The Price of Becoming a Baptist in Early America

December 3, 2012

by Ron Hale

He has served as Pastor, Church Planter, Strategist (NAMB), Director of Missions, and Associate Executive Director of Evangelism and Church Planting for a State Convention, and now in the 4th quarter of ministry as Minister of Missions.


Henry Dunster (Harvard President, 1640): The Price of Becoming a Baptist in Early America


The first and founding president of Harvard University resigned his prestigious post to become a Baptist.  This caused much chattering and nattering in the circles of academia and religion.

Henry Dunster resigned under pressure after rejecting the practice of paedobaptism (infant baptism).  His new biblical paradigm of Baptist beliefs caused a storm of controversy and ill will among the Puritan faithful of the Boston area.

Today, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in America and the wealthiest of schools.  Yet, the fledgling school struggled for life in the first few years of existence.

Harvard opened its doors in 1637 under the direction of a Head Master.  He was later ousted under charges of failing to properly feed the students and tyrannical ways.  The school closed.

Henry Dunster became president in 1640 and resurrected the founding dream from the ash heap.  The school flourished under his new vision and leadership.

He gave the school one hundred acres of his own land and built a home for the president.  Through his family, he acquired the first printing press in New England and produced the Bay Psalm Book.

The new president was a scholar in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Asian languages. Dunster set standards for scholarship and godliness. Harvard was thriving and becoming the important school that it is today.

After years of faithful service, a dark cloud appeared over the administration of President Dunster.  Dunster refused to have his fourth baby baptized.  Why?  Dunster had new unshakeable biblical convictions!

The public whipping of Obadiah Holmes for his Baptist convictions had shaken Dunster to the core of his being. It caused him to seriously study the bible.

Very soon, Dunster publicly contended for believer’s baptism of adults based on the NT example, and against paedobaptism. Richard Mather and John Norton publicly debated Dunster on these matters, but he remained steadfast in the face of mounting hostility.  Cotton Mather said of Dunster, “he had fallen into the briars of antipedobaptism.”

The theological change of heart in Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard, was shocking and scandalous to the Puritans of New England.  It was the talk of the town and every colony. It knocked the living daylights out of most Puritan ministers and laymen.  Recant or resign seemed to be the sentiment of most.

Because the Baptist movement in early America was birthed in adversity, every individual Baptist paid a price for their identity. Dunster lost his land, house, printing press, and livelihood; for the Overseers of Harvard gave him back none of the things that he had given so freely to the school.

Henry Dunster was a boon and blessing to the early Baptists of America.  A man of great scholarship and integrity had joined their ranks.   The importance of religious liberty would continue to be underscored.

History’s mysteries divulge the good, the bad and the ugly!


© Ron F. Hale, Nov. 7, 2012 — This article was first published in The Christian Post.







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Rick Patrick


Thanks again for another riveting biographical sketch. We Baptists need to be reminded of our heritage. That Dunster sacrificed his position and his possessions in light of his convictions speaks volumes. May we rediscover that same boldness today.


Since Dunster gave the school his land, house & printing press “so freely” as you say, why would he want those things back?

He sounds like a good guy though.

Robin Foster


Thanks for reminding us of our Biblical heritage as Baptists. Men used of God like Henry Dunster, is the reason for our religious freedom today.


This makes me want to read this part of history. Would you mind sharing your source(s)? Thanks!

It would have been the right thing to give him back at least some part of the donation of land so he would have something tangible to leave his family.

    Ron F. Hale


    One source is from Harvad website itself:

    Do a google on his name — there are several good papers out there.

    Blessings, Ron


      Thanks Ron. I will check it out. It is interesting to see some Baptist history in Harvard’s early years.


    Lydia, I agree with you, of course. That certainly would have been the right thing to do.

Ben Stratton

I wish all those Southern Baptists who are constantly talking about how great the puritans were would read this post. Read the writings of English or colonial Baptists instead. They said the same good things and didn’t beat, fine, or imprison those who disagreed with them.


    Hi Ben,

    Which English and colonial Baptists would you recommend?


Ron F. Hale

I replied earlier and included a link — but my reply is still in moderation after several hours. The link may have held things up.

My link was to the Harvard University website — then go to “history” and “presidents” … the website has a good bio as a resource. Also google his name and there are several great papers on his life and legacy.

Blessings, Ron

Dan Nelson

Thanks so much for this article. Many who want to ditch the name Baptist today don’t realize how much we have endured to have religious freedom today chiefly due to Baptist Principles which are unique.

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