Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Jonathan Edwards, a descendant of four generations of Puritan ministers and the most renowned and influential of Puritan leaders, became active when Puritanism was already on the wane. The infamy of the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692, which sent twenty persons to their death and another 150 to prison, festered in the community for a generation as a tragic episode that exposed the excesses of misguided Puritan zeal. In the early part of the century, New Englanders enjoyed a rising level of affluence that induced a sense of both material and spiritual comfort and eventually led to the introduction of the Half-Way Covenant. Whereas full church membership was the privilege only of those and the children of those who could testify to a personal experience of conversion, the Half-Way Covenant extended such membership to the third generation of those who confessed an experiential faith. It was such creeping secularism and spiritual lethargy that Edwards sought to correct in the 1730’s through a revival movement called the Great Awakening.
This revival movement stirred many to intensify their religious seriousness, not only in Edwards’s own congregation of Northampton but also throughout New England. His sermons were intended as a wake-up call for those who underplayed the majesty of a holy God and overemphasized their own worthiness as decent, hard-working, successful citizens. Edwards believed strongly that only a genuine conversion experience should qualify a person for church membership. Revivalist preachers, therefore, sought not only to address the intellect but also to engage the emotions so as to convince the listeners of the seriousness of their sin and activate them to seek salvation from the punishment they could expect from a righteous God. The results were encouraging, but one congregation, that in Enfield, Connecticut, seemed to be immune to the call for radical conversion. Edwards was therefore invited to preach there. On July 8, 1741, at the height of the Great Awakening, he delivered a revival sermon in Enfield that became the most famous of its kind. He followed the traditional three-part sermon structure: a scripture text, which is the foundation for the sermon, and an exposition of its implications; discussion of the doctrine that is derived from the text; and the application of the doctrine to the personal situation of the listeners.
Edwards carefully selected the text for this occasion, for it was his single-minded intent to disturb profoundly the comfortable members of his audience. He found the words he wanted in Deuteronomy 32:35: “Their foot shall slide in due time.” This short sentence was taken from a long passage, undoubtedly read in its entirety to the congregation, that enunciates God’s anger toward the perversity and the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel. Edwards obviously wished to establish a close connection between those addressed in the biblical passage and those whom he addressed in his sermon.
He begins his sermon by pointing out four features of walking on a slippery slope: The threat of destruction is constant, the destruction is imminent, it is self-generated, and the delay of that destruction is due to God’s restraining hand. He is clearly establishing here the foolhardiness of those who choose to walk in such slippery places and the fact that a fatal slide into the yawning abyss is an inescapable certainty. He speaks to both the head and the heart in leading his hearers to recognize the nature of such foolishness and to fear the consequences. The warning leads Edwards to his theme: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any moment, out of Hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”
In a ten-point elaboration that makes up one-third of the sermon, Edwards pursues his purpose of awakening the spiritually somnolent. Many of his points are interrelated, but cumulatively they persuade the hearers that God’s power is terrifying, that his wrath burns hot against the wicked, that the wicked stand condemned by the law and are deserving of hell, and that nothing will save them from such eternal punishment except a saving faith in Christ. Edwards knows, of course, that a cognitive persuasion does not necessarily lead to action. True religion should be a matter of both...
(The entire section is 1739 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Adams, John C., and Stephen R. Yarbrough. “Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakening and Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In Rhetoric, Religion, and the Roots of Identity in British Colonial America, edited by James R. Andrews. Vol. 1 in The Rhetorical History of the United States. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2007. This analysis of Edwards’s sermon is one of the theological treatises, sermons, and other examples of colonial rhetoric examined in this volume. The essays describe how this rhetoric helped create a new American identity.
Cady, Edwin H. “The Artistry of Jonathan Edwards.” Critical Essays on Jonathan Edwards, edited by William J. Scheick. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. Analyzes the sermon as a genuine work of art by looking at its intellectual and literary structure and design.
Edwards, Jonathan. The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader. Edited by Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Presents fourteen sermons, including five never before published, as well as Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. The introduction places these sermons in their historical context and analyzes their literary structure; in addition, each sermon begins with a text from Scripture, a brief comment or interpretation and statement of doctrine, and a discussion of the...
(The entire section is 536 words.)