Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards

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Teaching Approaches

Evaluating Edwards’s Argument: Edwards’s sermon, for all its literary flourish, is a work of rhetoric that seeks to convince the congregation of an argument. That argument is twofold, containing both an account of reality and a moral prescription. Because Edwards uses such fiery language, readers can become distracted from the fact that, beneath the bluster, lie Edwards’s entirely falsifiable views. Encourage students to lay out those views and evaluate their structure from an objective distance, just as a scientist might examine a sample of seawater or bacteria. From such a vantage point, the class can consider both how Edwards’s sermon functions and whether it is successful in advancing its claims. 

  • For discussion: What exactly are Edwards’s claims? What does he wish to convey to his congregation? 
  • For discussion: Which aspects of Edwards’s views are descriptive (offering claims about reality)? Which aspects are prescriptive (offering moral instructions)? 
  • For discussion: What techniques does Edwards use to make his arguments? What evidence does he draw on? 
  • For discussion: Are Edwards’s arguments compelling? Where, if anywhere, do they succeed? Why? Where, if anywhere, do they fail? Why? Use specific examples from the sermon in your evaluation. 

Finding Truth Amid Fiction: [Note: If you or your class find the content of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to be broadly true in a literal sense, consider skipping this teaching approach.] For modern readers, Edwards’s ideas are likely to appear outmoded and in most cases wildly inaccurate. For secular and non-Protestant readers, Edwards’s message is one of peculiar fundamentalism. Even for many Protestant readers, his fire-and-brimstone teachings are likely to seem foreign, given the vast, varied, and widespread changes in Protestant doctrine since 1741. In light of their great intellectual distance from Edwards, modern readers may find it both challenging and illuminating to identify ideas and claims in Edwards’s sermon that might be true. As a class, try to do this. Because Edwards’s claims are largely falsifiable on literal terms, encourage students to seek figurative truths in his argument that correspond to their maps of reality. 

  • For discussion: Secular and non-Protestant readers may find statements in Edwards’s sermon that convey truths about the human experience. Do you see any such truths in the sermon? If so, how do you acknowledge those truths in the context of untruths? Are there statements that are partially, but not wholly, true? 
  • For discussion: To what extent do the truths you identify emerge through metaphor? How do metaphors allow for flexible expressions of truth? 
  • For discussion: Are you unable to find anything true? If so, describe your experience of parsing, evaluating, and dismissing the sermon’s claims. 

Following the Use of Metaphor: Jonathan Edwards uses metaphor abundantly and extravagantly in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Because the sermon is a work of discursive rhetoric, it has no proper setting or imagery, as novels and poems tend to. However, Edwards brings images and scenes into his sermon through metaphor. These images serve as vehicles for the tenors of Edwards’s claims, which emerge from doctrinal theories. Thus, potentially dry abstractions, such as the damnation of a person to hell, take on an imagistic reality, such as the plunge of a rock into an abyssal gulf. The rock and the gulf exist only in the metaphor, not in some fictionalized landscape. Thus, by smuggling imagery into the sermon through metaphor, Edwards enlivens his argument while keeping to a foundation of scripture and doctrine. As a class, unpack Edwards’s metaphors. Take either a paragraph, a page or—for the bold of heart—the entire sermon, and list out its metaphors. For each metaphor, mark both the tenor (the object at hand being described) and the vehicle (the imagined object whose attributes are borrowed). 

  • For discussion: What is...

(The entire section is 1,638 words.)