Seek ye first the Kingdom of God

Hans Rollmann
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In a recent photo on the front page of The Telegram, our new lieutenant-governor, John Crosbie, with gubernatorial gravity, reads the throne speech in the House of Assembly. Behind him hangs the familiar provincial coat of arms with its cross, lion and unicorn, crested by an elk and flanked on each side by two aboriginals holding a bow. Above the lieutenant-governor's vice-regal head and supported by two Greek pillars rises in large capital letters once again the Latin motto gracing our provincial coat of arms: Quaerite prime regnum Dei, which in good old King James English translates as, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God."
Most other provinces also display patriotic or ethical sayings in their coats of arms, but none quite as blatantly religious as Newfoundland's motto.
In their provincial coats of arms, Ontario summons people to remain loyal, Quebec simply remembers, Nova Scotia defends and conquers, New Brunswick restores hope, Manitoba is glorious and free, British Columbia's brilliance never sets, Prince Edward Island places the small under the protection of the great, Saskatchewan gains strength from many people, Alberta sees itself as strong and free, and Nunavut finds strength in the land. Only the Yukon and Northwest Territories display no motto.

Religious motto
I am struck by the explicitly religious nature of Newfoundland's motto, the first half of the New Testament saying of Jesus (Matthew 6:33): "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."
This memorable biblical text from the Sermon on the Mount has even been set to music by Mozart and others.
In Matthew's gospel it is a poignant reminder that if human beings align themselves with God's rule and righteousness, they will not have to worry about their earthly rewards.

Came from king
In the original context for the Newfoundland coat of arms, the motto can already be found. King Charles I, in 1637, issued a charter to Sir David Kirke and his powerful financial and political backers in England.
Archbishop William Laud, preoccupied with making the colonies conform to the Church of England, was a member of the Privy Council and headed the commission that oversaw judicial and ecclesiastical matters in the British colonies.
Laud should have been well pleased with such a religious motto in the coat of arms granted on Nov. 13, 1637, "for the greater honour and splendour of that country and the people."
Not only was Kirke acceding to Laud's wishes with a promise in his charter to "establish the orthodox religion publicly professed and allowed in our charge of England," but he also adopted an even more militant ideology two years later when writing from Ferryland to the archbishop.
In his letter of Oct. 2, 1639, Sir David addressed at once his own and the archbishop's common enemies - Roman Catholics like Lord Baltimore, and Puritans in America and among the West Country's seasonal fishing interests, both threats to Kirke's economic and territorial ambitions in Newfoundland.
For Kirke, "the air of Newfoundland" consequently "agreed perfectly well with all God's creatures except Jesuits and schismatics."
He promised Laud to observe in Newfoundland strictly the rites and services of the Church of England so that a "happy conformity which we desire, may be established in this land."
We may thus locate the religious motto in our coat of arms within Laud's and King Charles' England and the conformity that both men desired in their secular and spiritual realms.
As it happened, the king who granted the charter and coat of arms, his ecclesiastical ally Laud, and two of Kirke's most powerful royal backers, James, first Duke of Hamilton, and Henry Rich, first Earl of Holland, all were beheaded in the ensuing struggle between the king and parliament.
The coat of arms issued to Kirke and his partners quickly fell into disuse until the beginning of the 20th century.
Sir Joseph Outerbridge, the father of Sir Leonard, our second lieutenant-governor, as well as Sir Edgar Bowring and Lt.-Col. Father Nangle drew attention to the long-forgotten coat of arms.
In the early 1920s, the Imperial War Graves Commission had adopted it to represent Newfoundland in war memorials in cathedrals in France.
It was again officially recognized as Newfoundland's coat of arms on Jan. 1, 1928, replacing the more recent but also more pagan "Badge of Newfoundland," in which Mercury, the god of trade and commerce, presents to Britannia a kneeling fisherman who offers her the gifts of the sea, presumably with the words of its motto, Hic tibi dona fero, "these gifts I bring to you."
The revival of the 1637 coat of arms caused a minor stir when people realized that the arms employed English and Scottish symbolism but were void of any Irish symbols, such as the heraldic harp. But the tempest subsided and the Latin biblical motto still rises loftily in the House of Assembly.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by e-mail at

Organizations: Church of England, Privy Council, Imperial War Graves Commission

Geographic location: Newfoundland, England, Ontario Quebec Nova Scotia New Brunswick Manitoba British Columbia Prince Edward Island Saskatchewan Alberta Nunavut Yukon Northwest Territories Ferryland America Holland France

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