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Out of Many, One

July 5, 2012

The motto E Pluribus Unum appears on the Great Seal of the United States:  Out of many, one. The words are inscribed on a scroll the American eagle carries in its mouth. In its talons, the eagle carries an olive branch signifying peace and thirteen arrows signifying war.

The sentiment “Out of many, one” was originally applied to the relationship of the thirteen colonies with one another and the federal government.

The ancient Greek philosopher and historian Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BC) had employed the variation, “The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.” The Christian theologian, Augustine (354 – 430 AD), had utilized the phrase, “Ex pluribus unum.” The Founding Fathers would have been familiar with these sources.

There was an American source, as well. In the New York area, the great Mohawk leader Hiawatha had united the five tribes – Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Seneca – into a single Iroquois Confederacy between 1090 – 1150 AD[i]. This union was formalized in the Great Law of Peace (“Gayanashagowa”), the oral constitution of the Iroquois. While there are differences in the two, the Great Law of Peace is viewed by some historians as a precursor to the United States Constitution.

The Colonial press freely used Native America imagery, for example, the bundle of arrows mentioned at Section 57[ii] of the Iroquois Constitution, to argue for a stronger union as the Constitutional Convention of 1787 approached:

“I shall now…[call] to your remembrance the following well known fable…[A] father, on his deathbed, called together his thirteen sons, and desired a bundle of rods to be brought, which when…they attempted to break, they could not effect. The bundle was then loosened, and the rods, when taken singly were broken with the greatest of ease. The moral of this fable is too well known, to need recitation. This shall suffice:  United, we rise superior to the malice of all our enemies; but if divided, distraction, anarchy, and confusion, shall be our undoubted portion.”

Thoughts on the Present Situation of Public Affairs, Anonymous (April, 1787)

Whatever the motto’s source, we seem to have lost the concept. Republicans revile Democrats; Democrats vilify Republicans. The poor mistrust the rich; the rich misunderstand the poor. Small towns compete with big cities for limited resources; big cities see their needs as more urgent than those of small towns. And everyone hates New Yorkers.

The races are uneasy with one another.

Liberals and conservatives; pro-choice and pro-life advocates; gun rights and gun control groups; labor and management; dog owners and cat lovers; all demand the right to be heard…usually at the top of their lungs. Do we really expect to convince anyone, or are we just enamored of our own voices?

Aren’t we Americans first? Squabbling is to be expected in families. But this animosity is not right.  Our anger is deep-seated, and never far from the boiling point.

As Christians, we ought to be leading by example. Instead, we often add to the discord.

“…[S]tand fast, in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel…” (Phil. 1: 27).

Lord Jesus, unite our hearts. Make us brothers and sisters in Your Spirit, that there may be among us no divisions. Relieve us of envy and selfishness. Grant us patience with one another’s shortcomings.

Help us strive together toward common goals.  Help us to bear one another’s burdens, as if they were our own.

And bless this nation, Lord.


[i] A sixth nation, the Tuscarora, joined the Iroquois Confederacy c. 1720.

[ii] While the Iroquois Constitution was oral in nature, it was memorialized in symbols on wampum belts, and later translated into English.


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