Rev. Henry Dunster, First President of Harvard

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Henry Dunster, M.A.

Birthplace: of, Bury, Lancashire , England
Death: Died in Scituate, Plymouth, Massachusetts
Place of Burial: Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Henry Dunster and 1st wife of Henry Dunster
Husband of Elizabeth Dunster and Elizabeth Dunster
Father of Jonathan Dunster; Elizabeth Thomas; David Dunster; Dorothy Dunster and Henry Dunster
Half brother of Dorothy Willard; Elizabeth Willard; Robert Dunster and Daniel Dunster

Occupation: Clergyman; First president of Harvard, minister at First Church of Scituate
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Rev. Henry Dunster, First President of Harvard

Henry Dunster

  • Baptized: 26 November 1609 - Bolholt, Bury, Lancashire
  • Parents:  Henry Dunster (abt 1580–1646) and Henry's first wife, who is not named in any records.
  • Wives:  Elizabeth Harris, widow of Rev. Joseph Glover; Elizabeth Atkinson
  • Died: 27 February  1659 - of  Scituate, Plymouth, Massachusetts
  • Buried: Old Burying Yard, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts 

"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."

Henry Dunster (November 26, 1609 (baptized) – February 27, 1658/1659) was an Anglo-American Puritan clergyman. A former Headmaster of Bury Grammar School, Henry Dunster became in the summer of 1640, the first President of Harvard College.

He was forced to resign, and the next year tried, convicted, and publicly admonished for opposing the church ordinance of infant baptism.


Henry Dunster

An American clergyman and first president of Harvard College, Dunster was educated at the University of Cambridge (B.A., M.A., 1634) and then taught and served as a curate of Bury. He had a reputation as a learned man.

Henry Dunster was appointed as the founding president in 1649 at Harvard the oldest American college and that he 'resigned' in 1654 after expressing differences with the Puritan belief of infant baptism. Not much more was written on him.

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. 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. 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. After losing his job and along with it his home, as Mr Henry Dunster stood by his beliefs which contradicted others at the time, he moved some 30 miles away southeast over the boundary to Scituate with his wife and children, where he died a few years later at the age of 49.


Brackney says Dunster was "an important precursor" of the Baptist denomination in America, especially regarding infant baptism, soul freedom, religious liberty, congregational governance, and a radical biblicism." 

Dunster married twice; both his wives were named Elizabeth. His first wife was Elizabeth (Harris) Glover, the widow of Joseph Glover. They married on June 21, 1641. She died in 1643, leaving Dunster with land and property, including the first printing press in the colony, and leaving him shared responsibility for her estate and her five children by her first marriage. Dunster married Elizabeth Atkinson (1627–1690) in 1644.

Henry and Elizabeth Atkinson's children:

  1. David Dunster, (1645 – ).
  2. Dorothy Dunster, (1648 – 1649).
  3. Henry Dunster, (1650 – 1659).
  4. Jonathan Dunster, (1653 – 1725).
  5. Elizabeth Dunster, (1656 – 1721).


Henry Dunster was born in 1609 somewhere in or near the the present-day city of Bury, Lancashire, UK. His precise birthplace is not known. He was baptized on November 26, 1609.

Henry Dunster's gravesite in the Old Burying Yard (or Old Burying Ground, "God's Acre") is just a stone's throw from the main entrance to Harvard University. After his voluntary exile to Scituate, Plymouth Colony, in 1655, it was Dunster's express wish in his will that, after his death, he be buried close to the College that he loved. He ensured that provision was made for his body to be transported from Scituate to Cambridge, there to be interred "by my loveing wife and other relaccons [relations]." Dunster was buried there in 1659. 


The Henry Dunster Society, an organization inaugurated at Harvard University in September 2008, is intended to bring together from time to time the alumni/ae of the Bury Grammar Schools and to help them support new initiatives for the Schools. The connection with Harvard College, in addition to the two being very august institutions, highly respected in the North of their particular countries, started with Henry Dunster.

