Lend Me Your Ears
by William Safire editor
There are many, many worthwhile speeches in this anthology edited by William Safire, but time considerations limit our recommendations to just four: Martin Luther’s defense at the Diet of Worms; John Wesley’s sermon attacking predestination; John Witherspoon’s sermon concerning the relationship between church and state; and Patrick Henry’s famous call to arms, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
As your students grow in the rhetoric stage, they should be awakening to the fact that an argument may be more than reasonable—it may also be eloquent. This is modeled beautifully by Luther in his defense at the Diet of Worms. What he says is true—man should rely upon the Word of God rather than the pronouncements of any mortal—but what he says is also eloquent, in a way that still moves us. As Christians, we should be concerned with both truth and beauty in our speech. Proverbs 25:11 tells us that “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” and in verse 15 we are told that “a soft tongue can break bones.” This certainly applies to Christians seeking to share their faith; Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:2 that we should proclaim God’s truth and “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” Luther’s teaching was both convincing and moving, and as such played a major role in igniting the Reformation.
Henry also knew that persuading people depended upon more than logic. Not only did he speak eloquently, but he actually acted out portions of his speech—at one point, kneeling and assuming the posture of a shackled slave.
Unfortunately, some speakers (and some writers) depend upon their rhetoric to carry a weak argument—assuming that passion can take the place of coherence. Although John Wesley deserves effusive praise for his commitment to evangelize and educate the poor, this particular sermon models the truth that eloquence apart from coherence can only go so far.
Witherspoon’s sermon is probably the least eloquent, but it raises questions that are still very much at issue in America today. When the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence thunders, “Whoever is an avowed enemy to God, I scruple not to call him an enemy to his country,” one can’t help but wonder about the place of atheism in America’s public square now and in the future.
by Jeff Baldwin