What Is a Jeremiad?

Painting of Jeremiah sitting with armor at his side
"Jeremiah Lamenting the Fall of Jerusalem" Painting by Rembrandt, circa 1630.  Wikimedia Commons

A jeremiad is a speech or literary work expressing a bitter lament or a righteous prophecy of doom. Adjective: jeremiadic.

Pronunciation: jer-eh-MY-ad

The term is derived from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, author of the Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations. The Book of Jeremiah details the prophesied downfall of the Kingdom of Judah as a consequence of breaking the covenant with God. Historically, the kingdom did fall to Babylon between 589 and 586 BCE, and the Book of Lamentations mourns the fall and what it describes as the reasons for it.

Jeremiads are not solely tied to religion, although they often are. For instance, Puritans favored this writing style. African-American rhetoric also developed an offshoot of the jeremiad to express the need for reform. In contemporary writing, it's typically a negative term applied to writing that is overly moralistic and pessimistic.

See also:

Observations on the Jeremiad

  • "Despite the connection with [the] Hebraic tradition, the jeremiad is not the unique property of any particular culture. Narratives of decline, chastisement, and renewal appear across time, culture, religion, and geography, from classical Asian and Western cultures to yesterday's news. The sacred texts of many religious traditions lament declining moral and spiritual standards, and hold out hope for renewal and revival, if only the community will see the error of its ways. The Protestant Reformation. for example, was driven in large part by the search for a lost pristine, uncorrupted church. And a variety of social movements depend upon sharp contrasts between a degenerate present and a glorious past."
    (Andrew R. Murphy, Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment From New England to 9/11. Oxford Univ. Press, 2009)
  • "Jeremiadic discourse has always been a distinguishing construction that exchanged with cultures and governments to aid in the shaping of an idyllic society. In these moralistic texts, the authors acrimoniously lamented the condition of society and its morals in a stern tenor of sustained invective and utilized prophecy as a means of predicting society's ominous demise."
    (Willie J. Harrell, Jr., Origins of the African American Jeremiad: The Rhetorical Strategies of Social Protest and Activism, 1760-1861. McFarland, 2011)
  • Jeremiadic Narratives
    "Jeremiadic logic is the culturally acceptable mode of reasoning that enables the organization of the premises of a chosen people, divine sanctions, and ultimate success into the narrative form recognizable as a jeremiad. These narratives have traditionally been told in vivid language by prophets and Puritan preachers, such as Jeremiah himself and Jonathan Edwards, who typically depicted graphically the dangers facing their societies. Jeremiah 4:13, for example, warned:
    Look, Like the clouds he goes up,
    Like the cyclone his chariots,
    Swifter than eagles his horses--
    Woe to us for we are undone!
    And Jonathan Edwards concluded his sermon 'Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God' with the words: Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let every one fly out of Sodom:
    "Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed." (1741, p. 32)
    But vivid, apocalyptic language can be used to tell nonjeremiadic stories, and jeremiadic logic can be conveyed in dispassionate, if nonetheless disquieting, language."
    (Craig Allen Smith and Kathy B. Smith, The White House Speaks: Presidential Leadership as Persuasion. Praeger, 1994)

Jeremiads and History

  • The African American Jeremiad
    "The American jeremiad is a rhetoric of indignation, expressing deep dissatisfaction and urgently challenging the nation to reform. The term jeremiad, meaning a lamentation or doleful complaint, derives from the biblical prophet, Jeremiah . . .. Although Jeremiah denounced Israel's wickedness and foresaw tribulation in the near-term, he also looked forward to the nation's repentance and restoration in a future golden age. . . .
    "Voiced by Frederick Douglass between 1863 and 1872 and Martin Luther King, Jr., between 1955 and 1965, compelling black moral appeals to Americans were instrumental in creating climates of opinion needed for making substantial social, legal, and political gains. Douglass and King used the powerful ritual of the jeremiad to legitimate the goals that they sought, raise guilt among white Americans, and demand social change."
    (David Howard-Pitney, The African American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America, rev. ed. Temple Univ. Press, 2005)
  • Rachel Carson's Jeremiad
    "It is fascinating to see how closely the jeremiadic structure of [Rachel] Carson's book [Silent Spring]--which begins with 'A Fable for Tomorrow' that projects a bleak future if present behavior continues and eventually concludes with the more optimistic alternative in 'The Open Road'--resembles the structure of Jonathan Edwards' late sermon, 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.'"
    (Scott Slovic, "Epistemology and Politics in American Nature Writing," in Green Culture: Environmental Rhetoric in Contemporary America, ed. by C. G. Herndl and S.C. Brown. Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1996)


Passage From the Jeremiad "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"

  • "It is everlasting wrath. It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite. Oh, who can express what the state of a soul in such circumstances is! All that we can possibly say about it, gives but a very feeble, faint representation of it; it is inexpressible and inconceivable: For who knows the power of God's anger?
    "How dreadful is the state of those that are daily and hourly in the danger of this great wrath and infinite misery! But this is the dismal case of every soul in this congregation that has not been born again, however moral and strict, sober and religious, they may otherwise be. Oh that you would consider it, whether you be young or old! There is reason to think, that there are many in this congregation now hearing this discourse, that will actually be the subjects of this very misery to all eternity. We know not who they are, or in what seats they sit, or what thoughts they now have. It may be they are now at ease, and hear all these things without much disturbance, and are now flattering themselves that they are not the persons, promising themselves that they shall escape. If we knew that there was one person, and but one, in the whole congregation, that was to be the subject of this misery, what an awful thing would it be to think of! If we knew who it was, what an awful sight would it be to see such a person! How might all the rest of the congregation lift up a lamentable and bitter cry over him! But, alas! instead of one, how many is it likely will remember this discourse in hell? And it would be a wonder, if some that are now present should not be in hell in a very short time, even before this year is out. And it would be no wonder if some persons, that now sit here, in some seats of this meeting-house, in health, quiet and secure, should be there before tomorrow morning. Those of you that finally continue in a natural condition, that shall keep out of hell longest will be there in a little time! your damnation does not slumber; it will come swiftly, and, in all probability, very suddenly upon many of you. You have reason to wonder that you are not already in hell. It is doubtless the case of some whom you have seen and known, that never deserved hell more than you, and that heretofore appeared as likely to have been now alive as you. Their case is past all hope; they are crying in extreme misery and perfect despair; but here you are in the land of the living and in the house of God, and have an opportunity to obtain salvation. What would not those poor damned hopeless souls give for one day's opportunity such as you now enjoy!"
    (Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," July 8, 1741)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Jeremiad?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-jeremiad-1691203. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). What Is a Jeremiad? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-jeremiad-1691203 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Jeremiad?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-jeremiad-1691203 (accessed March 28, 2023).