Harvard’s Evolution from Theological to Liberal Education
Harvard’s development over 350 years has been enormously rich and
complex--full of interest for social and intellectual history, for the history of
scholarship, science, pedagogy, and politics. We know something, statistically,
about the social sources and destinies of the graduates over the existence, but little
of the later generations. Harvard’s benefactors are no less interesting a group, and
their contributors made all else possible. The debate over the character of
Harvard’s founding, its essential character, purpose, and style, began within
seventy years of the founding. Harvard College “was little more than a theological
seminary, thrust into existence by a desire for trained ministerial leadership in
society, wherein the clergy held a position of paramount importance in matters of
civil as well as spiritual.” Harvard was founded as an institution from which the
leadership of church, state, and trade was expected to emerge, and that leadership,
like the community as a whole, was expected to remain deeply and correctly
Christian (Bailyn 8). Though Harvard University was originally founded as a
Puritan school of theology, it evolved into a university that had a more traditional
liberal arts program that produced well-rounded scholars in various fields of study.
Harvard was founded by vote of the Great and General Court of the
Massachusetts Bay Colony and named for its first donor, the Reverend John
Harvard, who left his personal library and half his estate to the new institution,
Harvard College was born into the Puritan tradition (Doc A). Puritan Calvinists
began the university in 1636 because they recognized the necessity for training up
a clergy if the new Bible commonwealth was to flourish in the wilderness. Since
1620, some 17,000 Puritans had migrated to New England, and they wanted
ministers who were able to expound the Scriptures from the original Hebrew and
Greek, as well as be familiar with what the church fathers, scholastic philosophers
and reformists had written in Greek and Latin (Doc B). The study of theology
preeminently under the covenants of works and of grace was central to the
founding of what would become Harvard University, the “school of the prophets”
(Doc D).
John Leverett the first president of Harvard insisted that Harvard had been
founded as a “College of Divines.” Congregationalist insisted that Harvard had
been founded as a “theological institution” devoted to perpetuating the Puritans’
distinctive form of Protestant Christianity. Liberal Unitarians, who controlled the
College after 1805, thought differently, and leapt upon evidence that stated the
Harvard had broadly liberal origins. Some said that “it was to provide a broad
liberal education for young gentlemen and scholars, but not a divinity school or a
seminary for the propagation of Puritan theology” (Bailyn 8-10).
The earliest visible Harvard, despite almost a century of previous existence
under the close scrutiny of the clergy and magistrates of the Bay Colony, is an
eighteenth-century institution. In the College Yard stand Harvard's oldest
buildings, plain and in the best sense homely with their brick exteriors,
straightforward appearance, and unassuming design. Harvard Hall stands on the
site of a seventeenth-century building of the same name. It burned down one
wintry night in 1764, destroying the 5,000-volume college library, the largest in
North America at that time, and the scientific laboratory and apparatus (Doc A).
For its first 230 years of existence Harvard was relatively small, proudly
provincial, ambitiously intellectual, but still a college with a conservative, set
curriculum emphasizing rhetorical principles, rote learning, and constant drilling.
It was founded in the 17th century supported, as a college of English university
standards for liberal education of the young men of New England, under strict
religious discipline (Bailyn 6). Harvard College retained its old framework as an
English college, modeled on Oxford and Cambridge, though with some
developments of its own, but consistent with the prevailing Puritan philosophy of
the first colonists (Doc C). Although many of its early graduates became ministers
in Puritan congregations throughout New England, the college never formally
affiliated with a specific religious denomination. Secular knowledge was valued
and assumed to be necessary for men of all modes of life. But in the end it was an
intensely religious, ascetic Puritan culture that created this institution and that
carried it through precarious years into the stability of the 18th century (Doc B).
Secularization of the American university begin with the takeover of
Harvard by the Unitarians in 1805. Actually, the Unitarian takeover was preceded
by a protracted struggle between orthodoxy and liberalism, which began in 1701
when Increase Mather stepped down from the presidency. “The liberals, who had
obtained a definite majority in the governing Corporation,