JONATHAN EDWARDS, “SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY GOD” (8 JULY 1741)
- Arguably, this is the most famous sermon in American history. Why does it continue to resonate so strongly with audiences? What historical or textual elements make it memorable?
- As a class, read a portion of the sermon aloud, or go to http://www.sermonaudio.com and listen to a selection from an audio recording of the sermon. What strikes you as you listen? If delivered today, would this text stir up the same kind of strong emotions that it produced in the congregation at Enfield? Why or why not? How have audience expectations for an effective speech or sermon changed since Edwards’s time?
- What is the difference between a spoken sermon and a published text? What are the goals of each and how or why do those goals differ? Does this published text achieve its goals?
- Describe the different audiences that Edwards is addressing in this sermon? How does he speak to each audience and why?
- Describe God in this sermon. Does God change during the course of the message? What is the relationship between God’s anger and God’s love in Edwards’s text?
- Edwards frequently uses metaphors of sliding and falling to describe the state of human beings before God. What kind of world do these metaphors conjure up? What is the divine/human relationship like in this world?
- What differences can you see between the vision of heaven and hell that Edwards describes and that are found in contemporary popular culture? Look at films that explore the relationship between heaven and hell. Examples include What Dreams May Come (1998) and the sermon scenes from Pollyanna (1960). How do popular films and television shows imagine heaven and hell? How might Edwards respond?
- Describe the geography of the Great Awakening. Find the towns of Northampton, Enfield, and Suffield on an early map as well as larger cities like New York and Boston. Map the itinerant preaching schedule of George Whitefield between 1739-1741. How widespread was the Awakening? Where were the revivals most concentrated? Where did revivals not occur? What can this tell us about the “Great Awakening” as an interpreted idea?
- Study the life of Sarah Edwards. In what ways did her life and work differ from her husband’s? What was her role in the community? What was her role in the church? In what ways did she support or challenge her husband’s ministerial authority? What can we learn from Sarah Edwards about the status and influence of women in eighteenth-century New England? What is her husband’s attitude toward women? What evidence can you find in his sermons and writings to support your argument?
- How have hellfire sermons and jeremiads been used in American history? Where do they occur today? How are modern religious and secular jeremiads similar to or different from the sermons that Edwards preached? What can this tell us about the role and status of religious discourse in contemporary public life?
- Explore how “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” circulated. What was the initial response? When did the sermon become such an infamous example of Puritan or early American rhetoric? How do modern readers respond to the sermon and its message? How is this different from the way its original listeners might have reacted?
- Study the role of performance in Edwards’s sermons. Compare Edwards as a speaker with other ministers of his time, like George Whitefield or James Davenport. How might dramatic display or the lack thereof effect an original audience’s perception of a speaker or topic? How might Edwards’s performance expand our contemporary understanding of his sermons and their impact?
- Write your own sermon using the modified Puritan model that Edwards adopted. You can draw from any religious tradition or make up your own, but your sermon should include Text, Doctrine, and Application sections. Be prepared to discuss your writing process and the way in which this style expands or limits the possibilities for effective persuasion.
- Look up the Bible passages that Edwards uses in his sermon. What is the context of each passage? What audiences are being addressed in the original texts? In what ways does Edwards modify or adapt the biblical text to serve the purposes of his message?
- Throughout this sermon, Edwards is very concerned with the problem of justice. Divine retribution after death balances against the various corruptions that exist among people living in the world. How does Edwards’s understanding of heaven and hell affect his understanding of justice? Does belief in eternal rewards and punishments help or hinder efforts to create a just world today?
- What role did revival and revivalism play in the construction of an American national identity? Go to: http://edwards.yale.edu/major-works/faithful-narrative/ for a selection from Edwards’s Faithful Narrative. How is the revival described? What were the differences between the Northampton revival and earlier revivals, according to Edwards’s text? How does the notion that periodic “Great Awakenings” have occurred in American history impact our understanding of religious and social life? Who is excluded from a “Great Awakening” perspective on history? How does the rhetoric of revivalism continue to effect contemporary religious and historical discourse?
- Messages on hellfire and damnation continue to be used by some religious groups today. Find a contemporary version of a hellfire sermon. Write an argument describing and defending your position on the continued use of religious messages that use threats of hell or otherworldly punishment as devices to persuade. Among other things, consider who is or should be addressed by these messages, what role these messages might play in encouraging or discouraging religious violence, and what, if any, place they continue to fill in a pluralistic society.
- Explore the relationship between science and religion through the text of this sermon. How does Edwards use scientific concepts like gravity to support his message? What do Edwards and his contemporaries understand as the proper role of science in society? Is science similarly used to support or defend religious arguments today? Are there differences in the ways in which cotemporary religious believers appropriate scientific discourse? Can science and religion coexist equally in contemporary society, or will one always dominate over the other? Find examples to support your argument.
Last updated March 4, 2016