The Rhetoric of Puritan Preaching

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at Puritan preaching through the lens of the trivium. Scripture gave Puritan preachers a foundational grammar, and through logical/dialectical methods this grammar would be brought to bear upon the minds of men.

But sermons are more than logical outlines; they need to be delivered. From grammar and logic, we now turn to rhetoric. The goal here is not to explore the technical components of delivery (e.g., length, volume, syntax), so much as to identify the man behind the delivery. Puritan preachers did not ascend their pulpits as mere voice boxes; they went as whole men, a full integration of flesh, personality, and spirit. And while they rightfully recognized the science of rhetoric, their rhetoric was not a naked science. Rather, their proclamation of the Word of God—as heralds of Christ—gives evidence of spiritual vitality in fullest measure. 

Sanctified Rhetoricians

“If a man teach uprightly and walk crookedly, more will fall down in the night of his life than he built in the day of his doctrine.” — John Owen

Puritan preachers understood well the danger of pulpit hypocrisy. Since preaching was an inherently spiritual activity, it would therefore be impossible to proclaim the importance of spiritual life via a life that was itself spiritually malnourished. Both Puritan preachers and their congregations placed a high premium upon the importance of having godly ministers of the gospel.

The Puritans understood that the relationship between the pastor and his congregation was symbiotic. If the pastor was spiritually stagnant, how could the congregation expect a living flow from his mouth? Perkins stated it well: “He must first be godly affected himself who would stir up godly affections in other men.”[1]

The record of William Perkins' life confirms that he practiced what he preached. The man was well-loved by his congregation for his purity of life. It has been said that “He lived sermons, and as his preaching was a comment on his text, so his practice was a comment on his preaching.”[2]

Acute knowledge of the cause-and-effect relationship between the preacher's personal character and his fruitfulness as a pastor led the Puritans in the constant pursuit of a sanctified life. They knew that their ministries depended upon it. Indeed,

“A minister's work is usually blessed in proportion to the sanctification of his heart before God. Ministers must therefore seek grace to build the house of God with sound experiential preaching and doctrine as well as with a sanctified life. Our preaching must shape our life, and our life must adorn our preaching.”[3]

The Puritan David Dickson is famous for charging a minister at his ordination to study two books together: the Bible, and his own heart.[4] Packer notes,

"Their strenuous exercise in meditation and prayer, their sensitiveness to sin, their utter humility, their passion for holiness, and their glowing devotion to Christ equipped them to be master-physicians of the soul. And deep called to deep when they preached, for they spoke of the black depths and high peaks of Christian experience first-hand.”[5]

Or, in the timeless summary of Puritan John Boys, "He doth preach most who doth live best.”[6]

Spiritual Rhetoric

“Ministers knock at the door of men's hearts, the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door.”— Thomas Watson

The Puritan preachers were men of robust intellect and disciplined study. History shows us that they prepared their sermons carefully with painstaking and meticulous detail.[7] Their appreciation for sound logic and intellectually stimulating argument is largely lacking for parallels in the history of humanity.

The Puritans were not, however, foolish enough to depend upon their intellect and study for the gathering of souls and the perfecting of the church. They knew fundamentally that preaching, though highly dependent upon the intellect, was reaching for a goal that bare intellect could never reach: bringing a dead soul to life.

They prayed. In fervent prayer they sought the Spirit to accompany their work in the pulpit. Anyone who envisions Puritan preaching as devoid of spirituality and anchored in a logical quagmire has yet to understand it. Baxter writes,

“Prayer must carry on our work as well as preaching; he preacheth not heartily to his people, that prayeth not earnestly for them. If we prevail not with God to give them faith and repentance, we shall never prevail with them to believe and repent.”[8]

John Bunyan picks up the refrain,

“You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed... Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge to Satan.”[9]

In short, the Puritans believed in the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit when it came to conversion. They understood that the ultimate success of gospel preaching was not left to the man in the pulpit. Packer speaks for the Puritans when he says,

“Man's task is simply to be faithful in teaching the word; it is God's work to convince of its truth and write it in the heart. The Puritans would have criticized the modern evangelistic appeal, with its wheeling for 'decisions,' as an unfortunate attempt by man to intrude into the Holy Spirit's province. It is for God, not man, to fix the time of conversion.” [10]

Simple Rhetoric

"It is a by-word among us: It was a very plain sermon: And I say again, the plainer, the better."— William Perkins

Despite the proclivity of words that dominated the speech patterns of their day, Puritan preaching was aimed endlessly at simplicity. “Plain speech” was their consummate goal. It bears saying that our present culture's love for verbal paucity and childish grammatical construction may make us the least qualified to evaluate the actual impact of such an aim. Our present culture seems ignorant of the fact that one can speak long and yet be simple. 

