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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards

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How does Edward's word choice in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" persuade his audience?

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Edwards's sermon is filled with dramatic and persuasive diction designed to motivate his listeners to trust in Christ. Many of these passages are metaphors or allegories that elucidate the spiritual state by comparing it to physical conditions his readers could relate to. In seeking to prove the precarious state of his listeners' souls, he describes the ground they walk on every day as a weak bridge across a dangerous cavern:

Unconverted Men walk over the Pit of Hell on a rotten Covering, and there are innumerable Places in this Covering so weak that they won’t bear their Weight, and these Places are not seen.

He likens the wrath of God to a flood that strains behind a dam, waiting to burst forth:

The Wrath of God is like great Waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, & rise higher and higher, till an Outlet is given, and the longer the Stream is stop’d, the more rapid and mighty is its Course, when once it is let loose.

He emphasizes the power of God and the helplessness of people by comparing God to a person holding an insect over a fire:

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 towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours.

These analogies are powerfully persuasive because they remove spiritual discussions from the abstract to the concrete. They make the situation real to the listeners. The word choices and sentence structures Edwards uses in these descriptions create what is known as "elevated diction." The eloquent phrasing makes his pronouncements more authoritative and believable.

In the "Application" section of the sermon, Edwards uses powerful diction to create exigency—that is, a reason for his listeners to act now:

O Sinner! Consider the fearful Danger you are in: 'Tis a great Furnace of Wrath, a wide and bottomless Pit, full of the Fire of Wrath, that you are held over in the Hand of that God, whose Wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the Damned in Hell: You hang by a slender Thread, with the Flames of divine Wrath flashing about it, and ready every Moment to singe it, and burn it asunder . . .

This thread could be cut at any moment. Edwards goes on to remind his listeners that God has many ways to end people's lives that don't even require miraculous interventions. Every day, death takes people by surprise.

After painting such a terrifying picture for listeners of the precarious state of their souls, he then ends his sermon with a rousing picture of hope:

And now you have an extraordinary Opportunity, a Day wherein Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open, and stands in the Door calling and crying with a loud Voice to poor Sinners; a Day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the Kingdom of God; many are daily coming from the East, West, North and South; many that were very lately in the same miserable Condition that you are in, are in now an happy State, with their Hearts filled with Love to Him that has loved them and washed them for their Sins in his own Blood, and rejoycing in Hope of the Glory of God. How awful is it to be left behind at such a Day! To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing! To see so many rejoycing and singing for Joy of Heart, while you have Cause to mourn for Sorrow of Heart, and howl for Vexation of Spirit! How can you rest one Moment in such a Condition? Are not your Souls as precious as the Souls of the People at Suffield, where they are
flocking from Day to Day to Christ?

This is a masterful bandwagon appeal. One feels ready to join the throng Edwards paints so eloquently—especially after the dark and terrifying alternative that has been described previously.

Almost every sentence in the sermon could be cited as an example of powerfully persuasive diction. Among other techniques, Edwards used skillful diction to persuade his listeners with analogies, exigency, and a convincing bandwagon appeal.

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One thing to consider is that "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," as a live sermon, would have relied heavily upon Edwards's own personal charisma and oratorical ability to have its desired effect. Even the most powerful writing would have failed without the speaking skills to support it.

In any case, a preceding contributor has already noted the personal nature of Edward's sermon, in how he's speaking directly to his parishioners. In addition to this, I would note his use of repetition. He repeats the same key words frequently throughout the sermon: words like "wrath/wrathful" or "anger/angry" as they refer to God, or "wicked" or "foolish" as they refer to human beings, to give a few examples. This repetition focuses the audience's attention on those key concepts, such as the anger of God or the fallibility of themselves.

Finally, consider how heavily Edwards relies upon scripture. He quotes frequently from the Old and New Testaments, grounding his own preaching in an appeal to authority (via the Bible). This would have made his message all the more convincing to his audience.

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One of the most effective choices that Edwards makes is his use of the second-person pronoun, "you," and he first does it in the second sentence of the "Application" section of his sermon: "This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ." In the first sentence, Edwards indicates that his sermon is directed toward "unconverted persons," and in doing so, likely makes people in the congregation fear he is speaking directly to them as he outlines God's wrath and the destruction that awaits the "unconverted" in Hell. Edwards peppers his sermon with liberal uses of "you."

In the largely agrarian population of Connecticut where he was speaking that day, Edwards used many metaphors and analogies relating God's wrath to the natural world the colonists lived so close to. God's displeasure is compared to "great waters dammed for the present." Assertions like "God . . . holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire" and "nor will God then at all stay his rough wind" make it clear in simple terms the devastation that sinners will face.

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