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)