Baptist History Homepage

Henry Dunster
By Nathan Woods, 1899

[p. 16]
Henry Dunster, the first president and practically the founder of Harvard College, was one of the most eminent and useful men in the New World. He was regarded as "a miracle of scholarship," and his modesty, amiability, and devoutness, were not less conspicuous than his scholarship. He had devoted himself with rare assiduity to the establishing of the infant college. He stood pre-eminent in that notable group of English university-bred men which adorned and guided the affairs of the colony during those early years. The admiration for him was almost boundless, while the grace and sweetness of his character made him almost equally well beloved. He was the rare man, who appears all too seldom, in whom lofty scholarship, noble character, profound unselfishness, and sweet humility are happily blended. He had become president of the college in 1640, and had united with the First Church in Cambridge. It would be difficult to overestimate the confidence and the pride which the whole colony felt in regard to President Dunster.

In 1653 he began to give public expression to his dissent from the scripturalness of infant baptism. The whipping of Holmes, two years earlier, had undoubtedly arrested his attention, and aroused him to search the Scriptures. After some months of careful study, he plainly declared, "All instituted Gospel Worship hath some express word of Scripture, but Pedobaptism hath none."1 In February, 1654, he held for two days a public disputation with nine leading ministers of the colony upon this thesis: Soli visibililer fideles sunt baptizendi -- Believers visibly only are to be baptized. All the arguments brought against him were fruitless toward changing his
1 "Dunster MSS.," p. 289.
[p. 17]
opinions. He insistently declared himself opposed to infant baptism, because it had no warrant of Scripture and urged the baptism of believers only. He soon gave a practical expression to his views by withholding his own child from baptism. So conspicuous a defection from the Puritan doctrine, and so masterly an attack upon the key position of a theocratic State, aroused the leaders in Church and State as nothing previously had been able to do. Every effort was made to win him back, or at least to persuade him to remain silent. The appeal of personal affection was made to him. The danger to the colony and to the college was set before him. The ruin of his personal fortune and of his future usefulness was threatened. But all was in vain. He was immovable. He contended, "that the subjects of Baptisme were visible penitent believers, and they only by Vertue of any rule, example, or any other light in the new testament." He had put nearly all his private property into the establishment of the college. He had given it at one time a hundred acres of land, and with almost no outside financial assistance had built the president's house. For nearly fourteen years, he had given himself with rare and single devotion to its maintenance. His property was invested in it. His life was wrapped up in its work. His attitude toward infant baptism imperiled everything which he held dear except the truth. The Grand jury sent a request to the ministers to formulate a suitable charge against him, which they did, and he was presented to the Court under indictment, "For disturbing the ordinance of infant baptism in the Cambridge Church." His reply was
But for the matter, I conceived then, and so do still, that I spoke the truth in the feare of God, and dare not deny the same or go from it untell the Lord otherwise teach me, and this I pray the Honored Court to take for mine Answer.
In October, 1654, he was forced to resign the presidency, for as Cotton Mather says, "he had fallen into the briars of antipedobaptism," and his usefulness was deemed to be at an end. His defection from the standing order was a shock and grief to all the adherents of Puritanism, to such an extent as is impossible for us at this day to understand. He was ordered to vacate his house, just as the severities of winter were coming on, but upon his humble petition, and statement of the delicate health of his family, he was permitted to remain until spring. He then left his home an impoverished man, and scarcely knew which way to turn for employment among those who were now unfriendly to him. He removed at length out of the jurisdiction of the colony of Massachusetts Bay, and located in Scituate, which belonged to Plymouth Colony. There he preached to a little flock which he gathered about himself. But even there his enemies pursued him, for on April 7, 1657, the Grand jury presented Henry Dunster to the Court at Cambridge, "for not bringing his child to the Holy Ordinance of baptisme."2 When he "affirmed that none of them had given any
2 "Middlesex Court Original Papers."
[p. 18]
demonstrative argument touching infant baptism," the Court, instead of giving him a reasonable answer or refutation, "Sollemly, admonished him of his dangerous error," and ordered that he should give bonds for his appearance at the next Court of Assistants in Boston. It is probable that he was never brought to trial. He died in Scituate, February 27, 1659. His death allayed ecclesiastical animosities, and
His body was solemnly interred at Cambridge, where he had spent the choice part of his studies and of his life, and might there have continued if he had been endowed with that wisdom which many others have wanted besides himself, to have kept his singular opinion to himself, when there was little occasion for venting thereof.3
Fortunately for New England and the world, Henry Dunster was no coward, and was endowed with the spiritual sagacity which foresees the triumph of the truth, and is ready to suffer in its behalf. He was, indeed, one of the early New England martyrs.

These sufferings for truth and conscience' sake evidently made a profound impression on the mind of Thomas Goold, of Charlestown, who was a close friend of the learned president. He also became disturbingly inquisitive on the subject of infant baptism. In 1655 the elders of the Charlestown Church put Goold under admonition for not bringing his infant child to baptism, and when they sent him a note requesting his appearance before them to answer for his delinquency, Dunster was among the group of friends at his house who advised him what to do. It is evident that they were in close sympathy with each other before this time, and that Dunster's attitude and views were the direct cause of Goold's withholding his child from baptism. It may be said, therefore, with a large measure of truth, that Henry Dunster was the founder of the First Baptist Church of Boston, for he was the immediate forerunner and influential cause of the attitude of Thomas Goold, who finally became the actual founder of the church, in 1665. There can be no doubt that if Henry Dunster had lived until 1665 he would have become the first pastor of the church instead of Thomas Goold, his friend and disciple, and would have had the joy of seeing his views embodied in a church of baptized believers.

This consummation was, for some unknown reason, delayed until six years after he had passed away. Probably the sternly intolerant spirit of the authorities made it seem impolitic that the group of Baptists should organize themselves formally into a church, but it is known that they met privately for simple worship some years before the final organization. It is perhaps idle to speculate upon what different results might have ensued if Dunster had lived to become founder and pastor of this church. He certainly was not without courage to brave persecutions. He might have attracted to himself many men
3 Hubbard, History of New England.
[p. 19]
of learning and influence, and have given the church such a standing as to have precluded some of the fiery persecutions through which it afterward was called to pass. He found in his disciple, Thomas Goold, a man as inflexible in character as himself, and one whom the terrors of fines, imprisonments, and the loss of all things, had no power to frighten. In the simplicity and greatness of their characters they had much in common. Henry Dunster's name and memory will ever hold a cherished and fragrant place in the history of the First Baptist Church.

In 1720 the church wrote a letter to the Baptist churches in London, and gave some account of the rise of the church. The following is an extract from the letter, which has been preserved:
It pleased the Lord, by his divine and wise-disposing providence to spirit a small number of men who were very gracious and enlightened in the knowledge of his truth as it is in Jesus, and to appear for the vindication thereof, and to encourage them for their gathering into a church in the way and order of the gospel as above mentioned, which several wise and learned 4 men endeavored but could not accomplish it. However God was pleased to succeed the endeavors of our brethren who were not so accomplished with acquired parts and abilities by learning.5
4 This allusion is doubtless to Henry Dunster and others.
5 Rev. S. Hall's "Collection," Isaac Backus, A History of New England Baptists, Vol. I., p. 490.

[From Nathan E. Wood, The History of the First Baptist Church of Boston - 1665- 1899, 1899, pp. 16-19. - jrd]

Return to Baptist Biographies
Return to Baptist History Homepage