Harvard’s First President: “A Man for All Seasons”

by Maurine Jensen Proctor

Editors’ Note: We reprint this article this week in honor of Chuck Allen’s wife, Susie, who passed away this past Sunday, December 21, 2003, after a valiant battle with cancer. Chuck Allen is the man who, with his family, made all the windows for the Nauvoo Temple. You can read about the Nauvoo windows in The Spirit in the Pegs and Panes

Chuck Allen’s family search unraveled a long-forgotten mystery.

One night Chuck Allen lay in bed reading Saints and Strangers, a detailed history of the Pilgrims, when a name jumped out at him–Henry Dunster. The “cultivated and conscientious Henry Dunster” had been fired as Harvard University’s first president, the book said. “Henry Dunster was forced out for holding ‘antipaedobaptistical principles,’ meaning he rejected infant baptism. As Harvard was the citadel of orthodoxy..the shock (in the Puritan community) was profound.”

“It was late at night when I read this,” Allen recalls. “I bolted from bed, located my pedigree charts, prepared years before by my mother, and turned the pages until I found this simple statement:

Henry Dunster (Rev.) 7ggf
chr 26 Nov, 1609
Bury, Lancashire, England

“Could this man, my 7th great grandfather, have been the founding president of Harvard University? Was it he who took a stand for conscience sake, lost his position, and was forced not only from the college but from the colony as well?

“My family history was silent as to my ancestor’s accomplishments and personal life. I looked at the statistical information in the family records and found that the temple work had been done decades ago. So why, I wondered, do I feel so compelled to learn and do more for him?”

The Search Begins
Allen could hardly sleep that night. At dawn, he rushed to the encyclopedia, looking up information under Harvard.

“I saw a picture of the Dunster House located next to the Charles River,” said Allen. I excitedly read the brief history, where it mentioned that he was appointed as the founding president in 1649 and that he ‘resigned’ in 1654 after expressing differences with the Puritan belief of infant baptism. Not much more was written on him.”

It wasn’t enough. Allen drove to a bigger town and found in its library an 1896 Cyclopedia that listed all the presidents of Harvard up to that time. In the brief history on President Dunster, he learned of a small book containing his biography written in 1872. He quickly ordered the book on library loan, hoping it was still available. Three weeks later, a call came telling him it was in and he had two weeks to study it.

“As I held the small book with the dull green cover in my hand,” he said, “I had the distinct feeling I was holding a ‘pearl of great price,” a pearl not of monetary worth, but one that would give me information about my worthy ancestor and would provide me knowledge about myself.”

The biography was not well-written, but through the footnotes he was able to learn of the few documents and manuscripts relating to Dunster that still exist. What’s more, two quotes jumped out at him about his grandfather:

“His character is one of the most beautiful, as his history is one of the most touching, to be found in the early annals of New England.”


“No special effort has been made to gather the scattered materials of his life into a fitting memorial that the world might know what he was, what part he acted in laying the foundations of our civil and religious institutions, and what he was willing to suffer, with singular patience and charity, for the sake of truth, as he understood it. He was not born to be a reformer, but by the way he lived his life has come down to us as pure light.”

Piecing the Story Together
These statements penetrated Allen’s heart. This man who had been virtually lost to history had to be found again, and he was the one to do it.

During the next several months, Allen researched in libraries, corresponded with Cambridge University in England where Dunster was educated, visited Harvard University and the Boston area where he had lived, taught, and is buried. He drove to Scituate, near Boston, where Dunster had lived in exile and had died in 1659.

As he researched, Allen said, “An exciting and gradual transition was taking place within me. President Dunster was becoming a real person. He was feeling comfortable to me–someone I wanted to know as a close personal friend.”

Chuck Allen is a woodworker by trade, one whose unique job is to restore old homes and buildings. He had made windows and doors for Mark Twain’s Hannibal home, hand hewn timbers for Brigham Young’s barn, and now he was piecing together the fragments of his own past. This is the story he uncovered and wrote about Henry Dunster.

When the Puritans first arrived in America in 1629, an order was passed by the court establishing a college in Cambridge. Because John Harvard left his library and half of his estate to the college, it took his name.

It is not generally known today, but conditions within America’s first college were atrocious, unacceptable even to Puritan standards. The students were being whipped, and the school master, Nathaniel Eaton was “fitter to have been an officer in the inquisition or master of a house of correction, than an instructor of Christian youth.” Mrs. Eaton fed the students sparse and unfit meals. Charges were made that the Eaton children put goat dung in the hasty pudding.

