Tuesday, August 14th, 2012...5:01 pm

Jeremiads Incoming!

Jump to Comments

We were once a great nation, but we have strayed from our founding principles and now stand at the edge of the abyss. We face certain ruin unless we return to our founding principles.

If that rhetorical formula sounds familiar to Americans, it should. It’s called the “jeremiad” (after the biblical prophet Jeremiah), and it was invented by Congregationalist ministers in the middle of the seventeenth century.

They were bemoaning what they saw as a loss of fervor among the second generation of Massachusetts settlers (after the Plymouth Plantation’s founding in 1620 and the Massachusetts Bay Colony after 1628), who found that they quite liked the entrepreneurial opportunities there and devoted more of their energies to business than to sanctification.

And ever since, the jeremiad’s rhetorical formula has been used by succeeding generations of preachers and politicians. Raise the alarm! The Republic is in peril!

But as I tell my students in American literature courses, when you hear that formula, check your wallet and your copy of the Constitution, because somebody is about to pick your pocket and to restrict your rights.

Although the jeremiad now seems almost ubiquitous and sempiternal, never going out of season (in part because there is no longer an election “season” but one continuous state of political contest), at election time it is more insistent. Although the jeremiad can be used by all sides of the political spectrum, it is particularly amenable to conservative discourse (since it calls for a “return” to a prior, pre-declension state).

So keep a sharp eye out for those incoming jeremiads! There may be one aimed directly at you.

Dr. Andrew Murphy, professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, offers his gloss on recent political applications of the jeremiad.

Leave a Reply