Most Americans know very little about Jonathan Edwards, except for the 18th century sermon he preached, “Sinners in the Hands Of An Angry God.” I remember reading it, as it was an assigned reading for an English class, back in my public high school.
Yes, it is a classic “fire and brimstone” sermon, filled with talk of God’s treatment of the unrepentant sinner, as though God is holding “a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, [who] abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.”
Wow. I remember thinking, as I finished reading that high school homework assignment, that this guy Edwards must have woken up on the wrong side of bed, the day he preached this tirade. What a sourpuss!!
But such a judgment of Edwards is not deserving, as a more balanced understanding of Edward’s life shows. Contrary to popular opinion, Jonathan Edwards only preached a handful of sermons, on the disturbing topic of hell, during his multi-decade preaching career. By far, most of the hundreds of sermons that Edwards preached were about the love and beauty of God. One of his favorite topics included speaking about the “sweetness” of God, a theme that he returned to, over and over again.
If you want to read a helpful introduction to Jonathan Edwards, that corrects a lot of the gross misunderstandings in popular culture about his life, I would highly recommend A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards, by George M. Marsden. A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards is not an abridgment of Marsden’s grand, academic biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (which is excellent, too, but a lot longer!). Rather, A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards is a fresh, revealing description of Edwards, showing him to be a profound advocate of the overwhelming love of God. Plus, it is short, at about 140 pages. I listened to A Short Life as an audiobook, in about 5 hours, and loved every minute of it.
What made “Sinners in the Hands Of An Angry God” so indelible in the American imagination was the effect this sermon had, during one particular Sunday morning, while filling in, for another preacher, at another church. Sometime prior to his famous preaching in Enfield, Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards had preached this sermon to his own congregation, where it had little impact on his flock of church-goers. Edwards was not known to be an exceptionally dynamic public speaker, as he was bookish, and noticeably shy. He rarely took his eye off of his sermon notes.
Justin Bieber he was not.
But when he was asked to step in that one particular Sunday, in the Enfield church, a wave of emotion took over the room, as he made his way through his prepared text. Despite Edwards’ un-theatrical delivery, wailing and weeping filled the assembled hall, as many were overcome by the weight over the grief of their own sin. The sounds of terror among the people became so great, Edwards had to cut his sermon short, and dismiss the crowd, preventing him from delivering a message of hope, that he had saved for the climax of his prepared text. Edwards’ sermon had sparked a revival, and many Connecticut colonists made professions of Christian faith, during the following weeks.
It was a profound moment, during the First Great Awakening in America, a phenomenon that shaped America as a nation.
Ralph Green is a re-enactor, who has delivered Jonathan Edwards’ most (in??)famous sermon, as a dramatic production. Below is a 45 minute recording of that sermon.