Cambridge, The Focal Point Of Puritan Life (Part Three)

Catch up on part one of this post here!

By Henry Hallam Saunderson
Read April 22, 1947

The Coming Of Thomas Hooker

Newtowne was about to enter on a new phase of its life. In 1632 a congregation from Braintree, in the County of Essex, England, came over to the Colony and began a settlement near Mt. Wollaston. Today the name Braintree reminds us of this. But in August of that year they decided to move bodily to Newtowne. Thomas Hooker had been their minister in England, but had been forced to flee to Holland. During 1633 he managed to make the voyage across the Atlantic and to take charge of his congregation here. They organized a church, and all seemed promising for Newtowne with its increased population and its very capable religious and political leader, Thomas Hooker. We should emphasize Hooker’s political ideas, and the fact that he had become suddenly the leader of the town which had been established as the expected capital of the Colony.

Thomas Hooker was a graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, as were John Harvard and John Cotton. For twenty years John Cotton was rector of St. Botolph’s in Boston, England, the most magnificent parish church in England. He came to this colony and immediately became associated with John Wilson, who, in 1630, had become minister of the church in Boston.

Another valuable addition to the ministry was another scholar, Samuel Stone, who became Hooker’s associate in the church in Newtowne. And if you think that those early Puritans were always excessively solemn, recall that one of them wrote that the necessities of life were well provided for — that Stone meant building material, Cotton meant clothing, and Hooker gave assurance of fish for food. Stone, Hooker and Cotton crossed the Atlantic on the same ship.

Not long was the close association of these men to continue. John Cotton saw clearly the necessity of building the colonial government within the framework of the royal charter which put great responsibility on the Governor, Deputy-Governor and their Assistants. From his place in Boston he could look out on Boston Harbor and imagine the arrival of the warships of the tyrant King Charles. He worked closely with the most distinguished member of his church, John Winthrop.

On the other hand, Thomas Hooker shows a strange lack of concern for the practical necessity of working within the framework of the royal charter. When he arrived in the colony, the great migration had not yet run half its course. People were concerned for their very existence. Yet Hooker wanted to put into practice certain principles which would have endangered the degree of stability already attained and might have jeopardized the existing government.

He criticized sharply the exercise of authority by the General Court. He, a new arrival, declared his ideas wiser than those of the men who had carried the burden of administrative matters from the very beginning of the colony. He was especially urgent that all important decisions be made by popular vote and that the cautious limitations on the suffrage be swept aside. Under his plans, men newly-arrived would be allowed to share in decisions which might mean “sink or swim, survive or perish” for the whole great adventure which was destined to shape the lives of more than twenty thousand people who were risking themselves, and all they had in the world, on this colonization project.

The great debate between those who held the views of Hooker and those who held the views of the men of the existing government was centered here in Newtowne. In a very real sense, this community was the focal point of Puritan life. Thomas Hooker and John Cotton faced each other in the arena of this vastly important debate. They were both great men. Each held his convictions with the utmost fortitude. Each saw clearly his own principles. But, fortunately, each had breadth of mind and each put restraint on his own expressions of his views. Otherwise they might have allowed this debate to become bitter personal strife with disastrous consequences. Hooker decided soon to leave the scene of the debate, and to seek an open field for his ideas.

Explorers ranged far and wide in New England, studying the land. Reports, which interested Hooker greatly, told of spacious unoccupied areas of land in the valley of the Connecticut River. He planned to lead a migration thither. He petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts for permission to go. After stating economic reasons for the plan he gave another reason, more comprehensive: “the strong bent of their spirits to remove thither.” We may safely assume that he felt that only by such a move as this would he find room for the expression, in a government, of his ideas.

It is easy to see why some of the men of Watertown were attracted by Hooker’s ideas of government. They had already made a dramatic claim for the rights of the common people. They shaped their plans for migration under the guidance of a minister of their choice, Henry Smith. A large group from the Dorchester church made similar plans with their pastor, William Wareham. Of course most of the people who had arrived in Newtowne with Hooker were ready to follow him loyally in this new adventure.

The Departure Of Thomas Hooker

The pioneers of the migration started in 1635 and the others followed in 1636. The three groups from Newtowne, Watertown and Dorchester founded three towns in the Connecticut Valley: Hartford, Wethersfield and Windsor. Hooker was the guiding spirit of the migration and the organizing genius of their new life. These people were in the position of squatters on virgin soil. They had no charter and were outside the territory of any government. Hooker, therefore, could make concrete his ideas of government which had been but untried theories. Within a year there were eight hundred people who had migrated to these three towns in the Connecticut Valley.

They organized their town governments. Then, after taking time for the study of Hooker’s plans, they chose their deputies to create a General Court, the first session of which was held on May 31, 1638. Thus they created a colonial government. In this action the Colony of Connecticut came into existence. On January 14, 1639, a great meeting of all the Freemen of the Colony was held in Hartford and a written Constitution was adopted as the foundation of the Colony. In these words Hooker declared his fundamental principle: “The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people.” The people may create a central government, but it possesses only such powers as are delegated to it by the people who are its creator.

