Welcome to the conclusion of our series on the 1741 Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. Here we wrap up after our close reading in part 3 and put the sermon in its historical context.
We’ve seen in parts 1 and 2 that New England in the early-mid-1700s was going through enormous change as a) many non-Congregational outsiders moved into the colony, which had been b) newly taken over by the English government [in 1691] as a royal colony under the direct control of the King, leading to c) an upswing in political activism, the other great concern of New Englanders since 1630, and d) the original Congregational faith began to be fully transformed by the ideas of other Protestant faiths. It’s not that New Englanders no longer cared about religion. It’s just that they no longer had a traditional Congregationalism to turn to, and even if they had, it would no longer have fully met their needs. The First Great Awakening of the 1730s-40s was not a cause of the decline of traditional Congregationalism but a symptom of it.
The invaluable book Tenacious of their Liberties: The Congregationalists in Colonial Massachusetts, by James F. Cooper, Jr., puts it this way:
“The Great Awakening is better understood as an event whose onset reflected ongoing tensions within the colony’s religious life and whose consequences accelerated changes in both Congregationalism and the larger culture that had long been under way. …Many features of the New England Way had clearly become desacralized well before the 1740s, and [many] had long before decided to ignore issues like discipline and mutual watch rather than fight over them. …The emphasis on evangelism and the New Birth that fueled the Great Awakening underscored the diminished relevance of corporate ties and Congregational procedures as churchgoers focused increasingly on issues of personal piety, the individual conscience, and novel means of seeking salvation. [This was a] shift away from Congregational practices as a central means of grace…” (198)
Indeed, any sermon focused so closely on both an individual acting to save herself from eternal damnation by seeking the “remedy” on her own without the input or help of any of her friends or congregation members, and on a complete lack of concern for other people’s souls is an example of the rise of personal piety. The heart of traditional Congregationalism had been its communality: everyone worked together to discover God’s will for everyone.
There was no way to change traditional Congregationalism without weakening it. Native New Englanders held the faith of the Puritan founders in such respect that any change made to accommodate new thinking was rejected as meddling. One might almost say that New Englanders in 1740 would rather let the old religion die intact than extend its life artificially. If the Way was no longer their way, there was no help for that. Let the old Congregational faith die as it lived rather than fade away as a shadow of its old self.
And so ministers like Edwards who straddled the lines, embracing parts of Arminianism and welcoming an unreformed Anglican revivalist, could not keep their traditional posts. After the flurry of Whitefield’s revival, Edwards attempted to return his congregation to old-school Congregational practices, encouraging mutual watch (in some unpopular ways, such as reading aloud in church a list of names of people who were reading salacious books) and being very restrictive about church membership (this after the hundreds of people who were accepted into churches at a time during the Great Awakening). More importantly, he reversed the decision made by his grandfather, the Rev. Samuel Stoddard, to allow people who were baptized but not full members (as per the Halfway Covenant) to receive communion. His congregation eventually removed him, and he stepped down gradually but without rancor.
From 1750-8 Edwards ministered to the Housatonics (Native Americans) of Stockbridge, defending their property rights against white settlement. He then took the position of President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), but died very shortly after his installation from a smallpox vaccination; as an amateur scientist, Edwards was a strong supporter of vaccinations, which were new and treated with great suspicion by most people. His bad health, however, meant that his vaccination led to illness and his death on March 22, 1758.
Edwards might well have been surprised to know that “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” would seal his everlasting fame, outliving him by centuries. It was only one of his hellfire revival sermons, and not indicative of the bulk of his work, detailed analyses of doctrine and compliance which are very dry compared with his revival subjects. He would likely have wished that his study of the conversion process or the qualifications one needed for full church membership, or even his study of spiders or other aspects of the New England forests would have lived on instead.
As it is, we have “Sinners”. What’s important at this point is to read and recognize this sermon for what it is—a window into a time of religious, social, and political turmoil and change, and a symbol of the alternatives to Congregationalism that were developing at the time rather than an icon of Puritan beliefs.