This insightful monograph by a young Polish scholar, Michał Choiński (a professor of American literature and culture at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland), marks the beginning of a new series of cutting-edge books published by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Studies. Edited by Kenneth P. Minkema and Adriaan C. Neele, this series will feature new scholarship on Edwards and his world. Its second volume, by Philip Fisk (an alumnus of TEDS), should appear in a few months.
Choiński’s book is organized in three parts. Part One sketches the history of rhetoric both in general and as background against which the composition of sermons during New England’s Great Awakening is interpreted as discourse. Part Two treats the historical and cultural context of the Awakening itself, describing its emergence over three generations (that of the so-called “Pilgrim Fathers,” the “sustainers” of the New England way, and Enlightenment-era descendants who reformed Puritan preaching for more modern churchgoers). Part Three analyzes ten rhetorically different sermons preached by six different preachers from 1739 to 1745 in New England and its environs. Choiński examines public performances by George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Parsons, Jonathan Dickinson, and Andrew Croswell, featuring talks that represent a diversity of rhetorical styles and highlight the preachers’ strengths and idiosyncrasies.
The author combines a traditional rhetorical analysis of these sermons and their structure with a modern pragmatic interpretation of their effects (based on the speech-act theories of J. L. Austin, H. P. Grice, and John Searle). He is interested not only in their oratorical aspects, but also in the things that preachers accomplished with these sermons as they spoke them in particular cultural contexts. “By paying attention to the language-related phenomena,” he writes, “we can arrive at a much deeper understanding of colonial religious thought. This book attempts to pursue this very topic—it surveys the stylistic and persuasive aspects of the language of the Great Awakening and examines the minutiae of the sermons of its important preachers” (9). Another aim, Choiński continues, “is to understand the mechanisms of rhetoric and the persuasive use of language in New England in the mid-18th century, a period which constituted an important stage in the evolution of oratory in America” (10).
Choiński claims that the words of his Great Awakening preachers “had a fantastic, almost magical power” on listeners (9). Their rhetoric, moreover, revolutionized America (or at least American speech), producing a lasting effect on modern religion, politics, and media. Or as the author makes this point in the conclusion of his book, “vivid and vibrant sermons, delivered in a dynamic manner, were particularly appealing to audiences who had been accustomed to rigid, conventional Calvinist homiletic patterns and viewed the ‘rhetoric of the revival’ as a completely original form of oratory” (202-203). This form captivated audiences for centuries to come. In fact, “in order to comprehend the present rhetorical complexity of religious discourse used in churches, in politics or in public media, one needs to look closer at its roots, especially the early revival tradition” (204).
This is a fine first book by an up-and-coming scholar of American life and letters, and a fine first volume in an up-and-coming series on Edwardsean history and thought. One only hopes that, in the future, these V & R volumes will include indices.