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Forms of Puritan Rhetoric: The Jeremiad and the Conversion Narrative

For a much more extensive description than appears on this brief page, see the works listed in the  Selected Bibliography on Puritanism.
Text-only version
Jeremiad The term jeremiad refers to a sermon or another work that accounts for the misfortunes of an era as a just penalty for great social and moral evils, but holds out hope for changes that will bring a happier future.  It derives from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who in the seventh century B.C. attributed the calamities of Israel to its abandonment of the covenant with Jehovah and its return to pagan idolatry, denounced with "lurid and gloomy eloquence" its religious and moral iniquities, and called on the people to repent and reform in order that Jehovah might restore them to his favor and renew the ancient covenant. 

The term has also been used more broadly, according to Emory Elliott: "Taking their texts from Jeremiah and Isaiah, these orations followed--and reinscribed--a rhetorical formula that included recalling the courage and piety of the founders, lamenting recent and present ills, and crying out for a return to the original conduct and zeal.  In current scholarship, the term 'jeremiad' has expanded to include not only sermons but also other texts that rehearse the familiar tropes of the formula such as captivity narratives, letters, covenant renewals, as well as some histories and biographies" (Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume 1, 257). 

According to Sacvan Bercovitch (The American Jeremiad) and Perry Miller (The New England Mind: From Colony to Province), the jeremiad could exhort to action and caution against headlong zeal.  Although they created anxiety through a recitation of current woes, jeremiads also reassured listeners by evoking the spirit of a glorious past and suggesting that the same spirit, now slumbering but able to be awakened, existed in the present day.  According to Miller, one technical problem is that the jeremiad "could make sense out of existence as long as adversity was to be overcome, but in the moment of victory it was confused" (33). 

 Structure The structure of the jeremiad was prescribed by the theory of external covenant. (For other types of sermons, see the Sermon Structure page and its links.)

1. Doctrine (text taken from Bible, especially Isaiah or Jeremiah): 

a. Some proposition that people are pursued for their sins.
b. Recital of afflictions and review of history
2. Reasons or Explication: Exposition of the national covenant 
a. terms
b. conditions
c. duties
3. Applications or uses

          a. Provocations to vengeance
          b. Proposed scheme of reformation
          c. Imagined still more gory judgments unless the listeners acted upon preacher's recommendations.
(4. Prescription)

Election sermons and jeremiads (from Emory Elliott)
1. Biblical Text and Explication

a. Review of biblical events that foreshadowed the text
b. Setting the stage for typological interpretation
2. Doctrine: Announcement of general laws and lessons
a. Propositions
b. Reasons
3. Applications and Uses
Describes how Doctrine and Proposition pertained to contemporary New England
4. Addresses the various groups in the audience (governor, elected officials, etc.)
Examples The General Court in Massachusetts opened in May of each year from 1634 on with an election sermon, a practice that continued until 1834 with the exception of 1684-1691, when the sermons were stopped to protest the revocation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's charter.  By 1660-1690, many election day sermons had turned into jeremiads, although they decreased in number at the end of the 1680s (Elliott)
  • Samuel Danforth, A Brief Recognition of New Englands [sic] Errand into the Wilderness, (1671; famous sermon which set the standard for later jeremiads)
  • Benjamin Thompson, New England's Crisis (1676; poem) 
  • Increase Mather, Day of Trouble is Near (1674)
  • Increase Mather, A Renewal of Covenant the Great Duty Incumbent on Decaying and Distressed Churches  (1677)
  • Samuel Torrey, Exhortation Unto Reformation (1674)
  • Samuel Hooker, Righteousness Rained from Heaven (1677)
From Daniel Shea, Spiritual Autobiography in Early America: "The spiritual autobiographer is primarily concerned with the question of grace: whether or not the individual has been accepted into divine life, an acceptance signified by psychological and moral changes which the autobiographer comes to discern in his past experience" (xxvii).

According to Shea, "New England Puritans regularly stipulated a qualification for church membership . . . . Beyond the usual confession of faith, the applicant was required to give a satisfactory narrative of his experience of grace. these narratives hardly deserve to be considered autobiography . . . [subjects are reduced to] testifying that their experiences follow a certain pattern of feeling and behavior." The thematic pattern of the conversion narrative was to draw a distinction between easy self-righteousness and the new birth of saving grace.

Perry Miller tells us that William Chapel, Milton's tutor, listed only New England writers when recommending treatises on conversion to his students at Cambridge (Shea 91).

of Conversion
According to Emory Elliott, Thomas Hooker (1586-1647) "favored a more liberal membership policy [than his rival John Cotton], and he devised an elaborate preparation process that involved precise psychological stages on the way to conversion.  The six essential stages of this morphology of conversion were contrition, humiliation, vocation, implantation, exaltation, and possession; and these he subdivided further.  He required that a prospective member demonstrate to him and then to the congregation a successful passage through these stages" (Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. 1, 201). 
  1. Contrition. Man should look into the Law of God and make an examination of his life and state according to the Law.
  2. Humiliation. Conviction of conscience by which seeker realizes that he is under sin.
  3. Vocation. Despair of salvation, in respect to strength of self and other creatures.
  4. Implantation. True humiliation of heart, grief and fear because of sin. Confession.
  5. Exaltation. First entrance into the state of saving grace. 
  6. Possession. Awareness of presence of faith.
Drawing on sermon notes from first-generation pastor Thomas Allen, Harry Stout describes a less rigidly formulated series of steps:
  1. Agitations of the soul lead to the sinner's deep sense of humiliation at his condition.
  2. The stricken sinner attempts to redress the wrongs he has done through "legal obedience" to the covenant of works. He turns to good works as a remedy, but this effort fails and he is brought to deeper despair.
  3. The sinner experiences abject despair and misery. He sees all his efforts as vain and  inconsequential before a perfect God.
  4. At the most abject moment of despair, the soul begins to understand God's grace and is elevated to an appreciation of it.
  5. Gratitude causes the sinner to live a life of obedience and thanksgiving, although human nature and pride may cause the sinner to backslide and to rely on his own will and works once again.  Because of this temptation,  individuals must continually monitor their spiritual state and repeat the process of conversion if necessary.

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