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“Thy light and truth shall set me free”

When you roam the campus looking for a new picture every day, your eye might fall on an inscription you’d never really processed before, like this one on the side of Branford College at the bottom of a beautiful bow window facing Library Walk: “Thy light and truth shall set me free.” Sounds familiar . . . shades of Yale’s motto and John 8:32. But it’s not exactly either one. 

When you get back to the office and start googling, it’s not long before you’re deep in a rabbit hole of surprising facts:

  • The line is from an 1840 abolitionist poem called “The Fugitive Slave’s Apostrophe to the North Star.”
  • That poem’s author was John Pierpont, Yale Class of 1804, great-grandson of one of the ministers that founded Yale and a minister himself whose anti-slavery activism cost him his pulpit even in abolitionist Boston.
  • Pierpont’s grandson would grow up to be the famous financier John Pierpont Morgan.
  • And finally, Pierpont’s son James Lord Pierpont would, improbably, end up living in Savannah, Georgia, and serving in the Confederate cavalry in the Civil War. And, even more improbably, the younger Pierpont would make his mark on American culture by writing “Jingle Bells” in 1857.

That’s a long way to go from eight words beneath a window. But given Yale’s fraught relationship with its role in slavery, you might remember when you pass by those words that they immortalize a Yale man’s zeal for the abolitionist cause.

Filed under John Pierpont, abolition of slavery, Civil War, Jingle Bells
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