The Great Seal
All nations have a seal that symbolizes their goals or capsulizes their history. Their usage can be traced back to
4000 BC. Each tribe of Israel had its own ensign and the patriarch of the tribe wore its signet, or seal. Their
design symbolized the blessing Jacob gave to each of his sons. Judah, son of Jacob, left his seal with Tamar as a
pledge (Gen 38:18). The Thessalonians wrote to the Jews, claiming kinship with them through Abraham, and
sealed their letter with the seal of Dan. The Coat of Arms, which emerged in Europe during the middle ages was
an elaborate seal, generally developed from the union of two or more peoples. By the time of the Revolution,
sovereign countries had chosen the most significant seal among them as their Great Seal.
The United States wanted its own seal. Its appearance would complete and signify their independence and sovereignty. The first resolution to pursue this goal was made by the Continental Congress on the same day that the Declaration of Independence was signed, July 4, 1776. The motion read, "Resolved, that Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson be a committee to prepare a device for a seal of the United States." The committee wanted to illustrate by allegory the fortune and destiny of the United States. Benjamin Franklin proposed that one side show "Moses lifting up his hand dividing the Red Sea, and Pharaoh in his chariots overwhelmed with the waters." The motto would read, "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Thomas Jefferson suggested that the other side show Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs from whom the peoples and form of government of the United States had descended.
The committee made its report and offered its design to Congress on August 20, 1776. It was laid on the table. A second committee was formed to pursue the design of a seal on March 25, 1780. Their design proposed a woman, and either a soldier in Roman armor or an Indian in savage dress on opposite sides of a shield. The shield contained alternating red and white stripes. Above them appeared a glory with thirteen sixpointed stars. The reverse side contained a woman holding a sword and an olive branch. Congress sent the design back to committee on May 17, 1780.
A third committee retained the shield, placing a woman, Virtue, on one side and a Colonist on the other. The thirteen stars were placed in the shield and an eagle with out-stretched wings appeared above. The reverse side showed an uncompleted pyramid with thirteen courses of masonry. Above it was the "Eye of Providence." Congress was not satisfied with the design of the shield. It was redrawn, this time depicting an eagle with outstretched wings, wearing the shield on its breast and holding an olive branch in one talon and thirteen arrows in the other. Its beak held a banner with the slogan, "E. Pluribus Unum," meaning "One Out of Many." The glory of thirteen stars was restored. Congress received the design on June 20, 1782 and adopted it. The die was cast out of brass later that same year. Only the side containing the eagle was cast. The reverse side, although commissioned by Congress in 1782, 1789, 1833, 1884, and 1902, was not cut until 1935. Its major obstacle may have been its supposed connection to Masonry because of the "All Seeing Eye" above the pyramid. Franklin Roosevelt, himself a 32nd degree mason, supervised its casting.
The person who made the final design for the seal was Charles Thomson. He was Secretary of Congress. Using the suggestions from previous committees and designers, he presented his drawings along with explanations. His notes clearly show that each aspect of the seal, including its color, had a definite reason and symbolized a specific idea. For instance, the pyramid symbolized duration, the "Eye of Providence" betokened God's watchfulness over the nation, the glory of thirteen stars represented the emergence of a new nation in the constellation of sovereign states, and the olive branch and arrows illustrated the power of war and peace. Besides these official explanations, other mystical, especially Biblical, meanings are hidden in the design of the seal. We will consider only the side printed in 1782, the side containing the eagle.
The eagle is a symbol of divinity and providence. It is believed to be the only creature that can look directly into the sun. The ancients believed this trait represented its spiritual vision. Job records its piercing eye (Job 39:29). The eagle is also a bird of immense courage. It builds its nest in lofty places and allows no intruder near it. Ezekiel speaks of the eagle who takes the tender branch from the tallest cedar of Palestine and plants it in a lofty mountain (Ez 17:3-4, 22). Its height of its dwelling protects its offspring and serves as a safe place to teach them to fly. Few other creatures venture dud high. Their absence makes any failed attempts by young eagles less dangerous. When their young become too weary or fearful to fly, the eagle, unlike many other birds, carries them on its back to safety. That is why God said He bore the Hebrews on "eagle's wings" (Ex 19:4) out from Egypt and, through Isaiah, promised the faithful they "shall mount up with wings as eagles" (Is 40:3 1). Likewise, the woman of Revelation escapes the devil by fleeing into the wilderness on the "two wings of a great eagle" (Rev 12:14). The eagle is an emblem of divine protection for those willing to live in lofty places, the spiritual heights where the bride of Christ dwells.
The olive branch in one talon has thirteen leaves and thirteen berries. Its first usage in the Bible symbolizes peace. The dove brought news to Noah that the waters of Gods judgment had receded when it bore an olive branch (Gen 8:11). God judged Israel, the northern kingdom, but promised to forget his anger in the last days. Through Hosea God promised, "I will be as the dew unto Israel. His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive tree" (Hos 14:5). Jeremiah called Israel, the northern kingdom, "a green olive tree" (Jer 11: 16). The olive branch is in particular a symbol of the tribe of Manasseh. The divine promise to end wrath against Israel and gather the northern kingdom to a safe place is symbolized by the olive branch.
The thirteen arrows represent military might. They were the favored weapon of our Saxon forefathers. During the Middle Ages English archers were the most feared in battle because they could deliver an arrow that could penetrate a two-inch oak board over 200 yards away. Jacob had blessed Joseph and his descendants, saying, "The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him: but his bow abode in strength, and the arm of Ins hands were made strong by the hands of the Almighty God of Jacob" (Gen 49:23-24). The thirteen arrows claim the divine promise given Joseph for America and show its lineage to that patriarch. The eagle bearing the olive branch and arrows symbolize God's latter-day promise to Israel: He would carry them to a place of refuge so that under His peace and protection they could hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and be prepared for his return.
While other biblical symbols are contained in the Great Seal, the last mentioned here is the use of the number thirteen. Not only does the eagle hold an olive branch with thirteen leaves and thirteen berries, but it grasps thirteen arrows. The glory encloses thirteen stars. E Plunbus Unum contains thirteen letters. The shield comprises thirteen stripes. While these represent the thirteen original colonies, they have Biblical meanings. Thirteen is the Biblical number of rebellion. American won its independence in rebellion. It is also the number of Manasseh. Manasseh was the thirteenth tribe. Joseph, Manasseh's father, saw a vision in which thirteen heavenly bodies bowed to him.
America is the land of Joseph given to Manasseh to house a great nation to which Israel could gather for refuge. The Great Seal represents this hope by the emblems it employs.