Harvard College Curriculum, 1640-1880: Overview

One of the earliest known descriptions of the life and mission of Harvard College, a promotional pamphlet printed in England in 1643 and entitled “New Englands (sic) First Fruits,” justifies the establishment of the College “to advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministery to the Churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the Dust.”  Outlining the college curriculum, complete with the time and order of studies, the missive provides invaluable detail regarding academic life and studies at seventeenth century Harvard.

Much of what is known about the early Harvard College curriculum comes from “New Englands First Fruits” and from student and faculty notebooks and personal diaries, college textbooks and other books known to have been part of the College Library collection and/or owned by students, Commencement theses and quaestiones, examination papers, and the printed College Laws.

During its early years, the College offered a classic academic course based on the English university model, but consistent with the Puritan philosophy of the first colonists.  The mission of the College, according to the 1650 Charter, was:  “the advancement of all good literature, artes, and Sciences.”  Latin was the language of instruction (although the Latin speaking requirement was not renewed in the College Laws of 1692).  Students were expected to arrive at Harvard well-versed in Latin grammar and, once enrolled, followed a prescribed course of studies in Latin, Greek and Hebrew; the examination of classical languages through histories and drama providing the base for scholarly pursuits.  Other disciplines included Rhetoric and Logic, Ethics and Politics, Arithmetic and Geometry, and later, Algebra, Astronomy, Physics, Metaphysics and Theology (although Harvard College never functioned strictly as a divinity school).

Early records of the Harvard College faculty, especially the Faculty Minutes, as well as the records of the College Steward and Butler, and the Disorders Papers, are important sources for information relating to specific students, as individual student files, including admission records, grade reports and transcripts, were not established at Harvard until the nineteenth century.  The system of ordering or ranking student names in the College catalogues by “seniority,” from 1642-1772, has been a source of speculation.   It is not known whether the rankings were accorded for social rank, merit, or other criteria.  The practice was discontinued in 1773 in favor of an alphabetical arrangement. 

The collected papers of Harvard’s seventeenth and eighteenth century presidents, as well as tutors and professors, provide further insight, as academic reforms instituted by successive Harvard administrations contributed steadily to the development of the University.  Each of the seventeenth and eighteenth century Harvard College presidents, from Henry Dunster (1640-1654) to Joseph Willard (1781-1804), influenced the academic landscape according to his interests.  Reflected in numerous ways, including thesis disputation topics, teaching staff appointments and lectures, presidential leadership affected the expanding colonial Harvard curriculum.

The formal naming of Harvard as a university in 1780, the founding of Harvard Medical School in 1782 and the establishment, early in the nineteenth century, of Harvard Law School (1817) and Harvard Divinity School (1819) broadened the overall curriculum, advanced Harvard from a provincial seat of learning and secured its reputation as a national university.

Primary Sources

Charter of 1650. Harvard University.

Laws and statutes of Harvard, 1665-1890.

Commencement Theses, Quaestiones and Orders of Exercises, 1642-1818.

Diary of Henry Flynt, 1723-1747. Henry Flynt earned his Harvard AB in 1693.  He became a fixture of 18th-century Harvard life, and in his later years was referred to as “Father Flynt.”  He was a Tutor from 1699 to 1754. See also: a transcribed published version.

Early Faculty Minutes, 1725-1806. This collection contains the official minutes of Harvard University Faculty meetings held from 1725 to 1806. These early minutes predate the existence of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (established in 1890) and were taken at meetings of what was then simply called "the Faculty."

Early Records of the Steward, 1649-1812.

Harvard University Corporation records: minutes, 1643-1989. 1643-1827 available online.

Laws and Statutes of Harvard, 1655-1890.

Laws of Harvard College.  Boston:  Printed by Samuel Hall, 1790. (Full-text available online free with Harvard ID and PIN.)  

Laws of Harvard College.  Boston:  Printed by John and Thomas Fleet, 1798.  College Laws include descriptions of required courses and texts. (Full-text available online free with Harvard ID and PIN.)

