Arts & Culture

Tale of John Harvard’s surviving book

5 min read

On his 400th anniversary, a look back at the bequest, the fire, and the ‘lone survivor’

This November, Harvard University will mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Harvard, not the institution’s founder as he is sometimes credited, but rather its first major benefactor. Such a noteworthy anniversary warrants reflection, although, unfortunately, a great many details about both the history of John Harvard and the legacy of his library are lost to time.

What is known is that John Harvard was born in the Southwark borough of London in 1607 and was baptized Nov. 29 in Southwark Cathedral. The son of Katherine Rogers and Robert Harvard, a butcher, he attended St. Saviour’s Grammar School, where his father was a governor. In 1625, the plague swept through London, claiming most of Harvard’s immediate family — his father and several siblings.

Two years later, he entered Emmanuel College at Cambridge, England, graduating in 1632 with a B.A. and M.A. In 1636, he married a woman named Ann Sadler, and the following year — which also saw the deaths of his mother and remaining brother — he set sail for New England seeking religious freedom. Upon settling in Charlestown, Harvard was named town minister, a short-lived appointment. He soon after fell ill with tuberculosis, dying on Sept. 14, 1638, at age 31. Buried in the Phipps Street Cemetery in Charlestown, the man who gave Harvard its name had lived in Massachusetts for less than a year and a half.

Upon his death, Harvard bequeathed half of his estate, £779, and his entire library of some 400 volumes brought over from England to New College, which had been founded in 1636 in Newtown — what would become Cambridge. The majority of the books in Harvard’s collection were notably theological in nature. Also represented were dictionaries, grammar books, and the classics, some in their original languages, others in well-known translations.

Although founded in 1636, the College’s construction began in 1638, and in March 1639, the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decreed, in honor of its first major donor, “that the colledge agreed upon formerly to bee built at Cambridg shalbee called Harvard Colledge.”

The Downame Book

Over the years, scholars have tried to trace what happened to Harvard’s donation of library books. The biggest obstacle has been the 1764 fire that destroyed the early library along with the rest of the original College. The fire spared 400 or so total volumes, and those only because they were on loan to faculty and students. The traditional story goes that just one volume from John Harvard’s collection at that time was checked out — and overdue — and so it survived. That book was the fourth edition of “The Christian Warfare Against the Devil World and Flesh” by John Downame, published in 1634.

The claim of the book’s origins is not a new one. Just inside the cover of the hefty tome, stored in its red morocco case, the reader finds a handwritten note from 19th century College Librarian John L. Silbey, dated May 24, 1843. The note begins, “This book is the only one in the Library which, beyond a doubt was given by John Harvard.”

Although the history is scanty, someone did in 1667, years after the gift, enter a list of John Harvard’s books into the college records: 329 titles representing about 400 volumes. The University Archives now holds this list, which although replete with misspellings, clearly lists the Downame book.

Unfortunately, John Harvard never inscribed his name in the volume, which would have provided more definitive proof for scholars. “There’s no signature,” says Peter Accardo, coordinator of Programs at Houghton Library. “It’s one of the things that have troubled people over the years.”

Still, “The Christian Warfare” itself speaks to its history. “There is a good deal of physical evidence in this book,” says Accardo. Much of the proof lies in three small digits handwritten just inside the cover: 3.2.8. This, explains Accardo, refers to the early library’s cataloging system, which would have placed the book in bookcase number 3, on shelf number 2, as volume 8 — a setup that would have worked for a library much, much smaller than that of today. The low cataloging numbers suggest that this particular book indeed resided in the College Library from the very beginning.

Furthermore, although it counts as later evidence, a 1723 catalog of the library’s entire 3,500 volumes lists the book, indicating that it clearly existed in the library prior to the fire. The volume contains a very old bookplate, dating to the late 1700s, but that would have been added some 175 years after the book first entered the library.

However, the traditional story no longer remains quite so simple. “Today it’s pretty well received that it’s not the only book that survives from John Harvard’s library,” says Accardo. “Personally, I’ve brought in lots of books into the Houghton collections that were once in the Widener stacks. In provenance work, there is no such thing as an easy answer.”

That said, the question still warrants a good deal of research, and it is difficult to say what other possible titles might make the same claim as “The Christian Warfare.” Today the Downame book is seldom used by researchers but sits on display in Houghton’s lobby in a sectioned bookcase labeled “Harvard.” Alongside this original piece of Harvard’s legacy reside copies of many of the books he gave to the library in 1638.

Harvard College Library will mark the 400th anniversary of John Harvard’s birth with the exhibition “Heralds of Light: John Harvard and the Memorial Church, 1607.1932.2007,” which will run Nov. 1-Dec. 21 in Pusey Library. Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.