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 was "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" effective and ineffective? How would you react?

"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is effective in its vivid imagery and appeal to the emotion of the audience. However, the latter appeal is only likely to be effective with those who share Jonathan Edwards's theological viewpoints.

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"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is one of the most famous sermons ever. It was highly provocative in 1741, a highlight in the First Great Awakening movement. Its effectiveness as rhetoric lies in its vivid imagery of hell or comparison of sinners (that is, the audience) with worms and spiders. Edwards makes appeals to human emotions such as fear and shame to try to get them to accept his message, that unless they accept Christ, they all deserve to be punished forever in hell.

Obviously, someone who was not raised in the Christian religion would not be as receptive to Edwards's message. Even modern Christians might likely find it barbaric in its presentation of God, as the theology of different branches of Christianity can vary in several ways. Those in this demographic might argue that the vengeful, violent God Edwards presents is alien to the merciful, self-sacrificing image of God presented in the New Testament. Nonbelievers would likely not be moved by Edwards's blistering rhetoric either, since they do not believe in God in the first place and are not likely to be moved by threats of supernatural violence. The sermon rises and falls on one's preconceived notion of God in general: only an audience already receptive to Edwards's rather Calvinist viewpoint would be likely to take to "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

Regarding the last part of the original question, this sermon would be ineffective for this writer. While the imagery is brilliant and the rhetoric anything but dull, its vision of humanity and God is more likely to inspire self-loathing and fear than genuine mercy or personal transformation.

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"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was outrageously effective in regard to the mindset of the Great Awakening. In fact, the sermon is often cited by theologians and historians as the most important of that period. Edwards is said to have been interrupted several times during his sermon by moaning congregation members, begging him to tell them what to do in order to be saved.

The sermon was largely effective due to the sheer outrage in Edwards's tone and his imagery of hell. Edwards was condemning the air of hypocrisy, the going-through-the-motions brand of Christianity that had festered before the Great Awakening took place. The sermon marked a stroke of rhetorical genius, essentially saying, "If this is what you believe, this is what's waiting for you." Furthermore, the beat and dynamic rhythm of the speech likely struck fear into the hearts of the audience. Edwards brilliantly simulated the shock and cacophony of hell by sporadically adjusting his tone.

In regards to how it was ineffective, the only way that it could be considered as such is outside the world of Christianity. To everyone who held the same literal belief in an afterlife of punishment, the sermon made an incredibly lasting impression. As for myself, though my religious beliefs are certainly different from Edwards, the sermon would have made quite an impression on me even without inspiring fear of an eternal hell.

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Edwards's famous sermon was incredibly effective if the immediate reaction of his audience is anything to go by. It's no exaggeration to say that many of his auditors were absolutely terrified at his lurid, detailed descriptions of the terrible fate that awaits sinners in the raging flames of hell. It's no wonder that a number of audience members actually fainted in horror.

Even those who managed to remain upright throughout the entire course of Edwards's sermon would have been given much food for thought. Edwards intended to make people think deeply about their lifestyles, whether they were behaving as God-fearing Christians should. He wanted nothing less than to change people's lives for the better, and there's no doubt that many people did indeed heed his word and set themselves on a different path in life.

However, what Edwards had to say wasn't universally accepted. Although just about everyone in America at that time believed in God, not everyone believed that he was the kind of wrathful, vengeful law-giver as presented in the Old Testament. Nor did they believe that hell was a literal place reserved for sinners. That being the case, Edwards's hellfire and brimstone rhetoric would have had no effect on large swathes of the population.

As for myself, Edwards's sermon would've had no effect on me either as his religious beliefs were radically different to mine. (And that's putting it mildly.) Nevertheless, I would still have appreciated his famous sermon as a tour de force of rhetorical brilliance. And that is why, over 250 years later, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is still pored over, studied, and examined by countless individuals over whom Edwards's Calvinist theology holds no sway.

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Accounts of the reception of Edwards's sermon that day in 1741 maintain that some in the congregation cried out, some fainted, and some wept. In the short term, it is plausible to assume it shook people up and made them reexamine the ways they were living and thinking about their afterlife. In that way, it could be deemed effective.

It could be said that Edwards's sermon, perhaps a centerpiece of the Great Awakening in the 1730s and 40s, did little to staunch the flow of people abandoning the vestiges of Puritan thought present in his theology. In that way, it was ineffective. As more people came to the colonies, many for reasons unrelated to religious freedom, what came with them were other ways of worship and attitudes toward the role of religion. The Enlightenment greatly influenced the rise of rational thought, and Deism became a more comfortable way for some to think about God.

The last part of your question is more difficult to answer; it's not easy for a person of the 21st century to fully understand the outlook of a person who would have attended this sermon. Since you asked, though, I would say the sermon would be a turn off for me.

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