John Harvard’s name is so familiar that it may come as a surprise to learn how much of a man of mystery he is. Most graduates of the university that bears his name know that no picture or physical description of him survives, so it is impossible to know what he looked like. But consider this further catalog of lacunae: no surviving record documents the date of his birth, ordination, or arrival in Massachusetts; there is no way to be certain why he went to college, entered the Puritan ministry, or emigrated to the New World; nor is there any way to be sure why he bequeathed the bulk of his estate to a small college that welcomed its first students barely days or weeks before he died. Thanks to this bequest, John Harvard eventually became the most famous member of Puritan New England’s first generation, yet the best tools for sketching him are inference, informed speculation, and the genealogist’s most useful friends, vital records.
Harvard was born in Southwark, Surrey, across the Thames from the City of London. His father, Robert, a butcher, worshipped at St. Saviour’s, the same church as William Shakespeare. Because his mother, Katherine, was a native of Stratford-on-Avon, one author has proposed that the playwright introduced the couple—an intriguing story, but the evidence is entirely circumstantial.
Robert Harvard was a more prominent resident of Southwark than his occupation might suggest; he held a number of important local offices, including vestryman and trustee of the parish grammar school, where students learned the Latin they needed for college. In the absence of written evidence, it is reasonable to assume his son studied at this school, probably entering about 1615.
Grammar schools sent many of their brightest students directly to the realm’s two ancient universities, Oxford and Cambridge, but John Harvard’s formal education came to a temporary halt at the end of the parish school’s course of study. At this point he was probably apprenticed to a master to learn a practical calling—one of his brothers was a London cloth worker.
London was the place to get ahead in early Stuart England. Ambitious men and women came by the tens of thousands, bringing not only their aspirations, but also disease. Harvard was the fourth of nine children, but after his father, a stepsister, and two brothers died of the plague in the summer of 1625, only his mother and one brother, Thomas, remained of his immediate family. They shared a comfortable estate that grew and grew again when Katherine Harvard remarried twice within the next two years.
There was a silver lining for Harvard in his family’s tragic losses: the deaths increased each survivor’s inheritance. With the money that became available to him, he resumed his education in December 1627, when he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he paid his own way. Nothing in his own words indicates why he chose Emmanuel, but in itself his selection was a statement of his purposes. Puritans had established the college in 1584 to train their clergy. Harvard clearly wanted a role in their campaign to reform the Church of England.
A decade later almost all the family’s assets—about £2,000—were his. Katherine had died in 1635 and Thomas in the spring of 1637. Meanwhile, in April 1636 Harvard had married Ann Sadler of Ringmer, Sussex. By now he had probably also taken holy orders, although no confirming record survives.
In the late 1630s, a certain kind of college man found New England an especially attractive prospect—Puritans, Cambridge men, and particularly graduates of Emmanuel solemnly committed to theological and liturgical reform. More than one-quarter of the university men who came to New England before 1646 had studied at Emmanuel; it was probably Harvard’s old college contacts that brought him to Massachusetts.
Only a little more than a year elapsed between the summer of 1637, when the Harvards arrived in Massachusetts, and September 14, 1638, when John died of consumption. During this period he became a valued resident of Charlestown, where he was called to be the church’s "teacher," one of its two clergymen. In Harvard, Charlestown had a passionate preacher who in the brief time left to him spoke "with teares [of] affection strong."
By the time the Harvards settled in Charlestown John must already have been in failing health. It is easy to imagine his clerical colleagues, perhaps including old Emmanuel friends, visiting him with updates on the progress of the new college in Cambridge. They were aware that he had an imposing library—some 400 volumes. They might even have known about the wealth he had inherited from his family.
Consumption kills slowly. By the time Harvard died, he knew what he wanted to do with his estate. Of course he had to take care of his wife, who received half his money. The remainder, £800 (twice the sum granted by the colony’s General Court in 1636 for the establishment of a college) and his entire library, he gave to the new school in Cambridge. The bequest ensured that his name would never be forgotten.
Conrad Edick Wright ’72 is the Ford editor of publications at the Massachusetts Historical Society, where he is also director of the Center for the Study of New England History. His entry on John Harvard will appear in the forthcoming New Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford).