The Scariest Sermon Ever? Jonathan Edwards & the Great Awakening

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards is the most infamous and frightening sermon of the First Great Awakening. But why?

Jun 18, 2024By Allen Baird, PhD Theology, BA Biblical Studies and Philosophy

jonathan edwards hellfire sermon

 

America has a record of religious revivals that spans its history. The earliest of these is known as the First Great Awakening. Although its most famous preacher was the English Methodist Geroge Whitefield, the American Puritan Jonathan Edwards preached the most famous sermon. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God brought fear to those who originally heard it and has brought fascination to the religious and literary worlds ever since. But what is the secret of its power to scare the hell out of people?

 

The Puritans and Their Passions

The Puritan, Augustus St. Gaudens, 1887, Springfield, Massachusetts, United States, photo by Daderot, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Puritanism was originally a movement within the Church of England that pushed for greater “purity” and further reformation, from within. Negatively, this meant an additional cleansing from the Church of every element they still considered to have Roman Catholic or “Papist” roots. They saw their Anglican Church as a compromised, middle path between Catholicism and the Radical Reformation. Puritans wanted to move their Church more in the direction of Calvin’s model in Geneva—with simpler worship, stricter morals, and stronger theology, set within an entire socio-economic worldview.

 

This might give the impression that Puritans were a cold, undemonstrative people. But the truth is more complex. On the one hand, Puritan theologians produced rigid theological systems and doctrinal creeds. Their preachers were quick to denounce showiness in church and sloth in life. But, on the other hand, Puritans were keen to promote what Jonathan Edwards called “the sense of the heart”—an internal apprehension of God’s excellence and beauty that moved their religious affections to fresh heights. Remember that Calvin’s own seal was a flaming heart on an outstretched hand offered to God.

 

Religious revival meeting at Eastham, Massachusetts, 1852, Source: Library of Congress

 

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It is important to appreciate the tension in Puritanism between a reverent and restricted external life and a passionate and personally pious interior world. Sometimes, the first tendency would win out: in individuals, congregations, and regions. Often, a backlash would break out against such a formal and nominal faith. Religious reactions of this kind are known as revivals, and the First Great Awakening was a perfect example of one.

 

The First Great Awakening

George Whitefield, by Joseph Badger, 1745, Source: Harvard Museums

 

According to historians, there have been four Great Awakenings in the United States. These Awakenings shared many similarities, such as subsequent social reforms. For instance, the Second Great Awakening impacted the abolition of alcohol and slavery.

 

However, the First Great Awakening was different from its subsequent namesakes in a vital way. While later awakenings took place among those outside the church, bringing them into church life and membership, the First Great Awakening was a revival among the churchgoing and the orthodox. Those who it “awakened” were already part of the Christian community.

 

The period assigned to the First Great Awakening is somewhat elastic, although usually delineated as 1730 to 1755. Its sparks were initially ignited under the preaching of Jonathan Edwards’ grandfather Solomon Stoddard, related by marriage to Cotton Mather. But those embers were fanned into a flame by the arrival in the new world of George Whitefield—possibly the world’s first celebrity—who was a founding member of the Methodist movement in England. Whitefield arrived at the colony of Georgia in December 1737. On a later trip, in 1740, Whitefield preached in Northampton at Edwards’ invitation. Whitefield’s preaching moved Edwards to tears.

 

Who Was Jonathan Edwards?

Jonathan Edwards (Princeton Portrait), by Henry Augustus Loop, 1860, Source: Princeton University

 

Just like the Puritan school to which he belonged, Jonathan Edwards was a complex character, a person of many parts. He was a brilliant scholar who greedily consumed the works of Enlightenment thinkers as a young man, especially the ideas of John Locke and the “natural philosophy” of Isaac Newton. From Locke’s empiricism, Edwards independently anticipated philosophical ideas now associated with George Berkeley. Edwards’ own most substantial intellectual contribution to the world was his treatise on The Freedom of the Will (1754). Before his death from a smallpox vaccination in 1758, Princeton University (then called the College of New Jersey) had just appointed Edwards President.

 

But Edwards was a child of the Reformation as well as the Enlightenment, of the old world and the new. He spent most of his career in the role of preacher and pastor rather than academic or professor. His chief concern was for the souls of his congregation, not the brains of his students. He communicated his thoughts to the world and about the world through sermons, not studies or academic papers. And it is for one sermon that he is now chiefly remembered.

 

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

A pamphlet of Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God, printed by S Kneeland and T Green, Boston, 1741, Source: Brownline Church

 

Edwards preached this famous sermon twice in 1741. In pamphlets that were made from the sermon, Amos 9:2-3 was printed on a front page. While these verses provide an accurate sense of the sermon’s tone and tenets, the sermon itself was based on another Old Testament text.

 

To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense; 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.

Deuteronomy 32:35

It would be easy to classify this content as a typical example of a “fire and brimstone” type sermon with a message to unbelievers of eternal damnation in hell after death. But there is more to it than that. Edwards does not focus on the life hereafter but on the here and now. The substance of the sermon is that unbelievers are in immediate danger, under current condemnation, and will experience imminent punishments. They do not have to wait to travel down to hell—hell is already reaching up to snatch them!

