December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
To early Americans the Old Testament and its scenes, even its speech and names, were as familiar as their own backyard
The remarkable aspect about this sort of painting, and of such daily conversation as we find reliably recorded, is that the Biblical vision out of which these particular examples come was so predominantly, almost exclusively, confined to the Old Testament. There are hundreds of Edens, Josephs, Elijahs for every rare Crucifixion or still more rare re-creation of the Manger, while Madonnas are, of course, nonexistent. Scenes and themes from Hebrew history are so pervasive in the literature—from Captain Ahab down to Mrs. Lydia Sigourney’s Aaron on Mount Hor—that one can only stand today in speechless amazement at what a large intimacy with the Old Testament writers could assume as a matter of course among their readers:
One might well suppose that Lydia Sigourney also had been there personally! Her myriad admirers had no difficulty accepting on her say-so the botanical fact that Mount Hor was “turfy.”
The Old Testament is truly so omnipresent in the American culture of 1800 or 1820 that historians have as much difficulty taking cognizance of it as of the air the people breathed. But as soon as you pause to ask the reason for this preoccupation with the Old Testament by a people intensely concerned about securing for themselves the salvation promised in the New, you find yourself in the realm of those intangibles which are the warp and woof of history, upon which politics and even economics are comparatively surface embellishments. But the deeper irony of the situation is the fact that in these very decades which produced in folk art and in popular literature the greatest efflorescence of the Hebraic imagination, Protestant piety was turning steadily away from the Old Testament toward an ecstatic rediscovery of the New. Such poems as Mrs. Sigourney’s or such panels as Mary Ann Willson’s Prodigal Son are not harbingers of the Nineteenth Century: they are the last lingering rays from a sun that set with the Eighteenth Century. If these creations are to be properly characterized, they should be called not “primitives” but the end products of a sophisticated culture that was receding before the onslaught of a new primitivism, that of the camp meeting.
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:
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.
Therefore the survival into the early Nineteenth Century of such a recalcitrant Hebraism as these “primitives” exhibit is to be found mainly in older settlements where pastoral conditions still reinforced the analogy with Israel, or where the more complex (and conservative) theology of pristine Calvinism resisted the emotionalism of the frontier and the city. Mrs. Stowe was herself one who moved with the century further and further from the intellectuality of her heritage. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was effective because it spoke the language of revived pietism, and Uncle Tom was made a sentimentalized Christ-figure, not an Israelite in bondage. Oldtown Folks is in part a bitter attack upon what she called the “tragedy” of New England life: this, she says, consisted of a “constant wrestling of thought with infinite problems which could not be avoided, and which saddened the days of almost every one who grew up under it.” Yet at the same time she looked back with an irresistible nostalgia to a grandeur that had, with the softening of doctrine, been lost. And the heart of this magnificence, she explicitly realized, had been that people then lived in constant face-to-face intimacy with Hebrew literature. The dramas of the Old Testament were their own dramas, the ordeals were theirs and the triumphs.
Just as a child brought up under the shadow of a cathedral, Mrs. Stowe mused, would have his mind stocked with legends of saints and angels which he could not understand, “so this wonderful old cathedral book insensibly wrought a sort of mystical poetry into the otherwise hard and sterile life of New England.” She was undoubtedly speaking out of her own experience when she had her hero remark that, “although in details relating to human crime and vice, the Old Bible is the most plain-spoken book conceivable, it never violated the chastity of a child’s mind, or stimulated an improper curiosity.” To her dismay, she says through her alias, she was in later years astonished to learn the real meaning of passages she had formerly listened to “with innocent gravity.” (Innocent gravity may well stand as expressing the essential charm of the illustrations for this article.) Harriet thus reveals, as no social historian can, why the colonial acceptance of the Old Testament gave way, however reluctantly, to the pragmatic pietism of the revival: she and her generation could no longer stand up to the violence in the Old Testament which their grandparents had taken in stride, not as pertaining to the record of a distant and exotic people in Palestine, but as the axiomatic premise of their own existence.
Indeed, as Harriet continues, she casts more and more light onto the world out of which these paintings came, a civilization that was steadily being transformed during her lifetime and that she could describe in 1869 as utterly vanished. The hero remarks that his grandfather’s prayers were completely Hebraistic: “They spoke of Zion and Jerusalem, of the God of Israel, the God of Jacob, as much as if my grandfather had been a veritable Jew; and except for the closing phrase, ‘for the sake of thy Son, our Saviour,’ might all have been uttered in Palestine by a well-trained Jew in the time of David.”
Henry Adams, searching at the beginning of The Education to indicate how remote the time in which he wrote was from the world into which, in 1838, he had been born, instinctively compared his status as an Adams to that of one “born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen.” Just that real, just that tangible, just that comprehensible had the Old Testament been to the primitive American mind. Though the mood of the culture has undergone many changes since then, and no doubt will move even further from the original, still the stamp of this long period of Hebraistic imagination will always be impressed upon it. This is part of our submerged memory; from day to day we ignore it, until suddenly we are confronted with such crude but eloquent tableaux as are here reproduced, and before them, to our astonishment, we recognize our own forgotten selves.