Monday, May 14, 2012

bradford and winthrop

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Throughout history, readers have been bombarded with tales filled with emotion and designed to make the reader think about what has been said. Through the writer’s choice of stylistic and literary devices, a piece of writing can lead a reader in any direction he intends. John Winthrop, in his Model on Christian Charity, attempts to lead his listeners on the path to righteousness through their acts towards others, and through his literary style, the people listening are left with a clear vision of what Winthrop was trying to convey. And Jonathan Edwards, in his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, is trying to lead his listeners back onto the trail that Winthrop had set out almost one hundred years before. Both Winthrop and Edwards use metaphor extensively throughout their writings, as is evidenced through Winthrop’s vision of a “city on a hill” and Edward’s extended comparison to the people of earth as being held in God’s hand over the fiery pits of hell, and the writer’s choice of words allows the reader and/or listener to fully comprehend the message that the writer is trying to convey.

John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, knew that his new colony came from all walks of life, and that this vast diversity would make unity difficult. In order to give his people a sense of direction, he contrived the notion of the sermon, “A Model on Christian Charity.” His most famous words, coming at the conclusion of his sermon, deliver his most poignant message

…the Lord makes it like that of New England. For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if wee shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for Gods sake… (16).

His reference to a “city on a hill” is a direct reference the Bible, in which “a city that is set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 514-15, p 16). Winthrop wants New England to be a new Israel, one in which all people will see and that will be a guide for all future colonies in America. All eyes, both American and English, as well as the rest of the world, will be watching to see how this new colony, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, will be able to survive. Winthrop’s vision is for a solid, strong community, one that will set the standard for all who are to follow him.

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Winthrop also mentions a certain “shipwreck,” one in which the people of his colony must strive to stay in God’s grace or be eternally damned. Although not a literal shipwreck, his reference to destruction without salvation is an effective use of both metaphor as well as loaded speech. This reference to a shipwreck would have been, at this point in time, something almost all of his listeners would have been familiar with, especially being that they had just endured a crossing from England to America. There are other, less significant examples of Winthrop’s use of metaphor, most notably his reference to love as “a bond of perfection. First, it is a bond or ligament…” (11). Each individual part makes up a whole, and love is the binding that holds everything together.

Writing almost a century after Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards was trying to force his listeners to turn back against their evil ways and return to the path of God. The Puritan man must tread lightly and avoid sins in order to enter the good graces of God. Otherwise, the undeserving man will plunge by God’s own hand into the pits of hell. Mercy is not easy to come by, and those sinners who are not embraced by the kingdom of Heaven will live in eternal, painful misery. Jonathan Edwards’s sermon was not intended to encourage his congregation, but rather to frighten them into pure submission to an all-powerful God. His point is driven home by Edward’s extensive use of figurative language, including several metaphors and similes. The title of the piece alone references to his main metaphor, that of God’s hand being the only tiny thread that prevents mere men from an eternity of misery. In effect, Edwards introduces repetition through the continuous use of the idea of man being held in the tenuous grasp of God’s hand. In one example of this metaphor, Edwards says

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment (504).

Throughout his piece, this one idea, the idea that God’s grace is a slippery, non-guaranteed gift, asserts itself time after time. He repeatedly makes mention of each man walking on God’s thin hand, a hand which is the only barrier between salvation and damnation. If the man chooses a life of sin, he is released from God’s hand into hell, not because of God’s wrath, but because of his choices of sin. Edward’s God seems to be somewhat indifferent to the fate of the men that tread this dangerous path. He releases or embraces the man only when his actions warrant it. It appears that God plays no part in the fate of men. He says, “Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell (50). Each transgression adds to his guilt, and eventually his good qualities weaken under the burden of the sins and can no longer hold him from the pits of hell.

Edwards also uses the metaphor of water. In explanation, he says

The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose. It is true, that judgment against your evil works has not been executed hitherto; the floods of Gods vengeance have been withheld; but your guilt in the mean time is constantly increasing, and you are every day treasuring up more wrath; the waters are constantly rising, and waxing more and more mighty; and there is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, that holds the waters back, that are unwilling to be stopped, and press hard to go forward. If God should only withdraw his hand from the floodgate, it would immediately fly open… (50).

The water is held back by God’s hand, and though the pressure continues to raise, God’s hands hold back the flood that threaten. Though water can flow slowly over, the pressure continues to rise, and eventually this power will overtake the lives of men. God’s hand holds back these floodwaters, and His vengeance is held in check until the guilt of sinners has built up too much pressure for the gate to withstand. At that point, God’s hand will loose the waters (his wrath) and allow the dishonorable, sinning men of earth to be washed away.

Winthrop and Edwards both present their positions using metaphors extensively. Although each has his own style, both are trying to achieve the same goal�to turn men to Christ, whether it is before men have fallen, as is Winthrop’s case, or whether it is after men have turned to wickedness and corruption and need to be led back to the right path. Each writer leaves the reader/listener with a certain vision in his mind, one of a community that works together in the glory of God or one in which God spares no mercy on the sinners of the world. Their use of metaphor allows their readers to fully comprehend what each is trying to convey�it allows the readers, even readers in today’s society, to get a clear grasp of the images of God and his mercy and wrath that permeated their society. Winthrop’s use of metaphor helps his listeners understand the significance of bonding together, as everyone will be watching this newly formed society. Edwards’ use of metaphor is a scare tactic designed to help his audience see what their choices are leading them to. Both writers effectively create images in the reader’s mind what the writer intends for him to see.

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