John Harvard, the fourth of nine children and second son of Robert and Katherine Harvard, was born in London and baptized on Nov. 29, 1607, at present-day Southwark Cathedral (earlier known as St. Savior's Parish), located near the London Bridge. A John Harvard Chapel was established at the Cathedral in his honor in 1905, with a special stained glass window donated by a Harvard alumnus, former U.S. Ambassador to London, Joseph Hodges Choate.
John Harvard Chapel (courtesy of Southwark Cathedral)
Many members of John's family, including his father and four brothers and sisters, died of the plague in 1625. Before moving to
John's father, Robert, was a butcher, and he did not come from a line of educated university men. John is believed to have attended the grammar school at St. Savior's. The rector of St. Savior's at the time was a man named Nicholas Morton, who was very close to the Harvard family (and was remembered in several of their family wills). Morton took young John Harvard under his wing and helped prepare him for college. Morton himself graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge University in 1612 and received his master's degree there in 1619 (Samuel Eliot Morison, The Founding of Harvard College, p. 105 and footnote 5).
Main entrance to Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. Photo by the author,
Main entrance to Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. Photo by the author, 2003.
John Harvard entered
Ann and John were married on April 19, 1636, the same year
that the college that bears his name was founded (the College was officially
founded by an Act of the General Court of Massachusetts Bay on October 28,
1636). The Harvards were then still in
By the spring of 1637, John's only surviving family member, his brother Thomas, also died. One view says that John was still in England at the time of his brother's death and another that he had already left England enroute to the New World with his new bride.
In any event, it seems most likely that
the young couple crossed the Atlantic sometime during the spring or summer of 1637, possibly with Nathaniel Eaton and his wife. They may have
arrived in Boston in late June, 1637 (see Morison, The Founding of Harvard
College, p. 202). Upon their arrival in Boston, the Harvards soon moved to nearby
It was not to be. John Harvard died soon after
in Charlestown, (from consumption, possibly from tuberculosis), on September
14, 1638, at the young age of 30, leaving an estate worth more than 1,600
pounds, half of which he donated to the yet unnamed College. The General Court of Massachusetts Bay later decided to name the young
college 'Harvard College' in his honor. His original burial marking disappeared during the American
Revolution. Another monument was erected by Harvard graduates in 1828 in a cemetery in Charlestown (see also S.E. Morison, Chapter XVI, John Harvard,
The Founding of Harvard College,
footnote 4, p. 220).
It was not to be. John Harvard died soon after in Charlestown, (from consumption, possibly from tuberculosis), on September 14, 1638, at the young age of 30, leaving an estate worth more than 1,600 pounds, half of which he donated to the yet unnamed College. The General Court of Massachusetts Bay later decided to name the young college 'Harvard College' in his honor. His original burial marking disappeared during the American Revolution. Another monument was erected by Harvard graduates in 1828 in a cemetery in Charlestown (see also S.E. Morison, Chapter XVI, John Harvard, The Founding of Harvard College, footnote 4, p. 220).
Monument to John Harvard in Charlestown near Phipps Street Burying Ground.
(Photo from John Harvard and His Times - 1907) (p. 283).
Of John Harvard's library of some 400 volumes that he donated to the College, only one book
survived the devastating fire of 1764. That is the book by John Downame, The Christian Warfare Against
the Devil, World and Flesh And Means to Obtain Victory,
published in 1634. The original is presently on display at the Houghton Library at
The Rev. Thomas Shepard, beloved minister of the First Church of Cambridge, said of John Harvard: "He was a scholar and pious in his life and enlarged toward the country and the good of it in life and death." Shepard himself was also a graduate of Emmanuel College. The famous brochure, New Englands First Fruits, said he was "a godly gentleman and a lover of learning."
Very few books have been written about him. One is
John Harvard and His Times, published
in 1907 in the tercentenary year of his birth. Its author was Henry C. Shelley.
Another book written about that time was Andrew McFarland's John Harvard's Life in
The famous statue of John Harvard in Harvard Yard is historically incorrect, since no one knows what John Harvard actually looked like. The same, of course, goes for the stamp issued in his honor, taken from the same likeness as the statue.
Besides the bare facts given here, very little else is known
about John Harvard the man. We do know for sure that he gave up a life of
relative ease in
Logic, however, dictates a few key points about the kind of
man John Harvard had to be. The naming of the College as
They could just have easily made a special note of thanks to the widow of their young friend and fellow Puritan who had given such an outstanding bequest - there was no requirement or necessity that the College should be named after Harvard. From every indication, John's will was oral or non-cupative - that is, there is no written record of any kind, and there was no stipulation attached to the gift of half his estate and his library to the College. If there had been any stipulation, it would have been recorded by the Court: as requested by John Harvard by terms of his gift. But there is no evidence whatsoever that that was the case.
Instead, those who decided to name the College after John
Harvard on that day in March 1639 at the General Court meeting in
The naming of the College after John Harvard was no
quid pro quo (the naming of Yale, on the other hand, in the following century,
was just that:
Cotton Mather many decades later would suggest as
much in the case of the naming of Yale when he advised wealthy businessman Elihu
Yale). Instead, it reflected their highest ideals of the New Man in the
In fact, the founders had every reason to name the College after something else
in their experience or tradition or in making some statement about their
foothold in this
Perhaps that was the very message that the founders of
what would now be known as "
John Harvard left no male heir to carry on the Harvard
family name; instead, the naming of the College in his honor was the undying
legacy that his friends decided to grant to him. In so doing, they were
saying to every succeeding generation that this was the kind of man whom they
wanted others to emulate, whose spirit of courage, self-sacrifice and generosity
embodied the very best of what they hoped
The books by Samuel Eliot Morison, The Founding of Harvard College and Harvard in the Seventeenth Century (two volumes), both produced for Harvard University's tercentenary celebration in 1936, are the most authoritative. They were published by Harvard University Press and are available in the second-hand book market.
Additionally, the author of this website has published a book titled: America's Oldest Corporation and First CEO: Harvard and Henry Dunster (Infinity, 2008). Order it from Infinity Publishing or send an email request to: firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to: A. J. Melnick, PO Box 5501, Falmouth, VA 22403 U.S.A. for an autographed copy. Retail price is $16.95 per copy.
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