Q: I am wondering about the origin of the phrase “true north.” When did it show up in English? And when did Christians begin using it metaphorically in referring to Jesus Christ as their “true North”?
A: As far as we can tell, the phrase “true north” was first used metaphorically in reference to Jesus in the 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book for Christians who question their faith by a pastor who questioned his.
In Christianity and the Science of Manhood: A Book for Questioners (1873), Minot Judson Savage says Jesus “is the first great leader of history who, by the power of his personal love, has drawn thousands of men out of and away from their most fascinating passions, and their dearest sins.”
“He has discovered,” Savage adds, “the secret of the human heart, and so drawn it into magnetic sympathy with his own, that in all its variations and vibrations, it is ever settling nearer and nearer to his true north.”
In the preface, he says the book was “born of doubt and conflict.” It was published a year after he left the Congregational Church to become a Unitarian because he “found it impossible to rest in tradition” and “felt compelled to seek a reasonable basis on which to stand.” He was a well-known Unitarian preacher in New England in the late 19th century.
Despite that early example, the figurative use of “true north” in reference to Jesus was relatively rare until the late 20th century. And the phrase is still not common enough to be included in any of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult. It’s just defined literally as the geographic north as opposed to the magnetic north.
Nor is this figurative sense of “true north” found in the Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive English etymological reference. It has only one definition for the term: “north determined by the earth’s axis of rotation (as opposed to magnetic north).”
The OED’s earliest citation is from a 16th-century mathematical treatise: “Of the Variacion of the Compas, from true Northe” (in The Elements of Geometrie of the Most Ancient Philosopher Euclide, 1570, by Henry Billingsley, a translation from the Greek of Euclid’s work).
We’ll end with a metaphorical example from Mere Christianity, a 1952 book by C. S. Lewis, based on radio broadcasts he made during World War II. Here’s how he describes two people undecided about God:
“Their free will is trembling inside them like the needle of a compass. But this is a needle that can choose. It can point to its true North; but it need not. Will the needle swing round, and settle, and point to God?”