It was specifically William Perkins' The Art of Prophesying that forever changed the homiletical landscape of Puritan England. Perkins was primarily responsible for the universal adoption of the new Reformed method by the seventeenth-century Puritans, a method which was characterized by a plain style of preaching that delivered sermons in an easy to grasp progression of exegesis, doctrines, proofs, and uses.[11] Unfortunately, this “plain” preaching was not always quite so plain. Nevertheless, Puritan preaching must be judged less by its supposed “plainness” and more by its results. According to Pipa,

"In our day Puritan preaching is considered prolix and scholastic, yet in its time, Puritan preaching revolutionized England and paved the way for the Long Parliament and the Westminster Assembly.”[12]

It is my conviction that current students of Puritan preaching often equate mistakenly the Puritan concept of "plainness” with lack of complexity. Puritan preachers like Perkins were aiming for simplicity of speech and unadorned logic, not necessarily brevity and anti-complexity. Their style may have been difficult as times, but its theological and practical fruit are undeniable down to the present day. The proof is in the pudding: the plain style of preaching advocated by Perkins did not return void in Puritan England and left an indelible mark on the face of Christianity for enduring centuries. 

According to Ryken, "Plain preaching was defined by what it lacked as well as by what it contained [...]. What the Puritans did not want was a pastiche of quotations or an embellished style that called great attention to its own ostentatiousness.”[13] The Puritans understood the tendency for men in the pulpit to make preaching into a mere exercise of ego.  Instead of rendering praise unto the Triune God, the congregations of such men would be tempted to render praise unto the medium and not the source. William Perkins was a staunch critic of such ego-centric preaching.

Contra Rome, Puritan preachers wanted the Word of God living in the minds of men, and that meant communicating it in such a way so as to insure its lodging. Richard Sibbes claimed that "truth feareth nothing so much as concealment, and desireth nothing so much as clearly to be laid open to the view of all: when it is most naked, it is most lovely and powerful.”[14] Puritan preachers endeavored to reach all men with the gospel, both the learned and the unlearned. This meant writing sermons that common folk could imbibe and learned men could appreciate. As was said of William Perkins, "His sermons were not so plain but that the piously learned did admire them, nor so learned but that the plain did understand them.”[15]

Sincere Rhetoric

"I preached, as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men." — Richard Baxter

All of the aforementioned culminated in what scholars often refer to as experiential or affective preaching. Beeke defines it as...

“...preaching that seeks to explain in terms of biblical, Calvinistic truth how matters ought to go, how they do go, and the end goal of the Christian life [...] it addresses the entire range of Christian living, focusing heavily on a believer's well-being and maturity. With the Spirit's blessing, the mission of such preaching is to transform the believer in all that he is and does to become more and more like the Savior.”[16]

All in all, experiential preaching characterized the Puritan preacher's sincere desire to measure the experienced knowledge of himself and his congregation against the touchstone of Scripture.  Experiential preaching was, more than anything else, an appeal to both the heart and minds of men, women, and children. It aimed to change them, not just land on them. Richard Baxter carries the meaning well when he says,

“As man is not so prone to live according to the truth he knows except it do deeply affect him, so neither doth his soul enjoy its sweetness, except speculation do pass to affection. The understanding is not the whole soul, and therefore cannot do the whole work....The understanding must take in truths, and prepare them for the will, and it must receive them and commend them to the affections;...the affections are, as it were, the bottom of the soul.”[17]

Puritan preaching was not lecturing; it was a desperate calling unto souls. It was a sincere plea to be right with God at the expense of all else. Because of its magisterial content, preaching ought to be a serious and sober engagement. "Of all the preaching in the world,” wrote Baxter, “I hate that preaching which tends to make the hearers laugh, or to move their minds with tickling levity and affect them as stage plays used to, instead of affecting them with a holy reverence for the name of God.”[18]

Conclusion

In the spirit of Perkins, I hope this series has made Puritan preaching plain to understand and has renewed appreciation for its significance. If we are to avoid the eclipse of affective gospel preaching in our own day, we must become students of the Puritans. They embodied the essence of biblical preaching, choosing to live and speak by the Word of God rather than simply tickle men’s ears. Preaching modeled after their method has been of immense benefit in building up Christ’s Bride, the Church—thereby bringing pleasure to Him who gave Himself up for her.


Joe Steele is Senior Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, AL. He is husband to Elizabeth and father of four.


Related Links

"Preaching the Person and Work of Christ" by Ben Franks

"Puritan Preachers: William Perkins" by Joel Beeke

"Always Preach Christ?" by Ryan McGraw

Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke

Why Johnny Can't Preach by T. David Gordon


Notes

[1] Quoted in Ryken, Wordly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 93.

[2] Everett H. Emerson, English Puritanism from John Hooper to John Milton (Durham: Duke University Press, 1968) 159.

[3] Joel R. Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality (Webster: Evangelical Press USA, 2006) 436.

[4] Packer, 286.

[5] Packer, 286.

[6] Beeke, 436.

[7] Ryken, 98.

[8] Quoted in Beeke, Living for God's Glory, 271.

[9] Quoted in Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality, 438. 

[10] Packer, 283-284.

[11] Pipa, 216-217.

[12] Ibid., 2.

[13] Ryken, 105.

[14] Quoted in Ryken, 105.

[15] Quoted in Ryken, 105.

[16] Beeke, Living for God's Glory, 256.

[17] Quoted in Ryken, 102-103.

[18] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Grand Rapids: Banner of Truth, 1996) 119-120.