On March 13, 1639, the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States was named for Puritan minister John Harvard, one of the school’s earliest and greatest benefactors.
Historians know little about John Harvard’s life. The son of a London butcher, he was born in 1607 near the Surrey end of London Bridge, and as a young man he received his education at Emmanuel College, part of the University of Cambridge. By the 1630s, his father and most of his family had died of the plague. His inheritance made him a well-to-do member of England’s middle class.
Faced with religious persecution, Harvard joined the wave of Puritans emigrating to America for a better life and chance to worship freely. In 1637 he and his wife, Ann, arrived in New England and became inhabitants of Charlestown, Massachusetts. That same year, he became a teaching elder of the First Church of Charlestown, a position that required him to explain scripture and give sermons.
But John Harvard did not last long in the New World. A little more than a year after his arrival, he died of consumption. On his deathbed he bequeathed £779 (half his estate) and a collection of about four hundred books to a college that had been founded in 1636 in Newtown (now Cambridge, Massachusetts).
It was a generous gift, one that helped launch the fledgling college on its mission to educate students in a classical curriculum and Puritan theology. In 1639 the Massachusetts General Court decided to name the school Harvard College in honor of the minister. Today the name Harvard is a good reminder that many of this country’s finest universities trace their roots to churches and clergymen who realized that without educated citizens, America could not thrive.