A Rhetorical History: Listening to Our Preaching Foremothers

by Sarah Kornfield | March 13, 2020

Women have been preaching in the United States since before the states were united—indeed, since before there were states. Anne Hutchinson pastored a church in her home in 1636 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. During the 1790s, Sarah Townsend preached in Long Island, New York, at the New Light Baptist Church. Harriet Livermore received a calling to preach in 1821 and began a long, celebrated ministry—preaching four times to Congress during the next two decades.

Zilpha Elaw preached from 1827–1840 throughout the South, despite the threat of enslavement she faced as a free African American. Similarly, Maria Stewart—also a free African American—preached abolitionist and women’s rights sermons during the 1830s; her ministry predates the work of the white sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimké, who began preaching when they joined the abolitionist movement. Rebecca Jackson traveled as a free African American itinerant preacher during the 1840s, and then in 1859 she founded a black Shaker community in Philadelphia.

From 1915–1944, Aimee Semple McPherson led a revivalist ministry; in 1923 she built her ministry’s headquarters and worship hall, the Angelus Temple, which is still an active church. These women were joined by a host of preaching sisters, many whose names are lost to history. These preachers had different experiences: some were welcomed in their communities and had long and fruitful ministries, some were reviled and ridiculed, some were exiled, and some were murdered.1

Rhetoric is the study of how people use words, visuals, and other symbols to intreat, inform, and persuade one another in public. I offer here a history of preaching rhetoric with the hope of encouraging women whose calling is the pulpit. We will explore how women have proven their preaching authority and constructed their sermons across time. Indeed, I hope to offer not only the encouragement of our rich history and its current trajectory, but also the rhetorical resources—the argumentation and speaking styles—these preaching foremothers employed and role-modeled for us.

Our Preaching Foremothers

Michael Casey analyzed women’s sermons prior to 1840 and identified four trends these preachers relied upon when arguing for their own authority as preachers. First, women claimed prophetic roles, arguing that their authority—and the words they preached—came from God. Situating themselves as God’s messengers helped these women sidestep accusations of preaching because they wanted attention or power. It also helped them sidestep accusations that they were rejecting (men’s) authority and gave these women authority as speakers that they otherwise lacked without being ordained by a church. These preaching foremothers often cited Acts 2:17–18 to claim their prophetic role: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy . . . even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit.”

Second, these women’s sermons centered on Scriptures that depicted women leaders, like Deborah, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla, and Junia. Third, these sermons identified patriarchy and racism as sins and argued that the church was guilty of these sins. Here, these preaching foremothers contrasted the church at the time with the early church described in Scripture, arguing that Scripture presents a clear picture of egalitarianism, and thus the church’s system of domination was sinful—not God’s design for his bride. Finally, these women preached in vernacular styles. Instead of reading from a transcript like most male preachers at that time who favored a classical rhetorical style, these women engaged the audience as they spoke in a more approachable, conversational manner.

When I first learned how these women preached from 1636 to 1840, I was actually disheartened rather than encouraged. Their sermons are masterpieces (brilliant argumentation, strong Scriptural evidence, eloquent presentations, approachable styles), and yet significant portions of the US church remain patriarchal and are complicit in racist attitudes and policies. Despite our preaching, a spirit of domination suffuses the church. In learning how our foremothers preached, I realized that women have left no stone unturned; across the generations, we have been consummate preachers.

Here, I like to imagine that the ancient Greek rhetorician Aristotle might commend women preachers for using every available means of persuasion even though many audiences (denominations, congregations) are unmoved. While Aristotle might be happy enough, I am not. This analysis worries me because it suggests that culture (the audience itself) has to change rather than suggesting that a new or additional preaching strategy will finally succeed in convincing people of the truth. Essentially, if our preaching foremothers had been bad at their callings, we might imagine that a new generation of preachers will succeed where they failed. Instead, their rhetorical brilliance—which they ascribed to the LORD, claiming they received their words from God—is evidenced as women and men continue to use the same strategies and cite the same passages of Scripture across multiple generations as we make the case for egalitarianism. 

There is, however, significant cause for optimism. The rhetorical culture within Christian communities—the way we expect sermons to sound—has changed in the last generation or two, opening the pulpit to women in entirely new ways. To explain this cause for optimism, I first need to explain how US audiences expect women to speak and how women have preached as evangelists during revivals.

Sounding Like a Woman

Women began preaching, teaching, and politicking when this was not permitted. Women continue preaching, teaching, and politicking even though our communities often seek to silence us. Speaking in these conditions is tricky at best and dangerous at worst. But women have adapted to these conditions by using rhetorical strategies to make ourselves heard. The rhetorical scholar Karlyn Kohrs Campbell named these strategies the “feminine rhetorical style.”2 By using the feminine rhetorical style, women can make themselves heard while still sounding the way audiences expect women to sound.  Indeed, by using these rhetorical strategies, women sound nonthreatening.

