From the beginning, Harvard was an intrinsically Puritan institution. It reflected the Calvinists’ commitment to biblical literacy and was founded so that New England could train its own ministry. The General Court of Massachusetts chartered the college on October 28, 1636. It was in Newtown, which was subsequently renamed Cambridge as tribute to the English university where many Puritans had been educated.
Harvard’s first master was Nathaniel Eaton, who began teaching classes in 1638, although his tenure lasted only a year. As Governor John Winthrop noted, Eaton was guilty of providing his boarders with “ill and scant diet” and of beating one student with “a walnut tree plant big enough to have killed a horse.”
Nevertheless, many early New Englanders placed their faith in the college, including a young man named John Harvard. When Harvard died in 1638, he left his library and half of his property to the college, leading the General Court to rename the school in his honor.
In 1640, Henry Dunster was named the college’s first president and he placed Harvard on firm footing. Within two years, the college constructed “Old College,” Harvard’s first college building. At this site, on September 23, 1642, the college hosted its first graduation.
Nine “young men of good hope” received their bachelor degrees according to Winthrop, seven of whom left to fight for the Puritan cause in the English Civil War. In 1655, Harvard built an “Indian College” to educate and evangelize Native Americans, although this experiment was largely abandoned after King Philip’s War. The building subsequently became the site of the first American university press.
Although founded to train ministers, Harvard provided a far broader education from the start. The charter of 1650 (under which Harvard still operates) stated that the college’s purpose was “the advancement of all good literature artes and Sciences.” Accordingly, Harvard provided a liberal arts education, heavily emphasizing the Greek and Latin classics, rather than vocational training.
Yet religion remained central to Harvard’s mission in the 17th century. Most of its presidents were ministers, including Increase Mather, while more than half of its graduates became clergymen. By 1700, more than four hundred men had attended Harvard, including many of Massachusetts’s secular and religious leaders.
In the 18th century, Harvard liberalized its curriculum and theology, reflecting the emergent ideas of the European Enlightenment. Student life likewise became more vibrant in the 1720s with the establishment of the first college periodical (“The Telltale”) and groups like the Philomusarian Club. Enrollment surged and graduates’ vocations shifted focus, with only a quarter entering the ministry.
The Great Awakening and the American Revolution divided the college, although Harvard graduates John Adams and John Hancock were instrumental in the creation of the United States. Harvard was first called a “university” in 1780 and quickly grew into its name, adding a medical school in 1782.