Marsden's Edwards IX
Bill Long 9/21/05
Explaining "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"
The first time I was exposed to Edwards' famous 1741 sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" ("Sinners"), I was a high school student in a literature class. I don't recall much about the book that contained it other than the editorial remarks suggesting some kind of connection between Puritanism and religious fanaticism. This was in the late 1960s, before my Evangelical days, before I wanted to become a CT Puritan in hip CA, and so when I read Sinners I think I duly and uncritically accepted the critique of Edwards given by the editor.
The second time I ran into Sinners, however, was in theological seminary almost a decade later, when I was taking a seminar on Edwards. Now I was seemingly safely ensconced in my Evangelical triumphalism and was looking for an intellectual guide to give me a "Christian" reading of "culture" so that I could have a "framework" in dealing with the "relativisitic" world of mid-1970s America. That is why I was studying Edwards. I read Sinners in connection with lots of other Edwards writings, and I began to see Sinners as a "typical expression" of revivalistic Calvinistic thought at the time. That is, I kind of dismissed the importance of Sinners and switched my attention to Edwards' more "meaty" theological and philosophical works. I attributed the high school textbook's panning of Edwards to the typical anti-religious spirit characteristic of sophisticated literary types in the 1960s.
Last night I read Sinners for the third time, and I am seeing it from yet a different angle. This angle is influenced by reading Marsden's chapter on Sinners in his book (215-226). In this and the next two essays I will lay out Marsden's general approach to Sinners and then give my "reading" of the sermon by some quotations and comments.
Marsden on Sinners
Marsden puts the July 8, 1741 sermon into its historical context and shows that when Edwards preached it in Enfield (then MA; now CT) on this summer Wednesday he was trying to "provoke a revival" that seemingly had escaped that town but had settled into the neighboring Suffield. After Whitefield's visit to the Connecticut Valley in Fall 1740 the Churches again took in a bountiful "harvest" (as revival writers called it) but this time, in contrast to the awakening of 1734-35, the physical manifestations of revival were much more in evidence. People who were "revived" would show it in various kinds of "ecstatic" experience. Edwards also noted the "visible effect on bodies" that this revival tended to have. It was as if people were injected with a kind of drug that gave them endurance and intensity of feeling that they construed to mean the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in their midst and in their souls. In Edwards' own words of events around this time near Northampton:
"It was a very frequent thing to see an house full of outcries, faintings, convulsions and such like, both with distress, and also with admiration and joy."
Thus, the true progenitors of today's students who pull "all-nighters" to complete a long-neglected task were staid New Englanders who did the same but this time in service to their spiritual desires.
And, one more quotation is too good to miss. A pastor from the Northampton area reported the effects of his sermon on people on May 14, 1741 (Election Day in MA):
"Under this sermon, many had their countenances changed; loosed, and their knees smote one against another. Great numbers cried out aloud in the anguish of their souls. Several stout men fell as though a cannon had been discharged; and a ball had made its way through their hearts. Some young women were thrown into hysteric fits" (218).
Sounds like the Spirit of God, right?
Now, To Sinners
Added to these strange manifestations in the 30 or so mile stretch of land from the CT border to Northamption was the realization that Enfield had been spared this manifestation of the Spirit of God. For example, the neighboring town of Suffield had added an "amazing ninety-five persons" (Marsden's words, 219) to the communicant roles on the previous Sunday. But Enfield was cool to the licking flames of the Spirit. So, Edwards, as leading preacher of the day and preeminent theoretician of revival, betook himself to the church in that town in order to fan the flames of revival. Thus, from this perspective the sermon is not simply a typical example of Puritan preaching, a latter day jeremiad warning the people to flee from the wrath to come or confess their sins lest God unleash his fury against them. It is, in contrast, a kind of scolding document, a sort of "what is the matter with you folks?"-type of sermon. "Get with the (revival) program!" is really what is going on, here. Thus, Edwards has to heighten the themes, increase the terrors, do anything in his powers to make the people become like their revived neighbors.
If we understand Sinners in this context, we are ready to hear his words "at a distance." Let's now turn to that.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long