08 July 2011

270 Years Ago Today

On July 8, 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached what is probably the most famous sermon in American history.  Edwards preached his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" not at his church in Northampton, Massachusetts, but rather as he visited Enfield, Connecticut.  Generations have studied the text of this sermon, and many are now appalled, or at least disturbed, at its very descriptive imagery (although I would not include myself in that number).  Edwards based his entire sermon on a short passage from Deuteronomy 32, "Their feet shall slide in due time."

Regardless of a person's theological bent, it is hard to argue against the significance of the sermon. First, it was the occasion of a great revival during the Great Awakening, one of the first truly "national" movements.  There are accounts of people moaning as Edwards preached, holding on to whatever they could find to keep from falling into Hell at that very moment, and asking what they must do to be saved.  Secondly, the sermon is a good example of New England Puritan orthodoxy.  Edwards was a staunch Calvinist, and Reformed belief is quite evident in the sermon.  However, while the sermon is meant as a warning to wayward sinners, it does indicate that there is hope for the sinner in Christ.

It is somewhat ironic that the greatest theologian and the greatest sermon in American history burst onto the scene before America even existed as a separate nation.  Regardless, 270 years ago, Jonathan Edwards, that theologian preached "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," that sermon.  It is likely that students of American religion and the Puritans will continue to read and study Edwards and his famous sermon for many years to come.  You can, as well, at the link to Yale University's Jonathan Edwards site.


  1. Chris,

    Regarding the "study" of this sermon in American Public schools I have found that they only print and discuss the second half of the sermon which contains the most vivid imagery. When I was teaching youth in a church context invariably the students would come to me saying how dramatic and exaggerated Edwards gesticulations were.

    There are two problems that almost always arose. First, if one only reads the second half of the sermon he or she misses the entire theological construct that Edwards based those images on (constructs with which I happen to agree). And secondly, from all accounts of Edwards I have read in general and about this sermon in particular is that he read from his manuscript in a generally monotone voice. When people did begin to wail at the reality of his words he paused until they quieted down.


  2. David,

    I have no doubt that the education that most get on the sermon are is lacking, to say the least. I don't know where the belief that Edwards was into wild acrobatics came from. Those seem more to be a characteristic of Whitefield or Tennant than Edwards. I've read accounts that mention his reading his sermons in a monotone, however, a couple of recent biographies by Marsden and (especially) Sweeney challenge the boring view of Edwards. Marsden describes the style of the preacher, quoting one of Edwards' admirers as "easy, natural, and very solemn. He had not a strong,loud voice; but appeared with such gravity and solemnity, and spake with such distinction, clearness and precision; his words were so full of ideas, set in such a plain and striking light, that few speakers have been so able to demand the attention of an audience as he." (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 220) Sweeney even mentions that later in his ministerial career, Edwards even took to preaching extemporaneously at times. This description of Edwards' use of words no doubt seems strange to a generation so influenced by visual stimulation.

    From what I've read, Edwards often set his sermons up with a doctrinal exposition and then concluded with a practical application of the doctrine. From looking at the sermon on the Yale website, "Sinners" followed this pattern. While many modern-day readers may find the imagery disturbing, it in all actuality most likely fails to do complete justice to the topic.