Puritan New England: The Puritan sect of Christianity branched off from the Church of England in the 16th century. The Puritans objected to the numerous similarities and overlaps between the Church of England and the Catholic Church from which it had diverged during the Reformation. In a sense, the Puritans wished to take the Reformation further, banishing the rituals and medieval laws to which the Catholic and Anglican churches continued to cling. While some Puritans chose to stay within the Church of England and change the institution from within, a more reactionary group, known as the Separatists, chose to leave. During the early decades of the 17th century, English Puritan Separatists began voyaging to North America with the dream of founding a society based on Puritan values. These pilgrims—as they came to be called—established colonies throughout New England, namely the Plymouth Colony in 1620, the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629, and the Connecticut Colony in 1636.
- During the Great Migration of the 1640s, 20,000 Puritans arrived in New England. The colonies bloomed to thirteen and began to flourish as close-knit and deeply devout communities. This is the civic and ecclesiastical context into which Jonathan Edwards was born in 1703.
The First Great Awakening: Throughout religious history, the opposing forces of tradition and innovation remain locked in tension. As Anglicanism progressed beyond Catholicism, as Puritanism progressed beyond Anglicanism, so the Revivalists of the First Great Awakening progressed beyond Puritanism. By the 1730s, the thirteen American colonies contained a swath of Protestant sects with a plethora of doctrinal and spiritual variations. A group of Revivalist preachers and believers began to form a new ecclesiastical movement known loosely as the “New Light,” to be distinguished from the “Old Light” of the traditional forms of Puritan Protestantism.
- The members of the “New Light” blended Calvinist and Puritan ideas into a new theology. This Revival theology encouraged congregants to admit their inherent sinfulness, to convert—or be “born again”—and accept God’s grace, and to seek consolation through proof of salvation. Thus evangelicalism—or “born again” Christianity—was born.
- The “Old Light” Puritans disapproved of several aspects of the “New Light” movement: its itinerant preachers, who traveled from town to town seeking new converts; its practice of instilling fear in its followers; and its emphasis on feeling—the heart—as the locus of divine connection.
- Jonathan Edwards stepped onto the public stage as a Revivalist leader in 1731, and he held that role until his death in 1758. His sermons and books served as cornerstones of Revivalist theology.
The King James Bible: One of the chief beliefs of Edwards’s Revivalist theology was in the inerrancy of the Bible. Revivalist theologians, like Edwards, took the word of the Bible seriously and literally. Thus, Edwards does not merely allude to the Bible; he quotes it amply and even crafts his own prose in a way that imitates the diction and phrasing of the King James Bible. In 1604, King James I of England commissioned a new English translation of the Bible, one that would serve as a standard for the Church of England, the Protestant sect from which Puritanism diverged. The King James Bible, the labor of 47 scholars, was published in 1611 and has been the most widely distributed version in the English-speaking world ever since. With its exquisite prose, characteristic of the craftsmanship of English Renaissance literature, it remains one of the most influential documents in the language. Jonathan Edwards draws deeply from the King James Bible, both for evidence and for style.
- For “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards takes his epigraph from Deuteronomy 32:35. The phrase, “Their foot shall slide in due time,” is drawn from the final speech of Moses. In Edwards’s hands, the phrase describes the inherent insecurity of his congregation, who are never safe from God’s wrath and whose feet “shall slide in due time.” Edwards laces in more than twenty additional biblical quotations, at times to bolster his claim with textual evidence, at times to infuse his sermon with a vivid, forceful phrase.