Last modified: 2019-12-16 by rick wyatt
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image from www.state.ma.us/bsb/images/New_Bedford.jpg
The City Seal of New Bedford is inscribed in Latin, typical for a Massachusetts seal of the mid-nineteenth century. The upper inscription: "Nova Bedfordia Condita A.D. 1787" translates to "New Bedford, founded in the Year of Our Lord 1787." That was the year in which New Bedford was recognized by the Commonwealth as a legitimate town.
Before 1787, it was known as Bedford Village, or Bedford Landing. The lower inscription, "Civitatis Regimine Donata, A.D. 1847" translates precisely to "City-status Granted by the Authority of the State in the Year of Our Lord 1847." This was a 19th century way of saying "Incorporated in 1847." Therefore, New Bedford was founded as a town in 1787 and incorporated as a city in 1847. The upper and lower inscription is exactly the same as Boston's Seal (except for the dates).
The City's Motto is "Lucem Diffundo." This translates precisely as " I Diffuse Light." It can also be interpreted as "I Spread the Light." It has often been incorrectly translated as "I Light the World." The author of the motto remains undiscovered, however, there is a good chance that it was Abraham Howland, the city's first mayor, or one of his circle of friends. It has been widely printed that "Lucem Diffundo" is an allusion to New Bedford's leading role in the whale oil trade. This is certainly a reasonable assumption, however, the motto has at least two other meanings.
"Lucem Diffundo" is a 'personification' of the lighthouse depicted in the center of the seal. The lighthouse is saying to the viewer, "I diffuse Light." Palmer's Island Lighthouse still stands in New Bedford's inner harbor and was restored and re-lighted by the city in 1999 on the light's 150th anniversary. The original seal, first crudely drawn in 1847, depicted only the lighthouse with the motto, "Lucem Diffundens," which translates to "Diffusing Light," or the lighthouse as saying "I am diffusing light." Howland and the new city fathers were predominately Quakers. Followers of the religious teachings of Englishman, George Fox, the Quakers referred to themselves as the "Society of Friends" and "Children of the Light." Their spiritual mission in life was to spread (diffuse) the "Inner Light of Christ" to all they encountered. So here they were, the Children of the Light, employed in the lighting industry, supplying whale oil to the entire world for lighting! In addition, New Bedford held all the federal contracts which supplied whale oil for the young nation's system of lighthouses. Imagine the power and significance of "Lucem Diffundo" to them as they spread spiritual and physical light to all they met. Surely, the Scripture from St. Matthew held great meaning to them: "I am the Light of the World. A city that is set on a hill shall not be hid." Indeed, the bibical references in the seal's design remains to this day.
In the foreground is the Fairhaven shore, with the Acushnet River almost seeming like the River Jordan, with the city set on its hill in the distance, like the promised land. In the harbor is depicted a steamship, representing the future and a whale ship representing the past, with Palmer's Island and its Lighthouse in the center, a spiritual and physical beacon to all who arrived in this world port built by light. Certainly, the Quakers saw they wealth and success as a sign of divine approval.
The spirit of "Lucem Diffundo" lives on today, though less widely known. It is this spirit which keeps its adherents resilient and tenacious in the face of all obstacles for the betterment of this great city by the sea.
Dov Gutterman, 29 October 2002
New Bedford is in Bristol County.
Paul Bassinson, 21 August 2019