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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The First Promotion of Learning in New England

By Captain Edward Johnson (1599?–1672)

[From Wonder-working Providence of Sion’s Saviour in New England. 1654.]

TOWARD the latter end of this Summer came over the learned, reverend, and judicious Mr. Henry Dunster, before whose coming the Lord was pleased to provide a Patron for erecting a College, as you have formerly heard, his provident hand being now no less powerful in pointing out with his unerring finger a president abundantly fitted, this his servant, and sent him over for to manage the work. And as in all the other passages of this history the Wonder-working Providence of Sion’s Saviour hath appeared, so more especially in this work, the Fountains of learning being in a great measure stopped in our native Country at this time, so that the sweet waters of Shilo’s streams must ordinarily pass into the Churches through the stinking channel of prelatical pride, beside all the filth that the fountains themselves were daily encumbered withal, insomuch that the Lord turned aside often from them, and refused the breathings of his blessed Spirit among them, which caused Satan (in these latter days of his transformation into an Angel of light) to make it a means to persuade people from the use of learning altogether, that so in the next generation they might be destitute of such helps as the Lord hath been pleased hitherto to make use of, as chief means for the conversion of his people and building them up in the holy faith, as also for breaking down the Kingdom of Antichrist. And verily had not the Lord been pleased to furnish New England with means for the attainment of learning, the work would have been carried on very heavily, and the hearts of godly parents would have vanished away with heaviness for their poor children, whom they must have left in a desolate wilderness, destitute of the means of grace.

It being a work (in the apprehension of all, whose capacity could reach to the great sums of money, the edifice of a mean College would cost) past the reach of a poor Pilgrim people, who had expended the greatest part of their estates on a long voyage, travelling into foreign Countries, being unprofitable to any that have undertaken it, although it were but with their necessary attendance, whereas this people were forced to travel with wives, children, and servants; besides they considered the treble charge of building in this new populated desert, in regard of all kind of workmanship, knowing likewise, that young Students could make but a poor progress in learning, by looking on the bare walls of their chambers, and that Diogenes would have the better of them by far, in making use of a Tun to lodge in; not being ignorant also, that many people in this age are out of conceit with learning, and that although they were not among a people who counted ignorance the mother of devotion, yet were the greater part of the people wholly devoted to the plough (but to speak uprightly, hunger is sharp, and the head will retain little learning, if the heart be not refreshed in some competent measure with food, although the gross vapors of a glutted stomach are the bane of a bright understanding, and brings barrenness to the brain). But how to have both go on together, as yet they know not. Amidst all these difficulties, it was thought meet learning should plead for itself, and (as many other men of good rank and quality in this barren desert) plod out a way to live. Hereupon all those who had tasted the sweet wine of Wisdom’s drawing, and fed on the dainties of knowledge, began to set their wits a work, and verily as the whole progress of this work had a farther dependency than on the present eyed means, so at this time chiefly the end being firmly fixed on a sure foundation, namely, the glory of God and good of all his elect people the world throughout, in vindicating the truths of Christ and promoting his glorious Kingdom, who is now taking the heathen for his inheritance and the utmost ends of the earth for his possession, means they know there are, many thousands uneyed of mortal man, which every day’s Providence brings forth.

Upon these resolutions, to work they go, and with thankful acknowledgment readily take up all lawful means as they come to hand. For place they fix their eye upon New-Town, which to tell their Posterity whence they came, is now named Cambridge. And withal to make the whole world understand that spiritual learning was the thing they chiefly desired, to sanctify the other and make the whole lump holy, and that learning being set upon its right object might not contend for error instead of truth, they chose this place, being then under the Orthodox and soul-flourishing ministry of Mr. Thomas Shepard, of whom it may be said, without any wrong to others, the Lord by his Ministry hath saved many a hundred soul. The situation of this College is very pleasant, at the end of a spacious plain, more like a howling-green than a wilderness, near a fair navigable river, environed with many neighboring Towns of note, being so near, that their houses join with her suburbs. The building thought by some to be too gorgeous for a wilderness, and yet too mean in others’ apprehensions for a College, it is at present enlarging by purchase of the neighbor houses. It hath the conveniences of a fair Hall, comfortable Studies, and a good Library, given by the liberal hand of some Magistrates and Ministers, with others. The chief gift towards the founding of this College was by Mr. John Harvard, a reverend Minister; the Country, being very weak in their public Treasury, expended about £500 towards it, and for the maintenance thereof, gave the yearly revenue of a Ferry passage between Boston and Charles-Town, the which amounts to about £40 or £50 per annum. The Commissioners of the four united Colonies also taking into consideration of what common concernment this work would be, not only to the whole plantations in general, but also to all our English Nation, they endeavored to stir up all the people in the several Colonies to make a yearly contribution toward it, which by some is observed, but by the most very much neglected. The Government hath endeavored to grant them all the privileges fit for a College, and accordingly the Governor and Magistrates, together with the President of the College for the time being, have a continual care of ordering all matters for the good of the whole.

This College hath brought forth and nurst up very hopeful plants, to the supplying some Churches here, as the gracious and godly Mr. Wilson, son to the grave and zealous servant of Christ, Mr. John Wilson; this young man is Pastor to the Church of Christ at Dorchester; as also Mr. Buckly, son to the reverend Mr. Buckly, of Concord; as also a second son of his, whom our native Country hath now at present help in the Ministry, and the other is over a people of Christ in one of these Colonies, and if I mistake not, England hath I hope not only this young man of New England nurturing up in learning, but many more, as Mr. Sam. and Nathanael Mathers, Mr. Wells, Mr. Downing, Mr. Barnard, Mr. Allin, Mr. Brewster, Mr. William Ames, Mr. Jones. Another of the first-fruits of this College is employed in these Western parts in Mevis, one of the Summer Islands; beside these named, some help hath been had from hence in the study of Physic, as also the godly Mr. Sam. Danforth, who hath not only studied Divinity, but also Astronomy; he put forth many Almanacs, and is now called to the office of a teaching Elder in the Church of Christ at Roxbury, who was one of the fellows of this College. The number of Students is much increased of late, so that the present year, 1651, on the twelfth of the sixth month, ten of them took the degree of Bachelors of Art, among whom the Sea-born son of Mr. John Cotton was one.