Essay, Research Paper
Jonathan Edwards was a major agitator of the Great Awakening, the rebirth of Protestant faith in North America in the middle of the 18th century. His sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God , was delivered before a congregation of Protestants, as well as unconverted persons. The timeliness of Edwards’s sermon was impeccable: It was delivered when the fear of hell was predominant in the minds of Christians. Edwards acknowledged this vulnerability, which is why he chose to play the ‘hell’ card and focus his sermon on the threat of eternal damnation.
Early in his sermon, Edwards establishes that God is supreme, and that the actions of men are nothing compared to God’s will. “If God should let you go all your righteousness would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a fallen rock,”he said. In essence, the audience is given a terrifying image of a sovereign God who will not forgive those who have sinned, but will cast those sinners down into the pits of hell without regret. The theme of God’s supreme will seemed to emanate throughout the sermon, as did the theme of God’s anger.
The way in which Edwards described God’s anger might have confused a member of the audience as to the difference between God and Satan. Edwards’s sermon could be considered the mascot for all the bad parts of the Bible. “The Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire,” he says, employing such vivid descriptions to send the congregation an image of the ferocity of God’s wrath. His images of God’s anger and supremeness along with unbalanced biblical quotation made his central assertion seem valid.
Edwards’s central assertion is his philosophy that no mortal can control his or her own judgement. He proclaims that confessions and good deeds will not guard the sinner from the fires of hell. He also warns that those ”natural men” who aren’t necessarily wicked, but unconverted, are not safe. “Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he will escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security,” said Edwards. “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.” Emphasizing how sinners are powerless to prevent their own damnation is a vital scare tactic and an integral part of Edwards’s scheme to exploit the congregation’s fears. God is ostensibly depicted as a villainous and indifferent entity. Edwards takes every opportunity to induce the fear that one might already have been judged, and damned – a fear that Edwards depends on to achieve his goals.
Edwards’s objectives become evident as his sermon draws to a close; he stopped threatening the congregation, and began to suggest a solution to their plight. “And now you have an extraordinary opportunity,” cries Edwards. “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.” The door of mercy, Edwards implies, is his church. And by following him, he offers the path to salvation. He basically says, “Now that I’ve demonstrated what can happen if you don’t convert, here’s how you can be saved.” Because the Great Awakening was such a time when Protestants were relentlessly trying to convert people, Edwards is forced to close his sermon with such a sales pitch.
Since the Great Awakening was an unstable era in the Protestant church, Edwards found it appropriate to manipulate the congregation’s fears rather than to entreat its desires. Edwards did not introduce the advantages of converting to the Protestant faith, nor did he appeal to the audience’s vision of heaven and a prosperous afterlife. Though the biblical references that refer to heaven and the forgiveness of sins greatly outnumber the references to hell and the apathy of God, Edwards strategically chose to quote only those verses that threatened the audience with God’s rage. This lack of reference – obviously not a coincidence – perhaps was meant to keep him focused on his objective: scaring the audience into conversion. If Edwards had written a sermon for another time-he hadn’t had to worry about converting non-Protestants-he probably would have focused on the benefits of leading a pure life, rather than the consequences of being wicked.