The Great and Terrible God: an Analysis of the Greatest Great Awakening Sermon and its Impact

This is my latest research paper. Hope you enjoy!

Fear as a preaching method has been popular for hundreds of years in evangelical circles. For many years, we have seen preachers and priests tell scary stories from the pulpit, presenting a gory and terrifying image of hell, which would be the eventual destination of any poor soul who chose to ignore their message. One of the chief proponents of the “Hellfire and Brimstone” method in Colonial times was Jonathan Edwards, a preacher and philosopher in Northampton, Massachusetts. He presented fiery (no pun intended) sermons about the desires of God and the failures of humans, and one of the most important of his sermons, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is no different. This classic sermon, delivered at a church in Enfield, Connecticut in 1741, fell on receptive ears (his first attempt to deliver this sermon occurred at his home church in Massachusetts, and it was of no consequence. He felt lead to present it again at Enfield, and the congregation responded favorably), and had a great effect on the people in the congregation. This sermon also had long-term effects, most notably being an incredibly important moment in the First Great Awakening, which was the beginning of a set of religious movements in early American religion and thought. I believe that this sermon is illustrative of some very important tenets of Jonathan Edwards’s personal beliefs, and my hope is to discuss some of those beliefs in my analysis. Three key elements to this sermon stick out, and I believe they show us a great deal about his religious background and beliefs:

  1. The common view of God at the time was that He was all powerful, and absolutely terrifying. This aligns with an Old Testament view of God, as a plague-bringer and death monger. It did not seem like many pastors were preaching God’s sufficient grace, as much as His desire to send people to Hell.
  2. Humans are absolutely and totally incapable of creating their own salvation. Without the grace and power of God, all of humanity is bound for hell, without any sign of stopping. We are inadequate in every way, and only an act of God can even bring us to the point of understanding God’s love. We have to die to ourselves daily in order to be a vessel for God’s work.
  3. Fear is an important part of the conversion process, according to Edwards. It is also an incredibly important part of Edwards’s sermons. We must fear and admire the great and powerful God, and then we will see just how insignificant we are and how much we need His love. We can also see a great deal of Edwards’s success coming from fear appeals in his sermons.

These three concepts come together to provide a decent picture of how Edwards believed, and what he preached to the congregations at Northampton and Enfield. In the following pages, I hope to discuss each, and provide insight on the man that was responsible for New England’s First Great Awakening.

Brief Biography: Who was Jonathan Edwards?

Born in 1703, Jonathan Edwards was one in a long line of clergymen. His father Timothy was a popular pastor in Connecticut and a stern parent, who was meticulous about his children’s religious education. Jonathan’s grandfather was Solomon Stoddard, who was an incredibly popular pastor and commanding leader of Northampton and western Massachusetts congregations. This led to Edwards being pressured to succeed on several fronts, because he was expected to take the role of his grandfather, and assume the same level of force and intellect common of the men in his family. Luckily, Edwards was up to the task. He was a great thinker and writer, and eventually found himself at the Collegiate School (Yale College) in 1716 (Kuklick, page 16). Edwards proved to be a perfect fit for academia, as described by his personal disciple Samuel Hopkins, who said that Edwards’s joy for reading John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) was more “than the most greedy Miser in gathering up handsful of Silver and Gold from some new discover’d Treasure (Kuklick, page 16).” Edwards was a life-long learner, and his love for study and deep thought would help him in his later academic and theological efforts. Edwards would bounce back and forth between different pulpits and Yale, eventually gaining the Northampton pulpit in 1729, as a “reward for his youthful achievements and illustrious ancestry (Kuklick, page 23).” He replaced his grandfather Stoddard, who left the bar high for him as a pastor and theologian. Naturally, this did not go well for Edwards, who suffered for the first several years of his ministry. It wasn’t until the 1730’s, when Northampton experienced a great revival, that Edwards’s teachings were really accepted as authoritative. Another great revival occurred in 1740-1742, which was a Great Awakening in Puritan philosophy and religion. Edwards constantly wrote his thoughts on these revivals, doing what he could to defend them in his writings and to discern whether or not people were truly saved during his ministry.

During The Great Awakening, Edwards preached what could end up being one of the greatest sermons in history. In 1741, Edwards was invited to speak to the congregation at Enfield, Connecticut, which – until his sermon, had largely rejected the revivalism that had swept across Connecticut (Kuklick, page 23). His rhetorical skill overwhelmed the audience, and the sermon he preached went down in history. Several elements of his sermons are important to understand, before we can consider the implications of such a powerful work.

Hellfire and Brimstone

Because of preaching methods in the early 1700’s, many people were scared of hell, and scared of God. Often, congregants would faint upon hearing some of the more gruesome descriptions of the doom sure to meet unsaved individuals. Jonathan Edwards was another proponent of this style of preaching, filling his sermons with appeals to the emotions of his congregation. In “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, he spoke of a God who had unsaved individuals at the edge of a string, only letting them live because He felt like it. Edwards portrays God as an all-powerful being who is bent on the destruction of all that goes against His nature. He describes God’s wrath as “great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given, and the longer the stream is stop’d, the more rapid and mighty is it’s course, when once it is let loose (Edwards, page 7).” It is clear that Edwards believed God to be a vengeful God. He tended to believe that the fear of God’s wrath is one of the keys to salvation, as well.