Dunster Appointed President
Eaton was fired and school was suspended. Then in August 1640, three weeks after Henry Dunster arrived in America, he was visited by a committee of 26 men and asked if he would be the first president of Harvard University. It was not an easy job. He had to attract students back to a school that now had a smeared reputation, he had to arrange the curriculum and prod workers on a new building for the school, and he had to raise funds to operate the college. Because of the colony’s poverty, he had to accept “donations in kind”–livestock, produce, etc. Through his 14 years of service, he never received full pay.

During this same year, Henry Dunster married the widow Elizabeth Glover, who owned the first printing press in America. Operating a printing press helped stabilize Dunster financially, and he was able to draw on his own assets when the school was not able to provide.

Dunster made it clear that what education was about was teaching the priceless gift of character to the young men. He wrote the “Rules and Precepts” for the college, setting the standards for the university for centuries to come. “Let every student be plainly instructed,” he wrote, “and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life,” he wrote.

The Harvard Symbol
To Dunster the pursuit of life was the pursuit of truth. A student of the Psalms, he loved especially Psalm 85, where we read, “Truth shall spring out of the earth; righteousness shall look down from heaven.” The philosophy is apparent in the Harvard college symbol seen all over the world on sweatshirts and university souvenirs. The symbols contains the Latin word Veritas, meaning “truth,” written in three syllables. Originally, the first two syllables appeared on open books, the third on a book turned apparently upside down. While many opinions have been ventured about the meaning of the symbol, Chuck Allen evolved his own meaning as he studied Dunster’s life.

“The two upper books opened and side by side, probably represent the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, which were the foundation of Puritan thought and the standard by which all studies and discoveries were compared. The lower book, opened, and apparently face down, could be representing ‘truth’ springing ‘out of the earth.’ It might be the way in which President Dunster indicated there are additional truths in all fields that must be discovered. One needs to ‘turn the book over’, or ‘search diligently.’ That is the main principle he wanted his students to learn–use the Bible as the foundation for comparison and understanding in seeking, learning and living the treasure of truths they would yet discover.”

Taking a Stand
Ironically, it was for living by this very motto that Dunster got in trouble with the Puritan community. From his youth, he had striven to learn of the things of God, poring over the scriptures and praying for truth. He wrote that the Lord only requires a “listening ear.” This he had, and as he searched the scriptures and prayed for truth, he found he could no longer believe with the Puritans that infants needed to be baptized. To think so, he became convinced, was an affront to the Lord. Where in the scriptures, he demanded, do we see that children need baptism?

Thus on September 28, 1653, when it came time to present his son Jonathan, Allen’s 6th great-grandfather, for baptism. Dunster refused to do it. The shock wave this defiance sent through the Puritan society is difficult for us to comprehend. One historian noted, rather drily, that “there was great excitement.” To understand the level of that excitement, remember this was a society where nonconformity often led to hysteria, one where men and women were still hung for witchcraft.

Though such threats were never levied against Dunster, it clearly took no small act of courage to run against the Puritan establishment. What’s more, Dunster’s stand was not for his children alone. “He not only forbore to present an infant of his [for baptism] he did preach some Sermons against the administration of baptism to any infant whatsoever.”

To him preaching against infant baptism was a matter of conscience, a matter of his standing before the Lord with an honest heart, and he could not do differently.

Removing Dunster
The clash was not an easy one for the Puritans. Dunster was intelligent, humble, and universally loved. Removing him would be painful. Just prior to Christmas 1653, the recently appointed minister at Cambridge, John Mitchel, went to see President Dunster, representing the Puritan establishment. A Harvard graduate in 1649 under the tutelage of President Dunster, Mitchel had special feelings for his mentor. For both men, this must have been a difficult meeting.

John Mitchel was moved by President Dunster’s humility and sincerity as he bore his testimony against infant baptism, a fundamental practice of Puritan belief. Mitchel’s journal reflects his confusion:

“after I came from him, I had a strange experience; I found hurrying and pressing suggestions against [infant baptism] an invention of men; and whether I might with good conscience baptise children and the like. And these thoughts were darted in with some impressions, and left a strange confusion and sickliness upon my spirit.”

But orthodoxy won out. Back home and away from the influence of his mentor, Mitchel decided that “it was not hard to discern that (his thoughts) were from the Evil One.” Despite his friendship and admiration for Dunster, Mitchel determined he must defend the church against such “venom and poison.”

