Imagine yourself as a convicted fellon about to go to the gallows. What would be the last thing you would want to hear? In New England, the condemned man or woman got to listen to an execution sermon. One of the more interesting books (possibly a sign of my own morbidity) that I read during my first semester as a doctoral student was Scott D. Seay's Hanging between Heaven and Earth: Capital Crime, Execution Preaching, and Theology in Early New England (Northern Illinois University Press, 2009).
In his book, Seay divided New England history into three periods: the Puritan (1623-1700), the provincial (1700-1774), and the early national (1775-1835). One of the major threads that tied these eras together was the preaching of the execution sermon before the condemned went to the gallows. However, these sermons evolved with the theology of New England. The early Puritans held to a strict Calvinist theology, while the latter New Englanders moderated or even repudiated this Calvinism. Accordingly, the themes of the sermons tended to change.
The early Calvinist ministers held out little hope for the condemned. Their very crime and conviction were nearly a certain sign of their reprobation. Of course, there was the slight chance of conversion because of the mysterious ways of God's grace. The main goal of the sermon and subsequent execution was warning, causing the hearers/audience to think about their federal connection to the condemned in Adam, i.e., but for the grace of God, there go I. The audienced needed to watch these graphic examples before their base and depraved natures took over and made them candidates for similar atrocities.
During the provincial period, ministers began to hope for the salvation of the offender--a sort of "death bed" confession. The grace of God worked over and above the evil of the convict in these instances and provided a great example for the hearers. The view of execution became based more upon a social contract than a punishment that rid the land of evildoers. By the early national period, with its emphasis on the ideas of the Enlightenment, public executions became less common, as did the public execution sermon.
These execution sermons in one way provide a good example of capitalist enterprise. The publishing of these sermons became commonplace, and they were among the top sellers of the day. As the sermons became less common, however, so did the profits from their sale. Seay relied upon these published sermons for his work, and a very interesting work it was.