On paper, Henry Dunster (1609–1659) was the ideal choice to become the first president of America’s first college. As a “learned Orientalist,” he was fluent in several languages.1 Educated at Cambridge under English divines like John Preston and Thomas Goodwin, he was a Puritan of Puritans. When Dunster arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640 as the inaugural president of Harvard, he envisioned a “school of the prophets” in New England modeled after the Old.
His pastor Thomas Shepard, one of the leading voices against Anne Hutchinson in her heresy trial just two years earlier, called Dunster “a man pious, painful, and fit to teach, and very fit to lay the foundations of the domestic affairs of the College; whom God hath much honored and blessed.”2 Almost immediately after landing in the New World, Dunster began laying those foundations. The course requirements he established in rhetoric, divinity, and languages remained relatively unchanged for most of the seventeenth century.3 With such a pivotal role in the Puritan experiment, Dunster helped determine the future of America itself.
Therefore, when Dunster withheld his fourth child from baptism at Cambridge Church in the winter of 1653, it made news. The man entrusted with the theological education of New England’s ministers had deprived his own child of the sacred “seal of the covenant.” One of the most enlightened, influential figures in colonial America had become, in the words of Cotton Mather, “entangle[d] in the snares of Anabaptism.”4
In a so-called “godly commonwealth” where church and state were intertwined, Dunster’s decision was not just shocking; it was potentially cataclysmic. Withholding an infant from baptism was subversive to the public order. Such radical views might have been acceptable in Rhode Island or even in Plymouth Colony, but not in Massachusetts Bay. In the land of the Puritans, Dunster’s action was equivalent to the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary sprinkling his newborn — if credobaptism were state law.
Indeed, to publicly affiliate with Baptists in seventeenth-century New England was a bold, even brave, endeavor. In 1635, Roger Williams had been banished to the colony of Rhode Island for espousing Baptist views. In 1651, just two years before Dunster decided to keep his child from baptism, a man named Obadiah Holmes from the town of Lynn was tied to a whipping post in Boston Common and lashed thirty times for baptizing several people. The imprisonment of Holmes and fellow Baptists John Clarke and John Crandall in Boston was a turning point for Dunster.
Although he had never been immersed himself, Dunster had always been somewhat skeptical about infant baptism. When he joined the church at Cambridge twelve years earlier, he confessed that he saw biblical evidence for immersion. Nevertheless, he told the church that as “there was something for sprinkling in the Scriptures, he should not be offended when [it] was used.”5 Dunster’s conscience was ultimately tied to the Bible. However, the Puritan treatment of Baptists opened his eyes anew to the ills of state-sponsored religion.
School officials rushed to quiet their beloved president. If Dunster could keep silent about his objections to infant baptism, Harvard would look the other way. However, as any Puritan worth his salt, Dunster could not approve of something he could not find in the Bible. Not long after withdrawing his child from baptism, the usually mild-mannered Dunster decided that he had been silent long enough. To declare his views, and to avoid the appearance that he had been muzzled with the threat of being fired, he chose the most public space in New England society: the church.
‘Paedobaptism Hath None’
According to Baptist Isaac Backus, Dunster “boldly preached against infant baptism, and for believers’ baptism, in the pulpit at Cambridge in 1653, the year after Messrs. Clarke, Holmes and Crandal were imprisoned at Boston[.]”6 In the sermon, Dunster took aim at any form of baptism predicated on someone else’s faith. In one of Dunster’s manuscripts written around the same time, he wrote,
If parents’ church-membership makes their children members, then John admitted makes his first-born a church member; excommunicated for 7 years makes suppose 4 children non-members, restored in ye 9th yeare makes his 6th child a member. Show me where Christ ever indented such a covenant.7
When Dunster was summoned before a conference of ministers and elders to defend his views, his thesis was very simple: Soli visibiliter fideles sunt baptizendi (“Only visible believers should be baptized”).