The feminine rhetorical style includes the following distinctive traits. First, the speaker enacts a feminine role (like wife or mother) or an ungendered role (like prophet or mediator) and uses persuasive appeals and stylistic devices that are associated with women (like domestic metaphors). The speaker then tells personal stories, uses an intimate tone, and encourages audience participation. Finally, the speaker presents story-based evidence that relies on inductive logic and avoids coarse language or direct confrontation. The speaker organizes and develops the speech in such a way that the audience realizes the conclusion before the speaker delivers it. Michelle Obama’s speaking style is a classic example of the feminine rhetorical style; she speaks in a way that sounds like audiences expect women to sound.

In contrast, the “masculine rhetorical style” is clear and direct, and the speaker is positioned as an authority. It presents a linear argument and relies on three-part deduction, where the speaker presents a universal proposition, provides evidence, and renders a conclusion. This style directly engages in refutation and debate by explicitly counterarguing another person’s ideas. Hillary Clinton is an excellent example of the masculine rhetorical style; she speaks in a way that sounds like audiences expect men to sound.

Throughout US history, sermons have traditionally been spoken in this masculine style as the (usually, male) pastor authoritatively imparts eternal truths to the congregation. As such, when women occupy the pulpit, they have historically faced a difficult choice. A woman could use the feminine rhetorical style and thus sound the way the audience expects a woman to sound but deliver a sermon that does not sound the way audiences expect sermons to sound. Or, a woman could use the masculine rhetorical style and deliver a sermon that sounds the way audiences expect sermons to sound, but “sound like a man” while she preaches. Historically, women have found it safer to use the feminine rhetorical style (indeed, our preaching foremothers typically used this style), but this has meant that their sermons did not “sound like sermons” to their congregants.

Historically, women have had considerably more access to the revival tent’s podium than a church pulpit. In part, this can be explained by the less formal setting of the revival meeting and the temporary nature of a revivalist speaker. Listening to a woman preach once is quite different from accepting a woman as a church’s pastor. Yet it is also explained through the clear spiritual giftings in evangelism of these women—such as Aimee Semple McPherson who preached during the Second Great Awakening.

Moreover, evangelists tend to preach in a way that sounds different from the standard church sermon yet overlaps considerably with the feminine rhetorical style. Evangelists present themselves as prophets who deliver God’s words. They share “good news” so that their sermons sound positive and inviting. They also feature stories, both from Scripture and real life, and perform those stories in embodied ways that draw the audience into the Christian narrative with their hearts. Where women have been both doctrinally and stylistically shut out of church pulpits, they continued preaching throughout US history in revival settings.3

Carving the Church’s Imagination

Here I see great cause for optimism. The style in which women have so powerfully preached throughout US history has embedded itself in the psyche of the Christian church. We’ve been preaching so eloquently for so long we’ve carved our sermons into the church’s imagination. Audiences love stories and long to share intimacy with a speaker.

Simultaneously, in the last generation or two, US male politicians started occasionally using the feminine rhetorical style when they speak. Ronald Reagan was famous for his personal, intimate tone, his storytelling and his audience engagement—all strategies straight out of the feminine rhetorical style’s playbook. Male politicians adopted this style as their speeches became increasingly televised.4 Television close-ups brought their faces directly into our living spaces, so they adopted more intimate, personal styles to match the intimacy of how viewers experienced them.

In 1971, Fred Craddock published a new preaching textbook, As One Without Authority: Essays on Inductive Preaching. This preaching manual teaches preachers to use inductive reasoning to engage the audience and capture their imagination through storytelling and to preach in a personal tone. Craddock identified this preaching style as preaching “without authority.” I identify this preaching style as the feminine rhetorical style. Over the last fifty years, this preaching style has grown increasingly popular across various denominations. Essentially, Christian culture has changed in ways that open the pulpit to women who “sound like women” when they preach.

Throughout many generations, women have preached the word of God. Women developed and used the feminine rhetorical style largely as a response to the closed doors and hostile audiences they encountered. Yet, the feminine rhetorical style is so creatively resourceful, and women have been so steadfast in fulfilling their callings to preach despite opposition that we have worn a rhetorical groove that stretches from the revival tent to the pulpit. Now when we preach, we can sound the way audiences expect women to sound while delivering a sermon that not only engages the congregants’ hearts and minds but also sounds like a sermon.


 

Notes

1. Michael Casey, “The First Female Public Speakers in America (1630-1840): Searching for Egalitarian Christian Primitivism,” The Journal of Communication and Religion 23.1 (2000); Leland Spencer, Women Bishops and Rhetorics of Shalom, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017); Kristy Maddux, “The Foursquare Gospel of Aimee Semple McPherson,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 14.2 (2011). 
2. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, “The Discursive Performance of Femininity: Hating Hillary,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 1.1 (1998).
3. Kristy Maddux, “The Foursquare Gospel of Aimee Semple McPherson,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 14.2 (2011).
4. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Eloquence in an Electronic Age (Oxford University Press, 1988).