Harvard’s First President

In honor of the inauguration of President Faust, an article about Harvard’s first president.

The Case of the Harvard Heretic

by Diane Rapaport

In November 1654, as the night watchman made his rounds through the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, candlelight still flickered inside the big house next to Harvard College. There at the president’s residence sat Henry Dunster, close to the hearth to keep his ink from freezing, while the only sounds were the scratch of his quill pen against parchment and the raspy coughs of his sick wife and child in their bed chamber across the hall. Instead of preparing the next day’s Latin lecture for his Harvard scholars, as Dunster normally spent his evenings, he was composing a petition to the Massachusetts General Court. After years of devoted service as the respected head of this first American college, Dunster was no longer Harvard’s president; he had been forced to resign, and he was threatened with banishment from the colony in a matter of days. Worried about his bleak future prospects, Dunster wrote one final humiliating appeal to the magistrates, begging to stay in the house through the coming winter until he could settle his family elsewhere.

Fourteen years earlier, when Dunster arrived in Boston as an earnest young graduate of England’s Cambridge University, no one could have predicted the astounding rise — and fall — of his fortunes in the Massachusetts Bay colony. In 1640, brand-new Harvard College needed a professor, and Dunster’s mastery of Latin, Greek, Hebrew and other arcane scholarly subjects came to the attention of Puritan authorities. Despite Dunster’s inexperience (he had worked only briefly in England as a schoolmaster), he soon found himself installed as Harvard’s president and sole instructor. He married a wealthy widow (acquiring stepchildren and the colony’s first printing press), married again when his first wife died, and began raising a family of his own, all while turning Harvard into a first-class educational institution comparable to the best colleges in the Old World.

Under Dunster’s energetic leadership, Harvard thrived, and he might have stayed on as president for life, if only he had not chosen to question one of the basic tenets of Puritan belief. Ironically, the very qualities that served him well as the scholarly head of Harvard — intellectual curiosity, outspoken honesty, and a love of debate — led to his downfall.

The subject that so inflamed Puritan authorities and triggered Dunster’s soul searching was infant baptism. Established church doctrine required that children be baptized shortly after birth, and parents could be punished for failing to do so. In England and the colonies, however, a rebellious sect (Baptists, also called “Anabaptists”) began questioning the theological validity of infant baptism. Should all people, they argued, have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to make a commitment to God through baptism? Why should parents make this decision for children who could not yet speak for themselves? Should baptism be reserved for adults who freely chose the rite?

These questions set off a firestorm of controversy, and Puritan Massachusetts reacted with fear and heavy-handed persecution, determined to prevent the Baptist contagion from spreading. In 1651, a notorious court case focused public attention on the Baptists and their beliefs. Three men — minister John Clarke, preacher Obadiah Holmes, and John Crandall, all members of a Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Island — dared to cross the border into Massachusetts for a visit to blind and aged William Witter of Lynn. At Witter’s invitation, they conducted a worship service and baptized several converts in his home, before a constable came to arrest them. At a trial in Boston, Governor Endicott raged that the Rhode Island Baptists “deserved death,” but he sentenced them to heavy fines “or to be well whipped.” Compassionate friends paid the fines for Clarke and Crandall, but Holmes declined payment of his fine and received thirty lashes at the whipping post, a near-killing punishment that left him severely injured. Rather than quelling dissent about infant baptism, however, that brutal beating gained new sympathizers for the Baptist cause and led Dunster to a crisis of conscience.

Ever the scholar, Dunster plunged into intensive research about baptism, re-reading the Bible and the writings of noted theologians. To Dunster’s surprise, he could find no scriptural support for the Puritan insistence on baptizing infants; to the contrary, his analysis convinced him that the only people entitled to baptism were true adult believers. The logical next step, for New England’s most prominent educator, was to share the results of his research with others. Dunster began by speaking out during sermon time at church, and when his fourth child was born in 1653, Dunster declined to have him baptized.

Anyone else who expressed open opposition to infant baptism could have expected arrest and a quick trip to court, but this dissenter was the president of Harvard College. Dunster’s unorthodox views presented Puritan authorities with an embarrassing dilemma, and they tried, at first, to handle the matter quietly. Youthful Cambridge minister Jonathan Mitchell paid Dunster a visit, hoping to rescue the good man from his unaccountable lapse of judgment and to set him straight again. Unable to persuade Dunster of his doctrinal errors, however, Mitchell left the meeting with a horrifying suspicion: was the Devil working through Harvard’s president?

