In the 18th century, people died at a much younger age. How might awareness of the fragility of life have affected people’s acceptance of Edwards’s sermon?

In "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Jonathan Edwards continually emphasizes the fragility of life with images that show how death may overtake his listeners at any moment and that death is actually more probable than continued life at any given time.

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One of the most effective high-pressure sales techniques is the insistence that this offer is only open today. If you do not take advantage of the unique opportunity right now, it will disappear forever. In "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Jonathan Edwards is selling salvation,...

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One of the most effective high-pressure sales techniques is the insistence that this offer is only open today. If you do not take advantage of the unique opportunity right now, it will disappear forever. In "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Jonathan Edwards is selling salvation, and no salesman ever made more aggressive use of this method.

One of the preacher's favorite images comes from archery. He refers to death as an arrow twice in the sermon, most memorably when he says:

The Bow of God’s Wrath is bent, and the Arrow made ready on the String, and Justice bends the Arrow at your Heart, and strains the Bow, and it is nothing but the mere Pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any Promise or Obligation at all, that keeps the Arrow one Moment from being made drunk with your Blood.

Edwards's congregation would have been familiar with bows and arrows and would have hunted with them. They would have known how much strength and restraint it takes to keep an arrow on the string instead of letting it fly. This image, therefore, plays on the listeners' awareness of the fragility of life. It is one of several extended metaphors which suggests that death is more probable than life at any given moment. Edwards also says:

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.

As with the image of the arrow, this emphasizes the immanence of death. If you are holding a spider over a fire, the easiest course of action is to let it fall.

For a convinced Puritan, death is far more important than life. One is alive for a few decades as an insignificant preamble to an eternity in heaven or hell. Any time not spent ensuring that the former, not the latter, is one's destination is time frivolously wasted. This is doubly the case when one cannot expect a good seven or eight decades but might easily be carried off after forty, thirty, or even twenty years by any one of a myriad of dangers. Edwards's repeated images of immanence do not allow his listeners to forget this for a moment.

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While one can definitely argue that lower life expectancy in the 18th century contributed to the effectiveness of Edwards's "fire and brimstone" sermons such as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," I would argue that most of the effectiveness of this kind of rhetoric is not dependent on life expectancy. Everyone will die, and generally people acknowledge this fact. And while life expectancy may give people a guess as to how long they might live, death can occur at any moment. These facts were true in the 18th century just as they are now.

The question of how humans deal with the possibility of an imminent death and the inevitability of an eventual death is ever-present. Many try to extend life as much as possible, fleeing from danger and casting their hope onto any kind of remedy or technology that promises to extent their life. Others put their hope in supernatural aid and the possibility of life after death. And others come to terms with the fact that their life will eventually end and make their peace with it.

While life expectancy may be longer now than it was in the 18th century, I would argue that there are still huge portions of the population fleeing from death. If rhetoric such as Edwards's is less effective now, I would argue it's because people put more faith in technology and less in supernatural and religious aid, not because people are any less scared of death.

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That is a very interesting perspective when considering the audience of this sermon when it was originally delivered. Even by the year 1800 (decades after this sermon was delivered), the average life expectancy was only in the mid-30s. That number was greatly impacted by an astronomical childhood mortality rate, but if you take that out of the equation, children who lived to be 5 could still only expect to live to be around 55 in the year 1800.

Seeing children and young people (especially by our standards) die would have become sadly commonplace. That reshapes this sense of imminence that Edwards tries to capture in his sermon and likely drove (at least partially) the audience's acceptance of his sense of urgency. He wants his audience to avoid eternal damnation by showing them how close they are to such a fate: "The Devil stands ready to fall upon [sinners] and seize them as his own, at what Moment God shall permit him."

Edwards speaks especially to the younger members of his congregation in this section:

And you that are young Men, and young Women, will you neglect this precious Season that you now enjoy ... You especially have now an extraordinary Opportunity; but if you neglect it, it will soon be with you as it is with those Persons that spent away all the precious Days of Youth in Sin, and are now come to such a dreadful pass in blindness and hardness.

He surely understood that youth has a deceptive power, masking the truth that life is not always long and that this "precious Season" could quickly end. Therefore, repentance held pressing and eternal significance.

Regardless of expected life span, everyone knows that he or she is on a limited clock of remaining time on Earth. Edwards could not have known how his sermon would endure hundreds of years later or how the life expectancy would increase over the centuries, but he did realize that his congregation existed on borrowed time and tried to steer them toward salvation before it was too late. And his audience was familiar with death and especially the death of children and young people, so this would have surely impacted their reaction to his message.

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The basis of Jonathan Edwards' “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is the argument that his audience members should act now before it's too late.  Tomorrow might not come if God doesn’t want them to wake up, so the only way to ensure an afterlife in heaven is to confess your sins and join his church (not just any church, his church). Those listening to him, in the 18th century, knew life was fragile, and that they could die at any moment (for often unknown reasons) his assertion that they are only alive because God wills it so is particularly palpable.

 

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