Performance Art? Puritans in the Pulpit

By Bremer, Francis; Rydell, Ellen | History Today, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Performance Art? Puritans in the Pulpit


Bremer, Francis, Rydell, Ellen, History Today


It has become commonplace for critics to associate modern evangelical preaching with theatricality and artificiality, as in the literary depiction of Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis and the recent pop hit `Jesus He Knows Me' by the English rock group, Genesis. Critics often trace the development of these characteristics to the corruption of a pulpit style that originated in the Great Awakening, the religious revival of the 1730s and 1740s, when fiery and dramatic preaching performances first became popular.

Recently, the theatrical element of the era's evangelicalism was highlighted anew by Harry Stout's study of George Whitefield, The Divine Dramatist, in which he demonstrates that the revivalist's pulpit style was actually influenced by his contact with the eighteenth-century English theatre. Stout refers to Whitefield's sermons as 'dramatic scripts' and documents how he and his imitators would stomp, cavort, kneel, mimic, shout and break into tears during their sermons, using voice and gestures as tools to stir the emotions of their listeners.

Evangelists of the time, such as Whitefield and James Davenport, would paint word pictures of the torments of the damned and the ecstacy of the saved. Scripture stories would be literally acted out in the pulpit, with the clergyman setting the scene and assuming the voices of the different characters, such as Abraham and God, Zacheus and Jesus. Congregations were frequently brought to the heights of hysteria, with believers crying out and breaking down. it was these types of emotional excesses in pulpit and pews that led many conservative clergymen to turn away from the revivals. The Anglican commissary, Alexander Garden, castigated the `new' style of evangelism, claiming that `it abhors reason, and is always putting out her Eyes; but loves to reign Tyrant over the Passions, which it manages by Sounds and Nonsense'.

The heated performances of the eighteenth-century revivalists bore scant relation to the cool, rational style favoured by Garden and the dry, uninspired didacticism of most sermons preached in the previous decades. Yet we should not be too quick to assume that dramatic performances were a true innovation. Evidence exists that while such methods had ceased to be acceptable in the decades that divided the restoration of 1660 from the Great Awakening, pulpit thumping, role playing and dramatic performances were common practice for the Godly Puritan preachers of the Elizabethan age and the early seventeenth century. Whether they recognised it or not, the eighteenth-century revivalists were following in the footsteps of `Roaring' John Rogers and other Puritan evangelists of the pre-Civil War decades.

Scholars, however, have commonly failed to recognise the dramatic nature of the Puritan sermon. Such confusion is not surprising given the Puritan reputation for a so-called `plain style' of preaching, their public condemnation of the theatre, and the allegedly subdued nature of their demeanour in general. The label `plain style' has probably been most responsible for concealing the power with which Puritan sermons were often delivered. There is no doubt that the preachers adopted a plain style, but the designation referred to content not delivery. William Perkin's maxims as proposed in his The Arte of Prophesying were generally accepted by Puritan ministers, and Perkins is quite clear in asserting that the holy text should not be defiled by the `profane utterances' of man. Essentially, his was an attack against the metaphysical style in the pulpit, which he characterised as artificial eloquence designed primarily to advertise the with intellect and learning of the preacher rather than to proclaim the truths of the holy word of God. Yet it is crucial to note that Perkins certainly did not discourage eloquence or drama, but ostentation.

For the Puritans who accepted Perkin's maxims, the strength of this preaching style lay in its psychological persuasiveness. …

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