A Close reading of Sinners in the hands of an angry God

Part 3 of our look at the 1741 Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” involves a close reading of the sermon. It’s not too long, for a sermon, but we’re not going to go over every word of it here for the sake of space. Instead, we’ll look at chronological excerpts that make the main points. When italics are my own, and not Edwards’, I will note it.

The sermon takes off from the Bible verse “Their foot shall slide in due time”, from Deut. 32:35

“In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, who were God’s visible people, and who lived under the means of grace; but who, notwithstanding all God’s wonderful works towards them, remained (as vers 28.) void of counsel, having no understanding in them.”

—Edwards begins with the comparison of the ancient Israelites of the Old Testament of the Bible with his modern-day New England listeners. In the Old Testament, God is constantly chastising the Israelites for their sin and lack of faith, so Edwards’ listeners would have guessed what was coming.

“…they were always exposed to destruction; as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall. …they were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction… Another thing implied is, that they are liable to fall of themselves… [and] that the reason why they are not fallen already and do not fall now is only that God’s appointed time is not come.”

—Because of their sin, humans are always on the verge of being sent to Hell by God. They are already damned by their sin, so there is no question that Hell awaits them, but the time God appointed (aeons ago) for them to go to Hell has not yet come. So don’t be comforted by the fact that you haven’t slipped into Hell yet—it’s only a matter of time.

“There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God… Men’s hands cannot be strong when God rises up. The strongest have no power to resist him, nor can any deliver out of his hands.”

—As soon as God decides it’s your time to take your punishment, you will; there is nothing you can do about it. This is a crucial Calvinist idea; you cannot choose God or salvation, you cannot change God’s mind. He will reiterate this tirelessly throughout this sermon, but, as we mentioned in part 2, he will also continually urge people to do something—to seek a remedy. He will also urge people not to continue in their sin, which is tantamount to telling them to choose good/God.

“They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God’s using his power at any moment to destroy them… it is nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God’s mere will, that holds it back. They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell.”

—God’s judgment is never wrong. So if you love someone and think they are a good person who could never be sent to Hell by a good God, you are mistaken in your judgment and God is right in His. Every sinner would be in Hell right now if it weren’t suiting God’s purposes to keep them on Earth for the moment. Notice the use of the word “arbitrary” in “the hand of arbitrary mercy”: there is no reason for God to hold back, and so his decision to do so is arbitrary mercy, in that we can never understand why God would ever suffer sinners to live in happiness on Earth for one moment, let alone long lifetimes.

Throughout the sermon Edwards, like many Christians before him, speaks of God’s “pleasure”, as in “it pleases God to hold back”.  This does not mean pleasure as we think of it, but is merely a synonym for “will”. It’s not that God derives happiness or pleasure from condemning humans; it’s just that it’s God’s will to punish those who are sinful.

“There is this clear evidence that men’s own wisdom is no security to them from death; that if it were otherwise we should see some difference between the wise and politic men of the world, and others, with regard to their liableness to early and unexpected death: but how is it in fact? [In Eccles. 2:16 it says] ‘How dieth the wise man? even as the fool.'”

—If you have spent time reasoning away your sin or damnation, you are in big trouble. It’s people who think they’re smart enough to outwit God and their fate who burn the brightest in Hell. If your smarts mattered at all then wise men wouldn’t die early or unexpectedly, such deaths being proof positive of God suddenly decided to withdraw His arbitrary mercy and let you go to Hell.

“Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do… They hear indeed that there are but few saved, and that the greater part of men that have died heretofore are gone to hell; but each one imagines that he lays out matters better for his own escape than others have done.”

—We all think it won’t happen to us, right? But really, if this were a true Puritan audience of even 50 years earlier, it would be the opposite: nearly everyone in the audience would think it would happen to them, because they were not sure they were saved. This excerpt is proof of how times had changed in New England by 1741. As people lost touch with the idea of searching for God’s grace to know His will, they lost their sharp fear of Hell, and began to wonder, at least to some extent, if the “damned until proven saved” mindset was really accurate.

