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 head and heart, and the emotions, too, must be engaged and moved to reinforce the will to turn to God for mercy and to a spiritually transformed life.
What distinguishes this most famous example of Puritan revival sermons is its use of imagery so vivid that it left people in the pews trembling and weeping. The imagery in the first part of the sermon graphically underscores the theme of the lot of the unregenerated. They should not deceive themselves about their status or their strength. Their vaunted trust in their own wisdom, prudence, care, and caution is but a self-delusion and will not save them. Before God’s almighty power, they are but “heaps of light chaff before the whirlwind” and “dry stubble before devouring flames.” They are like worms that crawl on the earth and are easily crushed underfoot; they are hanging as by a slender thread that is easily singed or cut. The glittering sword of justice is whetted and is brandished over their heads. The flames of the fiery pit below them rage and glow, hell’s gaping mouth is ready to swallow them, the devils like hungry lions are straining to get at their prey, the arrows of death are poised at them. What Edwards tries to pound into his listeners is the notion of life’s uncertainty: Death is always but a breath away. For the unconverted, therefore, and for the unredeemed sinner and those who have not embraced Christ as savior, perdition is but a breath away. They are “walking over the pit of hell on a rotten covering” that cannot be trusted to bear their weight. Only faith in Christ will bear them up. That may not save their life, for they are mortal still, but it will save their soul and awaken the deluded souls in their sinful condition to the wonders of divine grace. That is Edwards’s sole concern.
The third part of the sermon, the application, makes up the largest and, to Edwards, the most important part. If up to this point he describes the plight of the unsaved in general, he now turns directly to the congregation of Enfield and to the unconverted persons before him. The use of the third person in the sermon’s second part changes to the second person in the third part. All of the Bible’s warnings about the fate of the unrepentant sinner apply to them, Edwards says: the “lake of burning brimstone, . . . Hell’s gaping mouth, . . . the dreadful pit of glowing flames. . . .” He goes on to attack the reasoning of the unconverted, who try to persuade themselves that it is not God but their own care and caution that preserve their life. They may point to their religiosity, their ritual of family devotions and church attendance, and the uprightness of their moral life, but Edwards reminds them that unless they experience a “great change of heart by the power of the spirit of God” and unless they are made “new creatures” they are still sinners in the hands of an angry God, standing on the slippery slope of disaster, at any moment apt to be “swallowed up in everlasting destruction.”
To break down the will’s resistance and reinforce the notion of impending doom, Edwards unleashes a powerful arsenal of metaphorical weapons aimed at the emotions. Through metaphors and images, Edwards links the spiritual world to the physical world of the listeners. Images of weight and tension dominate. Sinners “heavy as lead” with their wickedness will “plunge into the bottomless gulf” as surely as a falling rock would plunge through a spider’s web. The floods of God’s wrath will sweep them off their feet with all the fierce power of a bursting dam. The “bow of God’s wrath is bent,” the arrow of justice aims at the heart. The God whose hand is yet staying this ultimate doom is a righteous God of fury to all who reject him. In his sight such are like a loathsome insect that he holds over the fire of Hell, like a spider hanging by a slender thread above the leaping flames of the “great furnace of wrath.”
Edwards wants to ensure that no one takes the wrath of this holy and infinite God lightly, and he frequently refers to biblical passages that support the point. He stresses that God’s wrath is much more terrible than that of the fiercest human warrior, and that no one can endure it. Moreover, it will be inflicted without pity upon all who “remain in an unregenerate state.” It is, however, Edwards’s passion to lead the unregenerate to salvation. All of his dire warnings lead up to what now follows: the announcement of God’s grace. Having mercilessly proclaimed the imminence of God’s wrath without pity, Edwards now shifts dramatically to the theme that “Now God stands ready to pity you; this is a day of mercy.” Woe to those who neglect this opportunity, however. God will show them both how excellent his love is and how terrible his wrath is; the God whose hand of wrath will destroy the wicked is the same God whose hand of mercy will save the repentant. In the concluding part of the sermon, Edwards addresses his invitation to receive salvation to everyone in the audience before him—the old, the young, and the children. This, says Edwards, is the time of God’s gathering in, the pouring out of his spirit, and now is the time “to fly from the wrath to come” and to “hearken to the loud calls of God’s word and providence.” This emphasis on immediate response reflects Edwards’s conviction that, though emotions can move the will to act, emotions are transient; therefore it is necessary to act before spiritual sloth returns and the door of mercy is forever shut.
This sermon is not typical of the preaching of Edwards, but it is typical of revivalist preaching during the Great Awakening. Such sermons were meant to appeal to the head and the heart and to destroy vain rationalization and to deter delay. According to historical sources, this sermon was not without the desired effect in Enfield. Nevertheless, the Great Awakening movement did not succeed finally in saving Puritanism.