On July 24, 1850, Aaron Lucius Chapin stood on an outdoor platform, declaiming before a large and appreciative crowd. His inauguration as first president of Beloit College was almost over, but he wanted to tell everyone some news before ending his lengthy speech. Only the day before, the trustees had approved something so long-lasting it is as recognizable today as it was then. “On the seal just put into my hands,” he said, “I read this motto, “Scientia vera cum fide pura.”
Almost from its inception, those connected with the college desired a symbol for the instiution, as Professor Robert Irrmann explained in a Founders Day address in 1963: “It was a firm faith that underlay the inception and the creation of Beloit College; there was more faith than mortar, bricks and money in the early life of Beloit. And from this seldom flagging faith there came commitment, and even in the earliest days of this College, the Founders sought to signify that commitment by some outward and visible sign, through some symbol, that all who looked at Beloit might see, and seeing might seek to know, and in the fruits of the College might find some evidence of the fulfillment of the faith of creation and labor. The symbol early took the form of the college seal.”
In 1848, the trustees had appointed fellow member Chapin “to consider and report on a seal to be used by the Board.” The Board temporarily used a simple round seal with the monogram “B.C.” Chapin reported his findings that fall, but the trustees took no immediate action and in 1849 asked the faculty to prepare “a device for a seal for the use of the Board.” The trustees met again on July 23, 1850, the day before Chapin’s inauguration. Their minutes record that “the Faculty as a committee on procuring a permanent seal for the College reported, presenting one which they have procured. The report was accepted and the seal adopted as the seal of the College.” For posterity, someone impressed “a true copy of that seal” upon one of the handwritten pages of the leather bound record book.
The seal consists of several parts. Irrmann explained the significance of the words within its outer circle: “Today we can rattle “Coll. Beloit in Rep. Wisconsin” but find it rather meaningless prattle. To the founders, “Beloit College in the Commonwealth of Wisconsin” signified a youthful institution in an even more youthful state.” At the time, the college had only held classes since 1847, a year before Wisconsin achieved statehood.
The seal’s inner circle holds the college motto, created by President Chapin himself, who interpreted it for the audience in his inaugural address. “I understand it to express a necessary and indissoluble union between the principles of true knowledge, and the spirit of Christian faith,” he said. “It declares it as the sentiment of this college, that, there can be no separation of this marriage tie, which God hath joined, without violence to nature and mischief to the world. It declares it as the purpose of this college to regard them ever as one, and to know no aim but that of extending and perpetuating their combined influence and power to the remotest ends of the earth – to the furthest reach of time.”
In his 1950 article on the seal for the Wisconsin Magazine of History, Professor Robert Kimball Richardson elaborated on the meaning of the motto. “Not only does this ‘true knowledge,’ this Scientia, embrace the entire range of the intellectual interests of the college, mathematical, experiential, religious, historical, speculative, aesthetic, and the rest, interrelated and viewed, as the elder Blaisdell worded it, as ‘a commonwealth’ of all the sciences…but it points back to the entire history of the connection of Christianity with education, and, immediately, to the relation of education to the Puritan churches which emerged from the Renaissance and Reformation.”
Chapin described the imagery within the shield-shaped escutcheon at the center of the seal in religious terms: “Again, I see here a simple emblem. It is an open book with a dove descending in light upon it. I understand it to express the attitude which this college would take and hold, laying all its material of learning, and its corps of instructors, and its body of students - all spread out before Him who sitteth on the throne, while it waits and prays for the descent of that holy influence which alone is able to sanctify the whole for his service and glory.” Over one hundred years later, Robert Irrmann noted the book’s plainness. “[Its] pages are free of any letters or other symbols…The book is not the Bible; rather it probably represents all learning.”
Irrmann acknowledged that for different generations the motto and seal need reinterpretation and he believed that the founders created them to be flexible. “We must always recall that we are the intellectual and spiritual descendants of Puritan founders of Beloit College,” he said, “descendants of men and women who believed in, and firmly relied upon, Christian faith and broad learning…We are of a later age. Even the symbols and the mottos occasionally need to be recast to lend new significance to succeeding generations that accept, but frequently fail to understand the import of that accepted.”