Who is Henry Dunster?

Some readers might be thinking the better question is, “Who is John Galt?”

I am going to “Shrug” in response to that question to answer my original question.

Henry Dunster was perhaps the most important Puritan that even American historians haven’t heard much about. He was the real founding president of a little institution called Harvard. He arrived in the New World in 1640, at the tail end of the “Great Migration” and quickly proved his value to the colony. A man of learning with an MA from Cambridge, he was a scholar of Near Eastern languages. He was quickly appointed to lead the infant Harvard College, which he did well, securing both its financial security and intellectual rigor. During the 1640s, he was near the center of the leadership of the Bay Colony, working for Indian evangelization and revising the colony’s Psalter hymnbook.

Then, something happened. In the 1650s Dunster began having concerns about infant baptism. He refused to have a new-born baptized. When challenged, he prompted a large, public debate in which he defended the anti-infant baptism position against eleven other church leaders. Removed from his presidency at Harvard, Dunster further disrupted the public order by interrupting an infant baptism in his Cambridge Church.

Banished to Plymouth Colony, Dunster lived a few quiet years before his death.

My contention is that Dunster’s theological challenge also carried with it a political challenge. Because baptism was tied to church membership and membership to citizenship, any adjustment to any of those elements had significant political implications.

I explore this at length in my article, “National and Provinciall Churches Are Nullityes”: Henry Dunster’s Puritan Argument against the Puritan Established Church.” The article is forthcoming from the Journal of Church and State, but an advance access article is available here.

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