Mitchell reported his qualms to the Massachusetts Court of Assistants, who responded with an urgent missive to ministers throughout the colony, seeking investigation of Dunster’s “practice and opinions against infant baptism.” The result was a two-day debate in Boston. Twelve scholarly church leaders lined up against Harvard’s president (arguing in the formal syllogistic style they had all learned at college in England), but they could not sway Dunster from his beliefs.

The Puritan authorities dithered, reluctant to fire Dunster but also unwilling to tolerate his dangerous challenge to church doctrine. In May 1654, the General Court declared, in an act obviously aimed at Dunster, that teachers who “have manifested themselves unsound in the faith” shall not continue “educating . . . youth . . . in the college.” Dunster responded by tendering his resignation from “the place wherein hitherto I have labored with all my heart.” The General Court referred the matter to a governing board of college overseers, instructing them to seek a replacement for Dunster if “he persist in his resolution more than one month.” They were leaving the door open — giving Dunster one last chance to renounce his heretical opinions.

But Dunster refused to back down. On July 30, Dunster interrupted a baptism ceremony at church, once again trying to explain his views. This disturbance landed Dunster in county court and sealed his fate at Harvard. The college overseers informed Dunster that “the interests of the College and Colony required his removal,” and Dunster submitted a second and final resignation on October 24. The overseers immediately offered the presidency (and Dunster’s house in Cambridge) to Rev. Mr. Charles Chauncy, a Plymouth minister who believed in infant baptism.

Although Dunster had built his house at his own expense, Harvard considered the dwelling to be college property. Winter was coming on, and since Dunster had no other home or employment, he petitioned the General Court to stay in the house until Harvard had settled his accounts. He also asked permission to support his family by “preaching the Gospel . . . , teaching or training up of youth, or . . . any other laudable or liberall caling as God shall chalk out his way . . . .” The magistrates curtly denied Dunster’s petition, making it clear that they expected him to leave the colony.

Dunster wrote back, offering to “willingly bow my neck to any yoke of personal self-denial,” but “[m]y wife is sick, and my youngest child extremely so, . . . that we dare not carry him out of doors.” Dunster also penned these poignant remarks: “The whole transaction of this business . . . , when all things come to mature consideration, may very probably create grief on all sides; yours subsequent, as mine antecedent. I am not the man you take me to be.”

This appeal gained Dunster a few extra months in the house — until March 1655 — but no further concessions. Driven from Massachusetts, the family settled in more-tolerant Plymouth Colony, at Scituate, where Dunster preached sermons in the remaining five years of his life. Before he died, in 1659, Dunster bequeathed some of his books to Cambridge minister Jonathan Mitchell and to the new Harvard president, Charles Chauncy. Dunster also asked that his body be transported back to Cambridge for burial. Dunster’s final resting place lies in the Old Burying Ground, just steps away from his beloved Harvard College.

Selected Sources

Chaplin, Rev. Jeremiah, Life of Henry Dunster (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1872); Middlesex County Court Record Books (1649–1663, 1671–1686), Pulsifer Transcript, vol. 1, pp. 72–74, 132; Morison, Samuel Eliot, The Founding of Harvard College (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1935, 1995); Shurtleff, Nathaniel B., ed., Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston: W. White, 1853–1854), vol. 3, p. 352, and vol. 4 (1), pp. 196–197, 312–313.

Diane Rapaport is an author and former trial lawyer who lives in the Boston
area. “The Case of the Harvard Heretic” is excerpted from her new book, The
Naked Quaker: True Crimes and Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New
England, published by Commonwealth Editions (www.commonwealtheditions.com)
in October 2007. The “Harvard Heretic” also appeared in the Holiday 2006
issue of New England Ancestors Magazine, a publication of the New England
Historic Genealogical Society. For more information about New England
Ancestors magazine and the New England Historic Genealogical Society, see
www.newenglandancestors.org. Diane’s first book, New England Court Records:
A Research Guide for Genealogists and Historians (Quill Pen Press, 2006),
won three 2007 Benjamin Franklin Awards (from PMA, the Independent Book
Publishers Association) for Best History Book, Best Reference Book, and
finalist for Best New Voice in Nonfiction. Visit Diane’s website,
www.Diane-Rapaport.com for more information about her publications and
lecture schedule.

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