Protestants, Sea Serpents, and the Biblical Leviathan in the 19th Century

In the nineteenth century the rise of more advanced technology for oceanic exploration, the subsequent increase in maritime traffic, and the first major discovery of fossils of dinosaurs and related prehistoric reptiles, reignited the question of sea serpents and sea monsters. Classical thinkers and Medievals offered their own answers for observed maritime phenomena, and the nineteenth century offered an opportunity for Protestant intellectual cultures to confront the question for themselves.  

In nineteenth century America the ubiquity of sea serpent sightings made them an opportunity for humor and also wonder. In 1817 numerous sailors and fishermen in the waters off of Cape Ann, Massachusetts reported seeing a sea serpent. The sightings inspired a humorous poem about gender relations by an anonymous Neptune which was distributed in New England papers. The debates in households over the true nature of the sea serpent sightings, said the writer, did nothing more than reignite the discord begun by the original serpent in Eden. Neptune was less interested in the scientific identity of the monster than he was with the typology of serpents in Scripture, and how it related to the fall of man, and the perceive secularization of New England society. He alluded to the serpent in a poem alleging that New England’s women were not as modest as they had once been.

“If Even I her innocence could not be blam’d,
Because going naked, she was not asham’d;
Whoe’er views the ladies, as ladies now dress;
That they’re growing innocent sure will confess;
And artfully too, they retaliate the evil,
By the serpent once tempted—they now tempt the devil.”

Neptune followed the poem by proposing to “leave the most angelic part of nature’s work, and come down to the worst part of it, we quit the ladies and follow the serpent. The subtle old imp was well paid for his interference in family concerns, as every intermeddler ought to be. God forced the serpent to ‘run on his belly all the days of his life, and to have his head bruised by the seed of woman.’” What Neptune wanted to know was, “how the serpent traveled before the curse was pronounced? Quere de hoc.”

Interest in sea monsters continued in the United States. In 1849 Eugene Batchelder published a humorous rhyming novel that tried to weld a serious scientific take with a fun-spirited novel. Batchelder got the passing imprimatur of Harvard professors including Louis Agassiz. David S. Reynolds said of the book:

the largest monster in antebellum literature was the kraken depicted in Eugene Batchelder’s Romance of the Sea-Serpent, or The Ichthyosaurus, a bizarre narrative poem about a sea serpent that terrorizes the coast of Massachusetts, destroys a huge ship in mid-ocean, repasts on human remains gruesomely with sharks and whales, attends a Harvard commencement (where he has been asked to speak), [and] shocks partygoers by appearing at a Newport ball.

Batchelder’s book was not the only work inspired by the nineteenth century sea monster fetish. Reynolds notes that Cornelius Matthews, a friend of Melville’s wrote Behemoth, a sea monster novel, in 1839, which led twentieth century historian of the Puritans Perry Miller to speculate that Melville based his white whale on Matthews’ prehistoric animal. Moby Dick, Reynolds argues, was unambiguously a sea monster novel and “part of a growing fascination with monsters of all varieties.” [1]

Batchelder, Melville, Matthews and later Perry Miller were all intellectually formed by the Calvinist intellectual tradition’s particular hermeneutic. This was not biblical literalism ala latter day fundamentalists, but it was assumed that that which was described in the scriptures was historically real without regards to whether the descriptions in the biblical text were literal or not. Melville alluded to “Leviathan” over seventy times in Moby Dick, sometimes poetically, sometimes as a synonym for known whales species, but never for something that was merely an ideal. W.D. Taunton, a priominent amateur scientist and inventor in Great Britain, took the study of sea serpents seriously, arguing that sea monsters should be treated as something very different than dragons in ancient literature. He also proposed that the biblical leviathan should not be associated with serpents or dragons representing the forces of evil, Leviathan was something more than a type. The patriarch, or at least the record of the Job narrative was describing something, argued Taunton.

In one of the most ancient of the books of Scripture, the book of Job, we have a detailed description of a large marine animal then existing. From a very praiseworthy curiosity, naturalists have used much diligence to ascertain to what animal the sacred writer alludes. The wonder is, that there should be any doubt on the matter, as the description is both full and explicit, the apparent intention of the inspired writer being to portray the power of the Creator, as manifested by the largest habitant of the great deep; and it would therefore seem that, in order to interpret aright the sacred text, all that is requisite is to ascertain which is the most powerful aquatic creature with which natural history is familiar; but herein lies the difficulty, inasmuch as the largest of aquatic animals, the whale, does not, in its most common types, correspond with sufficient accuracy to the portrait; whilst a creature of less size and power, the crocodile, more closely answers the description, but yet not so sufficiently as to leave the question beyond doubt. Thus has arisen a controversy on the subject, which ranges on either side Biblical commentators of great eminence; so that if it were necessary that the dispute should be decided on the weight of authority, we should think ourselves presumptuous in attempting to determine in favour of either. Among the earliest who made the description applicable to the crocodile, are Beza and Diodati; and Bochart subsequently adopted their opinion, and, says the Rev. A. Purvis, “has since supported such with a train of argument which has nearly overwhelmed all opposition, and has brought almost every commentator to be of his opinion.

Taunton asserted that the Reformers, led by Beza and French Reformer Bochart, made the crocodile thesis for the identity of Leviathan the standard for Reformed Protestants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. [2]

Taunton respected the Reformed consensus, to a degree. “We should labour under much disadvantage in offering an opinion of our own in opposition to a critic so learned as Bochart, unless we endeavored, in the first place, to controvert his position. Taunton believed that there was nonetheless reason to disagree with Bochart and Beza by studying the calbith creature named in the Talmud. “We offer for consideration other portions of Scripture, and likewise received Rabbinical tradition long prior to the Talmud, which assert the leviathan to be some huge animal other than the crocodile.” He also appealed Diderot’s assertion “that the Rabbis have writ several pleasant things of the leviathan. They say that the great animal was created at the commencement of the world, on the fifth day, and that the female is to be protected until the coming of the Messiah.”[3]

Taunton’s case coincided with Protestant confrontations with early Darwinism and questions over the chronology of earth’s creation. That early Reformers felt more comfortable identifying the Leviathan with the crocodile than with an unknown prehistoric sea creature is itself interesting. What is incontrovertible, however, is the fact that biblical texts formed a vital part of Protestant intellectual culture’s interaction with maritime biological phenomena in the nineteenth century.

[1] Davis S. Reynolds, “’Its Wood Could only Be American!’: Moby-Dick and the Antebellum Popular Culture” in Harold Bloom ed., Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (New York: Infobase, 2007), 96-97.

[2] W.D. Taunton, Remarks on the Sea-Serpent, Dragon, and Leviathan of the Scriptures (Hertford: G and SE Simon, 1853), 33-35.

[3] Ibid.


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