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11/13/12 at 02:55 PM 1 Comments

Henry Dunster (Harvard President, 1640): The Price of Becoming a Baptist in Early America

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Photo: Flickr/Austin Donisan
Dunster House at Harvard University. Named after Henry Dunster.

By Ron F. Hale

The first and founding president of Harvard University resigned his prestigious post to become a Baptist. This caused much chattering and nattering in the circles of academia and religion.

Henry Dunster resigned under pressure after rejecting the practice of paedobaptism (infant baptism). His new biblical paradigm of Baptist beliefs caused a storm of controversy and ill will among the Puritan faithful of the Boston area.

Today, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in America and the wealthiest of schools. Yet, the fledgling school struggled for life in the first few years of existence.

Harvard opened its doors in 1637 under the direction of a Head Master. He was later ousted under charges of failing to properly feed the students and tyrannical ways. The school closed.

Henry Dunster became president in 1640 and resurrected the founding dream from the ash heap. The school flourished under his new vision and leadership.

He gave the school one hundred acres of his own land and built a home for the president. Through his family, he acquired the first printing press in New England and produced the Bay Psalm Book.

The new president was a scholar in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Asian languages. Dunster set standards for scholarship and godliness. Harvard was thriving and becoming the important school that it is today.

After years of faithful service, a dark cloud appeared over the administration of President Dunster. Dunster refused to have his fourth baby baptized. Why? Dunster had new unshakable biblical convictions!

The public whipping of Obadiah Holmes for his Baptist convictions had shaken Dunster to the core of his being. It caused him to seriously study the Bible.

Very soon, Dunster publicly contended for believer’s baptism of adults based on the NT example, and against paedobaptism. Richard Mather and John Norton publicly debated Dunster on these matters, but he remained steadfast in the face of mounting hostility.

The theological change of heart in Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard, was shocking and scandalous to the Puritans of New England. It was the talk of the town and every colony. It knocked the living daylights out of most Puritan ministers and laymen. Recant or resign seemed to be the sentiment of most.

Because the Baptist movement in early America was birthed in adversity, every individual Baptist paid a price for their identity. Dunster lost his land, house, printing press, and livelihood; for the Overseers of Harvard gave him back none of the things that he had given so freely to the school.

Henry Dunster was a boon and blessing to the early Baptists of America. A man of great scholarship and integrity had joined their ranks. The importance of religious liberty would continue to be underscored.

History’s mysteries divulge the good, the bad and the ugly!

Ron F. Hale has served local churches and at the denominational level for over thirty-five years.

© Ron F. Hale, Nov. 7, 2012

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