The Rhetoric of the Revival: The Language of the Great Awakening Preachers, by Michal Choinski (Book Review)

Rhetoric is, in essence, the power of spoken or written words.

Considered in this way, rhetoric is the force of both oral and printed language to guide or compel one’s audience to think, feel, or respond in a certain way to a given message. Rhetoric is used in political speeches. It is used in court testimony. Yes, it is used in sales pitches too. And it is most certainly employed in preaching.

As preachers, the proponents of the Great Awakening in America (1739-1745) used rhetoric as a tool to better convey the power of the Gospel to the hearts of their hearers in their own time and setting. We ought not to fault them for that. Of course, they were hoping to lead their churches and open-air audiences towards faith in Jesus Christ and to “awaken” their lives to eternal realities.

In his new book The Rhetoric of the Revival: The Language of the Great Awakening Preachers, young scholar Michal Choinski treats his readership to an outstanding and thorough evaluation of the rhetorical pulpit devices of such men as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Gilbert Tennant among others. Although the whole history of rhetoric in preaching would certainly make for a very fine study (as would a study of rhetoric geared towards modern best practices in preaching), Choinski limits the parameters of this intensive work to those preachers centering around the time of the Great Awakening in the colonies in America.

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The fact that intentional uses of rhetorical strategies were employed in the especially fervent times of the Awakening should not come as a surprise to anyone. While the term “rhetoric” can sometimes have the distasteful flavor of purposeful manipulation, the practice itself is rooted in nothing less than the desire and intention of the preacher or speaker to give a message that is compelling and persuasive to his audience. In this way, there is nothing “wrong” with using rhetorical strategies. After all, if a Bible preacher believes the Gospel is true, he should deliver his message of hope as effectively and as forcefully (read: persuasively) as he is able. Certainly Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 as well as Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17 both bear marks of rhetorical strategy. Both witness to the biblical mandate to speak the truth of the Word of God with both winsomeness and power with the goal of persuasiveness in mind.

A few more words about this book will precede a general survey of its contents.

Michal Choinski

First of all, it is noteworthy that this book is the first in a new series of monographs published by the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. This new series, in cooperation with by Verlagsgruppe Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht is entitled “New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Studies” and Michal Choinski’s contribution constitutes Volume 1 of this exciting new line. Some readers of EdwardsStudies.com will recall that both Kenneth Minkema and Michal Choinski have already been interviewed on this page.  If this first edition is an indication of what is to come, Edwards devotees are sure to greatly benefit from this series as it unfolds. What we have here in Choinski’s work is a first-rate work of scholarship and technical expertise, without sacrificing readability. Choinski, by the way, teaches American Literature at the Institute of English Studies at the Jagiellonian University of Krakow, Poland.

The book opens with a standard evaluation of rhetoric, its history, key definitions, and development. Choinski here pays special attention to its Greek roots, marking observations by Aristotle, Cicero and others. In fact, Aristotle defined rhetoric as a “faculty of considering all the possible means of persuasion on every subject” (p. 15). Traditionally, Choinski tells us, rhetoric is considered under five headings as follows: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery (p. 18). Among these headings rhetorical speech can be further evaluated under such marks as clarity, grandeur, beauty, character, and sincerity, among others (p. 25).

In a subsequent section, Choinski makes the leap from rhetorical speech in general to preaching in particular. After all, giving a sermon is one of the most important forms of human-to-human oral communication. Here, Choinski considers contributing ideas from such men as St. Augustine and Erasmus, the noted humanist. Arriving closer to his historical period of choice, Choinski gives the reader an important reminder when he notes that “The core of Puritan preaching that emerged from medieval schemes after the tide of the Reformation is encompassed in the fundamental effort to understand God’s Word and to explicate it to the hearers” (p. 36, emphasis added).

From the Puritans, then, to the Colonial preachers, Choinski begins to focus the lens closer and closer to the revivalist preachers which stood upon the shoulders of their forefathers. These men advanced the rhetorical strategies of preaching to include such novelties as camp meetings and open-air gatherings. As religious services sometimes moved from the pulpits to the fields,  what constituted preaching methodology necessarily changed as well, especially when accommodating the poor and larger audiences, then previously possible in “meeting house” settings. This is not to say, however, that the Great Awakening was a purely out-of-doors social movement. But surely the power of awakening-style preaching intentionally modified to  utilize the maximal power of persuasion possible.