Hooker’s political genius is revealed in the organizing of that little colony. The signing of Magna Charta in England in 1215 was a great event. It put aside the autocratic will of a king and put in its place a written document. But it did not create a government. The signing of the compact in the cabin of the Mayflower by the Pilgrims was not the creation of a constitution for a government. But in Connecticut a written constitution was adopted and on it a government was built. This was the first time this had ever been done. And the guiding genius was the man who had been the first minister of the first church in this community of Newtowne. The immortal document is called the “Fundamental Orders of Connecticut.” Let us remember that it is not based on any royal authority and makes no reference to any existing government. It is a creation of original genius. The fact that so few people were involved in it does not detract from its significance. When 150 years later the Articles of Confederation of the United States were drafted, we see Hooker’s hand in these words: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence; and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.” Hooker’s words must have influenced Thomas Jefferson.

Men ask, Why could not the leaders of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay have adopted Hooker’s ideas when he was still here in Newtowne? Because the work of government here had to be done within the frame work of a royal charter, and because our leaders were guiding the settlement of twenty thousand migrating people. More time was required here to shape the government. But in time the royal charter was relegated to a secondary place, and Massachusetts became as fine an expression of democracy as was Connecticut in the beginning.

When the great Puritan migration was scarcely half over, King Charles did demand the surrender of the Charter of Massachusetts, for he was alarmed by the news that the leaders here were really shaping a political government. The reply of the leaders here was to secrete the charter, fortify Boston Harbor, and appoint an emergency commission to conduct any war which might ensue. Affairs looked ominous in the extreme.

But it is strange how a trifling incident in a far-off country can make important changes. In Scotland a woman threw a stool at the head of a bishop — and Massachusetts was safe for many years to come.

King Charles, though of the Stuart line of Scottish kings, was King of England. He was supported, in his extreme claims of autocratic power, by the higher clergy of the Church of England. In England he demanded the utmost conformity. Suddenly he decided to force the Church of England ritual on the people of Scotland. In St. Giles’ Church in Edinburgh an English bishop attempted to read that ritual. There it was that a Scotch woman turned and picked up her stool and flung it — with good aim — at his head. This dramatized the resistance of the Scottish people. The Scotch Covenanters were organized, and Charles saw in a flash that he had troubles near home and could let “Rebel Boston” go its own way. Events in England progressed rapidly. During the decade from 1629 Charles had not summoned Parliament. But in 1640 Parliament came into session and earned the title of the “Long Parliament.” In a few years the royal army and the army of the Parliament met in battle. The civil war ended in a parliamentary victory, and the English commonwealth was established under Oliver Cromwell. King Charles was tried and beheaded as an enemy of the people.

The great Puritan migration ended in 1640. The New England Puritans were busy consolidating their gains. They could see more clearly the meaning of their ideals as those ideals were being translated into concrete realities.

An Educational Adventure

Let us now turn back and look again at our community of Newtowne. It was in June 1636 that Thomas Hooker made his own exit. With him went a large part of the population of the town. But this was not a ghost town. In the autumn of 1635 Thomas Shepard had come, with his English congregation, seeking a place of settlement. As Hooker’s people moved out of their houses, the ashes scarcely cooled on their hearths as Shepard’s people moved in. These Puritans were practical business people and there must have been a lively time of commerce for real estate agents as property changed hands. The town filled up as rapidly as it emptied. Thomas Shepard reorganized the church in Newtowne, building on the foundation of Hooker’s organization. He married Hooker’s daughter and discussed the idea of going to the Connecticut Valley. But his decision to continue here was wise, for he had a distinguished career as minister and wielded an influence in the affairs of the entire colony. Connecticut could not have offered him a comparable opportunity.

The Puritan leaders were turning with courage and vigor to the carrying out of one of their most significant projects: the founding of a college. It is estimated that of the people who came to Massachusetts in the great Puritan migration, one in every two hundred was a college graduate. It was largely because the leaders of colonial affairs recognized in Thomas Shepard a minister of fine scholarship and of deep piety that this community, Newtowne, was chosen as the site of the college.

Harvard College began its existence on October 28, in the year 1636 when the General Court of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay voted to give four hundred pounds toward a college. The college was ordered to be at Newtowne, which was promptly named Cambridge. The first Board of Overseers consisted of Governor Winthrop and the leading magistrates and ministers of the Colony.

The real founder of the college was John Harvard. He was born in London in 1607. He graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1632, and, after being ordained to the ministry, joined the great Puritan migration to New England. He was promptly elected assistant pastor of the church in Charlestown.

His life here was of tragic brevity. He died on September 14, in the year 1638. But he left his library of 400 volumes and half his property to the college where the first Freshman Class was just entering. This bequest of money was nearly twice as much as the sum voted by the General Court. The following spring the General Court voted “that the college agreed upon formerly to be built at Cambridge shall be called Harvard College.”

