America’s archive reflects America’s faith

By Bill Federer

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with over 118 million items on more than 500 miles of shelves. It began April 24, 1800, during President John Adams’ administration, with a $5,000 grant from Congress.

Originally located inside the Capitol building, its purpose was to help legislators write laws. It was proposed by James Madison in 1783 while he was a member of the Continental Congress with a list of more than 300 desirable books.

During the War of 1812, the British set fire to the Library of Congress. Thomas Jefferson helped restock it with over 6,400 volumes.

In 1851, the largest fire in the library’s history destroyed 35,000 books, about two-thirds of the library’s 55,000 books. President Fillmore and his cabinet formed a bucket brigade to help extinguish the flames.

In 1897, the Library of Congress relocated to its present site just east of the U.S. Capitol building, and now consists of three massive structures:

  • Thomas Jefferson building (built 1886-1897)
  • John Adams building (built 1930-1939)
  • James Madison Memorial building (built 1965-1980)

The artwork and inscriptions on the walls and ceilings express civilization, science, art, literature, music, self-confidence, sports, culture and religion.

The Library of Congress’ Rare Book Division has 1,470 Bibles dating from the beginning of printing, including one of three existing copies of the original 15th century Gutenberg Bible on vellum.

James H. Hutson, Ph.D., chief of the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division, produced an online exhibit, “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.”

The Jefferson Building, with 104 miles of shelves, has three massive bronze doors at it main entrance representing Tradition, Printing and Writing.

The right-hand door, representing Writing, has above it four figures depicting groups who influenced the world by written literature: an Egyptian, a Jew, a Christian and a Greek.

The dome above the north lobby of the Great Hall’s stairway has: “Knowledge is power” – Sir Francis Bacon, De Hoeresibus

Above the Reading Room central door to the left is the painting titled “Corrupt Legislation Leads to Anarchy” where the figure representing Anarchy is burning the scroll of learning while she tramples on a Bible.

In the Main Reading Room has above the figure of History: “One God, one law, one element, and one far-off Divine event, to which the whole creation moves.” – Tennyson, In Memoriam

Above the figure of Religion is: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” – Holy Bible, Micah 6:8

Above the figure of Science is: “The heavens declare the glory of the God; and the firmament sheweth His handiwork.” – Holy Bible, Psalms 19:1

The bronze statues along the balustrade of the galleries included Moses and St. Paul.

On the Main Reading Room dome are murals with figures representing countries and their contributions to civilization.

Among them are: Judea-Religion, with a pillar inscribed in Hebrew characters, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Leviticus 19:18)

At the east end of the North Mosaic corridor is a painting by Charles Sprague Pearce titled, “The Family,” with smaller panels depicting family life: Labor, Study, Recreation and Religion.

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The Members of Congress Reading Room has ceiling panels featuring the seal and motto of states.

  • Florida: “In God we trust”
  • Arizona: “Ditat Deus” [God enriches]
  • Colorado: “Nil sine numine” [Nothing without God]

Another panel has the Light of State with:

  • Texas: “Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain”
  • Virginia: “Sic semper tyrannis” [Thus ever to tyrants]

The Members of Congress Reading Room has a panel featuring the creation of light with the words, “Let there be light.” (Genesis: 1:3)

Small angels in the corners represent Physics, Metaphysics, Psychology and Theology.

Another panel features the Dragon of Ignorance and Falsehood being trampled by the Spirit of Truth, who is reaching to heaven for a ray of light with which to inflict his final wound.

Small angels hold the level, the plumb, the square and the Bible, each considered an agent in the presence of Universal Law.

The Jefferson Building’s East corridor has vaulted ceiling panels representing the Life of Man, with quotation: “For a web begun God sends thread.” – Old Proverb

And around the corner, facing the Great Hall: “There is but one temple in the universe and that is the body of man.” – Novalis, Philosophy and Physics

The South corridor has: “Nature is the art of God.” – Sir Thomas Browne

The West corridor has tablets with the names of scientists and quotations. The South tablet has:

  • “The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth not.” – Holy Bible, John, 1:5
  • “The first creature of God was the light of sense; the last was the light of reason.” – Bacon, Essays, “Of Truth”

The North tablet has:

  • “All are but parts of one stupendous whole, whose body nature is, and God the soul.” – Pope, Essay on Man, “Epistle” i, 267

The Jefferson Building’s North corridor has round tablets with the quotations:

  • “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom; and with all thy getting, get understanding.” – Holy Bible, Proverbs 4:7
  • “Ignorance is the curse of God, knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.” – Shakespeare, Henry IV, pt. ii, Act iv., Sc. 7
  • “Order is heaven’s first law.” – Pope, Essay on Man “Epistle,” iv., 49

The Northeast Pavilion ceiling shows the Great Seal of the United States with a narrow blue band inscribed:

  • “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” – Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863
  • “Thank God, I also am an American!” – Daniel Webster, Address at Charlestown, Massachusetts, June 17, 1843, dedication of Bunker Hill Monument.
  • “To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” – George Washington, speech to Congress, Jan. 8, 1790

The John Adams Building is five stories high with 180 miles of shelving which can hold ten million volumes. Its South Reading Room has murals, including one depicting:

  • “The people of every country are the only safe guardians of their own rights, and are the only instruments which can be used for their destruction.” – Jefferson to John Wyche, May 19, 1809

The James Madison Memorial Building has Madison’s quotations:

  • “The essence of government s power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” – Speech before the Virginia State Constitutional Convention, Dec. 1, 1829
  • “A man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.” – National Gazette, March 29, 1792
  • “The happy union of these states is a wonder: their constitution a miracle: their example the hope of liberty throughout the world.” – “Outline Notes,” Sept. 1829

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