A Public Rhetoric of Death: Calvinism, Communal Anxiety, and Death Texts in Puritan New England


Melissa Knous

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D)


Literature and Languages

Date of Award

Fall 2012


The purpose of this study is to examine the rhetorical strategies used by Puritans in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century colonial New England in the production of the three public mourning genres: printed sermons, printed broadside epitaphs, and carved gravestones. This project argues that these death texts reveal not only many of the Puritans' attitudes about death but that over time they reveal the anxiety of the Massachusetts Bay colonists in the face of their inability to establish God's true church in New England. Each of these three types of texts--epitaphs, gravestones, and sermons--constitutes a genre, based on their patterns of similarities, both rhetorical and formal. These mourning forms are artifacts of the colonists' attempts to reinvigorate the communal mission's original fervor. The study is organized into five chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the topic of Puritan death rhetoric and the questions driving the study, followed by a review of literature and the study's significance. Chapter 2 describes the historical contexts for the study's main argument about mission and public rhetoric before clarifying the mission of the Calvinist colonists to New England and explaining how that mission was communicated, ultimately arguing that the gap between ideal mission and reality made it necessary to use public rhetoric in the form of death texts to reinstate an adherence to the ideal mission. Chapter 3 examines sermons and describes the characteristics of American Puritan jeremiads before applying those conventions to funeral sermons. Chapter 4 examines the broadside epitaphs and gravestones produced by New Englanders between 1630-1730 as public sites of jeremiadic, ritualized rhetoric and as material evidence of the colonists' attempts to fortify communal ties in an effort to revitalize their mission to New England. Chapter 5 reviews the research questions and addresses the implications of the study, in terms of teaching and research. Finally, it suggests further avenues of research.


Karen Roggenkamp

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities