Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: what does it mean?

Welcome to our series on the (in)famous 1741 Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. This is a text that is taught unfailingly in American literature courses in high school and college; students read a short excerpt, one of the many that focuses all too intently on describing the horrors of hell and the wretched situation of humans living seemingly comfortable and happy lives on Earth but destined—pre-destined—to wind up scorching eternally.

It’s usually presented as an example of the awfulness of the Puritans and their religion, but it’s not really a Puritan sermon at all. In this series, we’ll trace the evolution of this sermon, the Great Awakening of which it was a part, and the overall religious climate of New England in the mid-1700s.

Let’s begin with a sizing up of religious feeling and practice in New England at the time. New England had been settled by Puritans—English people who wanted to strip the Anglican church of its remaining “Catholic” practices—to purify it (much more on the Puritans throughout this site!). The church these people created in the New World came to be called Congregational, because each individual congregation was completely autonomous—there were no bishops and archbishops assigning ministers and dictating doctrine. The people attending a church had complete control over who became their minister, voting for and against candidates for that office, and each church was free from interference by the state.

When on earth, you ask, will we get to the sermon? It is coming; in the very next post we’ll get to it. But you can’t understand why Edwards’ sermon was so powerful unless you know where his congregation of 1741 was at with their religion and their souls.

This original Congregational church was strong from 1630, when the Puritans arrived in New England, until about 1700. Early on, the Puritans codified their beliefs and, most importantly, their church practices in a body of doctrine called the New England Way. One of the most important things to understand about the real Puritanism of this period, rather than the religious practice that came later in the early 1700s, is that Puritan religion was very intellectual. It required lots of thought, reading, prayer, conversation, and soul-searching done in the quiet of reflection. The New England Way laid out a series of steps one must take in order to a) open oneself to God’s grace so that b) one could realize whether one had been given God’s grace and was saved. It’s a little bald, but let’s put it into bullets:

—Puritans believed that everyone in history and in the future had already been given grace/salvation by God or had not

—There was nothing you could do to earn God’s grace/salvation; no sinful human could ever deserve it

—God decided millennia before you were born whether to give you His grace or not (this is called predestination)

—Your job was to live as good a life as you could, following Congregational doctrine as closely as you could, in order to make your fallen soul as receptive as possible to the word of God, which would

—make it possible for you to realize whether you had received God’s grace or not.

—If you realized you had been saved, you were all set. If not, you had to keep trying. Puritans, for all their strictness, were loathe to actually tell someone to give up, that they weren’t saved.

Puritans were fully committed to their Way. They saw it as a fixed doctrine, set for the ages. But in 1659, the Halfway Covenant was introduced. In the Congregational church, infants were baptized, and anyone baptized in a church could attend it. But unless they became full members, they could not take communion or take part in church votes. To become a full member, you had to complete the long series of steps toward opening yourself to God and have the realization that God had indeed saved you. Very, very few Puritans, even in the fervent early decades, did this. They took their religion very seriously, and very few people could bring themselves to think that they had been given the priceless gift of God’s grace and salvation. The Halfway Covenant allowed people who weren’t full members to have their own children baptized.  They could not take communion or vote, but they could be part of the groups that sought to know God’s will. This was a compromise that kept children in the fold without corrupting the Congregational practice of requiring full membership  before you took communion or voted.

Churches across New England battled in mini civil wars over whether they would accept the Halfway Covenant, and some churches were torn apart. Argument about what the New England Way really was fired the region. The Halfway Covenant was eventually accepted, but it did plant a seed of doubt in people’s minds—was Congregational doctrine really handed down from God, and unchangeable, or something created by humans that had no real authority?

This question would remain as the 17th century drew to a close. The Massachusetts Bay Colony lost its autonomy in 1691 and was made a royal colony under direct control of the English king, and many thousands of non-Puritans entered the colony. The old religion held on, but inevitably it changed. Whether you thought that change was for the better or the worse influenced how you felt about the Great Awakening, and Jonathan Edwards’ preaching, when they came.

Next time: the Great Awakening and the Sermon

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