Stacy Louise Brand
13 November 2018
Colonists in the Hands of a New Ideology
The year is 1741; on one fateful July morning (the 8th to be precise), a young Puritan minister named Jonathan Edwards stands before his congregation in Enfield, Connecticut ready to deliver a carefully considered, metaphor-laden sermon based on a reading of Deuteronomy 32:25: “Their foot shall slide in due time,” called Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. The sermon, with its strong language and unforgettable metaphors is meant to awaken the spiritually slumbering members of his flock. Although one might reasonably assume that he intends and believes that the sermon will bring about a change in his church, what Edwards might not have anticipated is how this sermon will go on to not only serve as a wake-up call to those present that morning, but to an entire generation of colonists both religiously as well as ideologically. Edwards, raised from his youth to someday stand behind a pulpit, harbored no intentions of becoming a major literary or historical figure as a result of his writing this particular sermon; his goal was the salvation of souls. Nevertheless, with a singular oration, this young man plants the seeds of an evolution of Calvinist doctrine and colonial thought during the Great Awakening— becoming the metaphorical and somewhat literal grandfather of a new faith, American evangelicalism, and a new country, the United States of America.
Born on October 5, 1703 in the Connecticut Colony, Jonathan Edwards entered this world both a first generation native of the so-called “new world” as well as a member of “the New England clerical elite” (Arkin, 59):
“His father, Timothy Edwards, was the pastor of the Congregational Church in East Windsor, Connecticut. His maternal grandfather was the Reverend Solomon Stoddard, whose influential pastorate in Northampton, Massachusetts, had yielded five separate seasons of religious revival and had earned him the unofficial title of “Pope of the Connecticut River Valley”(Arkin, 59).
Although he was the fifth of the Edwards’ 11 children, Jonathan was the only son, which meant it would fall to him to inherit the family pulpit. A bright young man, he was a published author by age 11 (for a scientific study on “flying spiders”) and admitted to Yale University at the tender age of 13 (Tuhoy). During his time at Yale, Edwards struggled with his religious convictions, but by the end of his studies he found resolution and joy in them. “…Graduating top of his class, Edwards recounted that he was ‘filled with an inward, secret delight in God,’ resolving to live with all his might for Him henceforth… devoting his time to the study of scripture and theology, having as a matter of routine 13 hours of study a day” (Tam, 2). At age 24 he was chosen to serve as an associate pastor at his grandfather’s church in Northampton, Massachusetts. “The next year, at the age of twenty-three, he married Sarah Pierrepont, a beautiful, witty, and pious girl of seventeen” (Griffin, 545). He inherited Stoddard’s pulpit just two years later, when he passed away at age 86 (an unprecedentedly long lifespan for a man of this time period).
When Edwards took over, he noted that his grandfather’s congregation had grown lukewarm in their faith and were “very insensible of the things of religion” (Arkin 60). “As the Puritan experiment in America neared its centennial anniversary in the early eighteenth century, great changes had taken place in the social, political, and religious climate since the founding of the colonies. The zealous commitment of the first generations of New Englanders to the Puritan way of life seemed to many to have diminished almost to the vanishing point” (Griffin, 545). The people that Jonathan Edwards found himself tasked with preaching to had reaped the benefits of all the arduous work of the previous generation and had grown spiritually lax in equal proportion to their newfound wealth and its accompanying leisure. They still considered themselves Christian, yet only nominally so in comparison with their forebears— a condition Edwards sought to remedy by his sermons, although he may well be said to have been proverbially preaching to the choir. “The historian George Marsden notes that ‘Edwards could take for granted that a New England audience knew well the Gospel remedy. The problem was getting them to seek it” (Tam, 2). A brief period of religious revival spread throughout the Connecticut River Valley in the summer of 1734, converting a substantial number of citizens (sources put the number at somewhere around 300), but the fervor soon died out and by 1737, Edwards found his congregation cold and indifferent to matters of religion once again (Arkin, 61) (Tam, 2). It was for this audience that Edwards began writing his most famous sermon.
Despite the denomination’s complexities, students often reduce traditional Calvinism down to a singular tenet: predestination. Predestination, also called unconditional election, is the belief that God chose a certain number of souls at the beginning of time to be “the Elect,” or those who would enter Heaven, and that the remainder of humanity would be damned to Hell. Whether one is saved or damned is entirely up to the will of God; there is nothing an individual could do in his or her life that would alter their status (Crosswalk, 1). As a work of literature, Sinners represents a significant deviation from this traditional tenet of Calvinism. Throughout the sermon, Edwards’ language is unnervingly descriptive in its references to the final destination of the unconverted: “… a World of Misery, that Lake of burning Brimstone… the dreadful Pit of the glowing Flames of the Wrath of God… a wide gaping Mouth… the bottomless gulf…” (Edwards, 395, 397). His metaphors remain some of the most famous in all of early American literature, particularly his comparison of the sinner to a dangling spider: “God holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider… nothing but his Hand that holds you from falling into the Fire every Moment” (Edwards, 395, 397). He repetitively mentions that the only thing standing between his parishioners and this awful fate is the “mere pleasure of God” (Edwards, 391) and yet there is also contained therein a new birth of hope and choice never before seen in Calvinist theology. He emphasizes the idea that although hell currently looms before the majority of his congregation, it is possible for them to be saved by repenting of their sinful self-reliance and accepting Christ as their savior:
“Now God stands ready to pity you… you may cry now with some encouragement of obtaining Mercy…and have an Opportunity to obtain Salvation… Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open, and stands in the Door calling and crying with a loud Voice to poor Sinners… You had need to consider yourselves and wake thoroughly out of Sleep…Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the Wrath to come… Let everyone fly out of Sodom: Haste and escape for your Lives, look not behind you, escape to the Mountain, least you be consumed” (Edwards, 391, 398, 401,402).
His language here is clear: wake up, accept Christ, and thereby obtain salvation. This emphasis on the ability of the individual to influence his or her salvation by making a choice for Christ marks an important shift away from the idea of unconditional election and the first movement towards the ideology that would eventually mature and develop into the American evangelism made famous by modern preachers like the Reverend Billy Graham. Where once was preached the idea that nothing the individual could ever do could impact the fate of their soul, according to Sinners… the possibility existed that one’s fate was not already sealed, that salvation was not a privilege extended to only a select few, but to any who ask Christ for forgiveness and repented.
Sinners… is a high-water mark for the Great Awakening, having reintroduced a sense of great religious fervor to the Connecticut River Valley. “It is one of the many ironies of his life that Sinners… was too successful. The force of its logic and language is so strong that even today Edwards is chiefly remembered as a terrifying Awakener” (Griffin, 552). Although the sermon began a trend of mass conversion, the fervor resulting from the sermon soon turned to a form of hysteria. After a number of disagreements between Jonathan Edwards and his congregation (including denial of communion to those who had not made a public profession of salvation and calling out congregants by name from the pulpit), he was voted out of his own church on June 22, 1750 (Griffin, 458). He would eventually find himself serving as a missionary to the Indians of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. “His work there did not go unnoticed…and in 1757, upon the death of the president of the College of New Jersey, Aaron Burr (Edwards’ son-in-law and the father of the future vice-president of the United States), the trustees of the college (now Princeton University) offered the presidency to Edwards” (Griffin, 549). Edwards reluctantly accepted, but his tenure was brief; after he received an inoculation for smallpox, he contracted a fever and “after a month of painful illness Edwards died, on March 22, 1758, having been president of Princeton for five weeks” (Griffin, 550).
Although he died relatively young at the age of 54, Edwards’ ideas and their logical consequences did not go to the grave with him. The concept of a man shaping his own destiny by the choices he makes (for example the choice of salvation by choosing Christ) started the wheels turning in the minds of the young men of the next generation. The men and women born into the American colonies during this time had already begun to see themselves as truly native to this soil rather than owing loyalties to a country 3,000 miles away that they had never laid eyes on. They already enjoyed a relative sense of independence and freedom as local democratic bodies of government developed to manage the day to day operations within the colonies, something England could not have done from across an ocean. The religious idea introduced by Edwards that their decisions influenced their own destinies would eventually bear political fruit in men like Edwards’ own grandson, Founding Father Aaron Burr Jr., who would go on to fight and win the American Revolution.
Edwards would have never anticipated the full reverberations of this sermon; he only sought to wake up a sleeping body of believers to the risk in which their souls stood. Nevertheless, his powerful sermon woke up something more in the consciousness of his fellow colonists. This humble minister’s choice to give a sermon one propitious July day ultimately planted the ideological seeds that would find a harvest in the creation of a new nation and a uniquely American form of Christianity that would seek to convert the world to Christ, an application of his preaching of which one may be certain Edwards would have approved.
Arkin, Marc M. “The Great Awakener.” Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 54, Gale, 2000. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1420032208/GLS?u=avlr;sid=GLS;xid=caed6142. Accessed 12 Nov. 2018. Originally published in The New Criterion, vol. 2, no. 9, May 1993, pp. 59-62.
Gale Document Number:GALE|H1420032208
Griffin, Edward M. “Edwards, Jonathan 1703-1758.” American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, edited by Leonard Unger, vol. 1: Henry Adams to T.S. Eliot, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974, pp. 544-566. Scribner Writer Series, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX1382300032/GLS?u=avlr&sid=GLS&xid=eef19bd9. Accessed 12 Nov. 2018.
Gale Document Number:GALE|CX1382300032
Andrew Tam http://www.academia.edu/12340948/Revival_History_at_Yale
John William Tuohy, http://connecticuthistory.blogspot.com/2009/08/jonathan-edwards-sermon-sinners-in.html
CROSSWALK.COM EDITORIAL STAFF https://www.christianity.com/church/denominations/what-is-calvinism.html