Dunster was born near Bury and attended Bury Grammar School. He went up to Magdalene College, Cambridge, and after graduation became the Curate of Bury Parish Church, a living in the patronage of the Earl of Derby. Returning to Bury, Dunster became the third Headmaster of the School.

Dunster left his posts in Bury in 1640 when, like many other Puritans dissatisfied with developments in both church and state and probably in anticipation of a Civil War, he emigrated to Massachusetts. Soon after his arrival, Dunster was asked and agreed to become the first President of Harvard College, now Harvard University.

Although few documents survive to explain how Dunster thought of himself, he did use a phrase in one letter, ego enim Lancastrensis sum, suggesting that he was a modest, hard-working, Lancashire lad, proud of his northern English origins and of his noted Lancashire accent. The Henry Dunster Society website is at


Other more personal factors made life difficult for Dunster, too, including his first marriage to the widow of the man who had died en route to Massachusetts with New England’s first printing press. The first Mrs. Dunster, to use a modern argot, was a piece of work, inclined to live in the manner to which she would like to become accustomed. MORISON, supra note 3, at 256. After Dunster re-married, it was a while before the complicated arrangements in his household involving his step-children and his own children and now and then some others took on a settled air. Id. at 342-343. Astonishingly, through all of this, Dunster took but a meager salary, ran the college on a shoestring without regular appropriations from the General Court, and had to contend with what we would today regard as bizarre financial transactions, which sometimes involved money but were as like to take the form of wampum, the “College corn,” and the Charlestown ferry rents. Id. at 292-324.


From Savage, Genealogical Dictionary of New England Settlers, V2 page 83

Dunster,  Henry,Cambridge, first Presid. of Harv. Coll. a Lancashire man, s. of Henry of Balehoult, a seat in Bury of that Co. came in 1640, and resid. a short time in Boston, was of ar. co. 1640, but not of our ch. so that we may be sure he ws of ano. town prob. Cambridge bef. adm. as freem. 2 June 1641; was bred at Magdalen Coll. in the Univ. of Cambridge, had his degrees 1630, and 1634. Soon after com. he was made presid. 27 Aug. 1640, compell. to resign 24 Oct. 1654, on acco. of his opinion on inf. bapt. He was desir. to come to Ireland by the deputy Henry Cromwell and his coune. and £50 advance. for his passage, but he was wise eno. to avoid that evil, and d. at Scituate 18 or 27 Feb. 1659, where he preach. all his latter days; but his heart's desire was to be bur. at Cambridge, where, in his will, he says lay the remains of some of his babes. 

He names, as liv. two s. David, and Jonathan, d. Eliz. sis. Hills, w. of Joseph of Malden, and her childr. sis. Willard of Concord, and her childr. an cous. Faith D. 

His first w. Eliz. m. June 1641, d. 23 Aug. 1643; and next yr. he m. Eliz. wid. of Rev. Josse Glover, had David, b. 16 May 1645; Dorothy, 29 Jan. 1648; Henry, 1650; Jonathan, 28 Sept. or ano. acco. says, 26 Oct.


Rev. Henry, Cambridge, propr., frm. June 2, 1641. He was president of Harvard College, 1640-1654. He leased Mr. Humphrey's mill at Lynn to Francis Ingalls in 1647. [Es. Files VIII, 75-8.] "An able proficient in Hebrew, Greek and Latin languages, an Orthodox Preacher of the truths of Christ." [J.] Became an Anabaptist. Rem. to Scituate. Was one of the revisers of the Bay Psalm Book. [C. M.] His wife Elizabeth d. 23 (6) 1643. He m. 2, Elizabeth, widow of Mr. Jose Glover. Ch. David b. 16 (3) 1645, Dorothy b. 29 (11) 1647.

He d. about 1659. Will dated 18 Feb. 1658, prob. June 21, 1659, beq. to wife; to sons David and Jonathan; to dau. Elizabeth, who is to be brought up by "my sister Mrs. Hills of Mauldon," or "my sister Williard of Concord," in case of her mother's death; to Mr. Chauncey, Mr. Mitchell, elder Frost; to cousin Bowers with her ch.; to cousin Faith Dunster; to sister Hills and to all her ch. born in this country; to sister Willard and all her ch.; to maid, Mary Russell.


