person lying in the fetal position surrounded by hellfire

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards

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How might you have reacted to this sermon if you had been a Puritan?

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If I were an orthodox Puritan, the sermon, which went on for hours, would both unsettle me and deepen my faith. An orthodox believer would worry that he/she might not be of the "elect" and predestined for heaven. Puritan faith created insecurity in its adherents, and they would constantly search themselves for signs that indicated whether they would be saved or damned. However, if I were living my faith in demonstrable ways that the dogma prescribed, I would feel that Edwards's words were inspirational and leading me to stay on the path of righteousness to avoid the horrors of hell that he so graphically described.

However, if I were more of a nominal Puritan, which was increasingly true of New Englanders in 1741, Edwards's sermon might lead me to think it was time to look for a religion that offered more reassurance than fear. Also, when Edwards changes his tone near the end of the sermon to tell his listeners that there was a small window of opportunity for people to change their ways, what he is saying defies Puritan orthodoxy. Puritanism's core tenet was that either people were, or were not, destined for heaven at birth, and to claim that people could earn their way to salvation would sound jarring. This shift in message might be another reason to send me in search of a religion that remained consistent in its teaching.

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Puritans that heard Edwards's sermon would have been terrified at the depiction of God as an angry force.  While Puritanism understood that God was a forceful figure, the manner in which Edwards articulates God being angry at what individuals are doing would have caused fear.  This was Edwards's intent.  He was not merely speaking about a fixed and distant condition.  He wanted to make it clear that individuals played an active role in God's wrath.  The lack of spiritual identity and focusing their attention on pleasing the divine is the reason for such anger.  Individuals were supposed to feel scared at the vision of the world that Edwards was painting.  

Intensifying the Puritanical religious experience was one of the critical goals of the sermon.  It sought to do this by fear and scaring individuals into an immediate recognition of God's anger and wrath.  It is for this reason that an Puritan would have been scared hearing the sermon.  When Edwards clearly states that " There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any moment, out of Hell, but the mere pleasure of God,” it is a warning to individuals that they are living on time borrowed from the divine.  If their actions do not change, their debt can be called in without warning and "in due time."  The "devouring flames" of the inferno is what helped to cause individuals to experience so much fear.  The vision of the divine is an intimidating one.  It is this reality that would have caused a Puritan to tremble at what was offered and recognize that there is a reservoir of anger in the divine that must be placated if one wishes to say that they are living a virtuous life.

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