Sinners in the hands of an angry God: where did it come from?

Welcome to part 2 of our series on the infamous Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. Here we follow on from the description of the original Puritan religion and church practices in part 1 with a description of the Great Awakening and the sermon itself.

As we learned in part 1, by the 1690s the old Puritan Way was eroding in New England for political and demographic reasons. Puritans were no longer the majority population in the New England colonies as outsiders came in to the newly subsumed royal colony. Congregational religion held on; most people living in New England in 1720 who were born into Congregationalism took it seriously, but they did not regard the ministry or the complex, social, intellectual process of church doctrine with the respect that their forebears had felt.

This was partly inevitable; the fervor and complete devotion to the New England Way of the first generations who felt they were fighting God’s fight all alone in the New World could not be sustained by those who came later, born into a comfortable and profitable colony of the British empire. It was also partly the result of compromises to the Way that took the supernatural aura away from it and made it seem more a human creation like any other—no better and no worse than any other way.

Many historians have made a great deal of a supposed falling off of church membership at this time, the early 1700s, but as we have seen, full church membership had always been rare amongst the Puritans, because most of them were not sure that they were truly saved (a prerequisite to becoming a full member was publicly describing and affirming the moment you realized you were saved). So the slightly lower number still of full members in the 1700s is not surprising. In a time of increased doubt, the fraction of those who felt they were saved became even smaller.

Congregationalism was not dead; on the contrary, most Congregationalists were still very concerned with their souls. They just did not respond passionately to traditional Congregationalism anymore.

Enter the First Great Awakening. In the 1730s and 40s, a series of religious revivals swept New England and parts of New York and New Jersey. The theology of the revivalists was a mix; George Whitefield was an Anglican, many Baptists took part, and some Congregational ministers embraced a mix of Calvinist and Arminian principles. We saw in part 1 of this series that Arminianism had been an arch-enemy of the Puritans because it taught that humans could choose to accept God and be saved, which Puritans thought was impossible given the fallen, sinful nature of human beings. So it’s a proof of the shift in New England that an unreformed English Anglican could lead Baptists and Congregationalists in an embrace of Arminianism.

But the revivals did catch on. They spoke to people’s desire to be passionate about religion again, to feel the fire of religious devotion they read about in histories of their ancestors but did not feel in themselves. In the absence of a literal wilderness to fight against, like their settler ancestors had had, New Englanders in the 1730s and 40s fought against a spiritual wilderness. They fought against the apathy and religious complacency they had begun to feel as the Puritan religious zeal was more and more transferred to politics.

Jonathan Edwards was a Congregational minister in Northampton, Massachusetts Bay Colony who embraced certain aspects of the revival. Born in 1703, Edwards had grown up in a very traditional Puritan household; his mother Esther Stoddard Edwards was the daughter of the famous and influential Puritan minister Solomon Stoddard. Edwards believed in predestination, and had had his moment of realizing he was saved; he believed that God alone decided if someone was to be saved and that no human effort or decision could influence God. He was also a passionate amateur biologist who saw the beauty of nature as proof of God’s goodness, and a happily married man who took a special interest in women’s rights.

Edwards appreciated the religious revival because it brought people to church and got them passionate about religion again. It also gave him an opportunity to mix scientific method and the old-school Puritan intellectual approach by taking the revival as an opportunity to study and document the psycholgical steps involved in religious conversion. Perhaps pre-occupied by this angle, he did not realize that many who came to church in fear of damnation did not come to believe that they were saved and fell into despair. A few congregants took their own lives as a result, and revival faded in Northampton in 1735.

It was sparked back to life in 1740 when the famous English Anglican minister George Whitefield answered Edwards’ request to come preach in Northampton. Whitefield, a superstar of his day, was on a tour of the American colonies and attracting thousands of people to his hellfire sermons. He preached four times in Northampton that fall of 1740, and led Edwards back to preaching the full revival.

The next summer, July 8, 1741, Edwards preached his “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon. To us it is a great event, but it was just one of many fiery sermons Edwards preached, and is only famous today because it was the one chosen to be anthologized in American literature texts.

The sermon is puzzling in a few ways, considering who Edwards was. He tells people they are in immediate danger of hell and urges them not to continue in their sinful ways, and to seek a “remedy” for their sin, but as a Congregationalist he cannot just tell them to accept Christ and be saved—he doesn’t believe in that. So the “remedy” remains very vague, which probably deeply upset his listeners. Early generations might have understood that they were supposed to begin the painstaking process of study, prayer, and church-going that would open their souls to God’s grace and let them know if they were saved, but by 1741 this process was about dead and buried. Young people in 1741 would not know anything about it, and would most likely have discounted it if they had known, for who would begin a years- or even decades-long process of discernment when the threat of hell is immediate? There’s no time for Puritanism any more.

The emotional nature of the sermon is also confusing, as the one thing Edwards disliked about the revival movement was its emotion. He did not approve of or encourage his listeners to cry out in church, throw themselves on the floor, or do any other dramatic thing, yet a sermon like this one could not help but provoke listeners to frantic despair.

It’s also unusual for a Puritan minister to deliver a “hellfire” sermon. Puritan sermons had usually focused on the process of searching for God’s grace, and the technical points of how to read God’s word and discern his will for you. They were not focused on hell and damnation because ministers assumed that most people in the Congregation did not know their spiritual status (whether or not they were saved) and so haranguing them about hell would be unfair and even counter-productive. It’s only when you begin to believe that you can act on your own to accept God and be saved that you can harrass people for not doing so.

Edwards tells people that very few humans are saved, and even says that most of their friends and loved ones who have died, people whom everyone liked and who seemed godly, are undoubtedly in hell, but gives no clear way out for the living, since salvation is restricted to such a tiny fraction of people. He tells them that God is “incensed” with them because of their sin, that they deserve to go to Hell and should go there, and that God will likely send them there and would be justified in doing so… then urges them to seek the “remedy”. But what remedy is there, if you deserve Hell and God has likely condemned you to it:?

Edwards uses the now-familiar phrase “born again”:

“Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God.”

These are Arminian ideas: that God can change your “heart” or soul (the Puritans believed that God never changed his creation because it was perfect), that humans can become good (Puritans believed this to be impossible), that God can decide to save someone previously condemned to Hell (Puritans believed that before the world was created God decided the fate of every human who would ever live, and then never changed his mind). Edwards continues the mystification by reiterating that there is nothing humans can do to avoid Hell (“…[you have] nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment”), and then saying humans have to do something: “Thus it will be with you that are in an unconverted state, if you continue in it”. Saying “if you continue in it” seems to clearly imply that you can choose not to continue in your sin, and thus can do something to save yourself.

We will do a close-reading of the sermon in the next post. For now, we’ll wrap up by saying this sermon is an artifact of the religious flux and change going on in Congregational New England at the time. Arminian ideas were creeping in, passion was replacing reason, and mixed messages about what was possible, what God’s nature was, and how humans stood in relation to God’s will proliferated. That’s what made the revival at once satisfying and horrible for those who participated: it satisfied their need for a passionate, non-intellectualized call to God, but then failed to offer a clear solution to the problem of their damnation. It would take a few more decades, really until the beginning of the 19th century, for the Protestant tenets we know today to take shape: that humans can choose God and salvation, that God can be influenced in his judgments, and that being “born again” means believing in Christ.  For revivalists in 1741, such a clear-cut doctrine was nowhere in sight.

Next time: let’s read the sermon

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