Tag Archives: Henry Dunster

Henry Dunster–Bonus Material

Here’s an additional use for a blog: the posting of bonus material. I know some people devour all the extras that come on DVDs. So, one more thing I could use this blog for is to post material that doesn’t find a place elsewhere.

Today’s post might be thought of as a “deleted scene.” Due to space limitations, I had to cut it out of the final Henry Dunster article. But, so that words might not be lost, I’ll share it with you.

The set-up is that Henry Dunster’s memory became contested territory after his death. In fact, people were arguing about it into the eighteenth century. One example of this is that Henry Dunster shows up in the writings of a British historian, Daniel Neal.

I should highlight again that I was put onto this scent by Baylor’s Bracy Hill.

This paragraph deals with Neal’s treatment of Dunster:

Several decades later, Dunster also became a figure for comment for the British minister and historian Daniel Neal.[1] Neal walked a fine line as a British dissenter who was sympathetic yet critical of seventeenth-century Puritans. Neal’s larger point was to ally the dissenting tradition with the Protestant British empire.[2] Although he drew on [Cotton] Mather’s Magnalia, “he also exercised a critical judgment which to Mather might well have verged on disloyalty.”[3]  Neal rejected Mather’s easy accommodation of Dunster and others into a heroic, univocal New England Way. As a dissenting reformed Congregationalist, Neal was generally suspicious of the extremes of most Anabaptists, but he could also find some respect for a few devout baptists, of whom Dunster was one. In The History of New-England, Neal suggested Baptists deserved religious liberty because they were “following the Light of their Consciences” and making use of “the natural Rights of Mankind.”[4] Puritan persecution of these Baptists was thus unjust. In this context, Dunster was especially badly treated, because “He was an excellent Scholar, and a modest, humble, charitable Man.”[5] Dunster was thus worthy of respect and a personal lesson for reform in Britain and America. Although Neal remained most interested in religious liberty for dissenters, his histories could also be used to work for religious liberty for Baptists.


            [1] My specific thanks to Bracy Hill for pointing me to Neal’s treatment of Dunster. Hill, “Suffering for their Consciences: The Depiction of Anabaptists and Baptists in the Eighteenth-Century Histories of Daniel Neal,” The Welsh Journal of Religious History 5 (2010): 84-113.

            [2] Neal expresses this clearly in Daniel Neal, The History of the Puritans, Or Protestant Nonconformists; From the Reformation in 1517, to the Revolution in 1688, Comprising An Account of their First Principles: Their Attempts for a Farther Reformation in the Church; Their Suffering, and the Lives and Characters of Their Most Considerable Divines (London: Richard Hett, 1732; Reprint ed., NY: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1863), ix-xv. For Neal’s general purposes, see Laird Okie, “Daniel Neal and the ‘Puritan Revolution,’” Church History 55 (December 1986): 456-467; John Seed, Dissenting Histories: Politics, History and Memory in Eighteenth-Century England (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 1-12, 41-72.

            [3] Neal’s historiography shaped how colonial New Englanders thought about their own history. Bruce Tucker, “The Reinterpretation of Puritan History in Provincial New England,” The New England Quarterly 54 (December 1981): 481-498. Qt. on p. 484.

            [4] Daniel Neal, The History of New-England, Containing an Impartial Account of the Civil and Ecclesiastical Affairs of the Country, To the Year of our Lord, 1700, The Second Edition (London: A. Ward, T. Longman, T. Shewell, J. Oswald, A. Millar, J. Brackstone, 1747), I: 303, 305.

            [5] Neal, The History of New-England, 309.

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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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