“There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
“[T]he revival of religion continued to increase; so that in the spring an engagedness of spirit about things of religion was become very general among young people and children.
“The Great Awakening”
The first of the two documents presented here, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is the best-known sermon from the period in American history known as the Great Awakening. Although the movement had been developing for several years, this sermon was preached to a congregation that had not yet experienced the enthusiasm associated with the movement. As a result of this sermon, the congregation was overtaken by religious fervor that resulted in somewhat of a frenzy with its younger members. The sermon’s power has continued down through the centuries, and it has been widely studied as a prime example of a “fire-and-brimstone” sermon.
The letter, entitled “The Great Awakening,” is important because it is a primary source describing some of the events of the movement for which it is named, as experienced by one who was a part of it. Its insights make it easier to understand the dynamics of the movement. The author of both documents, Rev. Jonathan Edwards, was the leader an influential Puritan Church located in Northampton, Massachusetts.
If the Great Awakening was to be identified with one single American, it would be Jonathan Edwards. Being the pastor of one of the largest churches in New England contributed to his influence, but it was more than that which would give him this designation. His innovative preaching style and desire to communicate his understanding of the Christian message helped sustain the movement. The directness of his message, and that of other preachers in the movement, resulted in profound reactions among Christian audiences.
While many of the American colonies had been founded for economic gain, a few, such as Massachusetts, had been founded in the pursuit of religious freedom. However, the zeal felt by those devoted to their faith at the founding of the colony—in this case, Puritanism—had begun to fade over the years. Just over a century after the first settlers landed in Massachusetts, a reawakening of religious devotion swept through the Puritan Church. Although the movement began around 1730 and lasted until about 1760, the height of its popularity lasted about a decade, from the early 1730s to the mid-1740s. After that time it was as likely to split congregations as it was to create a renewal of faith among its members.
The two documents presented here are from the second wave of the Great Awakening in the early 1740s. Both were written by Rev. Jonathan Edwards. The sermon helped refresh the movement with a new, dramatic style of preaching, which brought home its message with great force. Edwards’s recollection of other events at this time, in his letter to Rev. Thomas Prince, gave insights into the strange physical manifestations displayed by church members that seemed to be brought on by the movement.
Although the Great Awakening was most strongly felt in New England, it did spread throughout the colonies through the sermons and written works of preachers such as Jonathan Edwards and Rev. George Whitefield. Those who heard the sermons were already church members and at least nominal Christians; it was taken for granted that those who would read about the events in Northampton were also Christians. However, preachers of the Great Awakening questioned the colonists’ devotion to Christianity and wondered if, perhaps, most just went through the movements.
Focusing on the necessity of God’s grace for salvation, the preachers of the Great Awakening sought to convince their audiences of the need for an immediate response to God. Using what some might call scare tactics, the listener was given a picture of an absolute divide between those who were saved and those who were not. They warned parishioners that they had two choices: either they accept God completely and follow him devoutly, or end up in everlasting torment in hell. As illustrated in the letter, younger members of the church were the most responsive to this new style of preaching and theology. Differing responses to the sermons, however, led to turmoil within congregations and society in general.
Jonathan Edwards was born in Connecticut on October 5, 1703, and died March 22, 1758. His parents, Rev. Timothy and Esther Stoddard Edwards, helped him prepare for the pursuit of an advanced education. He attended Yale College (now Yale University) and studied all manner of theology and philosophy. He completed his undergraduate studies in 1720 and his graduate studies in 1722.
He gave the parish ministry a try as an interim pastor in New York. He then returned to Yale where he was employed as a tutor. In 1727 he became the pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts, where his grandfather, Rev. Solomon Stoddard, had preached. This was the base of his activity for the next twenty years. After a split with the congregation, he relocated to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he ministered to a congregation and was a missionary to the American Indians. In 1758 he accepted an invitation to be president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). However, he died about a month after assuming that position when he elected to receive a smallpox inoculation when he was already in poor health.
