Skip to main content
Duke Chapel entrance
The main entry into Duke Chapel Photo by Chris Hildreth

Knowledge and Religion

From the beginning, there was faith to bind us together

Walk into Duke Chapel and there are hundreds of beautiful things to look at.

The catch-your-breath soaring arches. The bellowing, 40-foot Flentrop organ with its 5,033 pipes. A rainbow of stained glass that seems to stretch endlessly into the deep.

But among such sights, there also are quieter treasures, so unassuming you probably have missed them: Just inside the doors to the nave stand “Knowledge” and “Piety” – statues as old as the Chapel itself representing the university’s motto “eruditio et religio” in Latin or “knowledge and religion.” They flank the Flentrop as discreet observers, one grasping a book, the other offering perhaps a blessing with hand over heart.

“The figures on the outside entrance get more attention,” Luke Powery, dean of Duke University Chapel says. “But yet there is the quiet endurance of knowledge and piety that endure, that are winging as you come in, that are calling us to engage in both.”

Luke Powery
Luke Powery

“Knowledge,” defined by Duke’s first president William Preston Few, was in principle, the work of education, “all the powers and capacities of our human nature.” “Religion” was just as exerting – “comprehending of the whole of life.”

“To bring the two together in the generous service of humanity,” wrote historian Robert F. Durden in “The Launching of Duke University,” “was the overarching aim of Duke University.”

The motto’s formal origins stretch back to 1859 when Duke’s predecessor, Trinity College, first coined it. Go back even further to the 18th century and find a hymn written by Methodist hymnwriter Charles Wesley that often is thought to have inspired the motto: “Unite the pair so long disjoined, Knowledge and vital piety,” the hymn proclaims.

Once on more prominent display across Duke’s campus via the university’s shield and seal, today you’ll find the motto if you know where to look for it: On the front stone entryway gates leading onto Chapel Drive, on the seal of every diploma standing in as the university’s official signature, and even on Baldwin Auditorium’s front stone façade, where it reads “Erudito et Edligio” due to a stonecutter’s mistake, among other places.

A stonecutter's error misstated the university's motto at the bottom of this seal high upon the facade of Baldwin Auditorium.

Still, “eruditio et religio” has an enduring message for today’s Duke community, Powery says.

“You’re seeking, you're trying to discover, you are researching. And in many ways, that's the heart of a university – research, teaching, exploring, even dreaming,” Powery says. “We don't always know the answers. That's why we're doing research. And I think that's an impulse of faith. It's often also about questions – and even questions that we may never discover the answers to, but yet we keep asking. We keep seeking. We keep exploring.”

Even more, “religio” inspires a powerful call to action, Powery says. The etymological roots of the word mean “to bind,” he says, and a community that leans into such reliance can learn “what it means to be human together,” how to treat one another, and how to heal.

“At its heart,” Powery says of “religio,” “it’s saying we're bound in a liberating way, not in a restrictive way, but actually in our boundedness we find our freedom to be who we have always wanted to be.”

Duke’s religious roots, however complicated, stretch far into its history, with the Methodist Church playing a significant role – from the church’s informal ties to a one-room schoolhouse in the 1830s to more formal ones in the 1850s, when the Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, adopted the school and named it Trinity College. In 1924, religious aspirations endured with the indenture that transformed Trinity College into Duke University. It asked that courses “be arranged, first, with special reference to the training of preachers, teachers, lawyers and physicians, because these are most in the public eye, and by precept and example can do most to uplift mankind.” Meanwhile, just two years later the School of Religion, what would become today’s Divinity School, became Duke’s first professional school.

The figures Knowledge, left, and Piety inside Duke Chapel represent the knowledge and
religion of the university’s motto.

Today, the university supports students through 21 religious life groups that expand beyond Christianity – Jewish Life, Muslim Life, Buddhist Meditation Community, Duke Baha’i Community and more – in addition to the resources and programs of the Chapel, where Powery says all of Duke’s religious life staff are focused on supporting students and helping them find meaning.

It's the people coming together, seeking answers together and building relationships with each other, that make the Duke community what it is, Powery says.

“It’s religio. People may not name it that, but that's underneath. That's the source. That's the heart. That's part of what has bound us together and what keeps us together.”