What's in a Name? Typology and Early American Nomenclature

One of the many wonderful features of the NEHGS (New England Historical Genealogical Society) is that they send out a weekly newsletter filled with useful tidbits. One of my favorite items is the "Name Origins" by Julie Helen Otto. In a recent edition, Otto sought to explain one those odd colonial names "Titus" and gave the origin as, "TITUS (m): New Testament. Much used by the Hinmans of Woodbury, Conn."

Although Otto's purpose is to be pithy, I felt that this was explanation was missing something crucial both in terms of origins and what it would mean to invoke that name. Although the name Titus does appear in the New Testament (in St. Paul's Corinthians, Galatians, 2 Timothy, and his letter to Titus), that is not its origin. Titus is an old Roman name. More particularly, Titus is the name of the Roman Emperor who ruled from 79-81 CE and who was a military commander before that. He is most famous for laying siege to the Temple in Jerusalem and destroying it. He was considered a "good" emperor. When Paul wrote his works, this Titus was one of the most famous men alive. The name Titus became popular in England during the Protestant Reformation (and hence for settlers in New England) for reasons I will outline below.

While it may seem odd to name a child after the person who destroyed the Temple, Josephus's History of the Jewish Wars lauds Titus and blames the destruction of the Temple on the Jews, not Titus himself. This book was popular work in the colonies, and one of the first books bought for many early libraries, including Newport's Redwood Library. Josephus's popularity helps us understand what view of Titus colonists valued. In The Jewish Wars, Josephus claims the Temple "was destroyed by internal dissensions, and the Romans who so unwillingly set fire to the Temple were brought in by the Jews' self-appointed rulers, as Titus Caesar, the Temple's destroyer, has testified. For throughout the war he pitied the common people who were helpless against the [Jewish] partisans; and over and over gain he delayed the capture of the city and prolonged the siege in the hope that the ringleaders would submit." This view of things corresponds to the belief in various parts of the New Testament that Jews (not Romans) were ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus.

Gravestone of Titus Clark (1796), South Hadley MA (© Faber Gravestone Collection)

Ms. Otto notes that the name Titus was popular among the Hinmans of Woodbury, Conn. This family was noted for its military service, so that may be part of the reason for the convention. Given the general popularity of the name Titus during the Protestant Reformation, though, there are most likely typological reasons for using the name as well. Puritans used typology when naming people as it signaled their belief that they were living in the era during which the messiah would return. Puritan typology comes in two forms. (1) Figure and events ("types") from the Old Testament that predict figures and types ("antitypes") from the New Testament and thus predict the arrival of Christ and (2) Figures and events ("types") from the Bible or Biblical era that predict current events ("antitypes") and hence predict the return of Christ. The use of the name Titus is the second kind. The use of the name during the reformation probably referenced both Paul's disciple, but also the "type" of Emperor Titus, destroyer of the corrupt Temple which in the Puritan's day represented what was in their minds the current corrupt Church--Roman Catholicism. The Biblical "Titus" would have been a fitting exemplar (role model) for New England Protestants because he helped reconcile the Christian community of Corinth (Greece) with Paul. He also went on to organize other churches. That is, to name someone Titus was to show him as a founder as well as a purifier.

As a side note, although Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus was performed in the 1590s, it is unlikely that this is the inspiration for the use of the name by Protestants during the reformation. First, Puritans hated plays. Second, although the play is often seen as an allegory for disputes between the Protestants (Goths in the play) and Catholics (the Andronici Romans), the Titus of this play (an earlier Roman general) is "Catholic" and morally corrupt. He is not someone you'd want your child to emulate.

When looking at the early New England predilection for Biblical names, it is useful to keep in mind what a name signified and the eschatological weight it carried. To name someone Titus was to give voice to your dreams not only for what your child would become, but also what the future would hold.

Image at Top is from the Arch of Titus (Rome) and depicts the Romans carrying of the Menorah from the Temple in Jerusalem. Photo posted on wikipedia and by Laurel Lodged