influence today should be just as great.

Background in England

Henry Dunster was born in approximately 1612 at Bury, Lancashire, England. His father, Henry, was a religious man with Puritan sentiments, so the child Henry was raised in a godly environment. Henry was a spiritually perceptive child and “when he was about twelve years old, he became deeply concerned as to his personal responsibility to God. ‘The Lord gave me,’ he relates, ‘an attentive eare and heart to understand preachinge. . . . The Lord showed me my sins, and reconciliation by Christ, and this word was more sweet to me than anything else in the world.’” He had a strong desire for a good education, but he viewed this as an attempt by the wicked one to keep him from serving Christ: “‘The greatest thing . . . which separated my soule from God was an inordinate desire of humane learning.’ But he wisely concluded to meet the temptation, and go to the university at Cambridge.”

Cambridge challenged Dunster’s intellect. It also expanded his religious knowledge. While there he met some of the great scholars of his day, and it would be safe to assume that he had numerous opportunities to discuss their views of Christianity. No known portrait of Dunster exists, but he undoubtedly took for himself the dress and appearance of his contemporaries at Cambridge: Ralph Cudworth, author of The True Intellectual System of the Universe; Henry More, the Platonist; Joseph Mede, a leading commentator on the book of the Revelation; John Pearson, later an Anglican bishop; and John Milton, well known poet and writer. Men of this caliber, even in their student days, challenged the intellect, and Dunster excelled in his educational pursuits. William Cathcart says of Dunster, “He was distinguished for his scholarly attainments in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In his day he was one of the greatest masters of the Oriental languages.”

Dunster attended Magdalene College at Cambridge University where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1630 and his masters degree in 1634. “He probably took orders in the Church of England, but his advancement was made impossible by his adoption of Separatist ideas, and he decided to seek a career in the New World.” His lack of faithfulness to the Anglican Church put him at odds with its Archbishop, William Laud. Seeking refuge from potential persecution and freedom to exercise his beliefs, Dunster concluded that he needed to cross “the great chasm” and made plans to sail to New England. Dunster informed his fellow ministers of his conviction of the “right of separation from a corrupt church for the purpose of forming, or uniting with, a purer body.”

A New Beginning

Pressure to conform to the Church of England drove many intellectuals to the new world. Henry Dunster was one of many who departed England for the freedom and spiritual life available in the colonies. In 1636 the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in order to properly prepare men for a gospel ministry, had established a college, initially called the “New College.” The school opened its doors in 1637 with Nathaniel Eaton as “Head Master.” In 1639 the college was named for John Harvard (1607­–1638), a young minister who, having no children, willed half of his estate and all of his library to the school. This amounted to some four hundred books and between £700 and £850. Visitors to Harvard University today frequently stop by the John Harvard Statue, located in front of University Hall, which was cast in 1884 by Daniel Chester French (sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial) and is known as “The Statue of Three Lies.” The short inscription, “John Harvard, Founder, 1638,” contains those three lies. The seated figure is not really John Harvard, since no authentic pictures of Mr. Harvard existed; John Harvard was not the founder of Harvard College; and the College was founded in 1636 and opened in 1637. By 1639 Eaton was unsuccessfully defending himself against bitter charges of failing to feed the students properly and of being a tyrant. The school ousted him and the church excom­municated him. Eaton and his wife left for Virginia while the college closed temporarily to recover from its failed beginnings.

Dunster arrived at Boston toward the end of the summer of 1640, and in the following year he was chosen to be the president of Harvard College. He was just 29 years of age. Dunster was well qualified for the new post of President of Harvard and set about to make the changes necessary to Harvard’s success. Harvard’s website states, “On June 9, 1650, the Great and General Court of Massachusetts approved Harvard President Henry Dunster’s charter of incorporation. The Charter of 1650 established the President and Fellows of Harvard College (a.k.a. the Harvard Corporation), a seven-member board that is the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere.” Morison, in his history of Harvard University, gives a strong statement of Dunster’s administrative skills:

Dunster found Harvard College deserted by students, devoid of buildings, wanting income or endow­ment, and unprovided with government or statutes. He left it a flourishing university college of the arts, provided with several buildings and a settled though insufficient income, governed under the Charter of 1650 by a body of fellows and officers whose duties were regulated by statute. The Harvard College created under his presidency and largely through his efforts endured in all essential features until the nineteenth century, and in some respects has persisted in the great university of today.

He laid a secure foundation for the college, often contributing to the needs of the new school from his own meager salary and from the proceeds of America’s first printing press. This printing press belonged to the husband of Dunster’s second wife. She inherited the press when her husband died and brought it with her to Harvard when she married Dunster. Dunster operated the printing press in America from 1640 until his death, turning out some of the first printed works in this country. Dunster, with his friend and assistant, Richard Lyon, had revised the venerable Bay Psalm Book. This revision, the Dunster-Lyon Psalm Book first published in 1650, had become so popular that the churches continued to use it for more than a century after Dunster’s death.

The purpose of Harvard, under Dunster’s leadership, was not merely to give students academic training. Benedict states, “By the united testimonies of Johnson, Hubbard, and Prince, [Dunster] was a man of profound erudition, and ‘an orthodox preacher of the truths of Christ.’”An early brochure of Harvard, published in 1643, gave its purpose: “To advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches.” Dunster identified the intellectual and spiritual characteristics of the College:

  1. When any Scholar is able to understand Tully, or such like classical Latin author extempore, and make and speak true Latin in verse and prose, suo ut aiunt Marte; And decline perfectly the paradigms of nouns and verbs in the Greek tongue: Let him then and not before be capable of admission into the College.
  2. Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisdom, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seek it of him. Prov. 2, 3.

Batchelder adds the following information:

The spiritual life of the undergraduates—the only thing that really mattered in this vale of tears—was pried into, dissected, and stimulated with relentless vigor. The scholars read the Scriptures twice a day; . . . they had to repeat or epitomize the sermons preached on Sunday, and were frequently examined as to their own religious state. . . . Morning prayers were held at an hour that would have made an anchorite blush.

Henry Dunster became a freeman in 1641; in other words, he received the right to vote, what was then called the “franchise.” The franchise was limited to those who were members of the Congregational Church. When Dunster was appointed to the presidency of Harvard, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. This move required that he join the First Church of Cambridge. “Except in one point he was in full accord with the church, and that difference was not deemed a bar to fellowship. He held to the baptism of infants, but that immersion had the preponderance of proof in its favor.” Dunster appears to have held this view in England. He may have developed his conviction on immersion from his personal study of the Scripture or from discussions with Milton, but, nonethe­less, Dunster was firm in his belief. This insistence upon the immersion rather than the sprinkling of infants did not stop Rev. Thomas Shepard, pastor of the Cambridge church, from saying, “Mr. Dunster’s administration, speaks of him as ‘a man pious, painful, and fit to teach, and very fit to lay the foundations of the domesticall affairs of the college; whom God hath much honored and blessed.’” Dunster was clearly a well received member of the state-sponsored Congregational church.

Citizenship was not universal in Massachusetts. “A theocratic government had been established in which all rights of citizenship were denied to those who were not members of the churches of the ‘Standing Order.’” The Church and State were united; anyone who differed with one could plan on problems from the other. Baptists were often persecuted under the law by the Standing Order. Banishment and whipping were favorite punishments of the State. Infant baptism and separation of Church and State were major differences between the establishment and the Baptist believers. Mosher says, “The Baptist in New England had suffered much from the tyrannical oppressions of the ‘Standing Order’ as it was called, or in other words the Congregational Church, which was established and upheld by the law.” The Congregational Church fathers were determined to preserve their own doctrines and practices; any other view was strictly prohibited. “Thus regarded, it was not thought that one called a Baptist had the slightest claim to respect or consideration. Yet the sole offense of these people was that they insisted on the enjoyment of rights, not as prerogatives doled out by reluctant hands, by the order of courts or by leaders of arrogant ecclesiastical bodies, but as a right, divinely given, which to withhold or even to question, was itself a violation of the divine law.” Mosher lists a few of the laws passed in the seventeenth century:

  • Citizenship was refused to all but Congrega­tionalists in the colony.
  • All other churches were forbidden except the Congregational Church.
  • Banishment was decreed for opposition to infant baptism or leaving an infant baptismal service.
  • For leaving the ‘Standing Order’ a fine was imposed of forty shillings a month until the subject returned.
  • Quakers were to be whipped, imprisoned, and banished from the colony; if they returned a second time an ear was to be cut off; if they returned a third time the second ear was to be removed; the fourth time their tongue was to be bored through with a red hot iron; and the fifth time was to result in death.

These were some of the laws that Baptists had to face, and it was because of the persecution of the Baptists that Dunster would come to join the despised movement.

“There is abundant proof that in many thoughtful minds, serious doubts had arisen concerning the Scriptural authority of infant baptism and the right of the secular power to interfere in religious affairs.” Dunster was always examining the facts—just as he had done in England. He apparently had had reservations about infant baptism as early as 1641.

