Rich Earl ’80: My Search for Lehigh’s Spiritual Roots

During Lehigh Alumni Weekend 2016, alumni, students, friends and I gathered for Celebrating Lehigh’s Spiritual Roots, which was an event to examine the role of religion and spirituality at Lehigh University. Here are the findings that I shared during that service and the motivation that fueled my research.

Lehigh Bulletin 1982 (Vol. 69, Number 4)
“There was a spark that ignited my passion for Lehigh’s spiritual roots and it struck in 1982 as a result of a cover photo in the Alumni Bulletin (Vol. 69, Number 4).”

Searching for the spiritual heritage of Lehigh University has been a project of passion for the past 25 years. Discovering the people, places, and principles involved in the founding of my alma mater has led me down many pathways, some fruitful and others not so much. The real meaning of the Lehigh seal, and the original mission and character of the founding fathers have been unearthed.

Many, if not most of our greatest universities (Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wake Forest, Boston College, Notre Dame to name a few) began as seminaries or church-related schools for the purpose of training young men and women, not just in academic fields, but in morality and a deeper understanding of the Bible. As it turns out, Lehigh, and our chief counterpart Lafayette, have this same foundation.

I came to Lehigh in 1975 as a scholarship wrestler. I handled my first year fairly well as a student and backup to two-time national champion Mike Frick, but the following few years were not as fruitful, and I stumbled badly. During this period, I turned to my Christian brother Jim, a scholarship wrestler at Penn State, who shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ with me. Thus began my journey as a follower of Jesus.

After graduation I followed a call to ministry that had begun years earlier, and became an associate pastor in our home church on Long Island. I have now been in full time ministry for over 33 years and currently shepherd a small church in the former coal mining town of Shamokin, Pa.

There was a spark that ignited my passion for Lehigh’s spiritual roots and it struck in 1982 as a result of a cover photo in the Alumni Bulletin. The photo depicted a sun being grasped between a thumb and index finger. The picture was interesting, but implied that the fate of the earth was in the hands of mankind.

I was a zealous young preacher and from my perspective found this to be a blatant falsehood. The fate of the earth is in the hands of God. So I wrote a letter to the editor expressing my objection. At the time I was not cognizant of the fact that the Lehigh motto “man, the servant and interpreter of nature” (Francis Bacon) embraces this same idea, but I soon found out and this journey began.

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Here are a few buried nuggets of Lehigh history I have uncovered:

Lehigh’s official seal, was adopted by the Board of Trustees meeting in the autumn of 1865 and is a depiction of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “The seal of the Lehigh University is of an oval form. In the upper part a Sun on which is inscribed the word Lux (Light): below is an open Bible on which is written Veritas (Truth); on the Bible lies a heart bearing the inscription Amor (Love); thus bringing in the three Persons of the Godhead…the God of Love, Christ as the Light of the world, and the Holy Spirit as the inspiration of the Word and the Spirit of Truth.”

Asa Packer was a deeply committed Christian man. His motivation for establishing Lehigh as a free school for young men came largely from his Christian faith and convictions.

“Packer attached one cardinal condition to this project for educating youth: While gaining knowledge, they must not lose faith in God. Packer was profoundly religious. He took literally the scriptural passage, “What shall it profit a man, that he gain the whole world but lose his soul?” From Asa Packer: A Perspective 1983 by W Ross Yates

Bishop William Bacon Stevens, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, was the architect of Lehigh as an institution. As a trained minister, medical doctor and historian he possessed education and skill that Packer, as a self-made businessman sorely lacked.

God and Science are partners. Bishop Stevens made it clear that Lehigh’s place among the nation’s universities would be marked by her cooperation with God in improving the lot of mankind by responsibly harnessing and molding earth’s resources. Bishop Stevens laid out the Lehigh vision in a speech delivered on Founders Day 1869 where he stated:

“This education to be really valuable must be moral as well as scientific and practical. The God of Nature, and the God of the Bible are one…there can be no science without God, no laws of nature without Him, no nature itself aside from Him, yet human science too blindly constructs its theories and schemes totally apart from God, leaves Him out altogether, as if the presence of God was the great disturbing factor in the region of their study…The best posture of the mind for the study of any science is a reverent recognition of the existence and presence of God.” The Lehigh University: It’s Origins and Aims

I suspect that these revelations will be new to most people connected to the Lehigh community. It is crucial that any institution remember it’s past and original vision. The truth is our friend, and my hope is that Lehigh will embrace her heritage and seek to understand what it means for us today.

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