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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

How Did "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" Become So Infamous?



Jonathan Edwards first preached Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God in his own church in Northampton, Massachusetts. However, it was in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741 that it took on mythological status. The sermon was filled with so many images of Hell and so much graphic power that it could not even be completed. Edwards's audience could not physically bear to hear the sermon in its entirety. It was that terrifying.

As far as its subject, the sermon was not unusual for Puritan preaching. What set the sermon apart were the details. While the agony and the horror of Hell were things any Puritan would have affirmed, Edwards described them in a lurid, unsettling manner. Although Edwards did not have a strong voice, there was so much intensity in the content of the sermon that "shrieks and cries were piercing and amazing." The sermon, from Deut. 32:35 ("Their foot shall slip in due time"), went beyond anything Edwards had ever preached, as historian George Marsden notes. Before the sermon was over, "there was a great moaning and crying..." (Williams) Sinners wasn't preached by a Charles Finney or a Billy Sunday or a D. L. Moody. Edwards did not indulge in any kind of stage antics with arms and legs moving. Rather, the words themselves provided the illustrative and emotional power of the sermon.

What is often lost in the history of this sermon, however, is that it saved souls for years after 1741. It was, after all, evangelistic. Noting his conversion experience at Dartmouth College in 1815, Rev. Nathan Fiske details his reading of Sinners and writes, "I felt as though the gates of heaven were shut against me. I returned home deeply concerned for my situation. I read the sermon of President Edwards on Deut32:35 and found my state exactly described - that I was in the hands of an angry God who would take vengeance." (Memoir, 16) Sinners was a convicting text, and it spoke to the youngest of hearers. As a Great Awakening sermon, it still had spiritual power decades later and helped kindle the Second Great Awakening. Historians who have no knowledge of American religion forget this part of the story.

So where did the Puritan cartoon begin? When did Sinners come to symbolize religious hypocrisy and judgmental conservative religion in the way that it does now? In short, Sinners is full of gospel content, but it's not exactly a lullaby. Around the same time that Fiske was being converted by Sinners, Rev. Lyman Beecher, who was especially fond of the sermon, tried to read it to his wife before bed. It didn't end well. Just a few paragraphs in, Roxana (who was raised Episcopalian, which is notable) with flushed cheeks shouted at her young husband, "Dr. Beecher, I shall not listen to another word of that slander on my Heavenly Father!" and rushed out of the room. (Saints Sinners Beechers, 45-46) While Sinners was perhaps profitable for conviction, it wasn't necessarily a devotional work, at least to the degree of a Religious Affections. The sermon that allegedly made women faint during its reading was still not beloved by some women a century later.

If the theological progressives of the 19th century resisted the fiery nature of Sinners, then it should come as no surprise that the theological liberals of the 20th did not love it either. The popularizer of liberal theology, Harry Emerson Fosdick, often lampooned conservative religion and of course Sinners was easy picking. In a book entitled Living Under Tension which compiled his sermons from the 1930s and 40s, Fosdick scoffed at Edwards's version of God and asked, "what redeeming thing can he do for me? That idea of judgment blasts the soul with terror and dismay." (67) Fosdick liked to mention the women fainting in the audience. Not surprisingly, a revival sermon with a very specific Puritan context and audience did not land well upon the ears of someone like Fosdick who preached at Rockefeller's Riverside Church in New York City and rejected a God of judgment. While the sermon was always hard to digest, the Northeast had changed dramatically in a modernist direction. Ironically, Jonathan Edwards, a theologian who sought to reconcile Puritanism with the Enlightenment, had offered up a God who was no longer compatible with a God of "reason" and progress just 200 years later.

By 1961, historian Sydney Ahlstrom lamented, "it is an outrage that Edwards should be best known throughout America as a hell-fire revivalist and by a few lines from one imprecatory sermon, delivered outside of his own parish, on "Sinners in the hands of an angry God." By the latter half of the 20th century, a Puritan known in his own time for revival and spiritual introspection and themes like beauty and glory and especially love (see "Heaven is a World of Love") had become more or less a monster under the bed for mainstream American religion.

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