Henry Dunster

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Henry Dunster
1st President of Harvard College
In office
Preceded byNathaniel Eaton (as headmaster)
Succeeded byCharles Chauncy
Personal details
BornNovember 1609 (1609-11)
Bolholt, Bury, Lancashire
DiedFebruary 27, 1659(1659-02-27) (aged 49)
Scituate, Massachusetts

Henry Dunster (November 26, 1609 (baptized) – February 27, 1658/59) was an Anglo-American Puritan clergyman and the first president of Harvard College. Brackney says Dunster was "an important precursor" of the Baptist denomination in America, especially regarding infant baptism, soul freedom, religious liberty, congregational governance, and a radical biblicism.[1]


Dunster House, constructed at Harvard in 1930 and named for Henry Dunster

He was born at Bolholt near Bury, Lancashire, England to Henry Dunster.

Henry Dunster's Grave

Dunster studied at Magdalene College, Cambridge as a sizar,[2] specializing in oriental languages and earning a reputation as a Hebrew scholar. He earned a bachelor's degree (1630) and his M.A. (1634). He served as headmaster of Bury Grammar School and was a curate at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Bury.[3]

Sponsored by Rev. Richard Mather,[4] Dunster immigrated to Boston, Massachusetts in 1640. Nathaniel Eaton was dismissed in 1639 as master of the recently established Harvard College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Dunster was appointed as his successor. On August 27, 1640 Dunster became the first president of Harvard. (For a discussion of Dunster's choice of the title "president" see President § Description.) He modeled Harvard's educational system on that of England, including Eton College and the University of Cambridge. He set up as well as taught Harvard's entire curriculum alone for many years, graduating the first college class in America, the Class of 1642. From 1649-1650 Dunster also served as interim pastor at the First Parish in Cambridge until the accession of Jonathan Mitchel.[5] Historians have generally treated Dunster well in terms of his theological beliefs and educational abilities. Samuel Eliot Morison, the best-known historian of Harvard's history, wrote that Harvard College "might have followed her first patron to an early death and oblivion but for the faith, courage and intelligence of Henry Dunster."[6] Dunster held Harvard together financially during a difficult economic downturn in New England that began soon after his arrival. He later had some conflict with the college's treasurer, Thomas Danforth, who called him the "de facto treasurer."[7] However, Dunster indeed was the "de facto treasurer" of Harvard for nearly a decade. With the approval of the General Court of Massachusetts Bay, he later set up the first corporation charter in America, the Charter of 1650, and named Danforth as the new treasurer.[8] The corporate charter that Dunster established governs Harvard University to this day—an astounding testament to his leadership and governing skills. On December 6, 2010, Harvard announced its intention to expand the membership of the Corporation from a body of seven members (as first set up by Dunster) to thirteen members.[9]

When Dunster abandoned the Puritan view of infant baptism in favor of believer's baptism in 1653/54, he provoked a controversy that highlighted two distinct approaches to dealing with dissent in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colony's Puritan leaders, whose own religion was born of dissent from the mainstream Church of England, generally worked for reconciliation with members who questioned matters of Puritan theology but responded much more harshly to outright rejection of Puritanism. Dunster's conflict with the colony's magistrates began when he failed to have his infant son baptized, believing that only adults should be baptized. Earnest efforts to restore Dunster to Puritan orthodoxy failed, and his heterodoxy proved untenable to colony leaders who had entrusted him, in his job as Harvard's president, to uphold the colony's religious mission. Thus, he represented a threat to the stability of society. Dunster exiled himself in 1654/55 and moved to nearby Plymouth Colony to become the minister of the First Church in Scituate, Massachusetts. Dunster died there on February 27, 1659 (or 1658 – Old Style calendar).[10][11]

Family and legacy[edit]

Dunster married twice; both his wives were named Elizabeth. His first wife was Elizabeth (Harris) Glover, the widow of Joseph Glover. They married on June 21, 1641. She died in 1643, leaving Dunster with land and property, including the first printing press in the colony, and leaving him shared responsibility for her estate and her five children by her first marriage. Dunster married Elizabeth Atkinson (1627–1690) in 1644. Together they had five children.

Dunster House, one of the twelve residential houses of Harvard University, is named after Henry Dunster.


  1. ^ William H. Brackney, Baptists in North America: an historical perspective (2006) p. 12
  2. ^ "Dunstor, Henry (DNSR627H)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  3. ^ "Dunster, Henry (1634 - 1634) (CCEd Person ID 33264)". The Clergy of the Church of England Database 1540–1835.
  4. ^ Thompson, Roger, Cambridge Cameos, Stories of Life in Seventeenth-Century New England, Boston: NEHGS, 2005, 67.
  5. ^ http://www.henrydunster.org/Pastor.html (accessed February 1, 2010)
  6. ^ Morison, S.E., Harvard in the Seventeenth Century, Vol. I, p. 319.
  7. ^ Thompson, Roger, Cambridge Cameos, Stories of Life in Seventeenth-Century New England, Boston: NEHGS, 2005, 67–73.
  8. ^ Melnick, Arseny James, "America's Oldest Corporation and First CEO: Harvard and Henry Dunster," West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity, 2008, 120–121.
  9. ^ Harvard Corporation Governance Review Committee, Report to the University Community, Harvard University, December 6, 2010
  10. ^ Timothy L. Wood, "'I Spake the Truth in the Feare of God': the Puritan Management of Dissent During the Henry Dunster Controversy," Historical Journal of Massachusetts 2005 33(1): 1-19,
  11. ^ The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Vol. VI. James T. White & Company. 1896. pp. 409–410. Retrieved November 30, 2020 – via Google Books.

External links[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

Links to digital facsimiles of the Papers of Henry Dunster and the Dunster and Glover Families held in the Harvard University Archives.

Biography and genealogy[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Nathaniel Eaton, as Schoolmaster of Harvard College
President of Harvard College
Succeeded by