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The Garden Of Eden And The Deacon’s Meadow
To early Americans the Old Testament and its scenes, even its speech and names, were as familiar as their own backyard
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
It was this revolution in Protestant piety, with its communal shouting to the Lord for a mass salvation, that gradually shifted attention away from the Old Testament. However, in a curious way, the political Revolution of 1776 delayed the change. The Great Awakening of 1740, that which George Whitefield ignited, pointed the way to a surging emotionalism that might have washed out the traditional churchly standards of doctrine and practice, but as it subsided the “Old Lights” regained so much ground that their Biblicism was still vivid enough to provide symbolic parallels to the cause of the patriots. Though we think of the Revolution as led by rationalists like Jefferson or Franklin, who based the cause on scientific nature and common sense rather than on the example of Israel, still among the masses the Hebraic analogy was at least as powerful an incentive as the declaration of inalienable rights. “My dear countrymen,” begins a typical communication in the Boston Gazette for May 6, 1782, “my sincere wish and prayer to God is, that our Israel may be saved from the rapacious jaws of a tyrant.” After the victory, in 1785, Timothy Dwight published what he conceived to be a native American epic, The Conquest of Canaan. This is as full of gore and battle and savage exultation as the most inveterate student of the Old Testament could desire; the hero, the “Leader,” is Joshua, but the book is dedicated to “George Washington, Esquire,” thus tactfully but emphatically making the point that a colossal retelling of the Jewish conquest of Canaan was in fact a narrative of Washington’s conquest of America.
The fixation of colonial Protestantism upon the Old Testament—a phenomenon to be noted in every settlement—has one obvious explanation: bands of European immigrants seemed, to themselves at least, the modern equivalents of a chosen people taking possession of the promised land. It was natural, indeed inevitable, for William Bradford, looking back to the landing at Plymouth in the harsh December of 1620 and reviewing the desperate predicament, to cry out, even in his old age, “What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His Grace?” and then to answer his rhetorical question by quotations not from the Sermon on the Mount but by quotations from Deuteronomy and the Psalms. In 1648 Thomas Shepard had to defend the Bay Colony against the charge then being made in England by the Puritans who had stayed home and fought the Cavaliers, that the New Englanders had fled from the post of danger. Shepard went immediately to Hebrew precedent: “What shall we say of the singular providence of God bringing so many shiploads of His people, through so many dangers, as upon eagles’ wings, with so much safety from year to year?” Thereupon he bolstered his thesis with attestations from Exodus and Micah.
Furthermore, the Calvinist elements among the settlers—this applies to Presbyterians in the middle colonies and even to the original pioneers of Virginia as well as to the Puritans of New England—had still a further reason to think of themselves as Israel: even before they reached these shores, their theology had been considerably recast into the terminology of the covenant. To secure a perspective on themselves and their place in universal history, they had elaborated the “federal” doctrine that the covenant made with Abraham was that Covenant of Grace which replaced the Covenant of Works that God made with Adam—that first covenant on which Miss Mehitable’s Polly was so circumstantial. The covenant of Abraham had, according to this theology, extended unbroken from the children of Abraham to the present church, and was most binding on those churches that were then reforming the abuses of Antichrist. The effect was to give the migrants a deep sense of their being directly connected with the histories of Jacob, Noah and Moses.
“Thus stands the cause between God and us,” Governor John Winthrop preached to the Great Migration in 1630, even before it reached the coast of Massachusetts. “We are entered into a covenant with Him for this work, we have taken out a commission; the Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles, we have professed to enterprise these actions upon these and these ends.” To make clear his meaning, the Governor invoked three passages from the Old Testament—Leviticus, I. Samuel, and Micah—and only one from Ephesians. The great crime of Roger Williams, in the eyes of the orthodox, was not so much that he advocated religious liberty but that he came to this heresy out of a previous and more shocking heresy; he denied that the covenant made with Abraham had continued unbroken down to the covenant of God with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Bay. He repudiated the hold of the Old Testament upon the churches of Christ, with the result that the orthodox the more vigorously reaffirmed their allegiance to it. Thus from Rhode Island in 1676 could come the jibe of Benjamin Franklin’s grandfather, Peter Folger: