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Academic freedom on trial: The story of Harvard’s first president

The narrative of Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard, is a tale of academic excellence and ideological conflict. Dunster, a former minister in the Church of England and a Cambridge University graduate, emigrated to Massachusetts in 1640. His academic skills soon led him to the presidency of Harvard College, where he significantly improved the institution.

Dunster’s presidency was initially successful, but his personal beliefs eventually led to his downfall. He began to question the practice of infant baptism, finding no clear biblical support for it. Despite attempts by others to persuade him, Dunster publicly opposed this practice, which was contrary to the prevailing Puritan views in Massachusetts.

His stance led to a conflict with the Puritan authorities and the Harvard College Board of Overseers. Despite his previous achievements, Dunster’s refusal to align with the dominant religious practices led to his removal from his position in 1655. His case highlights the challenges of religious and academic freedom in an era when divergent views could lead to significant personal and professional consequences.

The story of Henry Dunster serves as an example of the complexities surrounding academic leadership, religious beliefs, and the pressures of societal conformity, reflecting a larger narrative about the enduring struggle for freedom of thought in educational settings.

Baptist News Global writes:

The president of Harvard was forced to resign due to overwhelming public pressure. Being an enthusiastic teacher, an experienced scholar, an efficient administrator and a proven fund raiser was not enough.

Declaring the president’s actions to be a violation of the code of conduct and out of step with social standards, detractors demanded the spectacle of an academic pillory. The president’s attempt to reason with critics failed. Their well-laid trap would not stop short of public humiliation and removal from office by the Board of Overseers.

They succeeded, and thus ended the educational career of Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard, in 1654. But what happened at Harvard was bigger than Harvard.

Dunster graduated from Cambridge University and served as a minister in the Church of England. Yet the high-church reforms of Archbishop William Laud troubled his conscience. So, in 1640, at the age of 30, Dunster joined the great puritan migration to Massachusetts, where he would be free to worship according to his conscience and live according to his convictions.

His proficiency in classical languages and other academic subjects soon caught the attention of Boston society, who tapped him to take on the presidency of struggling Harvard College.

The school thrived under Dunster’s leadership. He built the first building, implemented a rigorous curriculum, established student fees for tuition and board, collected taxes from residents, secured the school charter and even operated a printing press. For 14 years, this scholarly and saintly man was beloved by all. Until he was not.

For 14 years, this scholarly and saintly man was beloved by all. Until he was not.

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