Mathematical theses, 1782-1839.

“New Englands (sic) First Fruits,” ca.1640.  See Chapter 2.

Notebook of Obadiah Ayer, 1708-1716 contains academic texts on logic, geometry, metaphysics and geography copied by Ayer while he was a student at Harvard, and after his graduation in 1710. There is a general index to the included texts at the end of the volume.

Records of the Board of Overseers, Formal Meeting Minutes, 1707-1932. Records of Overseers’ meetings, votes and committees.

Records of the Faculty relating to disorders, 1768-circa 1880s.

Records of the Harvard Corporation.  Minutes, correspondence and reports relating to all aspects of college affairs.  Series include Charter Papers, Donation Papers, College Laws, Presidents’ Papers and Professorship Papers.

Student mathematical textbook of James Freeman, 1774 contains portions of text copied from Nicholas Saunderson’s Elements of algebra, Nicholas Hammond’s The elements of algebra, and John Ward’s The young mathematician’s guide.

Student mathematical notebook of Ebenezer Hill, 1785 contains rules, definitions, problems, drawings, and tables on arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, surveying, calculating distances, and dialing. Some of the exercises are illustrated by hand-drawn diagrams, including some of buildings and trees.

Tolman Index to University Records, 1636-1870. A name and subject index to official University records refers the researcher to individuals and topics recorded in the course of University business.  Examples of curriculum-related subject headings include: “Degrees,” “Laws,” “Tutors,” “Professors,” “Studies.”  Also available as a card index located in the Harvard University Archives reading room.

Secondary Sources

“Academic Seniority in Colonial Harvard” (Find It @ Harvard) by Samuel Eliot Morison. Harvard Alumni Bulletin, 35 (March 3, 1933), 576-578.

The Apparatus of Science at Harvard, 1765-1800 (Find It @ Harvard) by David Wheatland. Cambridge:  Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University, 1968.

Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Find It @ Harvard) by John Langdon Sibley and others. Cambridge, [Mass.]: Charles William Sever, University Bookstore, 1873 - ; Eighteen volumes, various authors and publishers, covering the Harvard College Classes of 1642 to 1774. The first three volumes of this work are available online:

Volume I (Harvard College Classes of 1642-1658) 
Volume II (Harvard College Classes of 1659-1677) 
Volume III (Harvard College Classes of 1678-1689)  

A Collection of College Words and Customs by Benjamin Homer Hall.  Cambridge:  John Bartlett, 1856. Explains the genesis and usage of common college words and phrases, many originating at Harvard.

Cotton Mather:  The Young Life of the Lord’s Remembrancer, 1663-1703 (Find It @ Harvard) by David Levin. Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1978.

The First 350 Years of the Harvard University Library: Description of an Exhibition (Find It @ Harvard) by Kenneth Carpenter.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1986. 

The Founding of Harvard College (Find It @ Harvard) by Samuel Eliot Morison. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935.

Glimpses of the Harvard Past (Find It @ Harvard) by Bernard Bailyn, et al. Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1986.

The Harvard Book; a series of historical, biographical, and descriptive sketches by various authors edited by F.O. Vaille and Henry Clark.  Boston, Houghton, Osgood and Co., 1878. 

Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century (Find It @ Harvard) by Samuel Eliot Morison.  2 vols. Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1936. Includes detailed chapters on all aspects of the curriculum, including subjects taught and “The Student and His Day.”

Harvard College Records (1636-1750) (Find It @ Harvard)Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vols. 15, 16, 31, 49, 50.  Boston:  The Colonial Society, 1925-1975.  Comprehensive index found in Volume 16 may be searched for relevant keywords, e.g. Apparatus, Degrees, Lectures, Library and subject areas such as Astronomy and Theology.  See also Hathi Trust Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and volume 15, volume 16, volume 31, volume 49, and volume 50.

Harvard:  Four Centuries and Freedoms (Find It @ Harvard) by Charles Abraham Wagner.  New York:  Dutton, 1950.

