The Founding of Harvard

And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
—JOHN 8:32

The Puritans arrived in Massachusetts Bay by boatloads during the Great Migration of the 1630s, and many of them were well-educated graduates of England’s leading universities, especially Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Many were theologians, pastors, and Bible scholars. One thing was paramount on their minds as they settled into the New World: to establish a school in the colonies, especially for the training of ministerial students. As explained in the 1643 booklet New England’s First Fruits:

After God had carried us safe to New England and we had built our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government: One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.

On September 8, 1636, the legislature of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay voted to create the first college in America. The records say: “The Court agree to give Four Hundred Pounds towards a School or College, whereof Two Hundred Pounds shall be paid the next year, and Two Hundred Pounds when the work is finished.” In 1637, the General Court appointed twelve eminent men as trustees of the college.

That same year, a young clergyman from England arrived on American shores—John Harvard, who was described as a godly man and a lover of learning. Harvard, born in 1607, was the son of a butcher and tavern owner in a village near London. In 1625, the bubonic plague wiped out most of Harvard’s family. His mother, however, survived and was able to send him to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. John was ordained a dissenting minister, which meant he joined the Puritans who resisted the oversight of the Anglican Church. He married Ann Sadler in 1637, and the next year they emigrated to New England, where John became an assistant preacher in Boston.

John was battling tuberculosis, and he died the next year at age thirty. He bequeathed half of his property and all of his library of approximately three hundred volumes to the new college. (Unfortunately a fire in 1764 consumed Harvard’s original library, with the exception of one book, which was in the hands of a student at the time and thus escaped the flames. The book’s title was The Christian Warfare Against the Devil, World, and Flesh . . . And Means to Obtain Victory.)

In appreciation for his generosity the new school was named for him—Harvard. The doors opened, and a student handbook was published, Laws and Statutes for Students of Harvard College, which said,

Let every Student be plainly instructed, 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. Joh. 17:3. . . . And seeing the Lord only giveth wisdom, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seek it of him. Prov. 2:3.

Every one shall so exercise himself in reading the Scriptures twice a day, that he shall be ready to give such an account of his proficiency therein, both in Theoretical observations of the Language and Logic, and in Practical and spiritual truths, as his Tutor shall require, according to his several ability—seeing the entrance of the word giveth light, it giveth understanding to the simple. Psalm 119:130.6

Sometime later, Harvard adopted the motto “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae,” Latin for “Truth for Christ and the Church.” The motto was followed by an explanatory reference to John 8:32, which provides the only sure foundation for a sound education: “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

It bears remembering that the first educators in America and the founders of our great institutions of learning were anchored to their conviction of objective, absolute truth, based on the reality of God and the trustworthiness of Scripture. This was the firm foundation of American education.

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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