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I would argue that there are two major themes in this sermon.
First, I would say that Edwards wants people to understand how utterly sinful they are and how angry God is at them. He wants them to understand that it is only by God's grace that any of them can be saved. He believes that nothing they do can make them deserve to go to heaven.
Second, I would say that he is trying to get them to embrace God. He wants them to have an emotional relationship with God. This is the only way that they can be saved.
So Edwards is trying to help his congregation avoid the damnation that they richly deserve. The fact that they deserve it and his advice for how to avoid damnation are the two major themes of this sermon.
There are several themes in this piece, but I think the central theme is that God has the power to let each and every individual go to hell whenever he so chooses.
Theme is a difficult literary device to identify for this one because it is often known as a piece that includes so many other elements. It is often used to teach persuasive techniques, to illustrate the emotional appeal of fear induced by typical Puritan preachers, to exemplify the "fire and brimstone" attitude of the era, and finally to demonstrate how author's achieve their purpose.
If you need to give theme as a one-word concept, I would use conviction, fear, God's power, or sin.
I do think it is important whenever reading this piece to note that Edwards offers a come-to-Jesus moment at the end literally. He tells people in spite of God's great power to destroy them, God won't... if they turn back to him.
Hope that helps!
Keep in mind that Edwards was a Puritan - the theme of this sermon is largely the theme of the Puritan way of life which was essentially based around the following Puritan theological principles:
- humanity is inherently evil – Puritans believed that all humans were born sinners and deserved eternal damnation
- God is merciful but unreachable - Puritans believed in the mercy of God but that only “the elect” would be saved through the death of Jesus Christ
Therefore this left a BIG question: How do you know if you are “saved” or “damned?” The truth was, nobody really knew, so preachers played on this very fear to condemn society into a guilty sense of constant overcompensation for simply being human.
One reason Edwards' tone is so emotional (as the first post suggests) is that Puritanical Christianity was largely an emotional response to a God that no one felt worthy enough to know personally, but certainly respected and feared his ever present power and possible anger.
It was logically assumed, also, that the clergy of this day had to be part of the elect. How could they not be? If they can tell everyone how to live their lives, certainly they must be doing something right. More likely than not, God had already chosen them. Therefore, this sermon is also riddled with that smug sense of self-righteousness that apparently permeated the colonial "heirarchy." This theme was later exposed by Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter and revealed the sheer hypocrisy of many Puritan religious leaders.
The previous thoughts were very well articulated. I think that the overall theme is to bring fear into the hearts of Edwards' listeners. The vision of God presented is one where the time is now to repent and fall into his favor. This is something that Edwards was deliberate in constructing. If we examine theme as a message of a work, I think that to be in fear of God and to immediately strive to be in his favor becomes the theme of the sermon. Edwards aims his message at those who fail to believe and those who are actively participating in spiritual transgressions. There is little in the sermon that is intended to reassure those who are following the path. In fact, Edwards' hope seems to be to strike fear in all of his listeners, to ensure that even those who are spiritually intact do not become complacent and stray. In the end, the theme of being afraid of the divine is something that resonates in a lucid manner.
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