The Role of Language


In their efforts to precipitate in their audiences a new understanding of the world through the experience of conversion, Transcendentalists and Evangelicals evolved a mode of representing the world which corresponded with this new understanding. Most importantly, they sought to employ language in a fashion that would assist the process of spiritual conversion by moving the hearts of their auditors as well as their minds. While the Transcendentalists tended to be more self-consciously literary in their style, both movements understood that words had a power to enchant which could more effective than their power to instruct, in written as well as oral forms.50 Their sermons and published writings are testimony to this understanding.

Broadly speaking, Transcendentalists and Evangelicals participated in a shift from a traditional form of religious discourse in which language primarily served the function of scriptual exegesis to one in which language operated to spark religious emotion. In this move from linguistic rationalism to linguistic emotionalism, both movements engaged in what has come to be understood as a realignment from an Enlightenment to a Romantic understanding of language. Preaching was still meant to persuade, but now it could persuade by exciting a different area of the self. Instead of addressing their auditors' intellectual faculties by expounding Biblical "truths" logically, Transcendentalists and Evangelicals sought to persuade their audiences in non-rational, or even anti-rational, ways. Doctrinal niceties and complicated theological disputations gave way to a simpler, more "authentic" form of language that would move people emotionally rather than alienate them. In part, this view of language reflected the contemporaneous advance of scriptural "higher criticism," which held that the language of the Bible did not possess absolute authority but, as a product of human endeavor, filtered through the imperfect medium of the human mind, could only approximate those Christian truths which did possess absolute authority. In effect, the evidence of truth was not the words themselves, but the intuitive feeling that what the words attempted to express was truth.

We have seen that Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism deplored the kind of preaching that failed to touch the hearts of the audience. Poor preaching, choked with difficult words and obscure doctrine, seemed to operate as a impediment to spiritual progress. Conversely, good preaching played a critical part in bringing people closer to God. But what exactly constituted good preaching? Above all, it consisted in the ability of one soul to communicate the truths of the heart to another soul. These "truths" were not will-o-wisps of the ego, nor the mere enthusiasm that orthodox Calvinists so distrusted, but the eternal principles and transcendent wisdom which God communicated to Christ and which Christ taught to his disciples. The speaker thus acted as a kind of organ-pipe for immutable spiritual principle, and since his language took as its reference this principle, his auditor would automatically sense its truth. This outlook had a levelling effect: anybody with a heart of Christian truth could preach. "The poorest man, the most ignorant man, is mighty through God," wrote Beecher. "If his soul is aroused and inspired by the hope, but the faith, and the love which are in Christ Jesus, he has a power that others can not derive from mere learning, from wisdom, or from any other source."51 Good preaching did not require a degree in divinity, but only the ability to move an audience -- which was based on the preacher's own prior conversion.

In Evangelical practice, this philosophy often resulted in the kind of preaching that horrified the orthodox clergy -- not only because of the highly emotional style, but because of the elision or simplification of what the conservatives considered important theological subject matter. The preacher communicated with the audience on their intellectual level; he became for them a riveting example of the transported soul; his body language commanded attention while his spoken language made scripture seem eminently and practically understable. Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury instructed his preachers to "[p]reach as if you had seen heaven and its celestial inhabitants and had hovered over the bottomless pit and beheld the tortures and heard the groans of the damned."52 By dramatically representing hell rather than calmly explaining it, and by displaying all the physical signs of inner conviction, the preacher would presumably have more success in turning his auditors away from the path of wickedness. (If church membership figures are any indication, this style of preaching was in fact hugely successful for the Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians).

A more universal, if less melodramatic, feature of the "new preaching" was its emphasis on the human implications of scriptural teachings, as opposed to the abstractions of high theology. This "authentic" mode of sermonizing was supposedly rooted more firmly in actual experience than the language of technical exposition; rather than explaining human existence, Evangelicals wanted to illuminate and rhetorically vivify those aspects of existence which formed the subject matter of Christian teaching. The distance the Evangelicals had traveled since the time of Jonathan Edwards is suggested by juxtaposition of two representative passages. In his sermon "A Divine and Supernatural Light," Edwards was ahead of his time in positing the direct contact of God with the human soul in the form of a "light," yet very much of his time in his obtuse phrasing. He wrote:

...this light is not the less immediately from God for [its appeal to the rational faculties]; though the faculties are made use of, it is as the subject and not as the cause; and that acting of the faculties in it, is not the cause, but is either implied in the thing itself (in the light that is imparted) or is the consequence of it....53

