Most famously preached on July 8, 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is Jonathan Edwards' most recognizable sermon.
A prime example of the traditional fire and brimstone
style of sermon popular during the period of the Great Awakening
. Edwards invoked Biblical imagery with the intention of persuading his audience through scripture of their own damnation. This technique was apparently so effective that during the sermon, according to Stephen Williams
(a witness who recorded the events of the sermon), Edwards had to ask for silence from the overwhelmed crowd so that he could finish. When performing this sermon, Edwards would read it in a quiet, calm voice that commanded silence from the audience. Any disturbance would have been noticed, making it easier to gauge the reaction of the congregation as a whole. The subject matter of this sermon was not uncommon for Edwards. Invoking Hellish images was part of a greater arsenal of Gospel
topics that Edwards commonly used throughout his catalog of sermons.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God itself is broken up in to three distinct sections: a general introduction, a section where Edwards outlines his theological doctrine, and a final section where he means to outline Biblical and historical applications for this doctrine.
Deuteronomy 32:35 "Their foot shall slide in due time"
Edwards chooses to open his sermon with this quote from the book of Deuteronomy for the two main ideas contained within it. First, the quote invokes the idea of a downward descent into Hell which sets the overall tone for the sermon to come. The latter half of the quote, "in due time", connotates that there is a outside force acting as an intermediate, preventing, according to Edwards, one's eventual fall.
Playing off this quote, Edwards sets out to prove that such destruction exists in the world, using the example of what he referred to as the "wicked Israelites." Through four statements, Edwards seeks to show how these "wicked Israelites," and by extension his audience, can know that they were always at risk for such fate. The points Edwards is working towards, as outlined in his sermon:
- That they [the wicked Israelites] were always exposed to destruction.
- It [point 1] implies that they were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction.
- Another thing implied is that they are liable to fall of themselves, without being thrown down by the hand of another.
- That the reason why they are not fallen already, and do not fall now, is only that God's appointed time is not come.
This progression of statements sets up the body of the sermon by creating a theological basis for what Edwards will claim in the Doctrine section of his sermon.
"There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God."
This is Edwards theological expression, one that will be repeatedly invoked and used rhetorically throughout the remainder of the sermon. This section consists of ten "considerations", as Edwards refers to them, which he attempts to justify through a combined use of observations and hellish imagery. They are as follows:
- There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment in time.
- They [wicked men] deserve to be cast into hell: so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God's using his power at any moment to destroy them.
- They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell.
- They are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God that is expressed in the torments of hell: and the reason why they do not go down to hell at each moment, is not because God, in whose power they are, is not then very angry with them; as he is with many of those miserable creatures that he is now tormenting in hell, and do there feel and bear the fierceness of his wrath.
- The devil stands ready to fall upon them and seize them as his own, at what moment God shall permit him.
- There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hellfire, if it were not for God's restraints.
- It is no security to wicked men for one moment, that there are no visible means of death at hand.
- Natural men's prudence and care to preserve their own lives, or the care of others to preserve them, do not secure them a moment
- All wicked men's pains and contrivance they use to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, don't secure them from hell for one moment.
- God has laid himself under no obligation by any promise to keep any natural man out of hell one moment.
In the final section of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,
Edwards wishes to show his theological argument at work throughout scripture and biblical history. This is done at length, invoking stories and examples throughout the whole of the Bible
and comprises the bulk of this section. Edwards ends the sermon with one final appeal, "Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come." Without explicitly saying, Edwards indirectly gives a sense of hope to those currently out of Christ. Only by returning to Christ can one escape the stark fate outlined by Edwards.
Effect of the sermon
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
is a typical sermon of the Great Awakening, emphasizing the widely-held belief that Hell is a real and functional place. Edwards hoped that the imagery and message of his sermon would awaken his audience to the horrific reality that awaited them should they continue in their ways. The underlying point, often overlooked in this sermon, is that God has given humanity a chance to rectify their sins. Edwards says that it is the will of God that keeps wicked men from the depths of Hell; this act of restraint has given humanity a chance to change their ways and return to Christ. Jonathan Edwards' sermon continues to be the leading example of a Great Awakening sermon and is still used in religious and academic settings well into the present day.
Notes and citations
- Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God (Available on Wikisource, See External Links)
- Conforti Joseph A.. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, & American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
- Hart, D.G., Sean Michael Lucas, and Stephen J. Nichols. The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003.
- Marsden, George M.. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003.