Little is known about the short life of John Harvard (1607-1638). Yet his legacy has continued down through the centuries as the principal benefactor of Harvard University, arguably one of the world's most highly respected centers of learning.
Although John Harvard was certainly an accomplished man he was not a man of great accomplishments. It must be noted, however, that he died in his 31st year and it is impossible to say what he would have accomplished had he lived a full life. He is thus remembered not for his achievements but for a generous endowment. Harvard is often described as the founder or sometimes as the "principal founder" of what is now known as Harvard University. This characterization is quite misleading. It is more apt to describe him as "Harvard's benefactor" or as a philanthropist responsible for aiding the school.
When Harvard died in 1638 he left half of his estate and his library of classic and theological texts to a college whose operations were overseen by the Great and General Court of the English Colony of Massachusetts Bay. In October of 1636, two years prior to Harvard's death, it was decided by this governing body that funds would be allocated for the establishment of a college especially for the advanced training of ministers for the Congregational Church. Originally called Newton the college's name was changed to Cambridge by 1638 but then ordered changed to 'Harvard' in 1639 following John Harvard's death and subsequent bequest.
John Harvard was born into a prosperous middle class family in November of 1607 in St. Saviour's Parish, Southwark, England near by London Bridge and the Southwark Cathedral. Southwark has been described as one of the roughest and bawdiest sections of London. Although his exact birth date is not known, Harvard was christened on November 29th. His father Robert owned a butcher shop and the Queen's Head tavern. His mother, Katherine Rogers, was the daughter of a livestock dealer and alderman in Stratford-upon-Avon. Katherine was Robert's second wife. John Harvard's father and four of his siblings died, however, in the 1625 plague—leaving John, his mother, and a younger brother Thomas. There is no mention of John Harvard in any historical records except those relating to his 1607 baptism and the 1625 plague which devastated his family. Katherine was re-married to a prosperous cooper named John Elletson. However, her second husband soon died, leaving the Harvard family with an even larger estate.
These various family inheritances allowed Harvard to enter Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1627 where he studied for seven years earning an A.B. in 1631 and an A.M. in 1635. It is believed that Nicholas Morton, the rector of St. Saviour's, provided the credentials that allowed Harvard to enter the college. Emmanuel College was known for its Puritan ideals. Even though Harvard received religious training, there is no indication he was ever ordained to the ministry or was connected officially with any church. With the exception of Harvard's admission papers, the College has no records concerning him. It still does, however, have one of the two extant Harvard signatures on a subscription book related to his taking his degrees.
In July of 1635 Harvard's mother died following a third marriage. The following year Harvard married Anne Sadler, a classmate's sister. Her father, John Sadler, was vicar of Ringmer. Their marriage did not produce any children. Harvard's brother Thomas died before May 5, 1637 leaving Harvard with an inheritance. During these years various legal documents including his mother's will, his father-in-law's will, a real estate lease, and a debt document describe Harvard as a 'clerk'. The term 'clerk', however, is believed to be used in conjunction with Harvard taking his holy orders.
As part of a Puritan migration Harvard and his wife emigrated to America in 1637. Before leaving England, however, Harvard sold four inherited houses with which he purchased a large number of books to be taken to America with him. Being the sole survivor of a fairly well-to-do family, made even more prosperous by inheritances from his mother's re-marriages, Harvard could be justly described as a "wealthy citizen" of Charlestown, Massachusetts. He and his wife joined the Puritan Church and, by late 1637, Harvard had become a freeman. This position bestowed upon him many political rights and privileges and 120 acres of land. This land grant indicates that, in all probability, Harvard brought over cattle and servants to care for them, livestock at the time being a profitable industry in New England. Harvard and his wife soon built or purchased a house in Charlestown. It was most likely a substantial residence as 60 years later it was serving as a parsonage. Harvard also served as the assistant to the Reverend Zechariah Symmes, pastor of the First Church of Charlestown and as a teaching elder which required him to explain scripture and deliver sermons to the congregation. It is doubtful, however, if Harvard was ever formally ordained to that position. Harvard, Symmes, and Increase Nowell were appointed to a committee "to consider of some things tending towards A body of Lawes, etc.," indicating Harvard's high standing in the community. Unfortunately Harvard died in Charlestown on September 14, 1638 of " a consumption." While some sources claim Harvard died of tuberculosis others claim that the length of his illness is unknown or may have been rather short. It is thought that
Harvard was to sick to write a will and it is imagined by some that his wife, Pastor Symmes and friend Nowell were gathered around his death bed when he whispered: "My books and half my estate to the College, the rest to my beloved wife." Fifteen months after Harvard's death the widow Katherine married the Reverend Thomas Allen. Allen executed Harvard's estate and his nuncupative will.
The amount of Harvard's bequest has never been officially determined because much of his estate consisted of real estate in England which was not readily converted to cash. Respected historians, however, put the bequest at around 375 dollars, a sizeable amount of money at the time and the school's largest bequest to that date. The bequest provided enough money to construct a sizeable building first known as Harvard College and then later known as Harvard Hall-(although one of Harvard's biographers believes that construction of the building had started prior to Harvard's death). A 1764 fire destroyed most of Harvard's books that were willed to the school.
There is little in the historical record, other than the bequest, to provide a legacy for John Harvard. Thomas Shepard, a Cambridge minister, described him as being "a scholar and pious in his life and enlarged toward the country and the good of it in life and death." An early history of Harvard College described its benefactor as "a godly gentleman and a lover of learning." Harvard has also been described as preaching and praying with tears in his eyes while showing great affection. Harvard left behind no writings, papers, letters, or sermons. There have also been persistent but unproven assertions that there was a relationship, although not necessarily familial, between both sides of Harvard's family and William Shakespeare. It has been asserted, but again without much hard evidence that Shakespeare served as a matchmaker between Robert Harvard and Katherine Rogers. In 1828 Harvard alumni dedicated a granite monument to the memory of John Harvard. In 1864 a seated statue to their school's namesake was likewise dedicated. According to one source, however, Harvard's greatest legacy is his obscurity and the almost "accidental" link between John Harvard and the great university.
American National Biography, edited by John A. Garrat and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Leslie Stephen and Sydney Lee, Oxford University Press, 1917.
International Dictionary of University Histories, edited by Carol Summerfield and Mary E. Devine, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998.
Morison, Samuel Eliot, The Founding of Harvard College, Harvard University Press, 1935.
Shelley, Henry C., John Harvard and His Times, Little, Brown and Company, 1907.
"John Harvard 1607-1638," Hidden London, http://www.hiddenlondon.com/john-harvard.htm (December 7, 2000).
"Harvard House and a Brief History of John Harvard of Stratford-upon-Avon," Stratford-upon-Avon, http://www.stratford-upon-avon.co.uk/soaharv.htm (December 7, 2000).