At this point, Choinski enumerates several factors that seem to be quintessential of revivalist preaching. It incorporated to various degrees (1) intensified emotions on the part of the speaker and the audience, (2) encouraged implicitly or explicitly bodily manifestations among hearers, (3) was attended by extraordinary occurrences such as perceived signs and wonders, (4) raised issues of necessary spiritual discernment (5) prompted tensions between clerical and lay authority, (6) and resulted in new associations, organizations, and institutions (p. 46-47).

Pages 52-54, though short, are key for understanding the rest of the text. Here Choinski discusses several hallmarks that will be discussed often throughout the rest of the work, notably the drive or push towards hearers experiencing the “new birth” as the ultimate goal of revival preaching; the unapologetic stirring of such emotions as fear, joy, enthusiasm, and disgust from the audience; and even the utilization of delivery techniques heretofore considered as “theatrical” (Whitefield will be a case in point on this matter, later; see his section in pages 117-146).

In a section that may feel like an unnecessary digression from the main topic (p. 55-56), Choinski then takes the reader through a brief history of three successive generations of Puritan colonialists in America, briefly recounting some key of the players, events, and the overall cultural mood. Here of course, he mentions the famous “Half-Way Covenant” so controversial to those who felt the force of its compromise firsthand.

Finally then – and I do admit that Choinski has taken us the long route to get here – we get to the meat and the heart of the book. From this point forward, we are settling in to discuss the six revivalist preachers that the writer will analyze for the rest of the book. In other words, we adjust from a wide-angle to close-up lens. Edwards scholars will breathe a sigh of relief that the Northampton Sage comes first in order (yes!), and gets a full treatment of three of his sermons; namely The Future Punishment of the Wicked (p. 82-92), Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (p. 93-105), and The Distinguishing Marks (p. 106-116).

Readers of this website will want to find the nearest hammock and a glass of cold ice-tea in order to settle in and enjoy this part. This is why we bought the book in the first place!

In my view, Choinski does his finest work combing through these three Edwardsian sermons. His section on Sinners is particularly riveting in my view. He analyzes Edwards’s choice of imagery, and metaphor, even his use of the tension-retaining present tense. All the while, he notes how Edwards carefully selected each verbal component of his sermon to strike the very heart of the reader with sheer terror. He discusses Edward’s structure and pace. He dissects Edwards’s use of “sensual tactility” (p. 94). Edwards’s goal here, he notes, is to induce a sense of “emotional despondency” (p. 99), and Edwards does that very well! Choinski notes, “for the moment of the delivery of this part of the discourse, the congregation gathered to listen to the preacher, in their minds actually becoming the sinners in the hands of an angry God” (p. 100, emphasis added).

Choinski calls these subtle twists and turns of language “inexplicit communicative stragegies hidden under the verbal layer and interwoven with it” (p. 93). Brilliant. Together, these rhetorical strategies build slowly, yet irrevocably  upon the shoulders of the congregation. As history has well recorded, the sermon landed in Enfield like a bolt of electricity from the sky. Edwards hardly finished the sermon due to the outbreak of fervent emotion from troubled listeners. His “rhetoric of revival” hit the mark perfectly.

I have one quibble with Choinski, despite the thoroughness and remarkably informative content of this work. I sincerely wish he had chosen Heaven is a World of Love rather than giving us two sermons from Edwards (back to back) on Hell. This would have been a wonderful way to dispel Edwards’s undue reputation as a merely “fire and brimstone” preacher. Back to back, Sinners and Heaven would have been a powerful tandem to show how Edwards was just as capable of driving his audience towards the ecstasies of joy as well as the throes of terror.

Attentive readers will greatly enjoy Choinski’s work in Whitefield and Tennent as well as Edwards. Studies of Dickinson, Parsons, and Croswell add texture to the overall analysis. Lesser known preachers, they are remarkable in their own right and worthy of consideration.

Overall, I found this book to be excellent. Choinski’s writing is lucid and clear. His pace is sometimes slower than I would like, but this is a doctoral dissertation converted to a book after all! It is informative, well-written and complete. Truly, this is a magnificent study on a completely engaging topic. His sources are well chosen, and his use of Edwards and Whitefield contribute to our beloved field of study remarkably.

Had he chosen Heaven is a World of Love to analyze rather than double-dip on the brimstone, it would have been even one notch better in my view.

 

 

 

 

 

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