The persecution of Clarke, Holmes, and Crandall for worshipping the Lord without permission from the authorities disturbed Dunster greatly. Freedom of conscience was at stake in this case, and Dunster knew it. The colony was determined to make the case of the Rhode Islanders (who had freedom of conscience in their colony) an example to the Baptists of Massachusetts. Instead, the court’s example prompted Dunster into careful deliberation. Clarke, Crandall and Holmes received fines from the courts. The fines of Clarke and Crandall were paid by friends; however, Holmes refused to have his fine paid. Holmes “was sentenced to be whipped in Boston in September, 1651, and so barbarously was the sentence executed that for days and weeks he could take no rest but as he lay upon his knees and elbows, not being able to suffer any part of his body to touch the bed whereon he lay.” Dunster began to develop a strong sympathy for Baptist thought. “The reaction from this cruel persecution was immediate and strongly marked. Thoughtful minds raised the universal inquiry: ‘What evil have these men done?’” Not only did Dunster question the action of the courts, but he came to an important position, which he revealed to the colony two years later in 1653.

Dunster’s movement toward Baptist theology culmi­nated in his refusal to baptize one of his infant children. Dunster knew the consequences, but he was ready to take his stand. Dunster had come to realize that his right to freedom of conscience and the correct form of baptism were at stake; therefore, he presented a series of sermons stating his new position which cost him his job and his status in the community. “After a full examination of the baptismal question, the first president of Harvard, a man of extraordinary learning, became a Baptist.” Having become a Baptist, Dunster was to suffer much ridicule from those whom he loved as friends and brothers in Christ. The court that was to indict Dunster was composed of friends and his brother-in-law, Major Simon Willard. Josiah Quincy, the fifteenth president of Harvard relates of Dunster, “Indicted by the grand jury for disturbing the ordinance of infant baptism in Cambridge Church, sentenced to a public admonition, and laid under bonds for good behavior, Dunster’s martyrdom was consummated by being compelled to resign his office of president.” He was to be punished for his truthful heart. In his defense he stated the following principles which truly would identify him with the Baptist cause:

That the subjects of Baptisme were visible pennitent believers, and they only by virtue of any rule, example, or any other light in the New Testament.

That there was an action now to be done, which was not according to the institution of Christ.

That the exposition as it had been held forth was not the mind of Christ.

That the covenant of Abraham is not a ground for Baptisme no not after the institution thereof.

That there were such corruptions stealing into the church, which every faithful Christian ought to beare witnes against.

To finalize his position he declared: “All instituted gospel worship hath some expressed word of scripture. But paedobaptism hath none. [The subjects of baptism are] only penitent believers confessing their sins.” Dunster’s cause was clear, and he was forced to leave his home in Cambridge.

Tremendous pressure was brought to bear upon this new Baptist.

As a Baptist, however, Dunster had an ethical obligation to resign his position. Infant baptism was essential to the covenant theology of the legally-established, tax-supported ecclesiastical “Standing Order” of this Puritan colony. Knowing, however, that even his family’s security would soon be in jeopardy outside the establishment, he felt compelled to enunciate his convictions while he still had a platform. The Court ousted Dunster. . . . Dunster had contributed to the college a hundred acres of land, on which he had built the president’s home with his own hands. . . . Now, with a sick family and winter approaching, he received an order to vacate this home of pleasant memories. Dunster pleaded in behalf of his beloved family, but received little sympathy. Apparently the Overseers were more eager to get the new president installed than to make the old president comfortable; for we find Dunster again addressing the General Court on November 16. It was a moving and pathetic appeal to their humane sentiments. Winter was coming on; he and his young family had no knowledge of the place whither they were destined; their goods and cattle could be moved at that season only with great loss; Mrs. Dunster was ill and the baby too “extreamly sick” for a long journey.

Although the General Court of Overseers allowed Dunster to remain in the house until March, they constantly hounded him with new proceedings over his objections to infant baptism. This continued until 1655, long after the family had moved. The Court constantly deprived the Dunster family of peace and quiet. Dunster . . . moved to Scituate, in Plymouth Colony.

The people of Plymouth Colony were very kind to Mr. Dunster, although his heart and mind were in Cambridge. He continued to proclaim his beliefs in Scituate until he died on February 27, 1659, just five years after his resignation. “In his will he left legacies to the persons who had forced his resignation. He directed that his body be interred in Cambridge, near the school and the people which he had served.”

The Baptist Cause

Henry Dunster had served faithfully as the President of Harvard College, and in doing so he had gained a good reputation and position among the leaders of the colony. When Dunster acknowledged the truth concerning baptism to the leadership of Massachusetts Colony, he created a serious problem for the established church. His trial would be part of the planting and watering of serious doubts in the minds of many of the Congregationalist leaders and people. Dunster’s first advance of the Baptist cause was that of undermining the Congregationalists at their very roots. “It was plain that he was guilty of more than a ‘mistake.’ He had committed an unpardonable offence. The ‘hope of the flock’ were in peril, and his continuance in office would encourage the Baptists to still greater audacity.” The elders feared what might happen if Dunster continued his role, so he had to be removed from the educational system.

