Following his graduation from Magdalene College, Cambridge University, Dunster was probably ordained a minister in the Church of England and assigned a parish and church back in his hometown of Bury, located nine miles north-northwest of Manchester. Though it seems likely that he was formally ordained, these were strange and perilous times in England, and exceptions did occur.
Assuming Dunster was officially ordained, he would have been assigned a "living" in Bury Parish - an income associated with the parish appointment. In the early seventeenth century this often included "the right to levy certain tithes...from the farmers," such as tithes of crops and other produce. (1)
History records a fee levied against Dunster while he was still in Bury by the bishop of the diocese (another argument in favor of the view that Dunster was ordained). In 1634 Bishop Bridgeman "drew up a full list of the clergy of his diocese for the purpose of collecting from each contributions for the repair of St. Paul's Cathedral, London." Ernest Axon wrote that Dunster's name appears in the list "as a curate of Bury, and was assessed at 3s. 4d." Axon adds that "Dunster, whether by reason of poverty or a tender conscience, does not appear to have paid anything." (2)
Though Dunster was university-trained, many of his minister peers in Lancashire county most likely were not: "it is probable that from one third to one half of the incumbents in county parishes were not university men and had no proper training," according to Wallace Notestein, author of The English People on the Eve of Colonization, 1603-1630 (1954), who added that "a great number of graduates [of Oxford and Cambridge] became clergymen in country villages" and suffered some degree of intellectual loneliness or isolation in those assignments following the heady academic life and friendships cultivated at their universities. (3)
A "Painfull Minister"
One of Henry's parishioners in Bury wrote that Dunster was "a studious and painfull minister."(4) That, unfortunately, is the only opinion we have of his earliest years in the ministry. Although "painful" has a very specific and negative connotation in the twenty-first century (perhaps describing someone who is difficult or "painful" to listen to), it had a very different meaning in the seventeenth century. In those days, "painful" or "painfull" meant "painstaking" and "full of zeal." It was considered a high compliment, not a criticism or a put-down of one's preaching style.
Thomas Shepard also described Dunster as "a man pious, painful, and fit to teach, and very fit to lay the foundations of the domesticall affairs of the College..."(5) Rev. Henry Bury - who left money to the Bury Grammar School in Lancashire where it is believed that Dunster attended as a young man and later taught at - also referred to Dunster in a very positive way in his will dated October, 1634, as "Mr. Dunster, that studious and painful minister."(6) It is believed that Rev. Bury was a family friend who may have mentored young Henry and helped get him into Magdalene College. (7)
The impression one gets from these observations is that of a young minister who took extreme care and precision in his preaching, trying very hard and conscientiously to fulfill the obligations of Scripture of "rightly dividing the Word of truth" (II Timothy 2:15).
Interim Pastor of First Church of Cambridge; Thomas Shepard and "Matchless Mitchell"
Dunster would later pastor two other churches in his life - the first as interim pastor at the First Church of Cambridge, where he served following the death of the Rev. Thomas Shepard and until the final selection and ordination of the new pastor, Jonathan Mitchell. (8) Mitchell's life and ministry were closely intertwined with Dunster's at many points. According to the History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1877, Mitchell preached at the First Church of Cambridge on August 12, 1649, and Shepard died less than two weeks later on August 25, 1649. The church then called Mitchell to be their pastor. However, Mitchell was not ordained until August 21, 1650. (9) Dunster apparently served either as interim pastor or perhaps as a key pulpit supply preacher during that period, which was nearly a year. Mitchell - who would be dubbed "Matchless Mitchell" for his preaching - viewed Dunster as one of his primary mentors and a very godly man whom he looked up to; later, when they differed strongly on the issue of baptism, Mitchell tried hard to bring Dunster back to the prevailing view of infant baptism but without success. This grieved Mitchell considerably, but the two remained friends and Dunster specifically remembered Mitchell in his will.
Becoming Pastor of the Church at Scituate in Plymouth Colony: The Great "Swap"
Following Dunster's resignation as Harvard's President in 1654 and his voluntary exile from Cambridge, he was invited to pastor the congregation of the church at Scituate in Plymouth Colony now vacated by his successor as Harvard President, Charles Chauncy. This must have seemed an odd or ironic arrangement to some at the time, but it was a solution that apparently 'worked' for all those involved.
In 1656, Dunster was invited to leave the New World entirely with expenses paid and go to Dublin, Ireland to the Baptist community there and become their first pastor. He declined and remained in Scituate until his death. (10)
Samuel Dunster writes that Henry also "took a prominent part in founding the church at Woburn." (11)
Pastoring - One of Dunster's Enduring Legacies
Pastoring was obviously something that was very close to the heart and soul of Henry Dunster. So was teaching. He was trained as a pastor, and he sought to train pastors. One could look at his overall role as President of Harvard as a pastoral vocation - one that required him to train and shepherd young men and to prepare them for leadership roles, irrespective of whether they all became pastors or not in the future. Dunster's assignment was to ensure that they were prepared to follow that path if God so called them and that in any event they had a sure foundation both spiritually and mentally and that they were well-equipped for the task.
It was a job that he took very, very seriously, just as the younger "painfull" minister did in his earlier days. Dunster viewed his own role at the College as a pastor-teacher-scholar. Even when he lost his student flock following his resignation as President, he still reached out to minister to others and did so right up until the time of his death.
It could be said that, during his entire adult life following graduation from Cambridge University, Henry Dunster was a pastor-teacher of one sort or another - involved in ministry in changing lives for the Kingdom of God.