George Eliot’s novel Silas Marner contains a scene in which a townswoman named Dolly Winthrop brings Silas some lard cakes with the letters IHS baked into the top of each one. The irony is that neither Dolly nor Silas knows what the letters mean. Dolly simply puts IHS on her baked goods because she sees the letters in her church every Sunday and assumes there is some benefit to them. Her explanation is rather droll: “They’re good letters, else they wouldn’t be in the church; and so, I prick ’em on all the loaves and all the cakes, though sometimes they won’t hold, because o’ the rising . . . and I hope they’ll bring good to you, Master Marner, for it’s wi’ that will I brought you the cakes; and you see the letters have held better nor common” (chapter 10).
Unlike Mrs. Winthrop, we need not remain ignorant of what IHS means. IHS is an example of a Christogram, an abbreviation of the name of Christ. It is a Latinized version of the Greek letters ΙΗΣ (iota-eta-sigma), the first three letters of the name “Jesus” in Greek. So, the IHS symbol means “Jesus.” Other Christograms include ICXC (the first and last letters of the name “Jesus Christ” in Greek) and a superimposed X and P (the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek).
Sometimes the letters IHS are intertwined with each other. Other representations include a cross above or stemming from the H. The symbol is most often found in Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and other “High Church” denominations, where it is found on vestments, scapulars, windows, medallions, tombstones, and crosses. The Jesuits, or members of the Society of Jesus, use IHS in their official seal, adding three nails below the H and surrounding the whole monogram with rays.
Through the centuries, this Christogram has had other meanings attached to it. One is that it is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase Iesus Hominum Salvator (“Jesus, the Savior of Men”). Other appended meanings of IHS include Iesum Habemus Socium (“We Have Jesus as Our Companion”) and Iesus Humilis Societas (“Humble Society of Jesus”). According to legend, Constantine the Great saw a vision of a cross and the Latin words In Hoc Signo Vinces (“In This Sign You Will Conquer”). Some have taken the first three words of the command to Constantine and given IHS another meaning. And some have skipped Latin altogether, tacking on a purely English meaning: “In His Service.” Originally, however, IHS simply meant “Jesus.”
It is always good to know the meaning of the symbols that we use. We should not be like Dolly Winthrop, who superstitiously used IHS as a good-luck charm without ever knowing what it meant. Mrs. Winthrop was blindly following what was, to her, an empty liturgy. There is nothing wrong with tradition, per se, but we should be careful not to cloak our praise of Jesus’ name in symbols and monograms based on dead languages. Better to boldly proclaim the name above all names (Philippians 2:9) in a way everyone can understand than to risk keeping people like Mrs. Winthrop in the dark.