“A Divine Kind of Rhetoric”: Rhetorical Strategy and Spirit- Wrought Sincerity in English Puritan Writing

By David Parry

“Puritanism” and “rhetoric” are both terms that have negative connotations in everyday conversational use today. “Puritan” and “puritanical” convey to many the image of a sanctimonious religious hypocrite, while “rhetoric” reminds us of the politician who is capable of fancy talk but has no intention of following through in action. Both terms conjure up today the specter of insincerity. However, this is not fair to the historic meaning of either term – in fact, sincerity was a core value both for Puritan believers and for the key classical writers on rhetoric.

“Puritans” were English Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who felt that the Church of England was not sufficiently reformed in light of their understanding of Scripture (and, by extension, their theological heirs in New England and elsewhere). While Puritan reforming zeal entailed opposition to ceremonial practices that they deemed too reminiscent of Roman Catholicism, Puritans also had significant positive emphases, including the importance of preaching and the need for a personal experience of divine grace. Puritans encouraged individuals to pursue a rigorous self-examination of their spiritual state to ensure a truthful, sincere presentation of themselves both to God and to others.

“Rhetoric” in the broad sense refers to the art of persuasion, the skilled use of language to persuade an audience to adopt a particular belief or to pursue a particular action. In the Western world there is an established rhetorical tradition tracing back to the eloquent orators of classical Greece and Rome and their persuasive verbal techniques, as codified by writers such as Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian. In his Institutio Oratoria, Quintilian taught that the true orator was “a good man skilled in speaking,” one who uses language with skill to persuade hearers of the truth of that which the speaker sincerely believes.

The Cambridge Puritan Richard Sibbes (c.1577–1635) attributes rhetoric to God himself, saying in the preface to his work The Bruised Reede and Smoaking Flax that “the Holy Ghost effectually perswadeth by a divine kinde of rhetoricke,” while another influential Cambridge minister, William Perkins (1558–1602), writes similarly in his commentary on the book of Revelation that logic and rhetoric are “the practice of the holy Ghost.” Puritan ministers likewise sought to imitate the God that they believed in by using their skills in speaking and writing to persuade their audiences towards saving faith and godly living.

But there is a problem here. It initially appears contradictory to “perform” sincerity – surely sincerity consists in inward integrity rather than outward performance, we might think. Some Puritan ministers themselves likewise use “rhetoric” in a pejorative sense to refer to insincere eloquence that contrasts with the Puritan commitment to a “plain style” that communicates truth in a straightforwardly understandable way. For instance, in his manifesto for ministers Gildas Salvianus: The Reformed Pastor, the prolific Presbyterian pastor Richard Baxter complains:

O how curiously have I heard some men preach! and how carelesly have I seen them live! They have been so accurate as to the wordy part in their own preparations, that seldom preaching seemed a vertue to them, that their language might be the more polite, and all the Rhetorical jingling writers they could meet with, were prest to serve them for the adorning of their stile[.]

I would nevertheless argue that Puritan ministers made use of a “good rhetoric” that adopts some of the core principles of classical rhetoric, and adapts them for the rather different persuasive goals of Puritan “practical divinity.” In particular, I argue that English Puritans made use of the three primary modes of persuasion identified by Aristotle. These are logos (appeal to reason), pathos (appeal to the audience’s emotions), and ethos (appeal to the credibility of the speaker as perceived by the audience).

Different Puritan writers prioritize these modes of persuasion differently. For instance, William Perkins writes that “there is no perswasion but in the minde,” and so stresses the role of reason in persuading people to faith (logos), while Richard Sibbes sees the “affections” (emotions) as the gateway to the will (pathos), claiming that Christ himself uses an affectionate rhetoric. In the wonderfully titled Bowels Opened (a title whose connotations differed somewhat in the seventeenth century), a posthumously published series of sermons on the Song of Songs, Sibbes observes:

There must bee a great deale of perswasion to still the accusing conscience of a sinner, to set it downe, make it quiet, and perswade it of Gods love. Therefore hee [Christ] useth all heavenly Rhetoricke to perswade and move the affections.

My article concludes with a discussion of the tinker-preacher John Bunyan, the author of the celebrated allegorical narrative The Pilgrim’s Progress. In the preface to his spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan justifies his use of plain style in this way:

God did not play in convincing of me; the Devil did not play in tempting of me; neither did I play when I sunk as into a bottomless pit, when the pangs of hell caught hold upon me: wherefore I may not play in my relating of them, but be plain and simple, and lay down the thing as it was.

However, if we look closely, Bunyan is indeed playing with language, with the triple repetition “God did not play […] the Devil did not play […] neither did I play” being an example of the rhetorical figure tricolon. Even the contrast between “play” and “plain” plays on the similarity between the words. Yet this is a serious play with a serious intent.

In an insightful article on Sibbes including wider attention to the performative rhetoric of Puritan preaching (freely available online here: third article), Chin Hwa Myatt comments, “The end of sincerity requires much effort. […] The performance of a preacher would be inadequate if he did not perform with sincerity.” The Puritan writers and preachers surveyed in my article all demonstrate that, just as play can be serious in its purpose, rhetoric can be sincere. While the sincerity of Puritan preachers and writers was grounded in a commitment to an inward heart integrity, this integrity needed to be expressed outwardly in words in order to have its desired effect: cooperating with the divine rhetoric of the Spirit to persuade people towards their own inward transformation.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “A Divine Kind of Rhetoric”: Rhetorical Strategy and Spirit-Wrought Sincerity in English Puritan Writing” published in Christianity & Literature 67.1, a special issue on sincerity. Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.