Harvard Library Bulletin.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Library. Series. 1947-present.  See especially:

  • Metcalf, Keyes D., “The Undergraduate and Harvard Library, 1765-1877,” HLB, I (Winter 1947).
  • Metcalf, Keyes D., “Spatial Growth in the Harvard Library, 1638-1947,” HLB, II (Winter 1948).
  • Robinson, Fred, “Thomas Hollis, Founder of Harvard’s Celtic Collection,” HLB, II (Spring 1948).
  • Lovett, Robert W., “Harvard College and the Supply of Textbooks,” HLB, IV (Winter 1950).
  • Lovett, Robert W., “The Pennoyer Scholarship at Harvard,” HLB, IV (Spring 1950).
  • Robbins, Caroline, “Library of Liberty – Assembled by Thomas Hollis,” HLB, V (Winter 1951).
  • Robbins, Caroline, “Library of Liberty – Assembled for Harvard College by Thomas Hollis of Lincoln’s Inn,” HLB (Spring 1951).
  • Cadbury, Henry J., “Religious Books at Harvard,” HLB, V (Spring 1951).
  • Cadbury, Henry J., “Bishop Berkeley’s Gifts to the Harvard Library,” HLB, VII (Winter 1953).
  • Cadbury, Henry J., “Bishop Berkeley’s Gifts to the Harvard Library:  II. A Further Gift in 1748,” HLB, VII (Spring 1953).
  • Fiering, Norman S., “Solomon Stoddard’s Library at Harvard in 1664,” HLB, XX (July 1972).
  • Knapton, Ernest John, “Pitt Clarke’s Harvard Diary, 1786-1791,” HLB, XXI (April 1973).
  • Elliott, Clark A., “Sources for the History of Science in the Harvard University Archives,” HLB, XXII (January 1974).
  • Kaiser, Leo M., “The Inaugural Address of Edward Wigglesworth as First Hollis Professor of Divinity,” HLB, XXVII (July 1979).
  • Leonard, David C., “Harvard’s First Science Professor:  A Sketch of Isaac Greenwood’s Life and Work,” HLB, XXIX (April 1981).
  • Graffam, Gray, “A Discovery of Seventeenth-Century Printing Types in Harvard Yard,” HLB, XXX (April 1982).
  • Olsen, Mark and Louis-Georges Harvey, “Reading in Revolutionary Times: Book Borrowing from the Harvard College Library, 1773-1782,” HLB, New Series 4 (Fall 1993).
  • Gomes, Peter J, “Thomas Hollis of London and His Gifts:  Two Hundred Seventy-Five Years of Piety and Philanthropy at Harvard, HLB, New Series 13 (Summer 2002).
  • Accardo, Peter X., “The Library of the Hollis Professor of Divinity to 1778:  A Checklist,” HLB, New Series 13 (Summer 2002).

“Harvard Textbooks and Reference Books of the Seventeenth Century,” (Find It @ Harvard) by Arthur O. Norton. Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, XXVIII (1935), 361-438.

Harvard University History of Named Chairs:  Sketches of Donors and Donations, 1721-1991 (Find It @ Harvard) by William Bentinck-Smith. Harvard.  Cambridge:  Secretary to the University, 1991.

Historical Register of Harvard University, 1636-1936 (Find It @ Harvard). Cambridge:  Harvard University, 1937.  (HU 137.572)  Alphabetical list of Harvard faculty and officers.

The History of Harvard University by Josiah Quincy. 2 vols.  Cambridge:  Published by John Owen, 1840.  Largely chronological account of the first two centuries, with references to the major individuals, decisions and influences in the development of the college.  See especially:  Vol. I, Chapter IX, p. 188-194, for 17th century course of studies; Vol. I, Chapter XIX, p. 439, for description of academic studies in the time of Presidents Leverett and Wadsworth (1707-1737); and  Vol. II, Chapter XXVI, p. 123, for 18th century exhibitions and curricular improvements.

“Liberal Education in Seventeenth-Century Harvard” (Find It @ Harvard) by Edward Kennard Rand. New England Quarterly, 6 (1933).

