Many members of
family, including his father and four brothers and sisters, died of the plague
in 1625. Before moving to
the Harvard family roots were in Stratford-on-Avon (where his mother retained a
house, known today as the
"Harvard House" on High Street). There has often been speculation that his father's family may have known William
Shakespeare (both from their mutual ties in Stratford-on-Avon and at St.
but a connection between them - though entirely possible - has never been
Influence of St. Savior's Rector, Nicholas Morton; Student
Emmanuel College, Cambridge
John's father, Robert, was a butcher,
and he did not come from a line of educated university men. John is believed to
have attended the grammar school at St. Savior's. The rector of St.
Savior's at the time was a man named Nicholas Morton, who was very close to the
Harvard family (and was remembered in several of their family wills).
took young John Harvard under his wing and helped prepare him for
college. Morton himself graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge University in
1612 and received his master's degree there in 1619 (Samuel Eliot Morison,
of Harvard College, p. 105 and footnote 5).
Main entrance to Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. Photo by the author,
John Harvard entered
in 1627 and stayed for more than seven years, from 1627-1635. The very fact that
John was now a college man and received his degrees would have been a major
accomplishment within the Harvard family. John received his bachelor's degree
from Emmanuel in 1632 and his masterís degree in 1635. At the time, Emmanuel was the primary
college in England
for Puritans, many of whom, like John, later emigrated to America. While at Emmanuel,
John may also have met Nathaniel Eaton, the disastrous first head of what would
later become Harvard College. Eaton was a student at nearby Trinity College at
John Harvard is remembered today at Emmanuel by a special
"John Harvard" Window in the college chapel.
It was also at Emmanuel that he met his classmate,
John Sadler, later the town clerk of London, a Member of Parliament and private
secretary to Oliver Cromwell. Sadler was a Hebraist and the author of
The Rights of the Kingdom
(1649). John introduced Harvard to his sister,
Ann's father, also named John, was a vicar in
are various legal documents in England that refer to John Harvard as a "clerk";
this, according to Morison, in the context of the time indicates a religious
affiliation and possible ordination; however, no record of ordination has ever
been found (Morison, op. cit., p. 212). That, however, is not surprising, given
the position of Puritans in England at the time.
Marriage to Ann Sadler; The Move to
Charlestown, near Boston;
Assuming the Duties of a Teaching Elder
Ann and John were married on April 19, 1636, the same year
that the college that bears his name was founded (the College was officially
founded by an Act of the General Court of Massachusetts Bay on October 28,
1636). The Harvards were then still in England. Johnís mother
Katherine had died the year before in July 1635, prior to his marriage to Ann.
After her death, the Queen's Head Tavern property in London, which
she had inherited, passed to John and provided a great deal of
financial support to him. John is believed to have sold several houses to a sea
captain in early 1637 but retained the Queen's Head property.
By the spring of 1637, John's only surviving family member,
his brother Thomas, also died. One view says that John was still in England at
the time of his brother's death and another that he had already left England
enroute to the New World with his new bride.
In any event, it seems most likely that
the young couple
crossed the Atlantic sometime during the spring or summer of 1637, possibly with Nathaniel Eaton and his wife. They may have
arrived in Boston in late June, 1637 (see Morison, The Founding of Harvard
College, p. 202). Upon their arrival in Boston, the Harvards soon moved to nearby
the Eatons also lived for a while before moving to Cambridge. John took "the freeman's oath"
in November 1637.
at that time was just a village of some 150 homes. John and Ann became members of
the First Church of Charlestown on November 6 of that year. John performed the
duties of a teaching elder and is believed to have been an assistant to
the pastor, the Rev. Zechariah Symmes. He also was appointed to an important
committee "to consider of some things tending towards A body of Lawes, etc." in
planned to raise cattle in the
New World, since
some 120 acres were set aside for that purpose. Had he lived, the cattle would
have been an important source of income for the Harvard family. Harvard
historian Samuel Eliot Morison remarks
in his Founding of Harvard College
that it must have been the source of some amusement for John to
consider that, after all his university training, he would derive much
of his new income in America from butchering cows, continuing in part his father
Robert's occupation (Samuel Eliot Morison,
The Founding of Harvard College,
1935, pp. 106, 211-212, 216-218).
