The American Jeremiad: A Bit of Perspective on the Rhetoric of Decline

Article
10.23.2014

You don’t need me to tell you that things are not what they once were for Christians in America. Much has changed in the last two decades, let alone the last two centuries. And some of this change hasn’t been good—not for America, not for American Christianity.

But there is a way of responding to declension—real or imagined—that only compounds the problem. We must guard against any response to decline that appeals to a past that never existed or to a future that God hasn’t promised us.

In this little article, I merely wish to sketch a cautionary tale. Narratives of decline, especially in our American context, build on an approach to history with a long history of its own.

INTRODUCING THE AMERICAN JEREMIAD

I want to introduce you to the American jeremiad. That’s the term scholars have given to what one has called “a mainstream and deeply American way of thinking about the nation’s past, present, and future.”[1] The term comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who catalogued Israel’s fall from fidelity and warned of the horrible judgments to come.

The jeremiad is a rhetorical tradition—a literary genre, even—that has appeared in every phase of America’s history—from King Philips War to Hurricane Katrina.[2] But the place to begin is Puritan New England. That’s where the jeremiad got its American stamp, where it was most commonly applied and most fully developed.

Most Puritan jeremiads were preached not during regular corporate worship but on special occasions appointed by the government. There were sermons delivered on election days. There were artillery sermons on days set for review of the colonial militia. There were thanksgiving sermons on days celebrating great blessings. But the jeremiad was most at home on days of colony-wide fasting in response to some crisis.

We think of Puritan New England as a society where Christian ethics and civil government were thoroughly intertwined. It’s tough to imagine a society where religion had greater influence. But to her Puritan pastors, just a generation or two removed from the founding, New England was a world of decay and fearful decline.

Theirs was also a world of wonders, a world in which events we consider mundane had discernible providential significance. There were of course the large-scale stressors of war and violence, especially their conflicts with Native Americans. But preachers also traced the hand of God in shifting weather patterns, in the failure of local crops, in the appearance of a comet in the sky, or in the occasional “monstrous birth”—their term for a child born with obvious deformity.[3]

Behind concern for this or that circumstantial event lay a deeper angst: what if no one outside our colony cares any longer for what we’re trying to accomplish? John Winthrop at their founding had described their society as a city on a hill on which the eyes of the world would be riveted. By the second generation they had good reason to wonder whether anyone was still looking.[4]

It was in their jeremiads that Puritan pastors interpreted such calamities and tied them to the moral problems in their society. Scholars speak of the jeremiad as a rhetorical tradition—as an identifiable genre—because these sermons followed a really predictable formula.

In his Prodigal Nation, which begins in New England and traces the jeremiad’s role in America into the 21st century, Andrew Murphy identifies three basic steps in these sermons.[5]

First, jeremiads lamented the harsh realities of the present. They took up the crisis du jour and tried to explain it in light of the sins of the people. They pointed to Sabbath-breaking and apostasy, to sensuality and profanity, to worldliness and luxury and a host of other problems.

These moral failures appeared all the more clearly in light of the second theme in the jeremiad: a contrast to the ideal purity of the founding generation. “Rather than an abstract critique,” Murphy writes, “jeremiads claimed that piety and godly order had once existed and had subsequently been lost.”[6] New England had been smaller in those early years. Its population consisted mostly of those who chose for themselves to take part in this “errand into the wilderness.” They were zealous and bought-in. Then the next generations brought a population boom, a surge in material prosperity, and, so their preachers believed, a society more fixated on the profits of the market than the profits of godliness.

But the jeremiads did not end in despair. The third element was a call for repentance and renewal, backed by a promise that God would not forsake them if they returned to him.

Here’s how one pastor, Samuel Torrey, put it in 1683: “May we not with fear and trembling apprehend our selves: even this whole People, New England, as it were standing before God, upon our great Trial for Life and Death [?] . . . If you do thus chuse [sic] Life, all will be well with New-England [sic], but if you should refuse, you will likely, not only destroy your selves; but all.”[7]

What Murphy and others have noticed about the American jeremiad, especially in its Puritan form, is that there’s a tension at its heart—a tension between despair and hope. Despair over how far society has fallen. Hope for how God would honor renewed obedience. And underneath the despair and the hope is the confidence that God has established a cause and effect relationship between Christian faithfulness and social flourishing.

