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How Harvard University Became an Atheistic Institution

Updated on May 28, 2011

Someone told me once, that Harvard was founded as a Christian university. How did it become so atheistic then, I wondered. So I decided to do some research to find out.

Harvard was founded quite a long time ago. It received its first chapter in 1650 and became a university officially in 1780. Here's an anonymous quote that gives a good description of the reason for founding of the institution.

"After God had carried us safe to New England, and we ... rear'd convenient places for God's worship ... dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the Dust ... it pleased God to stir up the heart of one Mr. Harvard, a godly gentleman and a lover of learning ... to give the one half of his estate ... towards the erecting of a college and all his Library."1

Harvard college had pretty strict rules of conduct which were harsh even according to the 19th century standards. Also, all students had to prove they could read the originals of both Old and New Testament and "resolve them logically".2 The early motto of the university was Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, which means "Truth For Christ and the Church." Ten out of the first 12 presidents were ministers.

So how did a Christian university become so anti-Christian? Well, it never happens over-night. It was a long struggle over a period of about 100 years. In 1708, John Leverett, became Harvard's first secular president. He did not, and could not have, changed all the rules by himself. He merely tried keeping the college independent of any overwhelming influence of any single denomination.3

In 1805, Harvard was taken over by Unitarians, people who believe every person has their own truth. How did they do it? Well, back in 1708, religious liberals managed to gain a majority in the Harvard's Corporation. Being a majority, they were able to elect their own man as the president. When John Leverett was elected, he set the college's course away from its orthodox beliefs.

If presidents prior to Leverett referred to their alumni by an Old Testament phrase "filli prophetarum", which means, “Sons of the Prophets,” Leverett called the alumni "harvardinates", or “Sons of Harvard.” Fruits of liberal teachings were already beginning to show during Leverett's presidency. The press wrote how students of a formerly strict college were becoming increasingly "riotous and profane".4

In 1720, Harvard's first professorial chair was taken by Edward Wigglesworth, a talented young cleric. He managed to convince the orthodox wing of the college of his adherence to the Calvinistic beliefs. But after being elected, he showed his true colors. He was the first man to publicly challenge the "five points of Calvinism". Being a talented guy, he became the prime favorite of the students. Him and his son Edward, had great influence on New England's theology. They trained the pioneers of American liberal theology, who "led the way out of the lush but fearsome jungles of Calvinism, into the thin, clear light of Unitarianism." 4

Yale, founded in 1702, was actually a reaction to the growing liberal tendencies of Harvard, and was meant to carry on its orthodox tradition. It was doing so successfully well into the 19th century, until it was taken over by liberals too.

When the key figure of the First Great Awakening, George Whitefield, came to Harvard, he was met with indifference by the college's staff. The second time, he was not invited at all. He and his followers denounced Harvard as the "house of impiety and sin". This led to a drop in Harvard's enrollment, and founding of many other Christian colleges throughout the colonies, such as: Princeton College, Queen's College (aka Rutgers), Brown University, and Dartmouth College. But the Unitarians of Harvard played it carefully. Had they brought about change too abruptly, Harvard would be driven out of existence by the general public. But they introduced gradual changes only as fast as the public would allow it.

So, is it a surprise that Harvard and all these top colleges were founded by Christians? Not at all. Because, as the Bible puts it in Psalms 111:10, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."Is it a surprise it became atheistic? No. Because that is what devil is doing all the time. He never creates anything new, he just imitates and perverts what God is doing. He even uses former church people to accomplish the task. And also note that it said wisdom, and not knowledge. Because those two words are not the same. Just because we know a lot, doesn't mean we always make wise decisions. With all the advancement of modern science, you can't say all that knowledge is applied wisely.

Knowledge is a good thing, but when it is left without God's wisdom, it leads to terrible consequences.


1. Samuel Eliot Morison, The founding of Harvard College (1936) Appendix D, and pp 304-5

2. Barrett Wendell, Cotton Mather, the Puritan priest (1897) p 35

3. Samuel Eliot Morison, The Founding of Harvard College (1935) p. 300

4. Neil Brody Miller, "'Proper Subjects for Public Inquiry': the First Unitarian Controversy and the Transformation of Federalist Print Culture," Early American Literature 2008 43(1): 101-135; A Brief History of Christian Influence in U.S. Colleges


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    • profile image

      Bruce 5 years ago

      Great article!

    • someonewhoknows profile image

      someonewhoknows 6 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      Science and money have replaced religion.At,least the main strem science and the federal reserve.The schools are controlled now mostly with money.

    • intellichristian profile image

      intellichristian 6 years ago

      If it was just atheists, it would be simple. The problem is that devil uses church people a lot of times to destroy the Christian faith. The more I research this kind of stuff, the more I see that apostle Paul was right when he said "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." (Ephesians 6:12) There's always a spiritual source to all these things.

    • ColibriPhoto profile image

      ColibriPhoto 6 years ago from Quito, Ecuador

      Good article with interesting information. I enjoyed it. Thanks for your insight

    • Bibowen profile image

      William R Bowen Jr 6 years ago

      Great analysis of what happened at Harvard. You are right: the Christian faith tends to create; atheists are mockers and destroyers.