In the approximately thirty years that Edwards served as a local church pastor, he was very active in the affairs not only of the community, but of the region. He wrote dozens of books and many more essays and letters, focusing on his understanding of the Christian gospel. He also preached hundreds of sermons during this time. He seemed to have been surprised by the receptivity of the young people to the Christian message in 1733, when the first wave of the Great Awakening began. Initially Edwards saw the events happening around him as being the same thing his grandfather had described from his ministry, however, the movement continued for a much longer period. Edwards always placed a strong emphasis upon personal salvation. He had disagreements with others in the 1740s regarding how emotional the appeal should be, with Edwards arguing for less emotion. He was forced out of his pastorate in Northampton because he disagreed with what his grandfather had taught, and the congregation had accepted, regarding communion. Edwards believed it was only to be served to individuals whose Christian faith could be verified. However, after he moved to the smaller parish in Stockbridge, he was able to spend more time on his theological writing.
This article concerns two documents: a sermon preached by Jonathan Edwards on July 8, 1741, in Enfield, Connecticut, and a letter about his recollections of events during the preceding sixteen months in Northampton, Massachusetts. Both deal with the thoughts and theology of the second wave of the Great Awakening (now called The First Great Awakening to differentiate it from a similar religious awakening that occurred about one hundred years later). What is demonstrated in both texts is the emphasis on the sinful nature—the original sin—of all people and the fact that only through God’s mercy do people not go immediately to hell. As he records the history of the happenings in 1740 and 1741, Edwards illustrates the range of physical responses to the spiritual message: strange vocal outbursts and bodily convulsions. The outward differences among those accepting the message led to a split within the community. This type of open split between the old and the new is not uncommon in such a circumstance.
Reflecting on “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” it is clear that Edwards is not only trying to convert nonbelievers, but also bring back people who previously joined the church but drifted away from its teachings. The opening of the sermon deals with the fact that it is easy to slip and fall into sin. Referring to the scriptural passage from Deuteronomy and the Israelites, Edwards states, “they were always exposed to destruction, as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall.” Using a passage from Psalms Edwards reinforces the image of the ever-present peril that everyone faces. Following this affirmation that “there is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God,” Edwards begins a logical exposition of who is at risk. In the four considerations printed here and the six additional ones in the full text of the sermon, his treatment of the frailty of humans is expanded: “Men’s hands can’t be strong when God rises up.” In addition, in line with Edwards’s understanding of man’s original sin and his unworthiness of God’s mercy, he writes, “They deserve to be cast into hell.”
The second half of the sermon, Edwards stresses the natural state of all people as a miserable one without God’s mercy. He then moves to the need for each person to “awake,” meaning to fully accept the teachings of God and the mercy of Christ. Edwards, and other preachers of his era, believed the list of considerations to be a logical progression and argument which led to the conclusions contained in the sermon.
In order to understand the impact of this and other sermons of the Great Awakening, one should understand what religious life was like prior to the revival. In the various English churches during the seventeenth century stylistic patterns emerged in different denominations. Edwards’s sermon follows the traditional, plain Puritan style; a life of simplicity was often stressed within Puritan communities. When the Puritans immigrated to the New England colonies, a greater emphasis was placed on this austere existence.
Edwards’s sermon opens with a scripture verse and then moves to a point-by-point, logical explanation of what the verse means for the congregation. Like other sermons of the Great Awakening, it has few transitions and simply states the preacher’s message. However, the point at which Edwards’s sermon diverges from the norm is in the content of the message he communicates. A large number of seventeenth and early eighteenth century sermons, including some by Edwards, dealt with the theological issues that divided the denominations from each other. Sermons prior to the Great Awakening dealt with ethical issues or the need for God’s grace, and did so in more general terms. Edwards makes it quite clear that God’s judgment has already found each person guilty and that each person is about to fall into the torment of hell. His imagery is more graphic and the strength of God’s condemning judgment is emphasized: “that eternal and immutable rule of righteousness that God has fixed between him and mankind, is gone out against them, and stands against them; so that they are bound over already to hell.” Only through the complete acceptance of God’s word can a person be saved from this condemnation. As he states toward the close of the sermon, “And let every one that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God’s word and providence.”