Death and Gravesite
It was not to be. John Harvard died soon after
in Charlestown, (from "a consumption," possibly from tuberculosis), on September
14, 1638, at the young age of 30, leaving an estate worth more than 1,600
pounds, half of which he donated to the yet unnamed College. The General Court of Massachusetts Bay later decided to name the young
in his honor. His original burial marking disappeared during the American
Revolution. Another monument was later erected in a separate
location (see S.E. Morison, Chapter XVI, "John Harvard,"
The Founding of Harvard College,
footnote 4, p. 220).
Monument to John Harvard in Charlestown near Phipps Street
John Harvard and His Times (1907) (p.
Here are photos of the same monument taken in October 2007, nearly one hundred years later:
Photos by A.J. Melnick (October 2007, Phipps Burying Ground, Charlestown)
Of John Harvard's library of some 400 volumes that he donated to the College, only one book
survived the devastating fire of 1764. That is the book by John Downame, The Christian Warfare Against
the Devil, World and Flesh...And Means to Obtain Victory,
published in 1634. The original is presently on display at the Houghton Library at
(see Kelly Monroe Kullberg's book,
Finding God Beyond Harvard, 2006, p. 53 and footnote on page 240).
collection also included numerous Greek and Hebrew books and Bible commentaries,
even an Aramaic lexicon of the Talmud (see Morison,
Harvard in the Seventeenth Century,
Vol. I, 1936, pp. 194-195). There were works by Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Bacon,
Calvin, Plutarch, Homer, and many others (Josiah Quincy,
The History of Harvard University,
Vol. I, 1840, pp. 10-11).
Despite the 1764 fire, there were earlier records of many
of these books. A catalogue of John
Harvard's books was compiled by Alfred C. Potter (1867-1940) in 1920 and
published by the then Colonial Society of
Vol. 21, pp. 190-230). Reprinted copies of the catalogues are also held at the
Harvard University Archives and the Houghton Library. In November 1938, the
Harvard Alumni Bulletin published an
article by Henry J. Cadbury, "What Happened to John Harvard's Books?"
(Vol. 41, pp. 241-248)
Tributes to John
The Rev. Thomas Shepard, beloved minister of the First
Church of Cambridge, said of John Harvard:
"He was a scholar and pious in his life and
enlarged toward the country and the good of it in life and death." Shepard
himself was also a graduate of Emmanuel College. The famous college
Englands First Fruits, said that Harvard was "a godly
gentleman and a lover of learning."
Books About John Harvard
John Harvard and His Times (1907)
Very few books have been written about him. One is
John Harvard and His Times, published
in 1907 in the tercentenary year of his birth. Its author was Henry C. Shelley.
Another book written about that time was Andrew McFarland's
John Harvard's Life
in America, or Social and Political Life in New England in 1637-1638
(1908). A very short earlier work (24 pages) by Henry F. Waters, published by
the New England Historic Genealogical Society in 1885 is
John Harvard and His
The John Harvard Statue in Harvard Yard;
The John Harvard Stamp
The famous statue of John Harvard in Harvard Yard is historically incorrect,
since no one knows what John Harvard actually looked like. The same, of course,
goes for the stamp issued in his honor, taken from the same likeness as
What Else is Known About Him?
Besides the bare facts given here, very little else is known
about John Harvard the man. We do know for sure that he gave up a life of
relative ease in England in
order to set out for an uncertain life as an immigrant in the
New World. In 1842, the former head of the Massachusetts Historical
Society, James Savage, went to
with the express purpose of trying to find out more about him. He did not
succeed, other than finding John's signatures when taking his degrees at Emmanuel
Savage remarked that "he would gladly give five hundred dollars to get five
lines about [John Harvard] in any capacity, public or private." (Waters, 1885,
op. cit., p. 3). But more information was not forthcoming.
The Naming of the College in His Honor
Logic, however, dictates a few key points about the kind of
man John Harvard had to be. The naming of the College as "Harvard
College" goes directly
to his character. He must have represented in nearly every way the
ideals that his fellow Puritans looked up to:
he had left much behind in order to come to the
New World, he was dedicated to the Word of God, he prized learning
and scholarship, and he had a generous spirit. These were all qualities
treasured by the members of the General Court of Massachusetts Bay, who voted on
March 13th of the following year
to forever link the name of one of their most prized and important projects
the first College of higher learning in the New World
- to the name of "Harvard."
