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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Utopian

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Activities: Context Activities

Puritan Typology: Living the Bible

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[4439] Judea Capta coin (71 c.e.), courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.
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The Puritans developed typology as a mode both for reading scripture and for understanding the significance of historical and current events. In its strictest sense, typology refers to the practice of explicating signs in the Old Testament as foreshadowing events, personages, ceremonies, and objects in the New Testament. According to typological logic, Old Testament signs, or "types," prefigure their fulfillment or "antitype" in Christ. Applied more broadly, typology enabled Puritans to read biblical types as forecasting not just the events of the New Testament but also their own historical situation and experiences. In this way, individual Puritans could make sense of their own spiritual struggles and achievements by identifying themselves with biblical personages like Adam, Noah, or Job. But this broad understanding of typology was not restricted to individual typing; the Puritans also interpreted their group identity as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, identifying their community as the "New Israel."

Tied to their typological understanding of their communal identity was the Puritans' belief that they had entered into a covenant with God. Like the Old Testament Hebrews, the Puritans felt themselves to be a "chosen nation," a people through whom God would fulfill his divine plan on earth. Their covenant, however, was not the same as the Old Testament covenant God had formed with the Israelites. The coming of Christ had changed the terms of the contract, enabling them to live under a "covenant of grace." According to this doctrine, God had freely extended salvation to the Puritans—salvation that did not have to be earned through good works, only accepted with faith. Right behavior would follow from acceptance of and faith in the covenant. On an individual level, Puritans agonized over the status of their covenant with God (that is, their election), but as a group they were more confident. Having entered into voluntary church covenants, and thus into a kind of national covenant with God, they were assured of the centrality of their role in the cosmic drama of God's plan. Like the Israelites of old, they had received a "special commission" from God and had come to the New World to fulfill their mission.

The typological implications of the Puritans' covenant theology are apparent in "A Model of Christian Charity," the sermon John Winthrop delivered on board the Arbella while traveling to New England. Proclaiming that "the God of Israel is among us" and has formed a "near bond of marriage between him and us, wherein he hath taken us to be his," Winthrop interprets the Puritans as the antitype of the Old Testament Jews. His famous declaration that New England shall be "as a City upon a Hill" elevates the Puritan community to the status of an exemplary society with the potential to fulfill scriptural prophecies. The same typological worldview that characterizes Winthrop's speech also moved the Puritans to name some of the settlements they created in the New World after scriptural references—New Canaan and New Haven, for example.

As the Puritan community grew and changed, it became clear that typological interpretations were neither stable nor uniform. Different people could interpret events as having different kinds of typological significance, sometimes to ends that Puritan leaders considered unorthodox or subversive. During the divisive Antinomian Controversy (1637), for example, John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson engaged in a kind of war of rival typological interpretations. During her trial, Hutchinson interpreted herself as the Old Testament figure of Daniel and the Puritan court as the lion's den: she claimed that God had told her that just as he "delivered Daniel out of the lion's den, I will also deliver thee." Seeing her own trial as the antitype of Daniel's encounter with the lions, she declared to the court that they would see "this scripture fulfilled this day." John Winthrop was outraged by this reading of events, sarcastically noting that if Hutchinson's typologizing were to be believed, "she must be delivered by miracle, and all we must be ruined." He went on to impose his own typological interpretation of Hutchinson's role in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy: "One would hardly have guessed her to have been an Antitype of Daniel, but rather of the Lions after they were let loose."

Despite these internal skirmishes over proper typologizing, Puritan leaders found that their typological interpretations of external threats, by uniting their congregants in a shared spiritual mission, could serve as an effective method for consolidating the community. For instance, Puritans justified their seizure of Native American lands and their wars against Native Americans by typologizing Indians as "Amalekites" or "Canaanites," heathen peoples whom God sent as a scourge to test the nation of Israel and whose extermination was necessary for the fulfillment of his divine plan. In this way, Puritans marshaled biblical typology to legitimate their destruction of Indian culture. Typologizing opposition and challenges as "tests," "scourges," or "punishments" sent by God allowed Puritans to read even their misfortunes as paradoxical proofs of God's love and of their status as his "chosen people." After all, they reasoned, God would not bother chastising or testing them if he did not view them as special. In her narrative of her captivity, Mary Rowlandson struggles to understand an experience that would otherwise have been inexplicably frightening and horrific as evidence of God's chastising hand, at first disciplining and ultimately delivering her. Rowlandson's story of holy affliction and deliverance touched a chord with the entire Puritan community. Ministers such as Increase Mather determined to read her individual experience as a communal lesson: God had not tested and punished Rowlandson alone; he had tested and punished the Puritan nation through her. In this way, Rowlandson herself functions as a type of the Old Testament judea capta, or Israel in bondage. Her purifying ordeal in the wilderness reflects God's punishment of the "New Israel" for its sins. Her redemption from captivity reflects New England's reinstatement in God's favor.

