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Harvard's Christian Heritage

By Jay Rogers
Published April 3, 2008

The “flapjack turning” at Harvard is a metaphor for an emerging philosophy of humanism. In the 1600s, Harvard was dedicated to the glory of God, but by the latter half of the 2Oth century Harvard had become the citadel of humanism in the modern world. As Ruth Nourse correctly points out, this change did not happen overnight but was a slow transformation imperceptible to all but the most astute observers. This revolution, however, is completely visible in the changing of Harvard’s seals throughout the past centuries.

In Christi Gloriam (Glory in Christ) appeared on the college seal of 1650. Later, a coat of arms appeared containing three books and the Latin motto Christo et Ecclesiae (Christ and the Church) inscribed around the border.

On an archway, above a gate leading into the Harvard Yard, curious visitors may view this seal inscribed in stone. This earlier version of the coat of arms, however, contains one difference. If you look closely at the books in the coat of arms, you will see that the top two books are turned facing upward, while the bottom book is overturned. The upward facing books symbolize the truth that is discernible through our five senses; the overturned book symbolizes that which can only be known through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

By the mid 1800s, the Harvard seal had fallen out of use. When Charles Eliot attained the presidency of Harvard, he wished to reinstate the coat of arms as Harvard’s official school seal.1 This time, however, he made two changes. First, he added the Latin word VERITAS (Truth). Second, he turned all the books facing upwards, denoting the emerging philosophy of humanism.

The idea that all truth is attainable through human efforts is consistent with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s teaching on the supremacy of man. As the Concord philosopher once said: “In yourself slumbers the whole of Reason: it is for you to know all.”


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