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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Performance Art? Puritans in the Pulpit


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.