Sunday, November 03, 1996
A Comparison of Two Speeches
The speeches delivered by Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and Patrick Henry, "Speech in the Virginia Convention," differ in many respects. The speeches had different audiences, were set in different places, and had completely different subjects. Yet these speeches, delivered thirty-four years apart, had similarities. They both used logic, classical images, and restatement, but they varied in the use of emotion and Biblical references. Depending on the topic, audience, and the deliverer's repute, each speaker used these techniques to add to his speech and make it more effective.
Henry and Edwards both asked the audience to reason for themselves. Edwards presented the congregation with an image of God, begrudgingly holding them above the inferno of Hell. He then asked them to "consider" what their options are (75). He allowed his own audience to think of their fate. Appealing to their intelligence, Edwards drew them in and made the audience internalize, even for a brief moment, the hypothetical situation. Similarly, Patrick Henry appealed to the audience's ability to reason. He used phrases like, "It is too late," and, "There is no retreat" (118). This made the audience slowly move toward the last option that they possessed, war. Both speakers led their audiences toward dead-ends. In this sense, their purpose, to convince their audiences that this end of their complacent lives, was the same. Using logic, the speakers led the audience to conclude that they had no alternatives, and both called upon them to see that they had only one escape.
Henry and Edwards used restatement of images to emphasize their ideas. At first, Henry used the images of the sirens of Greek mythology to create a sense of despair and inevitability. Then, he used the biblical references to Judas's betrayal of Jesus, an inevitable part of Jesus's mission. Quoting Ezekiel, Henry further underlined the ignorance or blindness of his collegues that would not end the conflict but merely postpone the inevitable war. Edwards similarly repeated images to emphasize his point. He presented the image of a hand holding a sinner above Hell. Then he said that you are held, "as one holds a spider ... You hang by a slender thread" (75). Being essentially the same images, the spider and the sinner are analogous, and the thread and the hand function similarly. Edwards called attention to the precarious situation of the spider and the man on the hand. This similarity further emphasizes the topic that Edwards chose. The composition of Henry's and Edwards audiences, both intellectually prominent, allowed the speakers to use these multiple classical and Biblical images which helped clarify and emphasize their points. The audiences were required to notice the parallels and draw conclusions from them. Using the restatement of images, both Edwards and Henry underscore major ideas.
Perhaps because of their delivery style or the tastes and emotions toward their respective topics, Edwards and Henry diverged on the technique of repetition. Henry used extensive repetition of simple grammatic structures to unify and connect several questions: "Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely..." (118). This emphasized his statements and clearly denoted a list of ideas and options. However, Edwards did not repeat grammatic structures. His speech, containting many images, did not convey the same emotional power as Henry's. Edwards shunned, degraded, and demoted the audience while Henry tried to convince them to join his cause. The varying sentence structure added depth to the stories and illustrations that Edwards used. In Henry's case, emotions were harnessed and developed with repetition. On the other hand the calmness and the vivid imagery in Edward's sermon made it more shocking to the congregation.
Rhetorical questions were present in Henry's speech but not Edwards' sermon. A question in Edwards's delivery would have given too much freedom of thought to the audience members whom he was trying to degrade. This would not have been consistent with the topic and the style with which the sermon was delivered; thus Edwards did not use this oratory device. On the other hand the rhetorical questions in Henry's speech promoted active thought and consideration of the alternatives that Henry presented. His use of such questions placed the audience members as equals in the decision making process. This audience differed from those who "are out of God" because they were encouraged to join Henry (Edwards 74). Edwards expounded the non-negitiable demands that God makes on his audience. Thus the rhetorical questions were applied where they were warranted.
Beyond thought provoking questions, both speakers appealed to emotional reaction. Edwards appealed to fear and pride, while Henry appealed to nationalism and self-preservation. One pointed fingers at the audience while the other showed his devotion to his cause. Edwards referred to the congregation as "you" consistently. This demeaned them and made them feel singled out. Then he gave the audience disturbing and frightening images of being hung precariously over Hell to make them fear the God whom they had to serve. He destroyed whatever pride his audience had. His use of "you" is consistent with his intended result, to scare the audience into submission to God. In contrast, Henry employed the now famous phrase, "give me liberty or give me death," to state his devotion to his ideas (118). Indeed, he declared that he would martyr himself before giving up his beliefs. Arousing the feeling of self-preservation, he used himself as an example of nationalism in the United States. Mentioning the repeatedly rejected petitions that the colonists had made to their home, England, Henry argued that the colonists had no choice but to rebel. For his purpose of convincing and not scaring his voting audience, this use and appeal to emotion was appropriate.
Although both speeches appealed to the Bible, they apply Biblical material differenty. Edwards used the Old Testament's strong God to support his spider on a thread image. He used the image of Sodom to encourage compliance with this God. Contrariwise, Henry used the quote from Ezekiel, "those who having eyes see not, and having ears hear not," and the image of Jesus's betral, "Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss," to warn of the English who were slowly betraying America and discourage further attempts to compromise (116). He brought up Biblical examples that the colonists should not follow. This was the exact opposite of Edwards's use which encouraged following the examples set forth in the Bible. In both cases, the audience considered the Bible as an acceptable source. Furthermore, both used the traditional appeal to the Bible which had gained significant importance as a result of the Great Awakening.
Henry and Edwards utlize ethical values in distinct situations. Patrick Henry tried to convince the audience that war is right and that their ethical value of loyalty is insignificant as a result of previous British actions. "There is no retreat but in submission and slavery!" (118). On the other hand, Edwards implied that only by following ethical values could one avoid the dangers of Hell. The uses of the word "sinner" implies a person who does not uphold the highest ethical values (75). Each speaker used appeals to the universal idea of ethics to sway the thoughts of the listeners.
With appeals to ethics, logic, and emotion, these two men, arguing on different occasions, to different audiences, use images, repetitive elements, and rhetorical questions to convince their audiences of leurs buts. Not surprisingly they use many of the same techniques, but where they differ, they do so with due cause. Accounting for their audience and the topic in applying various speaking techniques, Henry and Edwards effectively deliver their messages.