  1. Henry Dunster and His Descendants (1876) by Samuel Dunster. E.L. Freeman & Co.
  2. Life of Henry Dunster: First President of Harvard College (Google eBook) Jeremiah Chaplin, Samuel Dunster, Edward Swift Dunster. J.R. Osgood, 1872 - 315 pages
  3. Dunster, Henry, 1609-1659? Papers of Henry Dunster and the Dunster and Glover families : an inventory
  4. Papers of Henry Dunster and the Dunster and Glover families : finding aid



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Rev. Henry Dunster, First President of Harvard's Timeline

November 26, 1609
Bury, Lancashire , England


During medieval times most of Bury was held by the the De Montbegons, Lords of the Manor of Tottington. This barony had been granted to Roger De Poitou at the end of the 11th century. By the 14th century, the manor had passed into the possession of the Pilkington family until 1485 when the lands of Sir Thomas Pilkington were forfeited because of his allegiance to Richard III.

Later, under a new king, Henry, the lands were granted to one of his staunchest supporters, Thomas, Lord Stanley, who for his services was created Earl of Derby. The Stanley family have been Lords of the Manor ever since.


The genealogy of that background is sketched in G. Andrews Moriarty, Genealogical Research in England, 80 NEW ENG. HIST. & GENEALOGICAL REG. 86-95 (1926).

November 26, 1609
Bury, Lancashire , England
- 1634
Age 24
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire , England
- 1640
Age 24
Bury, Lancashire, England

after graduation became the Curate of Bury Parish Church, a living in the patronage of the Earl of Derby. Returning to Bury, Dunster became the third Headmaster of the School. Dunster left his posts in Bury in 1640


26 FALLOWS, supra note 1, at 53. The Rector of Bury also held the living at Halsall, near Ormskirk. Both livings were in the patronage of the Earl of Derby, who owned Lathom House, which was also not far from Ormskirk. Both Lord Derby and his son and heir at the time Dunster became Master of Bury School, Lord Strange, were loyal supporters of the orthodox Church of England. The Rector of Bury was the Earl of Derby’s Chaplain. The Earl’s son, who became the seventh Earl of Derby in 1638, was also a supporter of the Royalist cause in the English Civil War and was executed in Bolton in October 1651.


- 1654
Age 28
Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts

In 1638, Stephen Day imported and installed the first printing press in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The printing press was only used for printing laws of the Puritan Colony, religious works, and job-printing for the government and Harvard College.

March 20, 1640
Age 30
Bury, Lancashire, England

A letter to President Dunster from his father Henrye Dunster, is still extant, and is dated "from Balehoult, this 20th of March, 1640." "Balehoult," says Mr. Samuel Dunster in his "Henry Dunster and his Descendants," is supposed to have been the name of a private gentleman's residence in Bury, Lancashire." This letter indicates that the father of Henry Dunster was a man of liberal education. In the letter, Mr. Dunster mentions three sons, Richard, Thomas, and Robert, and two or more daughters. Elizabeth, the only daughter mentioned by name in the letter, came to New England and married Major Simon, son of Richard and Margery Willard.

Title: Dunster, Henry, 1609-1659? Papers of Henry Dunster and the Dunster and Glover families. Letter from Henry Dunster of Balehoult, Lancashire, England, to his son, Henry Dunster, Cambridge, New England, 1640 March 20. UAI 15.850 Box 1, Folder 3, Harvard University Archives. .
Page: [1] (seq. 1)

July 1640
Age 30
Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts

He arrived in Boston toward the latter end of the summer of 1640, and for a short time he resided on "his own estate at the North East corner of Court Street and Washington Street."

Samuel Dunster says: "Cambridge University here had, from an early period, a reputation for liberality of opinion far beyond that of her ancient rival, Oxford, and it is not at all surprising that so many of her graduates, who were driven from home by the then existing intolerance toward non-conformists, were found among the early settlers of New England. Among his contemporaries at Cambridge, were Jeremy Taylor and John Milton, Ralph Cudworth and John Pearson, John Harvard, and others, who became more or less distinguished. ...


