Thursday, September 23

Alas, Harvard

Harvard College graduated its first students on this day in 1642. It had been founded some six years earlier, in 1636, as New College Cambridge for the training of Puritan ministers and leaders for the new Massachusetts Bay colony. In 1639 it was re-named in honor of John Harvard, a local Puritan minister, who gave the college the bulk of his library and a small sum of money, equal to just a bit more than half his estate.

The founders probably had in mind something along the lines of a faithful version of Oxford or Cambridge--perhaps eventually growing into a collection of Puritan colleges, some for ministerial training and others for the sundy professional trades.

Its first professor was Nathaniel Eaton, brother to Theophilus Eaton, who was the founder and first Governor of New Haven as well as Francis Eaton, who sailed on the Mayflower. In 1639 however, he was ousted by the board of directors, because of his overly strict discipline of the students.

The first real theological crisis at Harvard erupted when one of Eaton’s successors, Henry Dunster, abandoned the Reformed faith of the Puritans in favor Baptist antinomianism in 1653. Dunster's conflict with the colony's magistrates and the college’s board began when he refused to have his infant son baptized. Every effort to restore the brilliant and popular Dunster to the Puritan fold failed, and he eventually decided to move to the nearby Plymouth Colony, where he died in 1658.

Despite this early strife, the college was able to maintain stability and some measure of orthodoxy until 1805 when a concerted effort was made to take over the board of trustees by Boston's influential Unitarians. By 1850 Harvard was known as the "Unitarian Vatican."

The theological liberals at the school allied themselves with high Federalists and began to create a set of private societies and institutions meant to shore up their cultural and political authority--a movement that prefigured the emergence of the Boston Brahmin class. On the other hand, theological conservatives allied themselves with the more populist Whigs and attempted to restore Harvard to something akin to its original vision--mounting a print media campaign in an effort to expose the grave threat to Congregationalist tradition and republican political principles that the Unitarian oligarchy posed--but all to no avail.

Charles William Eliot, Harvard's president from 1869-1909, finally officially eliminated the favored position of Christianity from the curriculum. While Eliot was, by many accounts, the most notable figure in the secularization of American higher education, he was actually not motivated by a desire to marginalize faith, but rather by his heart-felt commitment to Transcendentalist Unitarianism. The effect was the same, regardless.

Alas, the college was lost, not to be recovered to this day.

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