“The use of this awful subject may be for awakening unconverted persons in this congregation. This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ. That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.”

—Now Edwards comes to the “Application” of his sermon, in which he tells the congregation how his topic pertains to them. This would be more pertinent to a study of the shepherd and his flock or the parable of the ten virgins, but in this case, the audience certainly knew how it applied to them. Edwards has made it very clear that everyone is damned and about to fall into Hell, and everyone means everyone. This is the first of many graphic descriptions of Hell in the sermon, and it was recorded that in this sermon as in others that focused on damnation, people began to cry and scream in the church as their terror mounted.

“…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.”

—Here we get our title. But this is one of those confusing passages that introduces the anti-Puritan, pro-Arminian view that you as a sinful human can change, that God can and will change you, and make you new, and remove you from sin. Edwards has previously toed the Puritan, Calvinist line that no one can change their sinful nature and there’s nothing you can do to change God’s mind, and the only reason God hasn’t sent you to Hell yet is because it’s not time. Now he seems to be saying you can change, that God will change His mind and take away your sin, and that you haven’t been sent to Hell yet because God is waiting for you to ask Him for this transformation. It’s just the first of many calls to action that the first part of the sermon seemed to make redundant.

The verb tense is passive—you are “made new” and “raised up” by God—so in that sense even if you are cleansed it’s not because of anything you have done; God has decided to do this for and to you on His own. Yet how could God decide this if His mind has been irrevocably made up about you since before the dawn of time?

“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; and 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.” [my italics]

—Here is another whipsaw passage: Edwards has just told you in the last quote that you need to be changed and made holy, and a listener could be forgiven for assuming that they need to actively seek this. But here again there is nothing you can do to persuade God to help you at all.

“…Thus it will be with you that are in an unconverted state, if you continue in it; the infinite might, and majesty, and terribleness of the omnipotent God shall be magnified upon you, in the ineffable strength of your torments.” [my italics]

—Again, one is urged not to continue in sin, but what you can do to stop sinning, and get God to save you, is not specified. The passive tense used throughout seems to say that you can’t influence God to save you, God will do this to/for you, but on the other hand, you are urged to sort of get God interested in doing so (in again unspecified ways).

“And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God. How awful is it to be left behind at such a day! To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing!”

—Yes, it would be terrible to be left behind when everyone else is saved and headed to Heaven, but, as the anguished congregation must have cried out, how do you avoid it?? This passage is especially cruel in its vagary. Christ has thrown open the doors to Heaven, and sinners are flocking to Him, and thus being saved. Somehow. What is “flocking to” Christ? What does one actually do? What did those who were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, but who are now in a happy state, actually do to achieve this transformation, and salvation? Edwards does not say.

Clearly, the door being flung open means that the number of the saved is suddenly going to be increased, for some reason of God’s own, at this moment. Your name no longer has to be on the list—for this short time only, you can become saved, but how?

“God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the greater part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time…”

—Everyone who will ever be saved is being saved right now. Time is short. But again, what you do to become elect is unspecified.

“Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let every one fly out of Sodom: “Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.”

—This is the concluding paragraph of the sermon. It’s fitting that it should close with another confusing order to do something to change your fate, even though humans can do nothing, and to fly from God’s wrath even though you’re never told how to do that.

One can appreciate why so many people became so distraught during sermons like this one. The time of religious change and upheaval it came out of led it to mash together different doctrines, without making one sensible new doctrine out of the group, but rather a crazy-quilt of  conflicting demands. If it had been truly Puritan, there would not have been two dozen graphic, drawn-0ut descriptions of Hell or vague orders to change God’s mind about your soul. It would have quietly encouraged you to seek God’s will and draw strength from God’s goodness. If it had been truly Arminian, it would have come out and said you can accept God and reject Satan and earn salvation by doing so.

As it is, the sermon stirs up terror and grief, but offers no way out from them. In the next post, we’ll wrap up our look at this sermon and its time.

Next time: What the sermon says about its time

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

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