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Sunday, October 21, 2007

On Harvard's 'nondenominational' origins.

In an otherwise fascinating Boston Globe article about an archeological dig on the grounds of the Indian College in Harvard Yard that has uncovered some of the metal type used to print the Bible in Algonquin at Harvard College in the 1660s — a truly interesting bit of early colonial history — reporter Colin Nickerson offers this somewhat anachronistic description of Harvard's origins:

Although college-educated Puritans often became ministers, Harvard was not affiliated with any denomination. English and Indians were required to complete courses that included grammar, logic, arithmetic, astronomy, metaphysics, ethics, natural science, and Hebrew. Historians speculate that Harvard's intention might have been to groom Indians as spiritual leaders of New England's "praying towns," or settlements of Christianized Indians. But promising Indian youths may also have been dispatched to Harvard by tribal sachems as envoys — or even spies, of a sort — to suss out the ways of the English.

Hmm. That first sentence isn't exactly true, although one could make a fussy definitional case that it's accurate. Harvard most certainly was established as a Puritan college to train Puritan ministers, and it remained true to that mission right on through the period of the Indian College. (Could this Harvard boilerplate have misled the writer?: "Although many of its early graduates became ministers in Puritan congregations throughout New England, the College was never formally affiliated with a specific religious denomination. An early brochure, published in 1643, justified the College's existence: 'To advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches.'") Harvard may not have been "denominational," but that's because what we think of as denominations didn't quite exist then. After all, it was against the law in mid-17th century Massachusetts to establish a non-Puritan church. Although there were many people in Massachusetts in the 1600s who were not church members, the churches and their clergy were cut from the same cloth — and supported by taxes. Harvard was a church-and-state college when there was only one church and one school training its clergy.

Later, of course, after Anglicans, Baptists, Quakers, and Universalists found footholds in Massachusetts and as the state-supported Congregational churches started to divide into "liberal" (Unitarian) and "orthodox" (Congregationalist) camps in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, Harvard's ministerial education program became identified with the liberals and, for many decades, with the Unitarian denomination. (Massachusetts was the last state to end tax support for its established churches, in 1833. You may remember Henry David Thoreau's annoyance at being taxed to support the First Parish in Concord, where he had been baptized as a child but which he had never joined. It was a Unitarian church by then.)

In the mid-20th century, Harvard's Divinity School self-consciously embraced a nondenominational identity. The college itself shed its sectarian connections in the 19th century, although it retains an ecumenically Protestant chapel and preacher to this day.

For more on the Indian College, see the resources from the Harvard University Archives.

("Harvard connecting to its Indian soul," Colin Nickerson, Boston Globe 10.21.07)

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 21 October 2007 at 4:04 PM

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