I have often taken Amtrak trains from Philadelphia’s 30th Street station to the Washington DC Union Station which was completed in 1907-08. Upon arrival, I usually give a glancing nod to the Columbus monument that graces the front of the sprawling open space that allows the historic station to be visible from Capitol Hill. Union Station’s magnificent structure was designed by Daniel Burnham, an accomplished architect credited with the design of Chicago and the development of the modern skyscraper.
On a recent trip, with a bit of time before my departure, I took a few moments to view the Columbus statue and to reflect on the statements that are prominent on the station.
As I looked at the monument, I remembered a political aphorism often made at Columbus’ expense, namely, Columbus and Washington DC politicians have a lot more in common than working in a city named after him. Why? Modern politicians like Columbus of old don’t know where they’re going; like Columbus won’t know where they are when they get there, and like Columbus will do it all on someone else’s money! Perhaps it’s no accident that Washington DC—the District of Columbia—is named for him.
Nevertheless, Columbus is a decisive figure in human history in that his actions changed the direction of the global human enterprise. His discovery of lands far to the west of Europe beyond the Atlantic set in motion a process that culminated in the birth of our nation. Given Columbus’ impact on Western history, the iconography of Union Station in Washington DC makes sense. The intrepid explorer and his discoveries left a lasting impact on America. His namesakes appear throughout the Western world: Columbus, Ohio, Columbia University, Columbia South America, the Columbia River and Washington, District of Columbia.
The Columbus Memorial features a globe and a figure of Columbus facing Capitol Hill. The globe, not a flat earth, signifies the geographical import of Columbus’ voyage. He was right. Ships and sailors would not fall off the edge of the ocean if they sailed too far west. The faces of Ferdinand and Isabella, financiers of Columbus’ voyages, are on the Station side. Next to the monarchs is a caption, “To the memory of Christopher Columbus whose high faith and indomitable courage gave to mankind a new world. Born 1436. Died 1504.”
But the great mariner’s popularity has begun to wane. The praise he once was afforded is now often met with trenchant criticism that focuses on his alleged destructive impact on native populations and the exploitation of the Aboriginals’ resources. He misidentified them as “Indians” and brought Europe’s deadly diseases, subjugated their territories, and contemplated their usefulness as slaves.
A moment’s reflection on the words of his Union Station monument leads to the recognition that the rhetorical depiction of Columbus on the monument was composed in an era far different than ours—“High faith”? “Indomitable courage”? “Mankind”? “A new world”?
Today, faith is ignored, marginalized, or mocked. Columbus’ courage has been stricken from textbooks and replaced with declarations of his rapaciousness and greed. “Mankind” as a term is eschewed as an oppressive gender-laden term that must be replaced with “people-kind” or “human-kind”. According to historical revisionists, Columbus did nothing for the people, but instead was the vanguard of European whites who plundered the noble natives. These lands were not a “new world” at all. The ancient inhabitants had known the continents for years immemorial. Their ancestors had settled the pristine lands when they crossed a pre-historic land bridge over the Bering Strait during an ice age freeze that had lowered the oceans’ depths. None disagree with Columbus’ dates on the monument. But October 12, the day in 1492 of Columbus’ discovery, in the view of some, is better celebrated as Indigenous People’s Day. Times have changed, but so far, the statue has weathered contemporary criticism.
No attempt is made here to defend Columbus or condemn him, or reclaim for his accomplishments the praise that prior generations showered upon them. Columbus’ reputation has been tarnished but his accomplishment remains monumental. But the point to emphasize here is that his faith—indeed his “high faith”—not just his life are so positively represented in our nation’s capital. Clearly, faith was once an important aspect of America’s legacy.
Next, when a traveler to Union Station turns his gaze from the Columbus monument to view the building itself, he observes five large panels that grace the front of the upper facade of the classic railway station. Carved into the stone of these panels are statements in large capital letters. The panels span from the far left to the far right with three in the center. The three central and hence dominant statements celebrate the blessings and discoveries that have shaped the American story. Each of these three statements concludes with a quote from the Bible.
The panel on the far right refers to God. Biblical truth and the importance of the divine are visible, public, and Ten Commandments-like, carved into stone at Union Station. All this is no accident and makes it evident that at the turn of the twentieth century in the capital city of the United States of America, God and His Word were considered to be of public importance.
