Henry Dunster was the first President of Harvard College.
In our research on Dr. John Clarke and Obadiah Holmes, we learned that Mr. Dunster may have been present for Obadiah’s flogging in Boston on September 5, 1651.
We wish to honor this fine man by sharing how Mr. Dunster’s heart was changed in part because of the flogging of Obadiah Holmes and other Baptists who were persecuted for their faith.
Henry Dunster (November 26, 1609 (baptized) – February 27, 1658/1659) was an Anglo-American Puritan clergyman and the first president of Harvard College. Brackney says Dunster was “an important precursor” of the Baptist denomination in America, especially regarding infant baptism, soul freedom, religious liberty, congregational governance, and a radical biblicism. http://henrydunster.org/
The story comes from the late Dr. W.A. Criswell, a highly respected Baptist pastor and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. In a sermon given in 1958, he said:
“The first President of Harvard was in the crowd witnessing Obadiah Holmes’ flogging. His name was Henry Dunster. He had been president of Harvard College for twelve years.
“As he looked upon Obadiah’s beating and heard the testimony of that ‘godly man Obadiah Holmes,’ the heart of Henry Dunster was turned to the searching of the Word of God; and the president of Harvard College became a Baptist.”
Dunster scholar Jim Melnick takes up the story from there: Many things had been working on Dunster up to this point in his life regarding baptism, and the trial of John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes and John Crandall is believed to have been a key turning point for him coming to embrace believer’s baptism. Certainly the public stand of Clarke, Holmes, Crandall and others in the face of persecution had to give him courage to also become very open about his own views – views that, when he expressed them, shook the Puritan Establishment to its core and put it into crisis. That trial is believed to have been a catalyst in many ways. But it forced the Puritans to come face to face with the reality that those who stood for freedom of conscience in America would not be so easily cowed. Dunster would suffer heavily, too – not with beatings or imprisonment, but with the loss of his position as president of Harvard and eventual exile.
Many decades later America itself would embrace freedom of conscience as a fundamental right for all Americans, but it would take the struggle and sacrifice of men like John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, John Crandall, Henry Dunster – and many others – to make that a reality. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.