In 1620 John Winthrop, leader of Massachusetts Bay, transported the covenant God made with Israel to the covenant God was making with the New World. En route to Massachusetts, Winthrop preached a now-famous sermon: “A Model of Christian Charity.” He is our first illustration of how Americans have prophesied godlessness and the judgment of God or apocalyptic doom if they do not repent.
The warning that the country will fall apart if Americans don’t repent and turn to God is an old “script” in American history … and this chp, by Wilson Brissett, examines how a particular form — the “jeremiad” — was used and re-used in American religious and political sermons.
Let’s begin with this: there is a problem here with the “little boy who cried wolf.” Some use the jeremiad for anything and everything. What prompts you to use or to respond to a jeremiad?
The calling — the covenant — God made with those who were setting up life in the New World was that they might become a “city upon a hill.” If they live up to what God has said, blessing; if they do not, God’s wrath. Winthrop, however, was no pietistic or quietist. Instead, he envisioned the covenant’s obligations for the new community to be loving God and loving others, and inherent to this love of others was economic justice.
The “form” these folks used to remind the Puritans of their calling/covenant was the jeremiad, the sermon that evoked the style of Jeremiah: remind them of the covenant, list their sins, warn them of God’s judgment, promise them blessing if they repent, and remind them that God’s wrath can burn against them if they neglect their covenant obligations.
Then Jonathan Edwards expanded this style of declaring doom by urging his contemporaries to embrace the surprising work of God in the Great Awakening or they would be rejecting the work of God and incur God’s wrath. So here the jeremiad was expanded from simple obedience to a specific act of God in the country — the revivals.
A study of Edwards: Samuel Hopkins took the Puritan jeremiad and applied it to the country for slavery and to masters who had slaves. His words: “Can we wonder that Religion is done to decay in our Land, that vice and profaneness have overspread the whole Land, when the Ever glorious God has been blasphemed openly in the practice of Slavery among us for So long a time?” (30-31).
This chp of Brissett, then shifts at the end to show that the jeremiad was re-used by Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln — with much less covenantal basis and for political liberalism, Romantic individualism, and the plea for national unity. Inherent is the warning of what might happen if Americans do not live up to their calling.