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Using Puritan Literature to Teach Rhetorical Strategies in the Secondary Classroom

In teaching secondary students in the English classroom, Puritan literature may be a challenge. One way to approach this literature in a practical manner is to use the literature to teach students the different rhetorical strategies used by Puritans in their sermons. Puritan literature also allows for lessons on purpose and audience as there was always a strong focus in their doctrines. While Puritan literature is not typically looked at to teach the classic rhetorical techniques of logos, pathos, and ethos, I will argue that all of the Puritan literature published in secondary textbooks would lend itself to many examples of these rhetorical strategies.

One piece of Puritan literature that can be used to teach purpose and the logical persuasive techniques is Robert Cushman’s “Reasons and Considerations Touching the Lawfulness of Removing out of England into the Parts of America.” In this piece, Cushman is trying to convince those still in England who were considering coming to the New World. This would be a great piece to have students first read on their own to figure out the general purpose and intended audience of the text. Students can then go back and re-read the piece a second time looking for the logical appeals. Cushman, like many Puritan writers of this time period, uses a logical argument from information in the Bible as justification for things, like coming to the New World . He states, “Whereas God of old did call and summon our fathers by predictions, dreams, visions, and certain illuminations to go from their countries, places, and habitations, to reside and dwell there…” (42). By stating that it is God’s will for them to come to new places, he is hoping that this will turn into a religious pilgrimage, as well as a departure from England. This would be considered a logical appeal and something that high school students can decipher through close analysis of the text.

This also is very similar to what John Winthrop does in “Reasons to Be Considered for… the Intended Plantation in New England” when Winthrop attempts to use a biblical and logical appeal to convince those in England to come to the New World. When responding to objections that the English have no warrant to enter the land occupied by others, he also states, “The whole earth is the Lord’s garden and he hath given it to the sons of men, with a general condition…” (72). Winthrop also uses pathos, or emotional appeals, in his “Reasons to Be Considered.” In trying to convince those in England to come to the New World, he uses loaded words to create a strong emotional response to his argument. For example, he states, “What can be a better work and more honorable and worthy a Christian then to help raise and support a particular church while it is in the infancy” (72). The words “honorable” and “worthy” make the idea of coming to the New World seem overly positive. For use in the secondary classroom, teachers can discuss the connotation and denotations of words and how connotations have a large impact on the overall meaning and persuasive appeal. Teachers can make a list of these words on the board and discuss how Winthrop uses them to strengthen his argument.

Another emotional appeal that students can analyze in Puritan Sermons is the idea of story-telling. Puritan sermons often took the stories of the Bible and used them in their performance to rationalize but also dramatize their ideas. According to the article, “Puritan’s Progress: The Story of the Soul’s Salvation in the Early New England Sermons,” by Phyllis M. Jones, New England preachers did more than develop doctrines and use plain style.  Jones states, “The ultimate imaginative resonance of the sermons lies less in texture-their style and imagery-than in a structural feature-their underlying narrative about the soul’s search for salvation” (14). Jones explains that the story of the soul’s salvation is told in such an imaginative and narrative way, that the doctrine becomes persuasive (15). As an example, Jones uses Thomas Hooker’s, “The Souls Vocation,” where Hooker narrates an encounter of the soul with Christ, to show that Puritan sermons often mixed narrative folk-tale with fact. Jones states, “Practically without transition the storyteller has shifted from fiction to fact, from figurative account to realistic diagnosis…” (23). In the secondary classroom teachers can discuss the idea of folk-tales, their purpose, and how Puritan’s often used these to make their doctrines more persuasive. Secondary students could find modern day pieces of rhetoric or advertising that uses narratives or folk-tales to provide a more persuasive argument.

While teaching Puritan Literature to secondary students may pose some challenges, including sensitivity to religion, text complexity past their reading level, and unawareness for the Puritan culture, it is my belief that these pieces can be used with great success in teaching rhetorical strategies. Also, they can teach students how people create an argument and support their main ideas with facts or ideas that make it more persuasive.

Works Cited

Heimert, Alan, and Andrew Delbanco, eds. The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology. 1 Vol. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985. Print.

Jones, Phyllis M. “Puritan’s Progress: The Story of the Soul’s Salvation in the Early New England Sermons.” Early American Literature 15.1 (1980): 14-28. Print.


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