1607 - 1638
Born in Southwark, London, John Harvard was the second son of Robert Harvard, a butcher who had moved to the city from Stratford-upon-Avon with his wife, Katherine. Because of the family's connection with both Stratford and Southwark, it is likely that they knew William Shakespeare and his younger brother Edmund.
John Harvard was baptised on 29 November 1607 at St Saviour's Southwark, probably within days of his birth. He was brought up in the parish and educated at the church Grammar School where he would have spent long hours studying the classics.
At the age of twenty, Harvard entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge. This choice suggests that he had already decided to join the growing number of Protestants who were moving away from the Church of England to form separatist congregations. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were dangerous times for religious dissenters, nevertheless Emmanuel College was known for the puritan ideals of its members and many finally left England for the freedom of the New World.
During his seven years at Cambridge, Harvard met Ann Sadler, the sister of one of his fellow students. When his mother died in 1636 leaving several properties, including the Queen's Head Tavern in Southwark, Harvard had the means to propose to Ann and they were married the same year.
It was around this time, too, that Harvard began to consider emigration. Those whose religious views conflicted with the doctrine laid down by the Church of England were under attack from both King and clergy and by the Spring of 1637, the Harvards were on board a ship to New England. Before sailing, though, Harvard had sold four houses which formed part of his inheritance for £120. The money he made helped to pay for a large collection of books which he took with him.
John Harvard and his wife arrived at their destination in June or July 1637. In August that year, he was received as a townsman of Charlestown (now part of Boston) and in November he was appointed 'teacher' at the church, a post which would have required him to explain the meaning of the scriptures.
Harvard obviously settled well into his new life and quickly won the respect of his fellow colonists. Although he seemed set for an outstanding career, his most significant contribution to his new homeland was to be made on his deathbed. Knowing that the New England colony hoped to set up an educational institution at Newtowne he bequeathed half of his estate and a library of some 300 books for that purpose.
John Harvard died aged 31 on September 14, 1638. As leading colonists decided to rename Newtowne 'Cambridge' in lasting tribute to Cambridge, England where many of them had been educated, they also resolved to dedicate the college being built there to its greatest benefactor. Today, Harvard University is world renowned as a centre of educational excellence.
* There is a stained-glass window in honour of John Harvard at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England.
Copyright © Jan Collie 2002
Published on Britannia by permission of the author.
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