This Week in Church History: Founding of Harvard College (1636)

September 8, 1636 marks the founding of Harvard College in what was then called New Towne, but would come to be known as Cambridge, MA in later years. The college was originally founded as New College but was renamed two years after opening in honor of one of the school’s first benefactors, the Rev. John Harvard.

Harvard was an English pastor who had moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 in order to help manage his struggles with tuberculosis. Unfortunately, Massachusetts did nothing for his health problems and he died from consumption only a year after arriving in the colony. Upon his death, Harvard left his library of several hundred books and half of his estate, roughly £800, to the college. In honor of his generosity, the school was renamed Harvard College.

The story of the school’s founding is, in itself, rather remarkable as Boston, the closest city of note when the school was founded, had only been founded in 1630. That said, even at this early date there were something like 16,000 colonists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, making a school for the training of pastors a practical necessity. The donation of Harvard’s library and estate to the college put the school on firmer ground and also encouraged others to donate to the fledgling school.

In time, the college would become one of the preeminent institutions of Puritan New England. Harvard was the site of a gathering of American clerics held following the Westminster Assembly in England. The assembly was moderated by John Cotton and Richard Mather, the two leading ministers of the early North American Puritans. Increase Mather, son of Richard and the leading second-generation Puritan divine in North America, completed a BA there in 1656. His son Cotton, who was also grandson to John Cotton as Cotton’s daughter had married Increase, would complete a BA at Harvard in 1678 and an MA in 1681. (Increase had done his graduate study in Europe.)

Increase would go on to serve as the school’s president until the early 18th century. Following his death, the school would become a major flashpoint for many of the theological and intellectual disputes of the early 18th century, such as the broadening of the curriculum to include natural sciences. This led many conservatives to view the school with suspicion and attend rival college Yale, founded in 1701, instead. Those students who opted for Yale rather than Harvard would include Jonathan Edwards and missionary David Brainerd.