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Four Centuries of Faith at Harvard

By Editorial Staff
Published March 1, 1993

“After God had carried us safe to New England, and 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 shall lie in the dust.”

This 17th century passage is familiar to all Harvard undergraduates, the words being inscribed on the northern panel of the Johnson Gates leading into Harvard Yard. This passage is taken from New England’s First Fruits, published by Samuel Eliot Morrison. It is the earliest account of Harvard which appeared in London in 1643. This same document cites the rules and precepts of Harvard:

“Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3 and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.”

The founders of Harvard were, of course, the Puritans. Far from being the reactionary, dogmatic, judgmental, intolerant primitives, that modern students often imagine, these were an enlightened people who wished to cast off the darkness of Europe’s feudal past and forge a new type of society. They imagined that they were building the New Jerusalem and ushering in the Golden Age.

Samuel Eliot Morison, foremost Harvard historian, describes their ideology as follows: “The Puritan creed … stimulated mental activity on the part of those who professed it,” with the ministers maintaining “Open-minded and receptive attitudes toward scientific discoveries.” The Puritan religion provided the “dynamic motive for the intellectual movement in New England …”

Far from being ethereal mystics, the Puritans believed that Truth, in part, was knowable through the five senses and through empirical research and reasoning. But the idea that all Truth was knowable could only be fathomed in the realm of Faith, they argued. Visitors to Harvard need only to view the Harvard seal on one of the gates to see this illustrated. A stone rendering of the Harvard seal portrays three books – two are set faced up, while the third is displayed face down. A people who viewed all symbols as having great meaning no doubt meant this third book to signify the Truth that was hidden from reason. This was the Truth that could come only through divine revelation or Faith.

Before we dismiss the Harvard founders as being crude and unsophisticated, we should remember that it was their form of civil government, although not perfected, which became the working model for the world’s first successful democracy. This form of government is being imitated all over the world in our day.

The Puritans’ search for Truth and the perfect society, though unrealized, should be viewed with admiration to all who pass through Harvard’s gates, or by anyone who enjoys a measure of liberty in today’s world. They were truly prophets having foresight four centuries beyond their time.

See also: The Boston Awakening


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