The Use of Rhetorical Devices in Puritan Sermons

By SSG

 

One of the most necessary skills in any society is the ability of a leader to control his followers. The art of rhetoric has been designed to control the individual’s thoughts
and actions using clever logic and emotions. Jonathan Edwards was an ideal example of a
puritan minister who mastered the art of rhetoric and persuasive speaking. “Sinners in the
Hands of an Angry God” illustrates his skills. Using rhetorical methods such as allusions
and fear, and by directly addressing the audience, he was able to captivate the parish and
drive his message to their hearts.

Allusions are the most common rhetorical devices utilized by Edwards. He begins
by alluding to the literary vision hell. Puritans were familiar with the horrors of hell from
such commonly read books as The Bible and Dante’s Divine Comedy. Hell was very
familiar to puritans and was a place they believed to be as real as a neighboring village.
“That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad below you”
(Edwards 70). The use of descriptive language draws attention to his statement. By
making the audience a character in his sermon he incites fear and engulfs them with
emotions. He latter alludes to the destruction of Sodom ; “haste and escape for your lives
look not behind you escape to the mountains lest you be consumed” (Genesis 19-17). This makes an effective ending because it causes people to remember the bible, and gives his sermon a scriptural backbone.

Another method was to use fear and promises of success as an incentive. “you
shall be tormented in the presence of the holy angel, and in the presence of the lamb...” , is used by Edwards to strike fear in the hearts of the sinners. To contrast this, he says “and now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the doors of mercy wide open, and stands calling and crying in a loud voice to the sinners”. He uses this passage to show the opportunity for repentance, and to give the audience a reason to continue listening to his sermon. This sense of hope he gives his audience again causes them to listen carefully, trying to discover the path to their own salvation through Edward’s words.

His final and perhaps most effective method was to directly address the audience. “O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in” . Edwards effectively warns his parishioners about their sins in this fashion. He also warns them about their own ignorance “you probably are not sensible of this”. He points out their ignorance to convince them to listen and follow him. He convinces them to accept his words as truth, stating “However unconvinced you may now be of the truth when you hear it, by and by you will be fully convinced of this”.

Edwards has displayed his skill as a rhetorical speaker in may ways. The use of rhetoric has been an effective method of control the masses for thousands of years, and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a prime example of a rhetoric. By portraying himself as an enlightened, almost prophetic man, Edwards was able to control his listeners with promises of glory and threats of torment. The control Edwards exhibited over his audience categorizes him as one of the greatest persuasive speakers of all time.