Christian Typology and Social Critique in Melville's "The Two Temples"

By Cook, Jonathan A. | Christianity and Literature, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

Christian Typology and Social Critique in Melville's "The Two Temples"


Cook, Jonathan A., Christianity and Literature


"The Two Temples," like Melville's other short fiction of the 1850s, is notable for its multi-layered symbolism, allusive density, and subversive thematics. As one of the three so-called "diptychs" from this period featuring paired sketches of American and English subjects, "The Two Temples" relates the experience of the unnamed narrator in pursuit of both spiritual communion and social community, first at a fashionable New York church and then at a London theater. Whereas at the church the narrator is a self-conscious outsider whose illicit attendance at a Sunday service leads to spiritual alienation and arrest for illegal entry into the church's bell tower, his unexpected access to a London theater leads to an experience of secular communion with the unassuming upper-tier audience during a performance of Bulwer-Lytton's historical drama Richelieu; or, The Conspiracy. The story thus contrasts the insincere act of worship found in the American "temple," with its histrionic minister, to the displaced Christian charity found in the English theatrical "temple" during a performance by the celebrated English actor William Macready in the title role of the drama.

Criticism of "The Two Temples" has highlighted some of the story's religious symbolism, together with certain aspects of its biographical, social, and historical backgrounds, notably Melville's use of the new Episcopalian Grace Church on Broadway and Tenth Street as a model for the exclusive fashionable church represented in the first sketch, supplemented by interior details from the Trinity Church bell tower in lower Manhattan that Melville had visited with his brother Allan and brother-in-law Lemuel Shaw, Jr., in early 1848. Melville's ironic fictional treatment of Grace Church and its notorious enforcer of social exclusion, the sexton Isaac H. Brown (1812-1880), was in fact responsible for the reluctant rejection of "The Two Temples" by the editor of Putnam's Monthly Magazine in the spring of 1854, the story not being published in Melville's lifetime. This article will explore the manner in which the paired sketches unite religious and historical themes through a strategic synthesis of Christian typology and social critique in order to convey paradoxical, potentially unwelcome truths about American and English cultures in the mid-nineteenth century. (1)

As a key hermeneutical technique in both the composition and later interpretation of scripture, Christian typology was premised on the assumption that the New Testament was the fulfillment of the Old, and thus a number of representative individuals, objects, and events in the Old Testament, designated "types," were duplicated and superseded by corresponding "antitypes" in the life and ministry of Christ. A historical variation on this tradition interpreted Old Testament types as models for Christian history, as in the figurative identification of colonial New England as the New World Israel, or its Puritan leaders as biblical patriarchs. Typological symbolism was pervasive in Puritan religious writing, history, and poetry, and it continued to influence nineteenth-century American authors grounded in Puritan theology and its traditions of biblical interpretation. Several of Melville's short stories of the 1850s, especially his last published story, "The Apple-Tree Table," show pervasive evidence of typological symbolism, a development that may be partly associated with Melville's reading of a new edition of Cotton Mather's history of the Puritan theocracy, Magnalia Christi Americana, at this time. (2)

"The Two Temples" offers a clear indication of its use of biblical typology within its title, for the two temples here can be aligned with an implicit contrast between the antithetical faiths of the Old and New Testament. Whereas in the Old Testament the idea of two distinct temples refers to the original Solomonic temple (tenth century B.C.E.) and the newer postexilic Jewish temple (late sixth century B. …

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