Mathematical Theses of Junior and Senior Classes, 1782-1839 by Henry Badger. Cambridge:  Library of Harvard University, 1888.

Medicine at Harvard:  The First Three Hundred Years (Find It @ Harvard) by Henry K. Beecher and Mark D. Altschule.  Hanover, NH:  University Press of New England, 1977.  

Moral Philosophy at Seventeenth Century Harvard:  A Discipline in Transition (Find It @ Harvard) by Norman Fiering.  Chapel Hill:  Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture. Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

“Out of Smalle Beginnings…”  An Economic History of Harvard College in the Puritan Period, 1636 to 1712 (Find It @ Harvard) by Margery Somers Foster. Cambridge:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962.

Student Notebooks at Colonial Harvard:  Manuscripts and Educational Practice, 1650-1740 (Find It @ Harvard) by Thomas Knoles, Rick Kennedy and Lucia Zaucha Knoles.  Worcester:  American Antiquarian Society, 2003. 

"Student Records: The Harvard Experience"  by Harley P. Holden. The American Archivist, Vol. 39, No. 4 (October 1976): pp. 461-467.

Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936 (Find It @ Harvard) by Samuel Eliot Morison. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936.


Governance and Curriculum at Harvard College in the 18th Century by Thomas Jay Siegel. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 1990. (Full-text available online free with Harvard ID and PIN.)  

Puritan Town and Gown: Harvard College and Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1636-1800 by John D. Burton. A dissertation presented at the College of William and Mary, 1996, c1997. (Full-text available online free with Harvard ID and PIN.) Includes chapters on the historical background of Harvard, English models and Harvard faculty.

Faculty Papers

Diaries of Benjamin Guild, 1776, 1778.  Benjamin Guild (A.B. 1769, A.M. 1772) was a Latin tutor at Harvard College from 1776-1780 and a prominent bookseller.  His diaries from 1776 and 1778 refer to his lectures at Harvard and to the examination of students.

Judah Monis Collection, 1725-1735 Judah Monis was the first instructor of Hebrew at Harvard College; he received an honorary degree in 1720. His grammar was the first Hebrew textbook published in North America.  Includes papers about the Hebrew grammar and Monis’ relations with Harvard College.

Papers of Nathan Prince, 1714-1747.  Nathan Prince (A.B. 1718) was a Tutor and Fellow.  His papers include notes and writings on theological and mathematical topics.

Papers of Stephen Sewall, 1764-1797. Stephen Sewall (A.B. 1761) taught oriental languages and Hebrew from 1761-1785 and served as Librarian from 1762-1763.  His papers contain lectures on Hebrew and oriental literature.

Papers of Henry Ware, 1783-1842. Henry Ware (A.B. 1785) taught theology at Harvard.  Includes sermons, lectures on religion, teaching material such as assignment books, correspondence and other documents.

Papers of Samuel Williams, 1752-1794. Samuel Williams (A.B. 1761) taught mathematics and natural philosophy.  He was the third Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy.  Includes manuscripts of writings on theology and various scientific topics, sermons, meteorological observations and notes.

Papers of John and Hannah Winthrop, 1728-1789. John Winthrop (A.B. 1732, A.M.1735) taught science, astronomy and mathematics at Harvard.  He was the second Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy.  This collection includes diaries, an important meteorological journal (1742-1779), abstracts of sermons and lectures.

Additional Resources at Harvard and Elsewhere

American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA.  Research library collection with focus on early American books and manuscripts from the colonial era to Reconstruction.

Historical Textbooks Collection. Gutman Library Special Collections, Harvard Graduate School of Education. The Historical Textbooks Collection includes primary, secondary and college textbooks, some pre-1800.  Cataloged in HOLLIS.

Houghton Library, Harvard University.  Rare book and manuscript library collection includes many seventeenth and eighteenth century resources. Cataloged in HOLLIS.

Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.  Independent research library offers printed and manuscript resources relating to Harvard College and its students.  ABIGAIL catalog can be searched online.

Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Boston, MA.  Publishes documents related to the early history of Massachusetts.