In the early 1740s, New England was in the midst of a sweeping religious revival now known as the Great Awakening. Charismatic evangelical ministers traveled from town to town on a mission to invigorate congregations with a renewed sense of Christian piety based on fear of damnation. They were inspired by the internationally famous George Whitfield, who had toured New England in 1740 preaching “hell and damnation” to huge crowds. The “itinerants,”as they were called, who followed in his footsteps, also often attracted overflow crowds wherever they preached.
In 1741, another wildly popular preacher, South Windsor-born Jonathan Edwards, was invited to preach to the congregation in Enfield (then a part of Massachusetts, but soon to be part of Connecticut after colony lines were redrawn in 1749). While neighboring communities had responded favorably to the Great Awakening, the people of Enfield had a reputation among itinerant preachers as a stubborn flock, complacent in their worship and reluctant to consider any change in their lackluster spiritual habits.
Rising to the challenge, Edwards whipped up one of the most powerful sermons in history. It was an especially scathing, “fire and brimstone” call to repentance titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which he delivered in Enfield’s Congregational church on the evening of July 8, 1741. The lengthy, unrelenting, and powerfully evocative sermon was intended to terrify the congregants into forsaking their sinful ways and rededicating their lives to God. With Puritan fervor, captivating oratory, and intensely frightening imagery, Edwards made the wrath of God seem both tangible and imminent 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.” Among Edwards unforgettable visual metaphors was one likening sinners to “loathsome insects” that dangled over the fires of Hell by a mere thread.
According to eyewitness accounts, Edwards’ sermon was astonishingly effective; he was interrupted several times by loud shrieks and wails of parishioners 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 held out the the hope of salvation from Hell by renewed dedication to God — was barely heard over the chaotic noise of the panic-stricken crowd. Edwards and two other ministers with him worked far into the night to help channel and allay the fears of those who had suddenly fallen “under conviction” of their sinful natures.
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. Faith was awakened by fear, Today in Connecticut History.
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