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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards
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How might you have reacted to this sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" if you had been a Puritan?

As a Protestant believer, you would have been expecting intense and frightening messages from the pulpit. You would have expected to feel guilt, fear and despair, yet also joy. You would have expected to find comfort in the end. Q: How might this sermon be effective if preached today? A: It's not going to be effective. The text is about as far from modern sensibilities as it could be. It's too harsh, too cruel, and has too many unpleasant implications to be accepted by most people today—and that's without even beginning to discuss the theological issues of total depravity and predestination.

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"If you were a Puritan" is a complex idea. Let's unpack it a bit.

To begin with, "Puritan" is a more complicated label than, say, "Roman Catholic." First, on the whole it wasn't something people called themselves. The term was originally pejorative, an insult directed at English Protestants who disagreed with the mainstream Church of England (Anglicanism in England; Episcopalianism in the United States and elsewhere). They fell within the broader category of "Dissenter," which was the general term for English Protestants opposed to the Church of England, ancestors of modern Congregationalists, Methodists and many other denominations now considered part of mainstream Protestantism. Both "Puritan" and "Dissenter" were labels imposed from outside, generally by people who disagreed with the people they were describing.

Second, it's old, arguably out of date when we're talking about Jonathan Edwards. The term "Puritan" is dated to the 1560s (see reference). It was most current in the 1600s, when the English Civil War put England under Dissenting Protestant rule and Puritan communities established colonies in what would become the United States. Edwards wrote and preached Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God in 1741.

So what did the people who actually heard and believed Jonathan Edwards call themselves? How did they see themselves? Answering those questions requires us to look at who and where they were.

The records of Edwards actually preaching Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God refer to him doing so in Enfield, Connecticut (at the time, the town was part of Massachusetts) on July 8, 1741. At that time, New England was in the midst of the First Great Awakening.

The First Great Awakening - depending on who you ask there have been between 2 and 4 "Great Awakenings" in the United States - was a revolution in American Christianity, a major move away from the Church of England and from formal ritual and tradition in general, and toward an approach to Christianity its followers felt was simpler, truer and more grounded in Scripture. It was a grassroots movement with a variety of differing, often contradictory views preached with equal fervor. Who believed what at any given time often varied. What the believers of the Great Awakening had in common was an appetite for intense, often emotional religious experiences. Edwards, both as a theologian and as a famous preacher, was a vital figure in the Awakening. 

Edwards himself was a Reformed Congregationalist, a church that followed the teachings of John Calvin. Calvin taught that humans were tainted with total depravity, worthless for our imperfection in comparison with the perfection of God. To quote Edwards's own The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners (see reference) "sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving of infinite punishment." In that view, humans were by nature damned to Hell. God alone, being perfect, had chosen to spare some humans, called the elect, from damnation.

That, then, was the setting of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. The vital difference between a modern reader and an 18th century Protestant sitting in the church in Enfield, listening to the sermon, would have been simple: you already believed what you were hearing. Like Edwards, you may have been a Reformed Congregationalist, taught the doctrines of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God from childhood. You may have been one of the many converts of the Great Awakening, having heard similar teachings elsewhere and been convinced. You may even, as records show many people were, have been converted by the sermon itself.

Regardless of circumstance, you would have had the fundamental difference from a modern reader that to you, total depravity was real. Hell and the elect were real. Even in an extreme case, say an adherent of a completely different faith who heard or read Edwards's sermon by chance, you would know that your friends and neighbors held that sort of belief.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is an intense, frightening text. But, as noted above, the Protestants of the Great Awakening went to church to have intense, frightening experiences. That's how, as Rev. Steven Williams reports, a church full of people reacted to the sermon with "a great moaning and crying through ye whole House, what Shall I do to be Sav'd—oh, I am going to Hell—oh, what shall I do for Christ., &c., &c..." yet "oh ye cheerfulness and pleasantness of their countenances yt received comfort." That's what church was, and what religion taught, in that place and time. The "Puritans" who heard Jonathan Edwards would have expected no less.

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As the student considers a possible reaction to the sermon of Jonathan Edwards as a Puritan, he/she may wish to consider more precisely what it is to be a Puritan. First of all, Puritans believed that there were either the elect or the damned. But, because they had no way of knowing which they were, they had to live exemplary lives in the hope of being allowed into Heaven. So, when the Reverend Edwards rants about how except for God's goodness they would fall into the fiery pits of hell, they would be inclined to believe him. Also, in the Bible there are passages which sustain Edward's contentions, passages such as Luke 3:1-9 and Revelations 6.9--17.

Always, then, there is a fear factor of being condemned to hell; therefore, Edwards's words about the fires of hell jumping out at people who are held over it with only "a gossamer thread" preventing their falling in, would certainly terrify them.  

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked:  His wrath toward you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast inton the fire....

Thinking that "The devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them" would, indeed, create a sense of horror as one feels he/she is just on the brink of hell and nothing, absolutely nothing keeps people from falling in but the hand of God, one's acceptance of grace.

It is no wonder that many of the Puritans who heard Edwards's sermon ran out of the church in fear as he employed repetition to intensify his meaning; for example, he repeats the phrase "nothing you have ever done, nothing you can ever do...." There were also those who screamed and fainted, much as people do when evangelists preach and evoke intense emotions. Besides, the Puritans of Colonial America were certainly not sophisticated people and, thus, more prone to fear and superstitious beliefs, as well.

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