 

For example, Edwards asserted that God may cast sinners into hell at any moment and there is nothing to prevent him now from doing so. The wicked, at this very instant, he said, suffer under God’s condemnation to hell. Satan stands ready right now to fall upon the wicked and seize them as his own. Edwards even argued that “the wicked, on earth—at this very moment—suffer a sample of the torments of Hell.” The purpose of Edwards’ sermons was to make the doctrine of hell a current reality, and it seems he largely succeeded in this intent.

 

The Congregation’s Response

The Grave of Jonathan Edwards in Princeton Cemetery, photo by J P Findley, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

In many accounts of the impact of the sermon on the congregations, there are extreme and intense descriptions. For example, it is often said that some church members clutched onto the seats of their pews because they felt they were sliding into hell. So tightly did they hold on to their seats, it is said, that they left fingernail marks that were still observable sometime after. However, it is difficult to find reliable primary sources to authenticate this report.

 

What historians cannot deny is the firsthand testimony of Reverend Stephen Williams, who attended one of the occasions the sermon was preached. He recorded in his diary how the sermon affected those who heard it. Even before Edwards completed his sermon, Williams wrote that:

 

“…there was a great moaning and crying out through the whole house — ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ ‘Oh, I am going to hell!’ ‘Oh what shall I do for a Christ?’ and so forth — so that the minister was obliged to desist.”

 

He also records that the “shrieks and cries were piercing and amazing.” Edwards had to wait until the congregation became still again before he could descend from the pulpit.  But it was not all horror. Williams noted “the cheerfulness and pleasantness of their countenances that received comfort.”

 

Lockean Empiricism and Newtonian Mechanics

Newton, by William Blake, 1795, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

There have been many attempts to deconstruct the sermon and locate the source of its power. Some have analysed it in terms of the images of colonial life it contains. Others focus on the sermon’s logical structure, grammatical tense and deictic shifts, or its rhythmic beat. However, linking it with Edwards’ academic interests and background yields some fascinating results.

 

John Locke founded a philosophy built on the primacy of the senses over purely rational and innate ideas–Empiricism rather than Rationalism. Edwards makes some use of Locke’s secondary qualities in his sermon, those things that have a subjective element—like loudness and bitterness. But he employs Locke’s primary qualities more—properties that are inherent in objects, like motion. Edwards frequently speaks of rest and ease, for example, and contrasts them with the downward direction and movement of the wicked.

 

John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1697, Source: The Hermitage State Museum

 

This links with the influence of Newtonian mechanics on the sermon, especially the theories of gravity and motion. Throughout the sermon, Edwards repeats the idea that a sinner “needs nothing but his own Weight to throw him down.” When their time comes, sinners “shall be left to fall as they are inclined by their own Weight.” He combined this with other forces in Physics, in one place speaking of “Weight and Pressure” and in another of “Weight and Power.”

 

With the force of gravity comes the falling of the object, and falling is one of the most used figures in the sermon.

 

“If God should withdraw his Hand, [health and prudence] would avail no more to keep you from falling, than the thin Air to hold up a Person that is suspended in it. Your Wickedness makes you as it were heavy as Lead, and to tend downwards… your Righteousness, would have no more Influence to uphold you and keep you out of Hell, than a Spider’s Web would have to stop a falling Rock.”

 

The Religious and Literary Aftermath

Part of the memorial for the victims of the 1692 witchcraft trials in Danvers, Massachusetts, by Francis Helminski, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is still studied today by historians as a prime example of a First Great Awakening pulpit oratory. The preaching of it was one of the defining moments of the Great Awakening and it—along with reactions to it—became a model for those revivals that followed. It may even be considered the United States’ most famous sermon, preached by the nation’s most famous theologian. Contemporary revivalist and fundamentalist preachers still refer to it today, even if they have never studied it academically.

 

At a more general level, editors and publishers often include the sermon in anthologies of American literature and teachers cover it in classes on the same topic. Although the Gothic strain in American literature is usually traced back to Charles Brockden Brown’s 1798 novel Wieland, Edwards’ sermon predates it as a literary work. Puritanism with its concepts of hell and hereditary guilt played a large part in the stories of nineteenth-century authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Finally, it is worth remembering that HP Lovecraft was a child of New England, just like Jonathan Edwards.

 

An Angel Leading a Soul to Hell, by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch, 16th century, Source: The Welcome collection

 

Lovecraft mentioned the strangeness of the New England landscape in several of his stories, including The Picture in the House (1920) and The Colour Out of Space (1927). But it was in a Letter to Elizabeth Toldridge (9 October 1931) that he makes the explicit connection to Puritanism and the infamous witch trials.

 

“As for New England as a seat of weirdness — a little historic reflection will show why it is more naturally redolent of the bizarre & the sinister than any other part of America. It was here that the most gloomy-minded of all the colonists settled; & here that the dark moods & cryptic hills pressed closest. An abnormal Puritan psychology led to all kinds of repression, furtiveness, & grotesque hidden crime, while the long winters & backwoods isolation fostered monstrous secrets which never came to light. To me there is nothing more fraught with mystery & terror than a remote Massachusetts farmhouse against a lonely hill. Where else could an outbreak like the Salem witchcraft have occurred?”

Selected Letters III, 1929-1931, Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, p. 423

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By Allen BairdPhD Theology, BA Biblical Studies and PhilosophyAllen earned his degrees from the Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland, along with a teaching qualification in adult education. His interests lie in short story writing and relating the biblical material to modern literary genres such as horror, sci-fi, and fantasy.