Good advice, ancient and modern

Proverbs 15:1—“A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”

Newspapers were full of advice literature, and where better to learn how to govern the tongue than the Proverbs?

The rate of quotations to Proverbs 15:1 in Chronicling America, 1836–1922. See the full visualization for the complete trend line and to see quotations to this verse on newspaper pages.

Nineteenth-century newspapers were full of advice literature.1 Periodicals dispensed all kinds of practical, moral, business, and social advice, often but not always in story form. The Bible too had its share of advice, usually called the wisdom literature. The book of Proverbs, full of easily digestible advice, mostly practical and moral rather than theological, was historically a popular book of the Bible. The parables of Jesus—also very popular—were wisdom literature put into story form.

It was natural then for newspapers to draw some of their advice literature from the book of Proverbs. The types of advice were of course tied to the themes in that book. Sexual morality was one major theme, as was the correct (or rather, incorrect) use of alcohol, along with general admonitions to diligence and hard work. Chief among those borrowings was advice on how to govern the tongue, the “unruly member” as James 3:11 put it. Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger,” was among the texts quoted to that effect. In this instance, it is worthwhile to see not just what advice was given, but to whom that advice was dispensed.

One group of people to whom advice about their speech was given were Christians. For instance, in 1839 the Vermont Telegraph used the verse specifically to appeal to Christians. There was nothing about the verse that was inherently Christian, nor was there a strong Christian interpretative tradition reading this verse as a typology of Christ as there was for much of the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, the author used the moral advice of the verse in connection to the Christian theme of forgiving one’s enemies. Another article told Christians to remember to think of Christ when tempted to use harsh words in a moment of passion.

The advice about governing the tongue was often—perhaps usually—given specifically to women.2 In an article that was trying rather too hard to be humorous, women were advised to give a soft answer if accused of flirting too much. More seriously, another article described the difference between a happy home and an unhappy home. The unhappy home was caused by drinking and violence by the husband. But the author also pointed out that “if the fists of the husbands were rough, the tongues of their wives were sharp, and that she knew the truth of the proverb, that ‘a soft answer turneth away wrath.’” While not exactly excusing men for violence in the household, the article more than implied that a woman’s sharp tongue was a provocation to violence and an unhappy family. Another frequently reprinted article gave advice on how to “promote harmony in the family,” including using a “soft answer” to avoid anger.

Finally, the advice about speaking softly was used in other places where decorum and gentility were expected. The nineteenth-century United States was a place where refinement and decorum were increasingly pursued in support of a democratic culture, though that process had begun far earlier.3 Among the key subjects in whom gentility and good manners were to be instilled were children and workers in businesses. For example, an article, “Courtesy in Business,” advocated for courteous clerks, who used a “soft word” in business. “This politeness in manner and in word will be like that oil that prevents the friction of the machinery. It makes everything run easy.” Another article from 1874 was published under the heading, “Children’s Department.” Recommending a soft answer, the article wrote that “this seems to be a very small thing; but it is the base of one of the noblest fabrics in the world.”

The ancient wisdom on how to speak softly and avoid angry words thus had its primary use in encouraging women, children, and dependent laborers to govern their tongues. But it could also use some modern updating. As one article reflected on the verse, it updated the proverb with a phrase purportedly overheard from a boy on the street: “Don’t speak so cross—there’s no use in’t.”

  1. Ryan Cordell, “Reprinting, Circulation, and the Network Author in Antebellum Newspapers,” American Literary History 27, no. 3 (2015): 417–45,↩︎

  2. Cf. Jane Kamensky, Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England (Oxford University Press, 1999). ↩︎

  3. Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (Vintage Books, 1993), chs. 2 and 3. ↩︎