While Evangelicals may have agreed with the gist of Edwards's argument -- that the soul can experience the influx of divine spirit -- they would have framed the passage in more "natural" cadences. Finney, for instance, in his sermon on "True and False Repentance," first stated what he means by that distinction, and then proceeded to illustrate the point in practical terms:

Observe that young convert. If he is deceived [in believing himself repentant], you will find that there is only a partial change in his conduct. He is reformed in certain things, but there are many things which are wrong that he continues to practice. If you become intimately acquainted with him, instead of finding him tremblingly alive to sin every where, and quick to detect it in every thing that is contrary to the spirit of the gospel, you will find him, perhaps strict and quick-sighted in regard to certain things, but loose in his conduct and lax in his views on other points....54

Three principal features of this passage distinguish it from Edwards's. First, the diction does not rise significantly above the level of common speech; secondly, the passage refers directly to the audience, personally drawing them into the argument; and lastly, Finney shows a greater concern with the real workings of psychology in everyday human conduct. This passage is typical of much Evangelical preaching in the sense that, while Finney may have delivered it in a gripping and persuasive style, the words themselves evince the simplicity and lucidity that the Evangelicals valued.

The Transcendentalists also prized preaching that stirred the emotions, numbering among their models the Unitarian ministers Henry Ware Sr., for whom religion was "not merely the act of assenting to the truth," and John Emery Abbot, who counseled that the goal of preaching was "less to communicate new truth, than to give impressiveness and efficacy to what is known."55 Like the Evangelicals, they felt that preaching should stress the personal above the doctrinal. In his address to the Divinity School, Emerson recalled listening disconsolately to a passionless preacher who "had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined."56 George Ripley's sermon on "Jesus Christ, the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever" (1834) would have been more to Emerson's liking. Describing the human yearning for spiritual meaning, Ripley rose to the level of poetry:

There are moments when life seems like a dream, and the shadows which we have pursued are revealed to us in all their emptiness and vanity .... We want a Father to whom we can go -- upon whom we can depend -- whom we can worship, venerate, and love. We want him when the burdens of life press heavily upon our hearts.57

Ripley's language in the sermon is intended less to instruct than to share with his auditors the sense of longing that he himself felt; the persuasive power of the sermon operates on the level of emotion rather than rationality. Still, it should be noted that the Transcendentalists could not escape their background as highly intelligent and educated people, and their sermons and writings bear the impress of their intellectual upbringing. A tension frequently exists between the content and the form of a Transcendentalist sermon -- between the rhetorical obeisance paid to simple, emotive language and the sophisticated language in which the idea is clothed. This tension glares particularly brightly in the writings of Emerson, who could never find it within himself to abandon proper syntax or an elevated vocabulary even as he glorified unrestrained or non-intellectual expression. In "The Poet," for instance, he employs a remarkably precise style to lionize the poet-priest who had mastered the art of "freer speech":

The poet knows that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or 'with the flower of the mind'; not with the intellect used as an organ, but with the intellect released from all service and suffered to take its direction from its celestial life; or as the ancients were wont to express themselves, not with intellect alone but with the intellect inebriated by nectar.58

Emerson and his Transcendentalist colleagues were of a mind with the Evangelicals when it came to authentic speech, but their attachment -- or addiction -- to a cerebral form language tended to limit somewhat the popular appeal of their writings.

Nonetheless, both movements' fundamental belief in the primacy of authentic language, in which words grew organically out of human experience and communicated that experience in ways that emotionally stimulated the auditor, precipitated important changes in their writings and sermons. Two principal linguistic techniques in the religious discourse of Transcendentalists and Evangelicals were narrative and metaphor, which were non-rational in the sense that they depended less on argumentation than on image and suggestion. Narrative and metaphor stimulated the imagination of the listener or reader by implying rather than explicitly delineating connections between multiple elements or ideas. They sought to express the truths of a human life through the representation of personal experience, which naturally took the form of stories, and through the metaphorical harmonizing of technically unrelated events or ideas. In both cases, the intent was to draw in and excite the auditor in ways that expository preaching could not achieve.

