- Historic Sites
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
The dreadful experience of English Calvinism with the “sectaries” of the English civil wars has always to be kept in mind as the factor which sealed its Hebraism, a state of mind that would persist for another century and a half. Long after the Levellers and Anabaptists had gone, long after Roger Williams’ “typology” was forgotten, the churches shuddered at the memory of these radicals. Far from London, on the frontier outpost of Concord in Massachusetts, Peter Bulkeley preached upon The Gospel-Covenant, his manuscript being sent home for publication in 1651, so that Englishmen could heed this American warning:
By keeping resolutely in the way of the Lord’s truth as set forth in both Testaments, but by reading the New always in the light of the more dramatic. Old, American Protestants grew to regard themselves as so like the Jews that every anecdote in the tribal history seemed a part of their own recollection. They proclaimed, says Harriet Beecher Stowe. a religion of asceticism, but they would never have achieved the tremendous success of pushing the frontier steadily back or of sailing and trafficking in the seven seas had they not added to this asceticism “the spirit of the Old Testament, in which material prosperity is always spoken of as the lawful reward of piety, in which marriage is an honor, and a numerous posterity a thing to be desired.” By its isolation and its homogeneity New England seemed most close to the pattern of Israel, but the archetype was almost as present to the imagination of Kentucky pioneers. Describing the migration in 1780 of his parents, James B. Finley could remark: “Like ancient Israel, who, while rebuilding the temple in troublous times, had to bear about them the weapons of war, so the ministers of the Gospel at that day were obliged to carry carnal as well as spiritual weapons.” Thus they felt a kinship with Joshua and Hiram, closer than any relationship to their cousins in Europe, and accordingly named their numerous posterity Samuel, Benjamin and Eli, Mehitable and Judith, Abraham, and even Peleg.
Consequently, by the time of the Revolution a mentality had long been sustained and perfected that made easy an identification of the new nation with the children of Abraham. This secularizing of the covenant, as it might be called, was so natural and so unconscious a maneuver that it was enacted without anyone’s being particularly aware that it had happened, let alone appreciating its implications. It became, as is obvious, one of the sources, perhaps the principal one, for American exceptionalism. For a long time, well into the Nineteenth Century, the image could be constantly invoked by nationalistic writers. Thus Herman Melville, arguing in 1850 that this nation should give up the barbarous custom of flogging in its navy whether or not Britain retained it, exhorted: “Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow after the ways of the Egyptians.” Exulting in all the proverbial intoxication of the metaphor, Melville could shamelessly assert: “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”
Yet all during these decades from 1800 to 1850 the continuous, sell-renewing revival that historians call the Second Great Awakening—the one that commenced at Cain Ridge in Kentucky, that burned over and over the farms of upstate New York and rolled over the plains of Illinois, and finally was carried by evangelists like Charles Grandison Finney and Lyman Beecher into the burgeoning cities, there to blaze fitfully as fanned by Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday—this Awakening was exciting a new sort of piety which put aside the legalistic covenant and focused the Christian life entirely on the orgy of conversion. The orthodoxy of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries was theological, logical, metaphysical; therefore it could devise and elaborate such a complex conception as the covenant. The new revival was everywhere anti-intellectual. Whether they were Methodists or Baptists or Campbellites, the motto of all these exhorters was in effect Wesley’s “I know, because I feel.” As one convert said of Parson John Ingersoll, “He made salvation seem so plain, so easy, I wanted to take it to my heart without delays.” Few may have gone to quite such extremes as Alexander Campbell, but he was representative in so stressing the New Testament that the remaining adherents of the older Protestantism could accuse him of “throwing away the Old Testament.” To generalize—not too sweepingly—one may say that by the end of the century the most popular presentations of Protestantism in this country dwelt comparatively little on the stories of Noah or the Prodigal Son, while lithographs of the Resurrection or the Supper at Emmaus drove from the walls of ordinary families and into their attics the embarrassing paintings they may have inherited from their colonial forebears.