Edwards fully accepted the concept of hell as it is described in various passages of the Bible. His references to eternal torment, to everlasting fire, and to the heat of furnaces are meant as literal pictures. In his mind, what he presented to the congregation was not an emotional appeal for them to change, but a real account of the consequences of turning away from God. To Edwards, this step-by-step analysis of the Deuteronomy passage was a logical progression of thoughts that led to only one truthful conclusion. By combining what he believed to be the truth—that everyone deserved to go to hell—with the belief that only God’s grace kept this from happening, Edwards then concludes that each person must seek out God’s mercy by a profession of faith in Christ. To him this was a straightforward argument with no room for debate. It was this message, that each person must make this radical transformation immediately that was the basis for the Great Awakening.
In the letter to Reverend Prince, Edwards outlined three stages in the process of the religious revival in Northampton. Prior to the passage printed here, Edwards described some events of the previous nine years, from his point of view both good and bad. Comparing these nine years with the years prior to 1731, he thought that the morals of the community were greatly improved: charitable giving had increased, and more people were paying attention to religious issues. However, he also thought that things were beginning to slide back toward the way they had been prior to the first wave of the revival. Thus, as he began the passage printed in this article, he saw the increased discussion of religious topics by the people in the town and congregation as a positive sign.
This first stage of this second wave of the revival was an important step, even if it did not show the dramatic results of the later stages. There is an expression about being in the right place at the right time. This saying, though it oversimplifies cause and effect, was basically true for Edwards and the various waves of the religious revival of the Great Awakening. Edwards’s grandfather had told him of four widely separated years during Stoddard’s ministry when there had been extraordinary responses to the gospel message by young people within the Northampton church. The events recorded in the letter are similar; however, unlike during Stoddard’s ministry the response was not short lived. Thus Edwards’s approach to the revival was probably different from that of his grandfather. Prior to Rev. Whitefield’s coming in 1740, Edwards states, “There was more seriousness and religious conversation, especially among young people.” The time seemed ripe for a second wave of the Great Awakening.
Edwards invited George Whitefield to come to Northampton to preach. This might indicate one difference between Edwards and his grandfather. Edwards had disagreements with Whitefield, especially in his style of preaching. Whitefield intentionally appealed much more to people’s emotions than did Edwards. During Whitefield’s time in Northampton, the people’s response to Whitefield’s sermons was very much what was desired by Whitefield and Edwards. Edwards wrote, “The congregation was extraordinarily melted by every sermon, almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of sermon time.” About the difference in style, Edwards wrote, “Mr. Whitefield’s sermons were suitable to the circumstances of the town.” While statements regarding events such as these cannot be made with absolute certainty, it does seem that Edwards was open to whatever style of ministry was needed to reach members of the church. This might be one reason that the Great Awakening spread throughout the colonies and sustained for more than a decade, while previous revivals had been local and had faded within a year.
The pattern of the response is not unlike past or present religious revivals, even though it extended over a longer period of time. When Whitefield gave his four sermons, before moving to other parts of the American colonies, the response was immediate. Those who had been a part of the congregation were moved to tears during the service, and they continued to talk about its message long after Whitefield left. Further, they worked to reinforce the principles of the Great Awakening within their community. The church members, the “professors”, and others who had responded positively with statements of faith were changed in their attitudes. This was transmitted to the youth, who understood that even they were in need of God’s grace under the doctrine of the sinful nature of all humanity. Thus there were many new members joining the church, and those who had been members reaffirmed their faith.
As the message of the Great Awakening spread, more and more people became a part of those professing their faith and conducting their lives in a way that proved that God’s spirit was in their lives. This was especially true of the youth. Edwards goes on to discuss the fact that in the following year the outward signs of what he interpreted as being touched by the Holy Spirit were even stronger in young members of communities. Although this record does not give the specifics of what occurred, it does speak of uncontrolled physical movements and vocalizations. Those who did not exhibit these manifestations were also said to be making sounds of a sorrowful nature. The house in which this took place would have been full of sound and activity. All of this was interpreted as youth “overcome with a sense of the greatness and glory of divine things.” There is no doubt that the sermon’s intent was to encourage those present to live a more Christian life, the results were far from what was expected. The reaction of a few of the listeners started a contagious exhibition of unusual activities spreading throughout the town, with the actions perceived to be gifts of the Spirit of God.
