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Jonathan Edwards Preaches 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God' - Timeline Event

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In his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Jonathan Edwards sought to convince his listeners -- and those who later read the sermon in pamphlet form -- that they were depraved sinners who would be condemned to hell unless they turned to Christ and trusted in his grace for salvation. Surprisingly, most of Edwards's other sermons were about God's love, not eternal condemnation. Nonetheless, this sermon became integral to his legacy in American religion.

The sermon spread the ideas of the First Great Awakening throughout the American colonies. It was criticized at the time but the criticism crescendoed in the late 19th century as theological liberals used it to accuse theological conservatives of being outdated, unloving, and harsh.

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College students typically encounter "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" during a survey of early American history or literature, often a quick assignment wedged in between the Salem witchcraft trials and the American Revolution. The Calvinist theology of the sermon can feel alien to modern American sensibilities in its depiction of a wrathful God dangling people over the pit of hell.

Jonathan Edwards once thought much the same of Calvinism, especially its assertion of the sovereignty of God over all human beings, both those destined for heaven and those headed to hell. Edwards was reared in a preacher's home in Connecticut, but while in school at Yale he began to doubt his family's theology. He later wrote, "From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in choosing whom he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom He pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in Hell. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me."

While still at Yale, Edwards had a conversion experience and became convinced of the opposite, that God's sovereignty "very often appeared exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet." Edwards had become convinced of the Calvinist view of God and humanity. Human beings were fallen, totally depraved, and deserving of an eternity of punishment in hell. God graciously plucked some, the elect, from that fiery fate. Edwards's view of God transformed from that of a capricious, uncaring tyrant into a loving, gracious father.

Edwards inherited his grandfather's church at Northampton, Massachusetts in 1729 and the young minister quickly became involved in a series of local revivals in New England during the 1730s. He believed that many New England Puritans were Christian in name only, that they had been infected by an "Arminian" theology that privileged free, human choice over God's sovereignty. Rationalists, whom Edwards classed as "Arminians," proposed a theology derived from reason and nature. They also argued that individuals were fundamentally moral beings with the ability to choose their faith, a belief that cut against the traditional Calvinist doctrine of human depravity.

By 1738, when celebrity English evangelist George Whitefield conducted his first preaching tour in the American colonies, those local revivals had grown into the mass religious movement that would later become known as the First Great Awakening. Whitefield, Edwards, and other preachers like Gilbert Tennent criticized American churches for their cold theological rationalism while proclaiming a revivified Calvinist gospel. It was in this environment that Edwards preached "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" while filling the pulpit in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741. Edwards wanted to convince the parishioners that their religious faith was dead, that they were sinners, and thus they faced the righteous judgment of God should they not repent and turn from their false religious security.

The sermon's text came from Deuteronomy chapter 32, a passage in which God warned the nation of Israel that judgment was coming. The Israelites had grown "heavy and sleek" (v. 15) while offering sacrifices to other gods. If they did not repent and turn, verse 35 warned, "To me belongeth vengeance and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste." Edwards's sermon, delivered in a restrained, yet earnest monotone voice, compared his listeners to those condemned Israelites. They too deserved God's condemnation and if they died in their sins they would go to hell. In one of the most famous portions of the sermon, Edwards compared them to a spider or "some loathsome insect" being dangled over a fire, their very existence "provoking his [God's] pure eyes" by their "sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship." When Edwards reached the sermon's climax with the words, "Oh sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in," the audience broke into such loud shrieks and wails that he could not finish.

For Edwards, the metaphor of a spider dangling above a fire was not meant merely to impress his listeners with how dire their position but also to drive them to thankfulness that God had preserved them from the fire thus far. God's hand was not ominous, but an undeserved act of preservation. It was proof, to him, of God's loving sovereignty that any should be saved from hell when all deserved precisely that. If Edwards had been able to finish his sermon, he would have told his audience of "an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has flung the door of mercy wide open, and stands in the door calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners." Damnation may have been deserved, but salvation was freely offered.

Edwards's sermon was quickly printed in tract form and spread throughout the colonies. Critics of the First Great Awakening just as quickly seized on the sermon, accusing Edwards of preaching an "antinomian," or lawless, gospel that so over-emphasized human depravity that Christians would no longer feel compelled to do good works. Edwards countered that charge with a series of books, culminating with a biography of a Calvinist missionary to the Indians named David Brainerd meant to showcase the good works and piety that resulted from a Calvinist theology. The controversy even reached into the pews of Edwards's own church in Northampton, which dismissed him in 1750.

In the late 19th century, the sermon had a bit of a revival as theological liberals used it to exemplify the outdated, depressing nature of conservative theology. Protestant liberalism, or later sometimes called modernism, sought to replace Edwards's emphasis on the angry God of the Old Testament with a focus on the loving, socially-oriented Jesus of the New Testament. In a sense, modern liberals found it easier to sympathize with Edwards as a youthful, anti-Calvinist rebel than as the revivalist preacher he became as an adult. In the late 20th century, conservative theologians rediscovered Edwards's work along with that of many other American and English Puritan theologians. For the first time, a full collection of his (voluminous) writings is being published and Yale University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School recently opened centers for the study of Edwards's theology.

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Edwards, Jonathan


The First Great Awakening

Related Dictionary Terms

Christianity, Doctrine, Evangelist, Protestantism, Revivalist, Theologian


Sinners in the hands of an angry god, title page- Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division
Sinners in the hands of an angry god, title page- Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Jonathan Edwards portrait- Internet Archive- from A Narrative of the Revival of Religion in New England by Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards portrait- Internet Archive- from A Narrative of the Revival of Religion in New England by Jonathan Edwards

Sinners in the Hands of and Angry God monument- photo by ReformedArsenal at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Sinners in the Hands of and Angry God monument- photo by ReformedArsenal at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Book/Journal Source(s)

Marsden, George, 2003. Jonathan Edwards: A Life Yale University Press.

Web Source(s)
The full text of the sermon is available online.

Web Page Contributor

Paul Matzko
Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History

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