Narrative both characterized minor anecdotes that appeared in Transcendentalist and Evangelical preaching and served as the overarching structure of the numerous spiritual autobiographies of each group. On the level of anecdote, it was a particularly effective means of communicating an idea to an audience. As Nathan Hatch pointed out, "[s]tories are rich sources of belief precisely because they are just stories and are therefore immune from falsehood and from logical fallacy."59 Moreover, stories acted in a positive sense to illustrate truth, in effect recapitulating the original method of the Bible itself. By showing human experience rather than explaining it, Transcendentalists and Evangelicals could excite their audiences at the same time they educated them. Drawn from scripture, from history and from personal experience, stories could move the heart precisely because they dramatized experience. At the same time, they were intended to move the heart in a particular direction: toward self-awarness, toward righteousness, toward God. Almost always, the stories illustrated a moral point; they were parables; often the experience of the characters demonstrated a cause-and-effect relationship involving moral issues. In his sermon "Selfishness Not True Religion" (1837), Finney sought to encourage the "duty of disinterested benevolence" through reference to a brief story:

Here are two men walking along the street together. They come across a man that has just been run over by a cart, and lies weltering in his gore. They take him up and carry him to the surgeon, and relieve him. Now it is plain that their gratification is in proportion to the intensity of their desire for his relief. If one of them felt but little and cared but little about the sufferings of the poor man, he will be but little gratified.60

The story-telling is not practiced for its own sake, but for the sake of the higher purpose of illustrating the teachings of the Bible. Similarly, in Walden, Thoreau tells the story of a "strolling Indian" who "went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood." The Indian thought that

...when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man's to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so ... I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one's while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men's while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.61

This anecdote can be misleading because it appears on the surface that Thoreau is advocating a purely non-didactic philosophy of art -- yet the whole of Walden, including this passage, needs to be understood as a spiritual journey which the author committed to paper with the purpose of inculcating wisdom in his readers. The work is a narrative of conversion whose effectiveness derives, in large measure, from the technique of clothing didacticism in the yarns of Thoreau's imagination. And Walden was by no means a unique production. Conversion narratives occupied a central place in the literature and writings that both movements produced. James Freeman Clarke's Autobiography , Margaret Fuller's Memoirs , Thoreau's "Natural History of Massachusetts," and "Theodore Parker's Experience as a Minister" are representative of the Transcendentalist form of personal narrative. The Evangelicals were at least as prolific in their production of conversion narratives, numbering among their autobiographies those of Richard Allen, Peter Cartwright, Charles Finney, Alexander Campbell, James Freeman Clark, Charlotte Forten, Margaret Prior, and Jarena Lee.

Along with narrative, metaphor served an important non-rationalist function. It helped the mind to see and understand connections that might not have become visible through technical expostulation. Through image and metaphor, the speaker vitalized whatever point he was making. In his "Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity," Parker uses metaphor to great effect. Distinguishing the "truth of God" from the "word of man," he writes:

... [a] mountain stands to catch the clouds, to win the blessing they bear, and send it down to moisten the fainting violet, to form streams which gladden valley and meadow, and sweep on at last to the sea in deep channels, laden with fleets. Thus the forms of the church, the creeds of the sects, the conflicting opinions of teachers, float round the sides of the Christian mount, and swell and toss, and rise and fall, and dart their lightning, and roll their thunder, but they neither make nor mar the mount itself. Its lofty summit far transcends the tumult, knows nothing of the storm which roars below....62

The Evangelicals rarely approached this degree of self-conscious literariness in their sermons, but did show a flair for the gripping metaphorical phrase. The metaphorical images that they employed tended to cluster around two principal themes: the subjective feeling of spiritual transformation and the relationship between humanity and divinity. The first group includes those metaphors which represent conversion as taking place "in the heart," or as hearing the "voice of God." The second group centers around images of the passage of humankind through the mortal world to the divine realm, as in the following chorus:

We'll stem the storm, it won't be long
The heav'nly port is nigh.
We'll stem the storm, it won't be long
We'll anchor by and by.63

In their quest to represent the truth of human experience in an authentic fashion, Evangelicals and Transcendentalists employed metaphor as way to stimulate that part of the mind which sensed connections as much as rationally understanding them. By discarding the arid preaching of Calvinism in favor of metaphorical imagery and by representing personal experience as a microcosm of universal human experience, both movements helped to liberate religious language from a heritage which had grown increasingly irrelevant to younger generations of Americans. The challenge that still confronted Transcendentalists and Evangelicals was to stay relevant themselves by translating their religious philosophies not only into new forms of language but into concrete forms of behavior and social organization.


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