I was reminded recently of the historical cornerstone laid in the old gate at the entrance to Harvard University. Inscribed on it are these words:
“After God had carried us safe to New England and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship and settled the civil government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers lie in the dust.”
Our nation’s first institution of higher learning was founded in 1636, only 16 years after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth. It was named after John Harvard, a minister of the Gospel, who was pastor of the Charleston church when he arrived in America. Upon his untimely death a year later, his entire library of 400 volumes and a sum of 780 pounds was donated to this first college for the purpose of helping train the upcoming generations of Christian ministers.
This background helps us understand the original Harvard seal: a shield including three opened books. The books represent the importance of knowledge. Two of the books face up; the third, down, which emphasizes the limits of human reason. The Latin inscribed motto, “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae,” is translated “Truth for Christ and the Church.” John 8:32 is the Scripture reference listed, which happens to be a part of The American Association of Lutheran Churches seal: “If you abide in My word … you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The seal was a reminder to the students who entered that institution of higher education that truth and freedom are found only in Jesus Christ.
Although the cornerstone in the old gate to Harvard Yard remains, the seal has changed drastically. There is no reference to Jesus or the church. The third book now faces up. The understanding of the modern seal is that intellect is everything. “Veritas,” truth, is the only Latin inscription on the seal.
May we be reminded that knowledge is based on the very truth of God’s Word.
The Rev. Paul Johnson is pastor of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. Sermon Notes is a column by local religious leaders.