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Fake Quotations: Harvard Student Handbook

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 19 July 2009

Did the original Harvard Student Handbook have

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 Jesus Christ as the only foundation for our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.

as its first rule?

No. This is a misquotation (and a bad one) of rule 2, not rule 1.

This rule is taken from “Rules, and Precepts that are observed in the Colledge,” as printed in New England’s First Fruits, a 1643 booklet printed in England.  Rule 2 (again, not rule 1) reads:

2. Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and lesus Christ which is eternall life, Joh. 17. 3. and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.

And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himselfe by prayer in secret to seeke it of him Prov 2, 3.

Where did this garbage at the end of the pseudo-quotation come from?

Well, a document sometimes entitled “Forsaken Roots” started making its way around the internet by 2002.  In its original form it contained this:

In the original Harvard Student Handbook, rule number 1 was that students seeking entrance must know Latin and Greek so that they could study the scriptures: “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 Jesus Christ as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisdom, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seek it of him (Proverbs 2:3).

Up to a point this is a reasonably accurate modern-spelling version of the original with two strange lapses: the insertion of the word “Jesus” in front of the word “Christ” and the silent omission of the words “in the bottome” immediately after “Christ”.  Okay, that explains a bit, but where on earth did that gibberish about the ten commandments come from?

Well, later in the document we have the rhetorical question:

Is it not a permissible objective to allow our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments?

Now early in the transmission of “Forsaken Roots” the document was violently (and seemingly mindlessly) shortened by the omission of two sections.  One of these omissions included every word between “foundation” (in the Harvard rules quotation) and “our children” (in this rhetorical question).  Apparently the word “for” was inserted in the gap to produce:

…and therefore to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation for our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments?

A number of copies actually have it end with a question mark and no closing quotation mark, as rendered above, though most have smoothed it out a bit by replacing the question mark with a period and closing quotation mark.  The short form of “Forsaken Roots,” by the way, has circulated most widely under the title “History Forgotten.”

In its original form “Forsaken Roots” referred to the first rule as requiring students to know Latin and Greek.  This is correct.  The first rule ran:

1. WHen any Schollar is able to understand Tully, or such like classicall Latine Author extempore, and make and speake true Latine in Verse and Prose, suo ut aiunt Marte; And decline perfectly the Paradigim’s of Nounes and Verbes in the Greek tongue: Let him then and not before be capable of admission into the Colledge.

Where “Forsaken Roots” went wrong was in quoting part of the second rule without citing it as the second rule, thus making it seem as though the first rule was being quoted.  Not a major sin, but still very sloppy work.  The silent alterations to the text are likewise extremely sloppy, though as they don’t distort the meaning, they fall short of criminal.

Since “History Forgotten” has circulated, the fake form of the second rule from “Rules and Precepts” has been pulled out and circulated separately, without anybody seeming to notice that it’s absolute gibberish.

(In the above transcriptions I have replaced the long s (ſ) with an ordinary s.  Thus “Verſe and Proſe” become “Verse and Prose” as above.)


America’s Christian Roots (sbh; this version has the lacunae of the abbreviated text in blue)

New England’s First Fruits (Anonymous, 1865 reprint at Google Books)

On the Authorship of “New Englands First Fruits” (Worthington C. Ford, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1909)


3 Responses to “Fake Quotations: Harvard Student Handbook”

  1. Paul said

    While it may be true that the 10 Commandments part was not part of the original “purpose statement” of Harvard, it is extremely clear that the Puritans who founded the school intended that the Christian faith be fully and totally taught and propagated by the faculty to the students. It is also as certain as the sun that the Puritans would have taught, as part of their desire to see Jesus Christ believed among the students, the 10 Commandments you flippantly call “garbage.” They certainly didn’t count them as such and the very freedoms which you enjoy in this Land are a result of our early Fathers believing them. You should be thankful and grateful, and not foolish.

    I’m all for honest and true history, and misquotations should be labeled as such. But POV inclusions like “garbage,” etc. should be left out, lest one’s ignorance be exposed.

    • sbh said

      What part of the English language is so hard to understand? You are the only one here calling the Ten Commandments garbage; I referred to the hash of the misquoted version as garbage, which it is. The original sentence in the Harvard rules made perfect sense; the original question in “Forsaken Roots” made perfect sense; the hash that resulted when the two were jammed together is gibberish. And nobody who quoted it in this mangled form seemed even to notice.

      Harvard, by the way, was originally set up to train students for the ministry, which makes it unsurprising that students there were expected to know Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, to study the scriptures diligently, to seek wisdom from the Lord in prayer, and to be able to translate the books of the Old and New Testaments from the original languages into Latin. These were the kinds of things expected of the ministry in the eighteenth century. Today’s standards have woefully declined; I personally have spoken with ministers who are incapable of reading scripture in the original tongue, and I don’t believe I’ve ever met one who could speak true Latin in verse and prose–not that that ability strikes me as particularly important today. Today’s students get crammed with pastoral psychology and motivational speaking and the like. Times have changed.

      Just out of curiosity–have you read the 1643 Harvard student rules? They are full of interest. Rule 4 for instance: “That they eschewing all profanation of God’s Name, Attributes, Word, Ordinances, and times of Worship, doe studie with good conscience, carefully to retaine God, and the love of his truth in their mindes else let them know, that (notwithstanding their Learning) God may give them up to strong delusions, and in the end to a reprobate minde, 2 Thes. 2. 11, 12. Rom. 1. 28.”

      • Paul said

        If you didn’t mean the 10 Commandments themselves, then I apologize. But the way you wrote it, and in the place you put it, “Where did this garbage at the end of the pseudo-quotation come from?” looked an awful lot like a shot at the content as much as the fact that it was a fake addition. In my mind, “pseudo-quotation” points to the fake; “garbage” points to the content. Again, if I was wrong I apologize, and I’m very glad to see that the Commandments were not called garbage by you. (And, no, I wasn’t calling them garbage, either.) If anything, it just wasn’t clear to me.

        I realize that Harvard was established to train ministers (it was named after one, John Harvard). I am a U.S. history teacher in MS and we are covering the Puritan influence in America right now. It’s a shame that Harvard has fallen so far from its original roots. I would venture to say that everything BUT what is said in Rule 2 is accepted there now. Your assessment of the woeful condition of ministers today is, unfortunately, right on. Two years of Greek was offered in the Bible school I attended, but not Hebrew. I would love to learn Hebrew in the upcoming years in order to read the Bible in its original (O.T.) language.

        No, I have not read the 1643 Harvard student rules. But I just may for the sake of my history class, and to gain a further understanding of what was expected of the students then. The standard was MUCH higher for sure.


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