Secondly, Henry Dunster caused others in the Congregationalist church to question their form of baptism and their right of freedom of conscience. Thomas Gould is an example of this help to the Baptist cause. Gould read Dunster’s sentiments on baptism and later withheld his own child from baptism. Upon further study, Mr. Gould was led by the Lord to form the First Baptist Church of Boston. Dunster helped formulate the seed for a Baptist church even though he had passed away before it was organized.

Thirdly, it can be seen that Dunster’s conviction brought confidence to those Baptists who had little hope previously. Dunster’s stand had a profound effect upon Baptists. “It is highly probable that the late severities exercised toward our brethren in this jurisdiction, set many to examining into their principles. . . . But certain it is that the Baptists now began to be more numerous; they were also encouraged to take a bolder stand against the encroachments of their adversaries, their terrible legislative threatenings, and their merciless scourgings notwith­standing.” He helped the Baptists of the colonies to take peaceable action against the Standing Order.

The Baptist cause was given momentum by Dunster. Dunster helped form the concept of the disunionment of Church and State in the early colonial period of American history. Dunster’s influence carried through to the Revolutionary War and the constitutional stages of the United States. The Constitution of the United States separated Church from State and guaranteed the right of man to live according to his conscience. Freedom today is the fruit of Henry Dunster and many like him in the Baptist cause.


 There are two biographies of Henry Dunster: Jeremiah Chaplin, Life of Henry Dunster, First President of Harvard College (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1872) and Samuel Dunster, Henry Dunster and His Descendants (Central Falls, RI: E. L. Freeman & Co., Steam Book and Job Printers, 1876). A recent work focuses on the beginning of Harvard includes some information on Dunster: Arseny James Melnick, America’s Oldest Corporation and First CEO: Harvard and Henry Dunster (West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing, 2008).

 Chaplin, 6.

 Chaplin, 7.

 Chaplin, 12.

 William Cathcart, The Baptist Encyclopedia (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881), 350.

 H.C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1891), 297.

 Chaplin, 14.

 http://www.news.harvard.edu/guide/to_do/to_do2.html
(9/22/2007).

 Beale, “The Rise and Fall of Harvard University,” 90.

 http://www.news.harvard.edu/guide/intro/index.html (9/22/2007).

 Samuel Morison, The Founding of Harvard College (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 246.

 David Beale, “The Rise and Fall of Harvard University,” Detroit Baptist Theological Journal 3 (Fall 1998): 92–93.

 David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America and Other Parts of the World (Boston: Lincoln and Edmonds, 1813), 379.

 http://www.news.harvard.edu/guide/intro/index.html
(9/22/2007).

 New England’s First Fruits (London: Overton, 1643), a Puritan text; taken from Morison, Founding of Harvard College, Appendix D.

 Samuel F. Batchelder, Bits of Harvard History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1924), 4.

 Chaplin, 55.

 Chaplin, 47–48. There is evidence of baptism by immersion in the Records of the Second Church, Boston, as late as 1781. “The tub of the Old North Engine, then the largest in Boston, was brought into the meeting in order that a child about ten years old might, at the particular request of the mother, be baptized by immersion.” Quoted in Chaplin, 116.

 Vedder, 296.

 Mosher, 140–41.

 B. F. Riley, Baptists in the Building of the Nation (Kentucky: Baptist Book Concern, 1922), 27.

 Thomas Armitage, History of the Baptists (New York: Bryan, Taylor and Company, 1887), 1:698.

 J. M. Cramp, The Story of the Baptist in All Ages and Countries (Wilmington: James and Webb, 1884), 206.

 Armitage, 698–99.

 There is some disagreement as to which child Dunster refused to have baptized. According to Cotton Mather, Dunster refused to have his third child baptized; this child was born in August of 1650. This means his two earlier children (his first wife had five children when he married her and they had no children; after her death he remarried) were baptized as infants. Albert H. Newman, A History of the Baptist Churches in the United States (Philadelphia: American Baptist Historical Society, 1898), 146–147. Chaplin, however, quotes from a letter which Dunster wrote to friends in England near the close of 1651 still defending infant baptism. Chaplin believes it was Dunster’s fourth child, born in 1653, which was withheld from baptism. Backus agrees: “Mr. Dunster boldly preached against infant baptism, and for believers’ baptism, in the pulpit at Cambridge, in 1653.” Isaac Backus, A History of New England (Boston: Draper, 1777), 2: 418. See Chaplin, 109ff., for a discussion.

 Cathcart, 350.

 Cathcart, 351.

 Chaplin, 130–31.

 Chaplin, 122.

 Beale, 92–93.

 Beale, 93.

 Chaplin, 125.

 Benedict, 379–80.

 Benedict, 380.

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