Of course, her narrative also offers evidence that typology provided Rowlandson with a more personal, individualized kind of comfort. She articulates her suffering through the words of Old Testament figures, drawing strength from understanding her own experience through theirs. Likening herself to Job, the good servant of God who is afflicted by a bewildering set of misfortunes in order to test the depth of his faith, Rowlandson seeks comfort in the notion that God's ways are beyond human understanding, but that his servants must remain patient and faithful. Like Rowlandson's narrative, the Eliakim Hayden gravestone (Essex, Connecticut, 1797) offers an example of typology applied to the individual life. The carved design of the stone shows Noah's ark, floating on the floodwaters, while a dove flies overhead with a cross in the background. Puritans understood the Old Testament story of Noah as a prefiguring, or type, of Christ, and the flood as a type of baptism. The cross and the dove carved on the stone, then, serve as antitypes representing Christ offering salvation for Adam's original sin. The epitaph clarifies the typological imagery: "As in Adame, all mankinde / Did guilt and death derive / So by the Righteousness of Christ / Shall all be made alive." Implicitly including Hayden's life within its typological reading—his soul is clearly one that has been "made alive" through Christ—the gravestone iconographically invokes biblical prophecy and folds the Puritan individual into its scriptural schema.

  1. Comprehension: How does Rowlandson's Narrative understand her captivity as typologically significant both for herself as an individual and for her community as a whole? Does Rowlandson's need to understand her experience on two levels create tensions within the text? If so, how?

  2. Comprehension: How would you interpret the Eliakim Hayden gravestone typologically? What do the images carved on the stone mean? What do you think the images that look like eyes at the top of the stone represent? How do the images relate to the rhymed aphorism in the epitaph?

  3. Comprehension: How does John Winthrop use typological interpretations of current events to political ends? How do the typological interpretations in the "Model of Christian Charity" compare to his typological understanding of Anne Hutchinson seven years later? Do the motivations behind his typologizing change over time?

  4. Context: Read Edward Taylor's "Meditation 8." How does Taylor join the Old Testament type of "manna" with the New Testament antitype of Christ as the bread of life? How does a typological reading change the significance of the homely metaphor of bread and bread baking in this poem?

  5. Context: What kind of status did the Puritans' commitment to typology grant to the Bible? How might it work to blur the line between text and life? Why do you think the concept of typology never gained currency within Quaker theology?

  6. Context: How does Mary Rowlandson typologize herself in her narrative? To which biblical personages does she choose to compare herself? Why?

  7. Context: On September 2, 1772, Mohegan minister Samson Occom preached to a mixed audience of native peoples and whites about the execution of convicted murderer and drunkard Moses Paul, a Mohegan. For white ministers and their parishioners, American Indian drunkenness was only one of a long series of signs that confirmed their typological understanding of Native Americans as either helpless, "heathen," or satanic. Even Occom's supporters occasionally expressed fear that American Indians could never be incorporated into Christ's body politic. Occom uses as his inspiration a quotation from St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, a letter that insists that Gentiles, not Israelites, are the true inheritors of Christ. How does Occom use typology to redefine the community to which he preaches?

  8. Exploration: Why do you think the Puritans wished to interpret their relationship with God as a contract? What responsibilities, benefits, or anxieties do you think this contractual understanding of spirituality caused for the Puritans?

  9. Exploration: What kinds of assumptions do people make when they embrace the idea that they are part of a "chosen nation"? Who is excluded from "chosen-ness"?

  10. Exploration: Do you see the influence of typology in any later American writings? When do Americans seem most likely to turn to strategies like typology to make sense of the world and their place within it?

[1243] Peter Pelham, PORTRAIT OF COTTON MATHER (1728),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-92308].
This portrait of Cotton Mather was composed in the year of his death, 1728. The grandson of John Cotton and the eldest son of Increase Mather, Cotton Mather became the foremost theologian of his generation. Recognized as the most passionate defender of the centrality of the traditional Puritan authority in a world becoming increasingly secular, Mather is often blamed for the religious hysteria that spawned the Salem witch trials.

[6324] Sarony & Major, THE LANDING OF THE PILGRIMS ON PLYMOUTH ROCK, DEC. 11TH 1620 (1846),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4311].
Although no evidence directly links the Mayflower's 1620 landing to Plymouth Rock, this location has come to represent the birthplace of English settlement in New England.

[7181] Michael Colacurcio, THE PURITANS AND BIBLICAL TYPOLOGY (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
"I think the most common and widespread Puritan investment in typology is the question of whether their own experiment was predicted biblically. Whether the end of all history was, in fact, some kind of metaphorical Zion, a new heaven and a new earth that might be the equivalent of New England, rather than any state of Israel that we now recognize." Michael J. Colacurcio, professor of American literary and intellectual history to 1900 (UCLA) is the author of Doctrine and Difference: Essays in the Literature of New England.

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