I find an account of the first years of Harvard which names Nathaniel Eaton as the first President. But I have the catalogue, published by Harvard, which gives the record of the officers of administration and instruction and the names of all graduates for the early years. And Henry Dunster is named as the first President and his term of office is recorded as beginning on August 27, in the year 1640. The first Commencement was in 1642 and there was a graduating class of nine.

Nathaniel Eaton was appointed Head Master in 1638. He was graduated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and he seemed well-fitted for the position. But he was a great disappointment. He seems to have had in mind, for Harvard College, merely a picture of a second-class boarding school. Flogging the students was a method of discipline copied from English schools. The Head Master’s wife was in charge of the living arrangements of the students, and is said to have done her work very badly.

Matters came to a crisis when Eaton gave a merciless beating, with a stout club, to an assistant. He was brought into court, found guilty, and fined. He was promptly dismissed from his position.

Henry Dunster was 30 years old when appointed. He was a graduate of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He was truly a great scholar, a Christian gentleman, a man of vision and of executive ability. He built up the college very efficiently. Among other things accomplished was obtaining the charter under which Harvard still operates. Cambridge, at the time of the founding of Harvard, was a little village on the bank of the Charles River. The primeval forest began at the site of the present Law School. Between it and the river was an area of cleared land. The village center was at what later was named Harvard Square. South of the Square, down to the sites of the present Freshman Dormitories, stood most of the dwellings of the inhabitants of Cambridge. To the north of Harvard Square there was space for what was to be the Harvard Yard, and the first buildings of the new College. The first building was named “Harvard College” and was on the site of Grays. Later buildings were each named a “College” and early pictures speak of the group of buildings as “the colleges.”

The purpose of the founding of Harvard should be stated. Doubtless we are all familiar with this statement published in 1643:

“After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had builded our houses, provided necessities for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the Civil Government; One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to Posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the Churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the Dust.”

It is sometimes said that Harvard was a theological school — its one purpose to train ministers for the churches. But the College Charter, written in 1650, states very definitely that the purpose of Harvard was to be “the advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences. . . . and all other necessary provisions that may conduce to the education of the English and Indian youth of this country in knowledge and godliness.”

Notice that the statement of purpose of 1643 says “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity.” It does not name theological instruction exclusively. President Dunster appealed for books on law and medicine so that Harvard could train lawyers and physicians. And the General Court declared that the College was also to educate men “fit for magistracie.” The curriculum established by Dunster included studies in botany, physics, and astronomy. The College, we can see, planned from its early years to promote scholarship, to build up character, and to educate leaders for the State and the Church. And note that, in the Puritan Communities, the ministers were not only Churchmen but leaders in all things that promoted civic welfare.

In what I have said of these early years of Harvard College I have intended to show that that institution was part of the major project of Puritan life, to establish and perpetuate a community of enlightened people.

Schools And Books

And before turning to another phase of Puritan life, I want to point out that with the high standard of scholarship established by the first President of Harvard there was need of an adjoining preparatory school. This was founded in Cambridge, and its courses of study led directly into the College. Such schools, called Grammar Schools, were also established in seven other communities: Boston, Charlestown, Salem, Dorchester, Roxbury, Braintree and Dedham.

Let it be added here that public schools were established in every community of the Colony when the population was large enough to justify a primary school. Thus we see that Harvard was linked through the grammar schools with the whole public school system of the colony.

The laws of 1642 and 1647 of the Colony were very progressive. An essential policy was that of universal, tax-supported and state-controlled schools. This idea of public schools, to provide education for the entire population, has become a distinctive feature of American life, and the influence of this idea has spread far beyond even our Continental borders.

Another project of great importance in the plans of the Puritans was the establishment of a book-publishing business. In 1635 Jesse Glover, a wealthy Puritan clergyman from England, was in Boston and was deeply interested in the whole Puritan adventure. He had a special interest in education. He was sent back to England in the spring of 1636 to find the necessary funds and secure a printing-press. He was successful in his errand. How much of his own money he invested is uncertain but he secured additional gifts in England and Holland. He bought a good press and a font of type. He engaged a good printer, one John Daye, who was willing to migrate to New England and to serve the Puritan cause. Glover, with his family, his equipment and his printer, sailed for New England in 1638.

Unfortunately Glover died on the voyage, but his widow continued the significant project; and the printing-press was set up here in Cambridge. It is evident that as early as 1636, when Glover went to England for the press, the ideas of the leaders included the plan of having a close association between the College and the work of publishing. Events moved unexpectedly in that direction, for the young man Dunster, after he became President of Harvard, married Mrs. Glover. Thus the publishing enterprise gained a very close connection with the new educational institution. One of the early publications of the press was the Bay Psalm Book. The Book of Psalms was newly translated by scholarly ministers of churches of the Colony. A few copies of this significant work have survived. One copy sold recently for more than $150,000.

John Eliot, apostle to the Indians, translated the whole Bible into the language of the neighboring Indians. This book was also published by the newly-established press.


This article can be found in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society Volume 32, from the years 1946-1948.