LEARNING FROM THE AMERICAN JEREMIAD

You may be wondering whether there’s any more than antiquarian value to looking into the Puritan jeremiad. I think there is. Understanding how others perceived decline and renewal can help us to greater self-awareness as we sift through accounts of the shifting place of religion in our society. I believe these jeremiads were at once too pessimistic and too optimistic, and that they rested on assumptions about the purposes of God that were more distracting than helpful.

To confront our own narratives of decline in light of the jeremiad tradition, we’ve got to check our facts and check our assumptions.

Do the facts match historical reality? The problem with jeremiads is that they often compared the best parts of a former generation with the worst parts of their own. Neither the past nor the present got a fair treatment. I’m not saying nothing ever changes. Sometimes some things do get worse. But every culture is a mixed bag because the basic building blocks in every culture are human beings marked by both dignity and depravity. Sure, things change, but when some things get worse usually some other things get better.

When third generation Puritans hankered after the days of their grandfathers, they were talking about a society marked by thriving churches, widespread attention to biblical preaching, and a code of law deeply influenced by biblical ethics. It was also the society that gave us the Salem Witch Trials. It was a society in which Native Americans were displaced, Quakers were executed, Baptists were whipped or banished, and voting was restricted to adult male propertied church members.

The golden age doesn’t exist. And when we start measuring decline, we’ve got to get really clear on our point of departure. We ought to be suspicious of the ideal. Was it ever realized? Is it even important?

Do the assumptions match biblical priorities? Columbia lit professor Sacvan Bercovitch wrote the classic treatment of the American jeremiad back in the 1970s. The central theme in his account is what he called the “stubborn optimism” behind all the gloom and doom in the rhetoric of New England’s clergy. Underneath the melodramatic anxiety that drove these sermons’ call to reform was an unshakeable confidence in the distinctive favor of God on their society.

Two assumptions were especially important. First, the jeremiad assumed a special covenant relationship that made their society different from others around them. God, New England ministers believed, looked upon them as he had looked upon Israel. The threat of divine punishment for moral decline was merely the dark underbelly of his distinguishing, fatherly love.

The second assumption is closely related. The jeremiad assumed a cause and effect relationship between faithfulness and social flourishing or, on the other hand, unfaithfulness and social decline. The assumption of blessings and curses was part and parcel to the idea of a national covenant.

I’m convinced the jeremiad’s power rested on promises God never made—not to New England, not to America, not to any other nation. This is hardly the place for a worthy critique of the idea of a national covenant. But I’ll merely offer one last observation on this front.

Rhetoric of decline is almost always rhetoric of persuasion. It aims to diagnose a problem and prescribe a solution. We must be careful to assure the prescriptions and their expected results don’t go beyond what God has actually promised.

Reigning cultural values on matters of sexuality and marriage are shifting with breathtaking, unprecedented speed. The implications for religious liberty are unprecedented too. We are responsible as pastors to help our people navigate new and still shifting realities in a way that is faithful. But we must be careful how we frame our call to faithfulness. There is no idyllic future—no return to widespread cultural influence—hinging on what we do next. It may be that we are more and more faithful even as our voices grow more and more marginal.

God has promised that nothing will prevail against his church. He has promised that nothing will hinder the coming of his kingdom. He has called his people to wait for him, to bear witness to him, and to seek the good of their neighbors in his name. He has called us to pray for those in authority over us and to use whatever influence we have to pursue justice in love.

But he has not given us a motive for our faithfulness more specific than the display of his glory in our time and place. That must be enough for us, come what may.


[1] Andrew Murphy, Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 5.

[2] For a standard account of the jeremiad, see Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978). Bercovitch traces the development of the jeremiad through the American Civil War. Andrew Murphy’s more recent study Prodigal Nation (cited above) builds on Bercovitch and others, following the rhetoric of decline into the 21st century.

[3] For these and other examples, see Harry Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 74-76; David Hall, World of Wonders, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 71-116.

[4] This angst over whether anyone cared about the New England experiment is a central theme in the work of Perry Miller, the Harvard scholar who first popularized the term “jeremiad” and reintroduced the Puritans as worthy historical subjects. See, for example, his classic essay “Errand into the Wilderness,” in Errand into the Wilderness (1956; repr., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 1-15.

[5] Murphy, Prodigal Nation, 7-10, 24-34.

[6] Ibid., 29.

[7] Quoted in Bercovitch, American Jeremiad, 55.