For Dunster, the question was about biblical authority. “All instituted gospel worship hath some express word of Scripture,” he insisted. “But paedobaptism hath none.” Drawing upon the Puritan understanding of salvation, he also noted, “If we be engrafted into Christ by personal faith, then not by parental.”8 Baptism was more than an issue of church polity; it had potentially eternal consequences. As Dunster later articulated in a letter, the true danger of infant baptism was its potential to deprive sinners of their “due consolation from Christ and dutiful obligation to Christ.”9
The conference was not moved. In their view, the president had fallen into a grave “mistake.” To make matters worse, Dunster was brought before the General Court of Massachusetts. Due to his significant influence over the youth of the colony, his views on baptism became a civil matter. He was deemed “unsound in the faith.” But Dunster would not change course. Evidently, he cared more about his faithfulness to the Bible than his job. He later wrote to the Middlesex County Court, “I conceived then, and so do still, that I spake the truth in the feare of God, and dare not deny the same or go from it untill the Lord otherwise teach me.”10
In fact, Dunster had one more “Here I Stand” moment. In a desperate attempt to retain their president, Harvard informed Dunster that he could remain at his post as long as he refrained from “imposing” his views upon others. However, this too was not enough to change his mind. Dunster officially submitted his resignation and once again preached at Cambridge Church against infant baptism! Of his five points, his chief point was that “the subjects of Baptisme were visible pennitent believers.” His last point was a warning and a foreshadowing of the so-called “Halfway Covenant” that would evoke the disdain of later Puritans like Jonathan Edwards: “That there were such corruptions stealing into the Church, which every faithful Christian ought to beare witnes against.”11
Dunster resigned his post at Harvard with such humility and dignity that some historians have marveled at the lack of “apparent controversy” in the entire episode.12 The disgraced clergyman did not instigate a debate in the public square, and Harvard did much to cover up the embarrassment. Ironically, for Dunster’s replacement, Harvard chose Charles Chauncy, another Congregationalist who believed in immersion. However, unlike Dunster, Chauncy agreed to keep tight-lipped about his views.
As a pariah in Puritan society and receiving little support from Harvard for his family, Dunster moved to the more tolerant neighbor colony of Plymouth, where he took up a ministry position at the Independent church in Scituate, only 28 miles from Boston. As his biographer (and Baptist president) Jeremiah Chaplin notes,
He probably never identified himself with a Baptist church, as indeed in his lifetime there was scarcely an opportunity of doing. We judge that he was content, under the circumstances, to remain in fellowship with his Independent brethren so long as they did not interfere with his liberty of conscience.13
Friend of the Baptists
Whether or not Dunster was a Baptist or simply baptistic is difficult to say.14 The evidence suggests that he was never immersed himself and was never excommunicated from the church in Cambridge.15 Nevertheless, Baptists on both sides of the Atlantic were fond of the man who had defied the Puritan establishment.
Thomas Gould, the first pastor of the First Baptist Church of Boston, called Dunster his friend, leading the historian Chaplin to speculate whether Dunster would have joined First Baptist if he had been alive when it was established in 1665 (Dunster passed away in 1659).16 In July of 1656, Dunster also received a letter from Irish Baptists inviting him to move his family to Ireland and “have free liberty of your conscience.”17 In the end, Dunster stayed in Plymouth, symbolizing his warm relations with Congregationalists and Baptists alike.
This combination of conviction and conciliatory ministry was his legacy. Even Cotton Mather, who had little affection for Roger Williams, extolled Dunster for bearing “his part in everlasting celestial hallelujahs.” “If,” Mather wrote, “unto the Christian, while singing of psalms on earth, Chrysostom could well say, ‘Those art in a consort with angels!’ how much more may that now be said of our Dunster.”18
Jeremiah Chaplin, Life of Henry Dunster, First President of Harvard College (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1872), ix. ↩
Alexander Young, Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, from 1623 to 1636 (Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1846), 552–53. ↩
Josiah Quincy, The History of Harvard University, vol. 1 (Cambridge: John Owen, 1840), 191. ↩
Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana: Or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England, vol. 2 (Hartford, CT: Silas Andrus, 1820), 10. ↩
Chaplin, Life of Henry Dunster, 55. ↩
Isaac Backus, A History of New England with Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians Called Baptists, vol. 2 (Newton, MA: The Backus Historical Society, 1871), 418. ↩
Chaplin, Life of Henry Dunster, 114. ↩
Chaplin, Life of Henry Dunster, 122. ↩
Chaplin, Life of Henry Dunster, 123. ↩
Chaplin, Life of Henry Dunster, 118. ↩
Chaplin, Life of Henry Dunster, 130–31. ↩
John G. Turner, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 215. ↩
Chaplin, Life of Henry Dunster, 204–5. ↩
See Obbie Tyler Todd, “Almost Baptists: Baptistic Pedobaptists in American History (1650–1950),” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 20, no. 1 (Spring 2023): 19–30. ↩
William G. McLoughlin, Soul Liberty: The Baptists’ Struggle in New England, 1630–1833 (Hanover, NH: Brown University Press, 1991), 21. ↩
Chaplin, Life of Henry Dunster, 201. ↩
Chaplin, Life of Henry Dunster, 215. ↩
Chaplin, Life of Henry Dunster, 231–32. Cotton Mather was the grandson of two Puritan giants in Massachusetts, Richard Mather and John Cotton. His father, Increase Mather, was the president of Harvard from 1681 to 1701. ↩