In early 1654, the magistrates sent a letter to the ministers of the area requesting their thorough examination of President Dunster’s position, for he “hath by his practice and opinions against infant baptism rendered himself offensive to this government.” A conference of ministers and elders was held for two days to examine Dunster.

He began his position with this statement, “Children under the gospel have Christ’s testimony that they have nearer access unto him, and a nearer acceptance with him, than children under the law.” Others argued the orthodox position, and after two days the result was that neither he nor the 11 men who opposed him budged from their positions. It was reported that “the conference failed to rescue the good man from his mistake.”

By May the General Court passed a law aimed particularly at Henry Dunster, stating that no persons could hold place in an educational institution “that have manifested themselves unsound in the faith, or scandalous in their lives.” Five weeks later Dunster gave a letter of resignation to the overseers, giving up the place where “I have labored with all my heart.”

According to one observer, Dunster could have kept his position if he had just held his tongue. “Simple silence–that was all. Only one thing stood in the way, he was an honest man. What he believed, that he must speak. God’s truth, as he conceived it, was to be published, not concealed.”

His firm resolve unshaken, on July 30, 1654, Dunster interrupted the Sunday meeting to take the pulpit and give his final testimony in Cambridge. He testified that infant baptism “was not the mind of Christ” and therefore not a Christian practice. No doubt, many who revered him had come to him pleading with him to change his mind and stay as Harvard president. He wanted to leave everyone with no mistake about the depth of his convictions.

Losing Position and Home
To lose his position, however, was also to lose his home, and he petitioned the court to let him stay there until the debts due him were paid. He told the court of the numerous debts he had incurred to keep the college going over the years. This they would not hear. The court answered that “They did not know of the extraordinary labor or sacrifices…”  “…for the space of fourteen years we know of none.”

He sent another petition to the Court six days later asking if he could at least stay in the home during the winter, as he had not found other accommodations for his family. “The place from which I go hath fire, fuel, and all provisions for man and beast, laid in for the winter,” he said. “My wife is sick, and my youngest child extremely so, and hath been for months…Now their minds lie under the actual stroke of affliction and grief…myself will willingly bow my neck to any yoke of personal self-denial, for I know for what and by whom, by grace, I suffer.”

After some debate, the court allowed him to stay in the home through the winter. Then, banished from his job at Harvard and the Bay Colony, he and his family moved 30 miles southeast just over the boundary to Scituate, where he died a few years later at age 49.

In his will, we find a clue to Dunster’s character. Showing no malice toward those who had humiliated and banished him, he appointed “my reverend and trusty friends and brethren, the President of the College and the pastor of the Church of Cambridge” to “value and receive” his books and printing presses.

He was buried in Cambridge in a grave that over the years became forgotten, his life overlooked like faded ink on old parchment.

Yet, when Charles Allen found his grandfather’s name and fragments of his story, he could not forget him. As he finished writing the history of President Dunster, Allen added these few words of his own to his journal, “At 6:00 p.m. this evening I completed the history of President Henry Dunster. At that time, I experienced a spiritual influence in a way I had never before felt. The past several days, I have been writing his history as though I was being pushed on. As I wrote his conclusion most of this afternoon, I had the feeling–the distinct feeling–I was writing as one actually witnessing his life.”

The final words of Allen’s history of Dunster are the testimony borne by the exiled Harvard president just before he left Cambridge. “I conceived then, and so do still,” said Dunster, “that I spake the truth in the feare of God, and dare not deny the same or go from it until the Lord otherwise teach me.”

In 1990, Allen wrote to Harvard University, asking what they were going to do to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Henry Dunster’s appointment. Nothing had been planned, but his letter spurred the university to action. In October of that year, he and his wife Sue drove to Cambridge for a special dinner and speeches at the Dunster House.

Allen was to be the final of three speakers. “As the banquet began,” he says, “I had a fearful feeling as I thought of the environment I found myself in. The two speakers had a command of the English language I could only dream about. I wondered if I was ‘out of my league’ in being there.”

But as Charles rose to speak, a feeling of reverence settled over the hall, and the audience listened enthralled. “I saw,” he said, “that years and culture apart have nothing to do with the feeling that permeates as we come to know by the Spirit of Elijah, those who lived before.

“I conceived then, and so do still, that I spake the truth in the feare of God.’

“The Lord did teach me, a 7th great grandson.”


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.