31 Morison’s description of organized religion in New England makes clear the roles of pastor and teacher and their relevance for Dunster. “Strictly speaking,” Morison writes, “there was no New England Church, only churches in New England; for no central organization existed. The communicants were ‘a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people,’ each local group of them constituted a church, which had the right to censure, discipline, admit, expel, and excommunicate its members, and elect its officers. A church fully officered had two ministers, the pastor and the teacher, and two ruling elders. The pastor was supposed to exhort, the teacher to expound; but in practice their functions did not differ. Both these ‘teaching elders’ were ordained by the laying-on of hands, laymen and ministers from neighboring churches assisting; no ordination at large was considered valid by the puritans.” Id. at 158-159 (citations omitted). Dunster could not expect recognition, therefore, of his earlier ordination in England. He would have to wait until a local church laid hands on him, as it were. He might not have to wait long, because for the churches in New England “an adequate supply of learned clergy was an imperious necessity.” Id. at 159-160. This state of affairs also explains why, on the demand side, when Harvard started looking for a leader, it had trouble attracting local talent and had to satisfy itself in the first instance with the likes of Eaton. “New England churches had a vested interest in their ministers, and would not have considered for a moment releasing such men to the College.” Id. at 203. On the supply side, the number of young men with university degrees in early New England was considerable. Some of them had experience as schoolmasters and some of those who were ordained, as most of them were, like John Harvard, did not find parishes when they first arrived. Appendix B of Morison’s book on the founding of Harvard reviews and

As far as we know, Dunster had no job to go to in Massachusetts. He left England with his brother in the summer of 1640. Fallows surmises Dunster left partly because of frustrations at Bury, stemming from the religious orthodoxy of the pluralist Rector at St. Mary’s Parish Church, where Dunster was curate, but more probably because of Dunster’s final commitment to Puritanism.26

Dunster did a good job as the Master of Bury School27 and there is no indication that Dunster had serious disagreements with the School’s new Governors, from whom he would in any event have had a measure of protection as a protégé of Henry Bury.28 Dunster, then, was not so much running away from something bad as he was running towards something good, an indefinite but tantalizingly hopeful prospect.

August 27, 1640
- 1654
Age 30
Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts


When Nathaniel Eaton was dismissed in 1639 as master of the recently established Harvard College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dunster was appointed as his successor. Thus on August 27, 1640 Dunster became the first president of Harvard. (For a discussion of Dunster's choice of the title "president" see President (title).) He modeled Harvard's educational system on that of the English schools such as Eton College and Cambridge University. He set up as well as taught Harvard's entire curriculum alone for many years, graduating the first college class in America, the Class of 1642. From 1649-1650 Dunster also served as interim pastor at The First Parish in Cambridge until the accession of Jonathan Mitchel.[4] Historians have generally treated Dunster well in terms of his theological beliefs and educational abilities. Samuel Eliot Morison, the best-known historian of Harvard's history, wrote that Harvard College "might have followed her first patron to an early death and oblivion but for the faith, courage and intelligence of Henry Dunster."[5] Dunster held Harvard together financially during a difficult economic downturn in New England that began soon after his arrival. He later had some conflict with the college's treasurer, Thomas Danforth, who called him the "de facto treasurer.".[6] However, Dunster indeed was the "de facto treasurer" of Harvard for nearly a decade. With the approval of the General Court of Massachusetts Bay, he later set up the first corporation charter in America, the Charter of 1650, and named Danforth as the new treasurer.[7] The corporate charter that Dunster established governs Harvard University to this day - an astounding testament to his leadership and governing skills. On December 6, 2010, Harvard announced its intention to expand the membership of the Corporation from a body of seven members (as first set up by Dunster) to thirteen members.[8]

June 2, 1641
Age 31
Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts

Source: DNB

June 22, 1641
Age 31
Cambridge, MA, USA