Each of the central panels is quoted below. The words are given verbatim, but not in their exact form as seen on the station. A descriptive heading is provided, and each Biblical quotation is identified, briefly commented upon and set off in brackets.
- Fire – Greatest of discoveries – Enabling man to live in various climates
- Use many foods – And compel the forces of nature to do his work
- Electricity – Carrier of light and power – Devourer of time and space – Bearer
- Of human speech over land and sea – Greatest servant of man – Itself unknown
- Thou hast put all things under his feet
[The last line is a citation of Hebrews 2:8 and in that context is a direct reference to Jesus Christ.]
- Sweetener of hut and of hall – Bringer of life out of naught
- Freedom O fairest of all – The daughters of time and thought
- Man’s imagination has conceived all Numbers and letters – All tools vessels
- And shelters – Every art and trade – All Philosophy and Poetry – And all Polities
- The Truth shall make you free
[The last line is a citation of John 8:32, and these are the words of Jesus Christ.]
AGRICULTURE AND ENGINEERING
- The farm – Best home of the family – Main source of national wealth – Foundation of
- Civilized society – The natural providence – The old mechanic arts – Controlling new
- Forces – Build new highways for goods and men – Override the ocean – And make
- The very ether carry human thought
- The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose
[The last line is a citation of Isaiah 35:1. In context this refers to the blessings that accompany the coming of God in His glory.]
Note then that the central and most prominent statements are in celebration of the providential gifts of God for humanity. And that in summarizing them biblical passages are quoted, two of which refer to Jesus Christ and the other to the coming of God in glory to bless His people. This is a public declaration of a Judeo-Christian worldview. Union Station openly displays biblical truth through these Scriptural statements that are placed in a most visible context where some 60,000 people a day travel, amounting to more than 19 million people a year.
The words on the left panel are given next which refer to human travel. It is a statement that connects travel with Columbus’ discovery of the “Indies.” The source of the quote is a comment from Samuel Johnson dictated to James Boswell. It suggests that travel at its best involves having knowledge before a trip to a destination and then even more knowledge being carried back upon one’s return.
- He that would bring home the Wealth of the Indies must carry
- The wealth of the Indies with him – So it is in travelling – A man
- Must carry knowledge with him If he would bring home knowledge
The words on the right panel are cited next. These refer to ethical behavior and human relationships. The statement on ethics emphasizes that the goals of one’s actions must be measured by the aims of one’s country, one’s God and truth itself. It is a quotation from Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII. The second quotation is from James Russell Lowell’s Sonnet IV. This statement suggests that there is an inner nobility in humans that can be found through one’s commitment to be noble to bring forth the best in others.
- Let all the ends thou aimst at be Thy Country’s – Thy God’s – and Truth’s
- Be noble and the nobleness that Lies in other men – Sleeping but
- Never dead – Will rise in majesty to meet thine own
The virtues celebrated in the statements from the right and left panels of Union Station are knowledge, the ethical duty of establishing goals in light of God, country and truth, and the importance of noble human relationships.
These messages reflect the Christian faith’s insistence that in godly ethics the end one pursues must consider truth, the value of neighbor and one’s relationship with God.
These truths carved in stone remind us that the Christian faith has been a vital part of the American enterprise. Union Station is a time capsule depicting previous generations’ faith and values. This doorway to the Capital points to the Scriptures and to Christ. Its biblical affirmations point to Christ as the Lord of science, the inspirer of human thought, freedom and imagination. God is identified as the one whose presence brings the blessings of food and commerce.
Yes, times have changed. Many may hold Columbus and his faith in contempt. Perhaps most travelers are indifferent or blind to the messages Union Station so boldly heralds. But from a Christian perspective, the messages proclaimed atop Union Station are enduring reminders of the continuing relevance of our Christian world and life view.
We do well to meditate on these biblical messages, whether we travel or stay close to home. Yet even better, may these truths by grace be carved upon our hearts: ”Thou has put all things under His feet.” “The Truth shall make you free.” “The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.” “Let all the ends thou aimst at be Thy Country’s, Thy God’s, and Truth’s.” Amen.