person lying in the fetal position surrounded by hellfire

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards

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Teaching Approaches

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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 purpose of the metaphors? What role do they play in Edwards’s argument? Do they help or hinder his argument? 
  • For discussion: Find a passage that includes two or more metaphors. How do the metaphors relate to one another? Do the metaphors interact with one another, creating compounded meanings? Do the metaphors diverge, existing in separate cognitive compartments? What is the effect of the relationship? 
  • For discussion: Looking at the sermon as a whole, which metaphors recur across the work? Do these recurring metaphors change or remain the same? 
  • For discussion: Which, if any, of Edwards’s metaphors do you find beautiful? 

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • How do you reckon with the influence of Jonathan Edwards on New England culture and American religious thinking? Where do you see strains of Puritanism and evangelicalism in contemporary American culture? 
  • Some scholars suspect that Edwards drew on Isaac Newton’s laws of motion (1687) for his rhetoric. Where do you see metaphors of physics in the sermon? 
  • Where do Edwards’s ideas stand in the broader landscape of Christian thought? Which Christian sects and thinkers does Edwards’s sermon accord with? Which does his sermon diverge from? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

The Sermon Is Grim: In a conventional sense, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is not a pleasant read. Its subject is hellfire and the damnation of humanity. Its tone is bleak, condemnatory, and unforgiving. Students may, understandably, wish to drop the Edwards sermon and reach for some lighter fare—perhaps P. G. Wodehouse or Agatha Christie— wherein hell’s flames flick dimly and distantly, if at all. But encourage them to stay the course. 

  • What to do: Remind students that Edwards’s ideas are fictional. Despite the rhetorical vigor and raging visions of Edwards’s sermon, his argument is falsifiable. Remind students of this fact, and encourage a more critical reading of the text. 

The Style Is Antiquated: Jonathan Edwards’s prose adheres to a style that has been outmoded for more than two centuries. His diction is drawn directly from the 1611 King James Bible. His sentence structures are modeled after those of John Locke, in whose copious prose one might reasonably confuse a sentence for a paragraph and a paragraph for a chapter. In short, students might find Edwards’s style antiquated and long-winded. 

  • What to do: Encourage students to list—and seek definitions for—any vocabulary they find confusing. As discussed in the following Analyzing Sentence Structures approach, breaking down the more complicated sentences makes them more approachable and appreciable. 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"

While the main ideas and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving Edwards’s sermon, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the text. 

Analyzing Sentence Structures: One of the signature difficulties and strengths of Edwards’s writing is his frequent use of elaborate sentence structures. On the one hand, Edwards’s labyrinthine sentences can be baffling, leaving readers lost among its clauses, which deviate, fracture, and reassemble. On the other hand, there is a rhetorical power in such sentences. It is satisfying to arrive at the end of such a sentence having kept the curving course, carefully gathering its disparate parts into a complex whole. Try presenting two or three examples of difficult sentences to the class. Discuss the structure of each sentence and evaluate its rhetorical and aesthetic merit. While the sermon contains numerous choices, the following three sentences represent worthy subjects of analysis: 

  • “The Corruption of the Heart of Man is a Thing that is immoderate and boundless in its Fury; and while wicked Men live here, it is like Fire pent up by God’s Restraints, whereas if it were let loose it would set on Fire the Course of Nature; and as the Heart is now a Sink of Sin, so, if Sin was not restrain’d, it would immediately turn the Soul into a fiery Oven, or a Furnace of Fire and Brimstone.” 
  • “Your Wickedness makes you as it were heavy as Lead, and to tend downwards with great Weight and Pressure towards Hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend & plunge into the bottomless Gulf, and your healthy Constitution, and your own Care and Prudence, and best Contrivance, and all your Righteousness, would have no more Influence to uphold you and keep you out of Hell, than a Spider’s Web would have to stop a falling Rock.” 
  • “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 meer 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.” 

The Relationship Between the Individual and God: One of the key features of Protestantism that distinguishes it from the Catholic doctrine from which it diverged is the nature of the relationship between individual believers and God. According to Catholic teachings, God is unknowable to all but the elite members of the clergy. The word of God is channeled through the Pope, the cardinals and bishops, and down to the broader base of believers. Most sects of Protestantism, which broke from Catholicism in 1517, posit a direct, unmediated connection between each believer and God. Jonathan Edwards’s Revivalist sermons take this connection as a given and offer teachings to help believers sculpt that connection correctly. 

  • As a class, discuss Edwards’s view of the relationship between the individual and God. Try to outline the terms of this imagined relationship, noting the powers and obligations each party holds. 

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