They could just have easily made a special note of thanks
to the widow of their young friend and fellow Puritan who had
given such an outstanding bequest - there was no requirement or necessity that
the College should be named after Harvard. From every indication, John's will
was oral or non-cupative; there is no written record of any kind, and there was
no stipulation attached to the gift of half his estate and his library to the
College. If there had been any stipulation, it would have been recorded by the Court:
'as requested by John Harvard by terms of his gift.'
But there is no evidence whatsoever that that was
Instead, those who decided to name the College after John
Harvard on that day in March 1639 at the General Court meeting in Boston included two of his contemporaries at Emmanuel
College - Richard Saltonstall and Simon Bradstreet, and three of
John's fellow townsmen from Charlestown.
Saltonstall was also one of the earliest outspoken opponents of the then emerging
slave trade in the New World (Morison, op. cit., pp. 221 and 399).
The naming of the College after John Harvard was no
quid pro quo (the naming of Yale, on the other hand, in the following century,
was just that:
Cotton Mather many decades later would suggest as
much in the case of the naming of Yale when he advised wealthy businessman Elihu
Yale). Instead, it reflected their highest ideals of the New Man in the
New World. The naming was also clearly a reflection of John's own
character and reputation. If there had been even a hint of scandal or concern
about him or his background, these founders of the College would
never have named the College after him.
In fact, the founders had every reason to name the College after something else
in their experience or tradition or in making some statement about their
foothold in this New World. Naming it after an
individual was a highly unusual move. Given their Puritan background and desire
not to exalt an individual above community, the naming of the College after
Harvard is that much more extraordinary.
For example, "Harvard
College" could very easily have instead
been named "New
College" or something else from the
Scriptures that reflected their journey or their stake in the
New World. It might have been named something "safe" for the times,
such as "Providence
Or, alternatively, just as the small town along the Charles River was re-named
from "Newtowne" to "Cambridge" in honor of their
former great University in the town of that name in
England, the College could have rightly been named "New
Emmanuel" or "Trinity" or some similar name from their
Cambridge or Oxford experiences. But it
Perhaps that was the very message that the founders of
what would now be known as "Harvard
College" were sending back to England, that is, that in the
New World, they were living under a different dynamic. In that New World, they would honor
one of the key individuals who had made the sacrifice to help bring that vision
John Harvard left no male heir to carry on the Harvard
family name. Instead, the naming of the College in his honor was the undying
legacy that his friends decided to grant to him. In so doing, they were
saying to every succeeding generation that this was the kind of man whom they
wanted others to emulate, whose spirit of courage, self-sacrifice and generosity
embodied the very best of what they hoped
College should become.
On November 4, 2007, the gift of a tablet was presented to Harvard Memorial Church by the dean of Southwark Cathedral, London, the Rev. Colin Slee, and Emmanuel College, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Harvard's baptism. This, along with a combined brief exhibit called "Heralds of Light," which consisted in part of showing John Harvard's baptismal page from the Southwark records and his Emmanuel College signature - brought over for the occasion from England by Southwark and Emmanuel representatives - was about all the attention that Harvard University could muster to remember the 400th birthday of its namesake.
For more information on the early
history of Harvard College:
The books by Samuel Eliot Morison, The
Founding of Harvard College and
Harvard in the Seventeenth Century (two volumes), both produced for Harvard
University's tercentenary celebration in 1936, are the most authoritative. They
were published by Harvard University Press and are available in the second-hand
Additionally, a new book on early Harvard history by the author of this website is now available. It is titled:
Oldest Corporation and First CEO:
Harvard and Henry Dunster
(2008) and is available here from Buy Books on the Web or by writing to:
A. J. Melnick, PO Box 5501, Falmouth, VA 22403 U.S.A.
The price is $16.95 per copy.
by Arseny James Melnick (A.M., Harvard University, 1977). All rights reserved.
This website is not
endorsed, affiliated nor associated with Harvard University in any way.
Website by Julie Melnick.
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website, please e-mail the