Final connections about the sermons can be wrapped up in a discussion of the jeremiad form, using commentary from The American Jeremiad, followed by reflections on how the Puritans saw themselves. A jeremiad is a political sermon—I like Bercovitch’s phrase “state-of-the-covenant address”—usually given on public occasions like I described in the previous post, especially election days. Structurally, the form consists of three parts:
first, a precedent from Scripture that sets out the communal norms; then, a series of condemnations that details the actual state of the community…; and finally a prophetic vision that unveils the promises, announces the good things to come, and explains away the gap between fact and ideal. (16)
Bercovitch argues that the middle section of condemnatory rhetoric is intended to renew the people’s energy for their errand. Rather than despairing, the sermons are forward-looking. For instance, Danforth concludes his “Errand” sermon with the healing that God would do among them and with a reiteration of the settlers’ vision. The jeremiads are expressions of hope in the mercies of a fatherly God, who sends afflictions not to destroy but to correct.
Throughout these sermons, the covenant is expressed in terms of the past and the future: it has eternal implications running both directions in time. The settlers saw themselves as heirs of God’s chosen people, the ancient Israelites; at the same time, they were ever moving toward a vision of a godly commonwealth and, ultimately, toward the New Jerusalem. In terms of the past, therefore, preachers and leaders drew heavily on the Old Testament, particularly the story of the exodus from Egypt, wilderness wandering, and conquering of the Promised Land. The influence cannot be emphasized enough: each sermon that I read applied history, imagery, and rhetoric from the Pentateuch to the New England situation. The jeremiad form itself was drawn from the Bible—from Jeremiah, yes, but also from Moses and Joshua. The history of Israel is a repeated cycle: covenant, rebellion, consequences for waywardness, repentance, restoration. God always responded to repentant cries with a merciful restoration.
If the people will repent, God will heal. That is the promise. That is the visionary hope that orients the American Puritans toward the future. “God is but waiting for an opportunity of our thankfulness and humility,” cried Hubbard, “to turn his face toward us that we may be saved” (“The Happiness of a People” 53). It is God who will do the work and see that the prophecy is fulfilled, but the Puritans—like the ancient Israelites—must humbly seek Him. Repentance involves behavioral transformation. John Winthrop had set the vision of what this behavior should look like: he called it “Christian charity.” In later years (the second generation that I keep coming back to), preachers revive Winthrop’s vision. Hubbard, in particular, points to “charity” as the fertilizer (so to speak) which turns the wilderness into a fruitful garden. Lack of charity had turned away God’s favor, he says, and a return to “this Grace” is the cure:
And we may have great cause to fear, that the decay of this Grace in New-England, hath in a great measure been the procuring cause that hath brought this black Cloud upon the beautiful face of our Sion in these ends of the earth….Could Christians but be persuaded to put off this private selfish worldly Spirit, and put on humility, and charity, and manifest a publick Spirit, how would it again revive the glory of the New-England churches. (61-62)
The jeremiad thus encapsulates into a communicable medium the rich Puritan sense of purpose—rooted in the past and envisioning the future. Unexpectedly, the laments of separation from God are actually catalysts for the fulfillment of the New England mission. The laments are based on an optimistic view of the errand: it will be accomplished when the people serve God with pure worship, that is, obedience to God and charity to one another. The “black Cloud” will disperse, and God’s glory will shine in full light from their city on a hill.