The Ineptitude of Humanity

Edwards believed that the human race was incapable of saving itself, which is key to the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity (Calvinist Corner, 2012). Humanity has no hope of salvation if they are trying to be saved on their own. Even Edwards struggled with this doctrine and his own faith, saying that “‘God’s sovereignty, in choosing whom He would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell.’ ‘It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me (Bushman, page 355-356).’” The idea of God’s power to decide who to save and who to ignore is a terrifying idea, but it is one that Edwards believed. We can see his portrayal of God’s will for the unsaved in his sermon, when he says

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…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 (Edwards, page 8).

This is not the picture of a loving, patient God that we see in our Sunday School classes. Edwards is a master of painting a terrifying rhetorical picture, and according to Kuklick, the assembly in Enfield was “‘impressed and bowed down with an awful conviction of their sin and dangers’; there was ‘a breathing of distress and weeping (Kuklick, page 24).’” It seems like Edwards’s appeal to the natural fear of hell in his congregations gathered great but frantic results. Many people began to see the sense of urgency in Edwards’s messages, and they took it to heart. When they realized their inability to be saved without the Lord’s help, they began to understand that self-sacrifice was the only way to gain a relationship with the Lord, and safety from hell.

Edwards’s relationship with God was tumultuous at times, saying that he often went between times of great joy and times of great sorrow (Bushman, pages 348-360). He believed that the only way for him to experience true and passionate joy was to annihilate the self, and only pursue the things of God. Edwards often mused about the idea of the battling wills, and how he was almost always in an internal conflict. He was stuck between wanting the desires of God and wishing he could have the desires of his heart. His goal, then, was to make his desires the same as God’s. This self-sacrifice was the key to his spirituality, and he did what he could to espouse that view at every opportunity.

Scary Story Evangelism

Much of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is what professor Brian Jackson describes as argumentum ad baculum, meaning the practice of appealing to fear. He uses a definition from a different source on rhetoric, which describes argumentum ad baculum as “the form of a warning that some bad or scary outcome will occur if the respondent does not carry out a recommended action (Jackson, page 44).” Edwards uses vivid descriptions of hell and God’s wrath as prods for a resistant congregation, and his skills as a rhetorician played to his advantage. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is almost entirely an appeal to fear, which is wildly different from sermons that were preached even a few years before The Great Awakening. Jackson quotes Stout’s book The New England Soul in his article, saying that

Before 1740, hellfire and brimstone sermons – the kind that employ argumentum ad baculum with zeal – were rare, appearing occasionally in dramatic settings like fasts, funerals, or public executions. ‘More common,’ he explains, particularly among Boston’s more liberal clergy, ‘was the theme of God’s love, patience, and mercy to ailing sinners (Jackson, 44)

It is interesting to see that these tactics were not truly popular until Edwards began employing them during his pastorate. He used these methods with great success, but I don’t believe that he was interested in salvation for numbers’ sake. Edwards did all he could to discern between true and false salvations, and tried to disciple those who sincerely followed the God that Edwards preached about. He did not have to report numbers of salvations to the state convention when he was in his pastorate, so my guess is that he took great care to figure out who was truly saved, and who was feigning salvation for a blessing and protection from the evils of hell.

Edwards spends a great deal of time in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” discussing the “world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone…extended abroad under you (Edwards, page 6).” Based on the response of the congregation at Enfield, Edwards’s sermon word choice was effective. He declared that it was likely that some congregation members would be headed straight for the pit, and that statement, among others, nearly incited a riot in the congregation. This fear epidemic in the Enfield congregation was similar to the overall tone of The Great Awakening, which was a time of great hysteria for people who were unsure of their eternal destinations.

What Can We Do With This Information?

From what we’ve discussed, I think it is reasonable to declare Jonathan Edwards a Calvinist. This theological shift occurred during his time of conversion, from the ages of 16 to 20. He was initially interested in religion for its intellectual and philosophical value, but after conversion, he seemed to have a great deal of interest in Calvinist theology and its religious implications. He wrote a great deal from an academic and a spiritual perspective, often combining the two for a well-rounded idea of Puritan thought in his time. We can thank Edwards for his preaching and his scholarship, because many of his musings are well-regarded to this day.

Jonathan Edwards grew up in a home that valued commitment to the scriptures and a life full of study and learning, and he lived up to the standards set for him. He grew into an incredibly smart young man, and an effective preacher, who is considered the father of The First Great Awakening in New England. His books and sermons are still available to this day, and thousands of books and scholarly articles have been written in response to different elements of his rhetoric, personal beliefs, and writing style. Interest in Edwards’s life and work will always be strong, because of his effect on his congregation and the history of American religion and thought. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was the perfect sermon for the perfect congregation at the perfect time, and it was delivered by the perfect orator for the nature of the text. Jonathan Edwards was just the preacher and philosopher that The Great Awakening needed, and his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” holds weight with congregations all over the world, even now. It all comes down to this: Edwards, while his methods were occasionally questionable, was an honorable man with a great skill for preaching and writing. We can remember him as a passionate orator and author, and we can only hope that his memory will live long beyond our lifetimes.

Works Cited

Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and Other Puritan Sermons. Dover ed. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2005. 171-184. Print.

Jackson, Brian. “Jonathan Edwards Goes to Hell (House): Fear Appeals In American Evangelism.” Rhetoric Review 26.1 (2007): 42-59. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.

Kuklick, Bruce. “Jonathan Edwards: Philosopher and Pastor.” Churchmen and Philosophers. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1985. 15-26. Print.

Slick, Matthew J. “The Five Points of Calvinism, TULIP.” The Five Points of Calvinism, TULIP. The Calvinist Corner, 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. <http://www.calvinistcorner.com/tulip.htm&gt;.

Vaughan, Alden T., and Bremer, Francis J. Puritan New England: Essays on Religion, Society, and Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977. Print.

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