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 do you think that most people in Edwards's audience responded to his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" speech?

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Edwards wanted his sermon to have a powerful effect; not just on his immediate audience, his congregation, but on everyone throughout the American colonies. He wanted his words to enter into the hearts and minds of all who heard and read them, changing their lives completely, and for the better.

The immediate response of Edwards' audience was one of fear and great emotional torment. Edwards' words were so lurid and descriptive, his oratorical skills so powerful and overwhelming, that many in the audience fainted at what seemed like the very real prospect of being confined to the raging flames of Hell for all eternity. Those who didn't pass out and managed to stay the course for the duration of Edwards' sermon will doubtless have resolved to change their ways there and then. They will have taken to heart Edwards' compelling message that society was becoming increasingly lax in its adherence to the tenets of Christian morality, and urgently needed to repent of its sins.

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Contemporary accounts of how the congregation in Enfield, Connecticut responded when Edwards preached this sermon indicate that some people "yelled and shrieked, they rolled in the aisles, they crowded up into the pulpit and begged him to stop," and "great moaning & crying out through ye whole House . . . ye shrieks & crys were piercing & Amazing." Clearly, there were some in attendance who found Edwards's words resonant and terrifying when he detailed for them the appalling torments of hell and God's utter disgust with their current state of sinfulness.

Because Edwards ended the sermon with hopeful words that assured his listeners that God was giving them a brief opportunity to mend their ways, it is said that many in the congregation were "jubilant" as they reflected on what they had heard. Edwards was well known throughout New England as a theologian and revivalist during the Great Awakening, and so his very presence as a guest minister that day was a cause for widespread excitement.

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Johnathan Edwards, author of the sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, had the great fortune of living during the Great Awakening in America, when many people turned to religion for a personal conversion experience. Edwards did not have one congregation; rather, he was one of a group of circuit preachers who traveled all over the Northeast, and he had a great following. People in colonial times did not have electronic devices to distract them, and they were used to paying attention to long sermons, which is good, because Edwards's sermon lasted two hours. During those two hours, people could actually visualize their lives hanging by a thread over a fiery Hell. Reports from the time actually had people crying and in fear for their souls. When Edwards asked people to repent of their sins and come to Jesus, many people hurried to do this for fear that they would not get to take their next breath. Edwards's imagery was so vivid that the message stayed with the listeners; even today, the sermon is still read not only as religious literature, but also for its descriptive qualities.

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