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While everyone who has received a Yale degree has at least glanced at the University’s seal impressed on the document, few know the stamp’s history, especially the origins of the apparent incongruity between a college founded by Christian divines and their choice of a Hebrew inscription. Even the origin of the Latin presents a puzzle.
A Yale diploma has long been a passport to opportunity, but explaining the equivalent of the customs stamp that validates it remains something of a challenge. To unravel the mystery, one must go back to Yale’s origins, and beyond.
Although Yale’s early leaders had spiritual aspirations for their college and saw themselves as American successors to the ancient Israelites, why would such a group of ardently Christian ministers have placed Hebrew words at the center of their corporate logo, and why the particular Latin accompaniment?
The two Hebrew words (Urim v’Thummim) at the center of the official Yale seal appear eight times in the Hebrew Bible. Jewish sources considered them oracular gems worn by the high priest Aaron. And their presence in Leviticus 8:8—the middle verse of the Pentateuch—suggests that they identify the book on the Yale seal as the Bible itself.
We have no proof yet that a seal was actually employed before 1736, when Yale’s Latin diplomas began to note the college’s sigillum. The 1749 master’s diploma of future Yale President Ezra Stiles—donated to the University last year by his great-great-great-granddaughters Ann Prouty and Martha Munro—displays the oldest surviving and legible Yale seal known. It is strikingly similar to the one used today. It is also similar to a Harvard seal produced in 1650. Where Harvard had then written, In Christi Gloriam, “For the Glory of Christ.” Yale inscribed the familiar, Lux et Veritas—“Light and Truth.” Where Harvard had placed three blank books and a chevron, Yale depicted one book with two Delphic Hebrew words.
Lest Harvard partisans assume that Yale usurped Harvard’s Veritas motto, adding a touch of Lux to it, they should know that although a 1643 Harvard sketch shows Veritas drawn on three books, in fact Harvard did not make Veritas its motto or use it on its regular seal until 1843, nearly a century after Yale had selected its motto. Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison conjectured that the common teaching of theologian William Ames at Yale and Harvard inspired both institutions in their search for appropriate language. Yet the answer for Harvard may not have been the solution for Yale, and the reasons must be sought in the theology of the day.
Clarification of the Hebrew words may reside in Yale’s primary divinity text, Johannes Wollebius’s The Abridgement of Christian Divinitie, which was then studied all afternoon every Friday by Yale students as part of the long preparation for the Christian Sabbath. Wollebius’s book was of such importance, Samuel Johnson (Class of 1714) noted sarcastically, that it was “considered with equal or greater veneration than the Bible itself.” In Wollebius’s text we find an interpretation of the Hebrew words that might surprise 21st-century readers: “Urim and Thummim. did signify Christ the Word and Interpreter of the Father, our light and perfection.” Harvard’s 1650 In Christi Gloriam motto celebrated the glory of Christ. In their own way, Yale’s Hebrew words may have done no less.
The 1726 Yale college laws, reflecting such devotion, characteristically ordained that: “Every student shall consider ye main end of his study.to know God in Jesus Christ and answerably to lead a Godly sober life.” To the ancient Hebrews, the Urim and Thummim reflected the oracular will of God. To the Puritans who shaped early Yale, that oracular will was represented by Jesus. Their seal proclaimed it!
The Urim and Thummim seal may have had religio-political overtones as well. The date on which the trustees first applied for a seal, October 17, 1722, was no random one in Yale history. Meeting in New Haven, the trustees were likely preoccupied with the greatest scandal in the University’s history. Rector Timothy Cutler had just publicly challenged the ordination of virtually every minister in New England, thereby attacking the foundations of New England society. Cutler’s earthshaking Anglican-Arminian declaration has been compared by Yale historian Brooks M. Kelley to the 20th-century equivalent of a Yale President declaring that Russian communism was superior to American democracy.
On October 17, 1722, the Yale trustees fired Cutler and instituted a confession of faith to be required of Yale faculty. The Wollebius book, with the anti-Arminian stance that it took, would therefore have been an especially fitting source for the Yale motto. In this context the request for a seal that day had far more than decorative significance; it was likely a declaration of Yale ideals.
If we return to the Latin Lux et Veritas, a remaining question is of how the common translation from that era of Thummim as “perfection,” became Veritas or “truth.” By 1735 (the year before the Yale seal began to appear on Yale diplomas), under the stimulus of Jonathan Edwards, theological battles between “New Lights” and “Old Lights” were raging in Connecticut. The “New Lights” attacked the established order by questioning the value of education outside of understanding Jesus. Many “Old Lights” thought religious knowledge was central to an education, but hardly sufficient for one. The latter opinion prevailed at Yale. Mathematics and metaphysics, insisted Yale’s leaders, had to go hand in hand with theology and ethics. By choosing to translate Urim V’Thummim as Lux et Veritas, it seems—in contrast to the one-dimensional approach of Harvard—Yale insisted that its college offered the essentials of proper learning: the “light” of a liberal education and the “truth” of an old New England religious tradition.
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