Oratorical Culture in Nineteenth-Century America: Transformations in the Theory and Practice of Rhetoric

By Gregory Clark; S. Michael Halloran | Go to book overview

There were other drawbacks to Phelps's theory, as I have suggested. For example, even though he envisioned the day when the educational and political advantages of the few would be spread to the many by the steady growth of regenerated individuals and communities, his system was undeniably elitist. Of course, Phelps and the conservative clergy were not the only class in the nineteenth century to believe that a general, gradual, "evolutionary" development of the human race was taking place -- most profoundly in conservative, educated, Protestant New England and perhaps a few adjacent states. 15 The institutions, the laws, the culture, the people of Protestant New England were seen as being at the forefront of God's transformation of humanity, and it was vital to support the steady progress of His work; immediatism in any form -- anything forced by man's impatience, ignorance, violence, or willfulness -- was to be avoided at almost any cost. Not even the individual soul should be pushed towards conversion too quickly or emotionally; it needed proper Christian nurture.

But the most obvious difficulty with Phelps's modus operandi for social change, which insisted upon the temporary toleration of evil, was its slowness in changing things for those under the present lash of evil. One can imagine that a slave suffering under this lash might not find comfort in the promise that the true theory of preaching, if allowed to operate without the interference of political extremism, would, within a generation or two, free his children or grandchildren. Yet from Phelps's point of view, and from that of a large body of orthodox clergy and laypeople, this delay was lamentable but necessary. Solid, permanent, lasting peace and improvement can come, they believed, only as individual souls are converted to Christ and built up into Christlike character, and the most powerful agent of this personal and social change is "the argumentative discussion of theology" -- social discourse carried on by a true preacher according to the true theory of preaching.


Notes
1.
Phelps, the son of an orthodox Congregational minister, pursued his own development as a pulpit orator deliberately throughout his liberal arts schooling at Geneva College, Amherst, and the University of Pennsylvania, taking classes in classical and modern rhetoric at all three schools. He then

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