The Life and Times of John Harvard

"The Life and Times of JOHN HARVARD (1607-1638)"

by Jim Melnick

The images on this stamp, the famous statue in Harvard Yard, and the stained glass window at Emmanuel College (Cambridge University) are all FAKE! No one really knows what John Harvard looked like! Click here for The John Harvard Fellowship page on Facebook.

Birth and Early Life

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.  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 in 1625 of the plague. Before moving to London, the Harvard family's roots were in Stratford-on-Avon (where his mother retained a house, known today as the "Harvard House" on High Street). There has been speculation that his father's family may have known William Shakespeare (both from their mutual ties in Stratford-on-Avon and at St. Savior's in
London), but a connection between them - though entirely possible - has never been proven.  

Influence of St. Savior's Rector, Nicholas Morton; Student at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University

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 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).  

Emmanuel Entrance 

Main entrance to Emmanuel College, Cambridge University.   Photo by the author, 2003.

John Harvard entered Emmanuel College in 1627 and stayed for more than seven years from 1627-1635. The fact that John was now a college man would have been a major accomplishment for the Harvard family. John received his bachelor's degree from Emmanuel in 1632 and his master's degree in 1635. At the time, Emmanuel was the primary college in England for Puritans, many of whom, like John, later emigrated to America. While at Emmanuel, John may also have met Nathaniel Eaton, the disastrous first head of what would later become Harvard College. Eaton was a student at nearby Trinity College at Cambridge University. John Harvard is remembered today at Emmanuel by a special John Harvard Window in the college chapel.  It was also at Emmanuel that he met his classmate, John Sadler, later the town clerk of London, a Member of Parliament and private secretary to Oliver Cromwell. Sadler was a Hebraist and the author of The Rights of the Kingdom(1649). John introduced Harvard to his sister, Ann. Ann's father, also named John, was a vicar in Patcham, Sussex. There are various legal documents in England that refer to John Harvard as a 'clerk'. This, according to Morison, within the context of the time indicates a religious affiliation and possible ordination; however, no record of ordination has ever been found (Morison, op. cit., p. 212). That, however, is not surprising, given the position of Puritans in England at the time.   

Marriage to Ann Sadler; The Move to Charlestown near Boston; Assuming the Duties of a Teaching Elder

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 England. John's mother Katherine had died the year before in July 1635, prior to his marriage to Ann. After her death, the Queen's Head Tavern property in London, which she had inherited, passed to John and provided a great deal of financial support to him. John is believed to have sold several houses to a sea captain in early 1637 but retained the Queen's Head property.

By the spring of 1637, John's brother Thomas, his only surviving family member, also died. Some believe John was still in England at the time of his brother's death; others think 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 moved to nearby Charlestown, where the Eatons also lived for a while before moving to Cambridge. John took the freeman's oath in November 1637. Charlestown at that time was a village of some 150 homes. John and Ann became members of the First Church of Charlestown on November 6 of that year. John performed the duties of a teaching elder and is believed to have been an assistant to the pastor, the Rev. Zechariah Symmes. He also was appointed to an important committee to consider a possible 'body of laws' in Charlestown. He had planned to raise cattle in the New World, since some 120 acres were set aside for that purpose. Had he lived, the cattle would have been an important source of income for the Harvard family. Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison remarks that it must have been the source of some amusement for John to consider that, after all his university training, he would derive much of his new income in America from butchering cows, in essence continuing in part his father Robert's occupation (Samuel Eliot Morison, The Founding of Harvard College, 1935, pp. 106, 211-212, 216-218).

Death and Gravesite

But it was not to be. John Harvard died soon after their arrival in Charlestown, (from consumption, possibly from tuberculosis), on September 14, 1638, at the young age of 30. He left an estate worth more than 1,600 pounds, half of which he donated to the yet unnamed College.  The General Court of Massachusetts Bay then 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). 

The same monument a century later in 2007 - 400th anniversary year of John Harvard's birth

(Photos by the author)

John Harvard's Library

John Harvard's library contained some 400 volumes that he donated to the College, but only one book from this library 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 Harvard University (see Kelly Monroe Kullberg's book, Finding God Beyond Harvard, 2006, p. 53 and footnote on page 240).  John Harvard's collection also included numerous Greek and Hebrew books and Bible commentaries, even an Aramaic lexicon of the Talmud (see Morison, Harvard in the Seventeenth Century, Vol. I, 1936, pp. 194-195). There were works by Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Bacon, Calvin, Plutarch, Homer, and many others (Josiah Quincy, The History of Harvard University, Vol. I, 1840, pp. 10-11). Despite the 1764 fire, there were earlier records of many of these books. A catalogue of John Harvard's books was compiled by Alfred C. Potter (1867-1940) in 1920 and published by the then Colonial Society of Massachusetts (Publications, Vol. 21, pp. 190-230). Reprinted copies of the catalogues are also held at the Harvard University Archives and the Houghton Library. In November 1938, the Harvard Alumni Bulletin published an article by Henry J. Cadbury, "What Happened to John Harvard's Books?" (Vol. 41, pp. 241-248)

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."

