Henry Dunster served as the first president of Harvard college and helped it to become one of the premier institutions in Massachusetts Bay colony. However, his differences with Puritans beliefs regarding infant baptism could cause difficulties within its ranks.
As his dissension caused a threat to community orthodoxy, he was exiled in 1654/55 from the colony.
Early Life and Education
Henry Dunster was born somewhere near Bury in Lancashire, England in 1609. After Nathaniel Eaton was dismissed as Master of Harvard College and Henry Dunster became his successor, they made the journey together to Massachusetts in 1640.
On arriving at Harvard, Dunster took immediate steps to lay a solid foundation for it. He modelled its educational system after that of British universities such as Eton and Cambridge and created a curriculum with Greek, Latin, Hebrew, logic metaphysics and divinity as key subjects.
He operated New England’s first printing press to help provide him with financial security; even using some of his own funds to assist the college during difficult times. Furthermore, he revised the Bay Psalm Book. Glover married twice. His first wife Elizabeth Harris Glover left him land and property including New England’s first printing press along with administrative responsibility for their children from her previous union.
Dunster was among many intellectuals who came from England seeking religious freedom in America, helping establish Massachusetts schooling system, Harvard College and first printing press in colonial colonies.
He revitalized a faltering institution, setting the course for Harvard to become the top American university. Additionally, he added Semitic languages to Harvard’s curriculum and instituted four-year study courses that later became standards among American colleges.
In his memorial, Orlando Elliott mentioned matriculating at Magdalene College together during Easter term of 1627, as had himself and Orlando Elliott. According to Elliott’s account, those matriculating simultaneously formed a grex or flock and became known as Freshmen, Sophomores, Junior Sophisters and Senior Sophisters.
Achievement and Honors
Dunster made significant contributions and achievements toward Harvard becoming one of the premier institutions of higher learning in North America. He established the Massachusetts school system, created the initial printing press which eventually evolved into Harvard University Press and drafted a 1650 charter for President and Fellows of Harvard College (the Harvard Corporation).
He donated land and property to the young college, including Dunster House (in neo-Georgian style). His personal motto was ego enim Lancastrensis sum, or “I am from Lancashire.”
After his death in 1659, Oxford University honored his name by naming one of their undergraduate houses after him: Dunster House. To recognize and commemorate him and his contributions to Bury Grammar Schools worldwide, The Henry Dunster Association was created. It connects alumni/ae from around the globe who support initiatives on behalf of Bury Grammar Schools worldwide.
Henry Dunster was an influential advocate of freedom of conscience. His beliefs about religion and education propelled him to become one of the most sought-after figures of his era.
Dunster was deeply troubled to learn of Obadiah Holmes’ whipping in Boston for adhering to believer baptism, in 1651. Realizing the stakes involved were freedom of conscience he developed an affinity with Baptist beliefs.
He decided to take matters into his own hands. He took to teaching all curriculum himself to ensure his students received an outstanding education. Additionally, he added Semitic languages into Harvard’s curriculum in order to make it more academically credible for Biblical Studies and set up its first corporation charter – which still governs it today.
Dunster was an English aristocrat who left to escape religious persecution. His family name still commands prestige today and they remain financially well off.
As president of Harvard, he established its inaugural corporation charter that still governs it today, receiving approval from Massachusetts Bay’s General Court to create an institution called “Harvard College” as well as set up its initial printing press.
He was known to be very generous with his money, and is buried at the Old Burying Ground with a commemorative slab that was barely legible on my first visit in 1986 and continues to deteriorate further today.