It is clear that Edwards is troubled by these manifestations. A division in the congregation was occurring between those who exhibited these outward signs of God’s grace and those who did not. Those who had “what they called boldness for Christ” were seen by themselves and others as more holy than those who had not experienced the physical and vocal manifestations. Those who had not experienced this rapture were left to feel unholy. They saw these manifestations as the result of “far greater attainments in grace and intimacy with Heaven.” In reading the full text of the letter, it is clear that many of the individuals who had experienced these very strong outward manifestations of the religious revival were not members of the community. They had come into Northampton from elsewhere and after exhibiting these manifestations they encouraged others to look upon them as having had a superior religious experience.
Edwards makes it clear that while he supports the religious revival he does not support this type of differentiation among community members. He firmly states that it is devotion to Christ and the condition of the soul that is important. He wrote, “the degree of grace is no means to be judged by the degree or joy, or the degree of zeal, . . . not the degree of religious affections but the nature of them that is chiefly to be looked at.” He recognized that the spiritual qualities that are described in the scriptures were not demonstrated in the lives of some who had the outward manifestations of the revival. Similarly, some who were quiet members of the congregation had a more Christ-like attitude than many who had been part of the supposedly more spiritual group. The divisive effects within the community and congregation were similar to many that have been described by others who have been a part of similar experiences since that time.
The turmoil that this division caused in 1741 slowly moderated as Edwards’s position became more widely accepted. By the time he wrote the letter in December 1743, he believed the community was once again united. He also worked hard among the young people to determine which of them he believed had had a true religious experience versus those who were just copying what was going on around them. He understood that, for some, the spiritual experience seemed to be a temporary state, often recurring only at meetings. He tried to analyze if there was any pattern to the physical occurrences, such as examining the time of day the services were held and so forth. He found none. Among those who had what seemed to him to be a true spiritual experience, Edwards wrote in the latter portion of the letter (not printed in this article) that the outward appearances, as he called them were much stronger in the early 1740s than they had been in the 1730s and that what had been experienced in the 1730s were much stronger than anything previously experienced. At the close of the letter, Edwards states that he is happy that people have come to understand that it is not a past experience which is important, rather what is important is “maintaining earnest labor, watchfulness, and prayerfulness as long as they live.”
While the physical exuberance of some did cause certain problems, it was also a means through which the Great Awakening was sustained. Remembering what had been experienced, whether personally or by watching others, helped support church members when difficulties arose. However, while the divisions within congregation moderated, they continued to exist for decades to come. Nevertheless, the Great Awakening was an American movement which stressed an individual devotion to God not through traditional response, but rather through a confession of faith which encompassed one’s whole being.
as one of the prominent figures of the Great Awakening, stressed the role of the individual in religion and strengthened the belief that religious faith was relevant not only to each individual, but to society in general. Some of the colonies, such as Massachusetts, were established for religious reasons. However, they were established in order that a certain denomination or theological position could flourish more freely. While this did not mean the individual believer was totally ignored, the emphasis was upon the collective group.
This changed with the Great Awakening. While there were, and still are, theological and denominational disputes, the Great Awakening emphasized the faith of the individual. Spreading throughout the colonies from its start in New England, the Great Awakening was the dominant influence in American churches. Not all denominations, or areas, were as open to this as were most churches in New England. However, even today one of the identifying marks of American branches of international denominations is the strength of the call for a personal faith. This has helped to reinforce the individualism that exists in other areas of American society.
The Great Awakening also strengthened the position of the Christian church within American society. Even in colonies started for religious reasons, many religious leaders were despondent about the weakening of the church. By the end of the seventeenth century religious leaders in Massachusetts were appalled at the declining role of the church within the communities. The Great Awakening changed this by reinforcing the power of the church within society. The events that seemed to transform people’s lives were also transforming society. Faith was once again at the center of many communities. Even though most of the preaching during the Great Awakening was directed toward those already attending church services, preachers such as Jonathan Edwards became well known and people from a variety of backgrounds flocked to his services. Transforming personal faith, which was the subject of sermons during the Great Awakening, touched a chord in many people, reshaping their lives and their society.
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