Books About John Harvard

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.

John Harvard and His Times (1907)

Another book written about that time was Andrew McFarland's John Harvard's Life in America, or Social and Political Life in New England in 1637-1638 (1908). A short earlier work (24 pages) by Henry F. Waters (published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in 1885) is titled John Harvard and His Ancestry.

Besides the bare facts given here, very little else is known about John Harvard the man. We do know that he gave up a life of relative ease in England in order to set out for an uncertain life as an immigrant in the New World. In 1842, the former head of the Massachusetts Historical Society, James Savage, went to England with the express purpose of trying to find out more about him. He did not succeed, other than finding John's signatures upon taking his degrees at Emmanuel College. Savage remarked that "he would gladly give five hundred dollars to get five lines about [John Harvard] in any capacity, public or private." (Waters, 1885, op. cit., p. 3).  But more information was not forthcoming.

The Naming of the College in His Honor

Nevertheless, logic would dictate a few key points about the kind of man John Harvard had to be. The naming of the College as Harvard College in his honor speaks of his sterling character. He must have represented in nearly every way the ideals that his fellow Puritans looked up to: he had left much behind in order to come to the New World, he was dedicated to the Word of God, he prized learning and scholarship, and he had a generous spirit. These were all qualities treasured by the members of the General Court of Massachusetts Bay, who voted on March 13 of the following year to forever link the name of one of their most prized and important projects - the first College of higher learning in the New World - to the name of Harvard.

They could just have easily made a special note of thanks to the widow of their young friend who had given such an outstanding bequest - there was no 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 Boston included two of his contemporaries at Emmanuel College - Richard Saltonstall and Simon Bradstreet, and three of John's fellow townsmen from Charlestown. Saltonstall was also one of the earliest outspoken opponents of the then emerging slave trade in the New World (Morison, op. cit., pp. 221 and 399).

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 New World. The naming of Harvard College was also clearly a reflection of John's own character and reputation. If there had been even a hint of scandal or concern about him or his background, these founders of the College would never have named the College after him.

In fact, the founders had every reason to name the College after something else in their experience or tradition. Naming it after an individual was a highly unusual move. Given their Puritan background and desire not to exalt an individual above community, the naming of the College after Harvard is that much more extraordinary.

For example, Harvard College could very easily have instead been named "New Zion College" or something from the Scriptures that reflected their journey or their stake in the New World. It might have been named after something familiar or keeping with the times, such as "Providence College." Or, alternatively, just as the small town along the Charles River was re-named from Newtowne to Cambridge in honor of their former great University in the town of that name in England, the College could have rightly been named "New Emmanuel" or "Trinity" or some similar name from their Cambridge or Oxford experiences. But it was not. Perhaps that was the very message that the founders of what would now be known as "Harvard College"were sending back to England, that is, that in the New World, they were living under a different dynamic. In that New World, they would honor one of the key individuals who had made the sacrifice to help bring that vision into reality.

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 Harvard College should become.

For more information on the early history of Harvard College: 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:  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.


Bibliography about John Harvard

Cadbury, Henry J. "What Happened to John Harvard's Books?" Harvard Alumni Bulletin. Vol. 41, 1938, pp. 241-248.

Downame, John.  The Christian Warfare Against the Devil, World and Flesh....And Means to Obtain Victory (1634). This is the only book of John Harvard's library of some 400 volumes that survived the fire of 1764. The original is on display at the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

Kullberg, Kelly Monroe.  Finding God Beyond Harvard (2006). p. 53 and footnote, p. 240.

McFarland, Andrew.  John Harvard's Life in America, or Social and Political Life in New England in 1637-1638 (1908).

Morison, Samuel Eliot.  The Founding of Harvard College. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1935. Chapter XVI, "John Harvard."

_____________________. Harvard in the Seventeenth Century. (two volumes). Harvard University Press, 1936.

Potter, Alfred C. A catalogue of John Harvard's books, published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. Publications. Vol. 21, 1920, pp. 190-230.

Quincy, Josiah.  The History of Harvard University. Vol. I, 1840, pp. 10-11.

Shelley, Henry C.  John Harvard and His Times. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1907.

Stubbings, Frank.  Forty-Nine Lives: An Anthology of Portraits of Emmanuel Men. Master and Fellows of Emmanuel College. Cambridge University, 1983. Portrait #11.

Waters, Henry F. John Harvard and His Ancestry (1885). New England Historic Genealogical Society (24 pages).

  Copyright 2007-2019 by Arseny James Melnick (A.M., Harvard University, 1977) and Julie Melnick. All rights reserved. This website is not endorsed, affiliated nor associated with Harvard University in any way.