How Harvard Shaped the Nation (long ago)

The following historical time-capsule is from Kairos Journal. It is a great reminder that great beginnings do not necessarily end well. Harvard had a great evangelistic thrust for the gospel at its inception but not so much anymore. Whatever the gain for the nation in terms of its present structure, it is a loss for the nation that such a spiritual heritage has been abandoned. 

All things spiritual tend to a downward spiral without constant spiritual and doctrinal vigilance. And that is a good lesson to learn for denominations, churches, and individual Christians too.

harvard-universityThe Rise of the Pastor-Scholar

When Sir Walter Mildmay founded Emmanuel College in Cambridge in 1584, he planted a seedbed for a new sort of minister: the preacher/scholar/pioneer. Wave after wave of committed graduates, who initially made vigorous attempts to reform the English church, soon set sail to settle colonies in America committed to the glory of God.1 The vision of Emmanuel College took root on the shores of the New World. Harvard College, the first university in North America, was greatly benefited by John Harvard. An Emmanuel graduate, John Harvard bequeathed half his fortune and his entire library to the school to ensure that an educated clergy served the needs of these intrepid pilgrims. The commitment of a university in service to Church and society contributed greatly to the brimming promise of the American experiment and ongoing renewal in England.

Emmanuel College emerged at just the right time. The Church of England was in dire straits at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I (1558). In the first full decade of her reign, an ignorant clergy often prevented the clear preaching of the gospel of Christ.2 Across England: “virtually everywhere preaching resources were inadequate and over-stretched.”3 Godly leaders drew attention to the need for able pastors. The problem was clear: from what well would the hundreds of competent preachers spring? The answer was simple: the universities.

For various cultural and political reasons, evangelicals gained control of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the 1560s. Realizing the importance of these institutions, they quickly placed their best theologians in teaching positions. Young men were schooled both in the Scriptures and in the budding theological writings of Calvin, Bullinger, and the confessions.4 Moreover, in Cambridge several new colleges were established to train godly clergy: Emmanuel (1584) and Sidney Sussex (1596).

The situation in England changed quickly and dramatically. In 1568, one bishop could write of the “abundant crop of pious young men in our universities.”5 By 1573 Cambridge could claim to have trained 450 preachers and by 1600 half the clergy in England were graduates.6

Of course, universities alone could not provide an educated ministry. Christians in Britain began schools to produce qualified candidates for ministerial service. Consequently, literacy increased dramatically; both pastors and people could actually read their Bibles. Their American counterparts took the project even further. When Second Church in Boston sought to call Michael Powell, a pious and literate but not academically prepared man, as their pastor, the Puritan town fathers opposed the move. “[I]f such men intrude themselves into the sacred functions [of the ministry],” they concluded, “there is danger of bringing the profession into contempt.”7

Thanks to the efforts of these 16th century English Reformers, pastors became the most respected thinkers in their communities. They realized that education matters, especially for those whose charge is to rightly divide the word of truth. Within a few decades, they turned England around and set sound foundations for America, in great measure because they harnessed the power of theological education. It is imperative that pastors today regain this ancient perspective—that they be dynamic, well-informed leaders of their churches and communities; if not, they risk being further marginalized to the boundaries of the culture.


1  This exodus began to take place in the early decades following 1620.
2  For example, in 1560, a survey in the diocese of Peterborough revealed only nine competent preachers from 166 clergy. See Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 268.
3  Ibid., 268.
4  For more on the expansion of Calvin’s influence in England and broader Europe, see Alister McGrath, A Life of John Calvin (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 196-202.
5  Haigh, Ibid., 270.
6  In the words of Reformation historian Christopher Haigh, “the supply of educated evangelists boomed.” Ibid., 271.
7  Town father, Richard Mather, as recounted in Harry Stout, The New England Soul (New York: Oxford University Press), 57

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.