So you’re going to teach Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While it has its challenges—frightening subject matter, dense allusions, syntactic complexity—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” will give them historical insight into the First Great Awakening and reveal the rhetorical artistry of church sermons. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.
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Facts at a Glance
- Publication Date: 1741
- Recommended Grade Levels: 8th and up
- Approximate Word Count: 7, 240
- Author: Jonathan Edwards
- Country of Origin: United States
- Genre: Sermon
- Literary Period: American Colonial
- Conflict: Person vs. Supernatural, Person vs. Self
- Narration: First-Person
- Setting: Enfield, Connecticut, 1741
- Structure: Prose, Protestant Sermon
- Tone: Grave, Instructive, Condemnatory
Texts That Go Well With "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"
“A Modell of Christian Charity” (1630) is a seminal sermon by John Winthrop, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the second major Puritan colony in New England. According to legend, Winthrop composed “A Modell of Christian Charity” on a ship from England to Boston, where he delivered his message of moral rectitude, brotherly love, and American exceptionalism.
“Contemplations” (17th century) is a long poem by Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan settler and poet widely considered among the first literary figures in American history. Unlike the staunch sermons of her fellow Puritans, Bradstreet’s verse approaches religious topics obliquely. In her masterpiece “Contemplations,” she handles her biblical and spiritual subject matter with musicality, patience, and curiosity.
“Freedom of the Will” (1754) is another key sermon by Jonathan Edwards. The central concern of the sermon is the Protestant notion of “total depravity.” According to this notion, posited by Edwards, humanity is unalterably chained to a course of sin and damnation. Humans have no freedom of will to avoid sin or seek salvation; only the autonomous grace of God may save humans.
Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), by Cotton Mather, is a history of the American colonies, told from an ecclesiastical perspective. Mather descended from a line of influential New England statesmen and ministers and became the most influential American religious figure of his time. Magnalia Christi Americana expresses his convictions that the project of the Puritans was divinely ordained. Mather is principally known for his involvement in the Salem witch trials.
The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a historical novel written in the Romantic era and set in the 1640s during the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hawthorne’s protagonist, Hester Prynne, is a young mother whose child is conceived through adultery. She struggles to find a place for herself in a world governed by men who—much in the moralizing vein of Jonathan Edwards—do not tire of telling Prynne what a grade-A sinner she is.