July 8: Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

During the 1730s and 1740s, New England was in the midst of a sweeping religious revival now known to history as the Great Awakening.  During this period, charismatic ministers like the internationally-famous George Whitfield traveled from town to town on a mission to invigorate congregations with a renewed sense of Christian piety and devotion, often attracting overflow crowds wherever they preached.

A 19th century engraving of Jonathan Edwards.

In 1741, another wildly popular preacher, Jonathan Edwards, was entreated to preach to the congregants in the town of Enfield (then a part of Massachusetts, but soon to be part of Connecticut after colony lines were redrawn in 1749).  While neighboring communities in northern Connecticut had responded favorably to the Great Awakening, with many churchgoers publicly rededicating themselves to a Christian lifestyle, the people of Enfield had a reputation among itinerant preachers as a stubborn flock, complacent in their worship and reluctant to implement any change in their spiritual habits.

Rising to the challenge, Edwards whipped up an especially scathing, “fire and brimstone” sermon titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and delivered it in Enfield on July 8, 1741.  The lengthy, unrelenting sermon was intended to terrify the congregants at Enfield into forsaking their sinful ways and rededicating their lives to God.  With his trademark Puritan fervor and captivating oratory, Edwards made the wrath of God seem truly tangible and real as he drove home the sermon’s main message: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”  Edwards utilized numerous unforgettable visual metaphors in his speech, likening sinners to “loathsome insects” that dangled over the fires of Hell by a mere thread.

According to eyewitness accounts, Edwards’ sermon was extremely effective; in fact, he was interrupted several times by loud shrieks and wails of people in the congregation for whom the prospects of eternal damnation suddenly seemed all too real.  Ironically, the conclusion of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which contained the most important piece of doctrine — the hope of salvation from Hell by dedication to God — was barely heard over the noise of the crowd.  Jonathan Edwards’ visit to Enfield marked one of the most memorable events of the entire Great Awakening.  “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was later published in pamphlet form and became one of the best-selling pieces of religious literature of its time.  Today, Edwards’ most famous sermon is still studied the world over as an incredible example of early 18th century Calvinist doctrine and early American literature.

Further Reading

Kenneth Minkema, “Connecticut Origins Shape New Light Luminary Jonathan Edwards,” connecticuthistory.org

Jonathan Edwards Preaches ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Association of Religion Data Archives