Anachan's Corner

One woman's journey through marriage, motherhood, and the classroom…

Partying With Patrick Henry

Written By: Anachan - Oct• 19•16

A few weeks ago, my American literature class read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a sermon by the renowned Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards.

The piece is one which is considered an “Anchor Text” in the new Common Core-aligned textbook selected from the list of state-approved texts last year. Published by Pearson, the company which also handles the PARCC testing, which New Mexican high school students are required to pass before receiving a diploma, this textbook ought to have material best suited for preparing students for that test. Or, at least, that was our reasoning.

The book is designed to allow teachers some flexibility, based on the needs of the students in their classrooms, which means there are way too many pieces in the book for me to cover in one school year. The teacher must pick and choose which pieces to cover and which to pass over in the course of, well, the course.

Because of this, I have tended to focus on those pieces labeled as “Exemplar Texts” or “Anchor Texts,” as those are among the “canon” of the publishers and test writers. Overall, they make up a fairly decent overview of the trends in American literature and expose the students to the literary concepts they need in order to be considered “competent.”

But when my class read the Edwards sermon, I came to understand there was something else I ought to be considering, as well.

The selection in the text is actually only a portion of the sermon, as the original work took the clergyman six hours to deliver. It is a disciplinary sermon, presumably to motivate the congregation to repent, and according to the background note before the text, some of the listeners actually screamed in terror in the middle of the meeting.

As we started reading the sermon, I realized I, too, felt something, but it wasn’t sheer terror. Instead, a dampness and depression had settled on the room as the students read the words. What I was feeling was not something as much as the absence of something, and I realized I knew what was wrong: the Holy Spirit was not present.

In my faith, along with many Christians of other denominations, we believe that an individual can live worthily to have the companionship of the Holy Spirit, as long as he or she is living in accordance with the commandments of God. Members focus on maintaining daily spirituality and keeping touch with the Almighty, through prayer and scripture study, in order to develop a better understanding of what it feels like to have the Spirit around. By so doing, we can also learn to recognize when said Spirit is absent, indicating that something is not going well and needs to be fixed.

As I recognized the absence of the Spirit, I began to wonder how many of my students would get the impression from this experience that all sermons or other religious addresses were dark and depressing. I began to wonder how many of my students would feel that religion as a whole was something to be avoided. And I began to wonder what kind of impression toward God my students would form from reading this kind of piece.

Out of all the sermons Edwards preached–and he was rather prolific–this was the one chosen by the publishers to represent a Puritan sermon. Given that it is fairly well-known that many in academia tend toward the secular, was there a message the publishers wanted to pass on to the students?

Even if the publishers had no nefarious intent against religion, what was the message I was passing on to my students by my tacit condoning of this piece?

The image of God as a vengeful God, holding mankind in his hand above an awful Hell, completely at His mercy, is not the image of God to which I subscribe. I view God as a loving Father in Heaven, who wants to nurture, rather than threaten, and who guides us quietly day by day in helping us make the choices which will bring us back to His presence.

The Holy Spirit is the means whereby this guidance is usually provided, and when the Holy Spirit leaves, such as was happening that day in my classroom, it is a signal for me to stop and think.

I did this later on, that Friday night, relating my concerns to my husband, who listened intently. “Well,” he said, “don’t read the sermon, then.”

“But it’s an Anchor Text.”

“That doesn’t matter, in the long term.”

He was right, of course. What mattered most was that I followed the guidance the Holy Spirit was giving me and doing what was pleasing to God. There were other pieces the students could read to practice the same skills which would be covered in this lesson, in order to prepare them for their tests, and there was no real reason we couldn’t skip this one.

I sat down at my computer and rewrote my lesson plans, cutting out the analysis questions I had intended to assign and removing the subsequent quiz from the schedule. Although I knew it would mean my class would have barely touched on the Puritan influence in America, I decided to move on to the Age of Reason, the movement in literature which consists of the writings and speeches of the Founding Fathers.

The next school day, after the weekend, my class read Patrick Henry’s Speech to the Virginia Convention. It is a speech full of wonderful rhetorical devices and diction chosen for its strength and its ability to stir the hearts of men. It is a speech which helped to turn the tide of history, moving men to prepare for the war for independence which would very shortly come upon the American colonies. It is a speech which invokes the name of God as protector and mentor, alluding to scripture in support of the cause of liberty. It is a speech which causes the blood to rise to my face and the tears to my eyes, no matter how many times I read it, as I remember the blessings of the Lord in bringing to pass the freedoms we enjoy in the United States.

The feeling in the room as we read this speech together was as different from the previous experience as a party with dancing is from a funeral in the rain. There was excitement as Henry’s argument was presented, there was discovery as students noted the classical and Biblical allusions, and there was admiration for the rhetorical devices which were so simple to find, yet so effective in their use. We could admire the man who risked much, if not all, to stand before the assembly and declare, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Best of all, the Spirit was present, just as normally happened when what we were doing was acceptable unto the Lord.

From one side of the room, where a student sat on the rug in the reading nook, noting the scriptures which the author mentioned and the references to God, came this wondering comment: “Those men really did believe their religion was important, didn’t they?”

Yes, they did. And just as I do, many of them believed the hand of God lead them in their actions to establish this nation . . . just as I believe the hand of God can guide each of us in our daily lives.

As a public school teacher, it is not my job to teach my students about religion, except as it relates to historical context. But as a follower of Christ, it is my job to maintain an atmosphere in which the Holy Spirit can abide, even if that includes cutting out an “Anchor Text” or two.

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