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Mystical Bedlam, or the World of Madmen

Thomas Adams, collected works, vol. 1, p. 254.

(The text of the entire sermon can be found here: http://books.google.com/books?id=4qM_AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA254&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false)

The heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live: and after that, they go to the dead. Ecclesiastes 9:3.

In the introduction, we will see how Adams draws out the points of the sermon and works to create an emotional and logical effect in hearers. He does not seek to waste any time in his effort to make sin hateful and absurd.

Adams notes three elements of the verse:

1) The heart of the sons of men is full of evil,

2) and madness is in their heart while they live:

3) and after that, they go to the dead

The tripartite division follows the normal grammar and structure. He notes the relationship between the parts: “Wickedness in the first proposition, madness in the second, the ergo [therefore] is fearful: the conclusion of all is death” (254). Taking the first proposition he notes that the heart of the sons of men is full of evil.

At this point, he has done nothing more than make observations from the English text. Having made the observations, he then interrogates the text: What does this mean? Consider each element of the proposition:

How are the actors, the owners in this drama? “Sons of men.” This becomes the first proposition for the first division of the sermon: “The owners fo the this vessel, men, and derivatively the sons of men.”

What is the place of action? If the sons of men own something, what do they possess? A heart. What do I know about the “heart”? That become the second proposition: “The vessel is earthen, a pot of God’s making, and man’s marring, the heart.” How does he get to earthen? 

If the action takes place in a vessel, a container, what does it contain? Evil. This becomes the third proposition: “The liquor it holds is evil; a defective, privative, abortive thing, not instituted, but destituted, by the absence of original goodness” (254).[1]

Look back at the first proposition, what can we know about this vessel and its contents: It is full. This becomes the fourth proposition: “The measure of this vessel’s pollution with evil liquor. It not said sprinkled, not seasoned, with a moderate and sparing quality; it hath not aspiration, but imbution, but impletion; it is filled to the brim, ‘full of evil’” (255).

            Figures of Amplification

Note that on this final element [to be fair, he has used related techniques in each of the prior sentences] he uses figures of amplification to create an emotional effect.  Poor writers typically seek emotional effect by piling superlative adjectives before or after the noun, This is the greatest, most excellent, extraordinary, awesome X.  Write like that and you will bore people.   You have merely told people what to think and feel, but that will not cause them to think or feel in such a manner.

Rather than merely tell the hearer what to experience, Adams, by means of the amplification, creates a basis for the hearer to come to a decision. First, the repetition of balanced phrases creates an auditory effect by which the voice can create a sense of tense and urgency which breaks in the final phrase, “full of evil” – with the weight coming down on the final word, “evil”.

Second, he creates a reasonable basis for the emotional disgust at the heart being filled with evil.  Adams uses the figure of exergasia, “Repetition of the same idea, changing either its words, its delivery, or the general treatment it is given. A method for amplification, variation, and explanation.”[2]

Hebrew poetry uses this structure as a basic building block: one statement which creates an expectation to be fulfilled by a second (or third) statement (See, Theodore H. Robinson, The Poetry of the Old Testament, 21. Take, for example, Ecclesiastes 9:3

1) The heart of the sons of men is full of evil,

2) and madness is in their heart while they live:

3) and after that, they go to the dead

The first proposition is repeated, with variation in the second proposition. The effect of the first two is given in the third. Delaying the conclusion through the repetition and amplification of the second phrase, increases the emotional tension and creates more weight to the sad condition of humanity. To understand this better, consider a rewrite, “The heart of all people is full of madness and evil.  In the end, everyone dies.” While most of the logical building blocks are present in the rewrite, the disgust is missing: you may agree that it is true, but it somehow doesn’t seem as important.

This does not mean that one does not use adjectives or evaluative language in a description. Adams makes repeated valuations, however, he does it through verbs: sprinkled, season. Even the latinate abstract nouns (typically a bad move) work for him because they imply the action and they are also given in a series of near-rhymes.

At the end, Adams then tells the hearer/reader what to think, “Thus, at the first putting forth, we have man in his best member corrupted.” Adams has been explaining for several sentences (going through his four points) the dismal state of humanity. Having run through the elements, he draws up the conclusion.

Dickens performs this move masterfully. For example, in the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Dickens tells us stories about Scrooge and Marley:

Marley was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.  Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.  Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge knew he was dead?  Of course he did. How could it be otherwise?  Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years.  Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner.  And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The repetition; the comic play upon the word “dead”; the story of the absolute loneliness of Marley (no one cared he was dead, except for Scrooge – and Scrooge didn’t care); the ease with which Scrooge turned to business; all tell us that Scrooge was very covetous and one we should hate.  Dickens plays out the nastiness of Scrooge with other tangible examples of his bad conduct.

It is not until the fifth paragraph that Dickens tells us as opposed to shows us: “Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

By the time the delay is resolved with the name calling, we are ready to join Dickens in hating Scrooge.  Moreover, Dickens verbs to describe Scrooge: squeeze, wrench, grasp, scrape, clutch, — only then do we get the adjectival “covetous old sinner”.

He then tells more stories about Scrooge, we see Scrooge so that we heartily agree with Dickens that Scrooge is “solitary as an oyster” (bringing together December and cold seawater should make one shiver).

            How Did Adams Think to Ask the Questions of the Text

Most exegetical works will look at the parts, note various syntactical elements, grammatical elements. Adams did note grammatical features (his three-part division of the verse) but then brought out aspects which don’t seem to flow directly from a sentence diagram.

Adams merely does what one should do when meditating upon a text. Donald Whitney in Simplify Your Spiritual Life[3] quotes ten questions gathered from Joseph Hall’s 1607 The Art of Divine Meditation. I am not saying that Adams read Hall’s book, but that Adams and Hall came from the same religious and intellectual world and thus would think about texts in the same manner.

Whitney’s restated questions are

1.  What is it (definition)?

2.  What are it divisions or parts?

3.  What causes it?

4.  What does it cause, that is, what are its fruits and effects/

5.  What is it place, location, or use?

6.  What are its qualities and attachments?

7.  What is contrary to, contradictory of, or different from it?

8.  What compares to it?

9.  What are its titles or names?

10. What are the testimonies or examples of Scripture about it?

Adams does not merely break apart the text and say it means 1,2,3, therefore apply. Instead, he has spent a great deal of time meditating upon the text – only then does he proceed to teach it.

The care he spent in writing the sermon, the careful balancing of phrases for sound and meaning, and breadth of scriptural comparison (matters which would not be brought together by a topical index) and even examples from classical literature all bespeak of an extraordinary care to the matter he preached.


[1] Destitute as a transitive verb is not terribly common in modern English. In the early 17th Century, English underwent a great deal of expansion and experimentation.

[2] This definition comes from the Forest of Rhetoric, at http://rhetoric.byu.edu/

[3] Whitney’s book is quite good.  This would be a very fine place for some with little spiritual discipline to begin. The chapters are short, the material is clear and well organized, the wisdom is accessible, the benefits are tremendous. The undisciplined Christian will likely have trouble working through Whitney’s more detailed Spiritual Disciplines. This book is an outstanding gateway to the topic.