Jonathan Edwards Sermons
Generational Distress: Jonathan Edwards and Aaron Burr
Jonathan Edwards straddled two definitive eras in American history: the hardline beliefs of the Puritans he was raised by in the Connecticut Valley and the freethinking, logical reasonability of the Age of Enlightenment (Norton Anthology 396). These ideas are blended fascinatingly in Edwards’s Personal Narrative, a seemingly day-to-day account of his ideas on The Bible and God thought through in the most logical manor he could conceive given the information at hand, and his upbringing as the son and grandson of famous reverends. His life was at great odds with that of his even more renowned grandson Aaron Burr, born into the middle of the Age of Enlightenment. Although Edwards only lived into the second year of his progeny’s life (Chernow 277), both his accomplishments and mistakes seem to have had a massive effect on the way Burr viewed religion, politics, and even writing itself.
Edwards’s mind was filled with thoughts of religion that he meticulously documented. In his Personal Narrative, he begins talking about his childhood views on religion, the reawakening of the spirituality of his father’s congregation, and his own dutiful religious practices. His worldview is purely Puritanical. There were certain expectations put upon Puritans to serve God the best that they could, working tirelessly to do so, objecting to anything that could distract them from their reverential mission. Edwards’s beliefs on the sovereignty of God, one of the core Puritan principles, testifies to his old-fashioned way of thinking that his parishioners dedicated themselves to. He said his, “mind was wont to be full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty,” on page 399, but then goes on to explain, “God’s absolute sovereignty, and damnation, is what my mind seems to be rest assured of, as much as anything that I see with my eyes.” Edwards would continuously repress any doubts of his beliefs with the feeling that worshiping gave him. Burr would have abhorred the musings about God that seemed to flow from his ancestor’s pen as if it was coming from his very heart.
Aaron Burr didn’t actually write much of anything down, for his “habits were to never trust himself on paper, if he could avoid it, and when he wrote, it was with great caution” (Chernow 278). While his grandfather remained married to the Puritan way of life, Burr was working to become renowned in a different field all together. Although he lived with another reverend growing up, the religious fervor of the rest of his family did not pass onto him. Burr truly embodied an even newer stage of the Age of Enlightenment, for he wasn’t a statesman crafting documents that would come to define the United States to this very day, but a politician intent on seeking power (Chernow 279). Their differences cannot be summed up more effectively than a comparison of Edward’s sermon entitled A Divine and Supernatural Light and Burr’s commencement speech as he graduated Princeton, a school his grandfather briefly presided over, entitled Building Castles in the Air (Chernow 277). In his sermon, Edwards quotes from scripture, “thou knowest what God alone can teach thee.” (Edwards 417). Burr’s speech directly disdains the thinking his grandfather cherished and demonstrated in his Personal Narrative, for Building Castles in the Air, which “declaimed against frittering away energy on idle dreams.” (Chernow 277). As a man who valued his distinguished place in society, and dreamt of the highest office in the land, Burr surely would have found Edwards’s musings to be a waste of time and energy. The simplistic belief in God as a feeling is also in direct odds with his grandson’s logical thinking.
The men’s differences may be summed up most succinctly in the mistakes they made that would later define their respective careers. Jonathan Edwards lived his life in expression of his deeply held beliefs, and was propped up by them. From his childhood building places of worship with his friends, to choosing his mate in Sarah Pierpont, and finally the wish to return his church to its former glory by naming backsliders from the pulpit and crafting a return to the old form of communion that would get him dismissed from his church (Norton Anthology 389) he lived through his religion. Aaron Burr, after keeping his views to himself throughout his career, found a scapegoat in Alexander Hamilton and shot and killed him. This over calculation on Edwards’s part, and under calculation on Burr’s shows the weaknesses in both of their ideologies. Edwards was so involved in his brain and his Bible, he didn’t look up to see where the tides of culture had taken his congregation, and Burr kept his grudge against the other revolutionary alive for so long, it exploded in one ill-advised duel. Burr may have avoided the mistakes of his grandfather, but created one of his own.
The age of Puritan rule giving way to the Age of Enlightenment, like any revolution, wasn’t an overnight event. Enlightenment took years transformation from writers like both Edwards and Burr to come into its cultural dominance. For although Edwards represented an old-fashioned way of thought by the time his grandson rose to prominence, those thoughts became the building block for how Americans were going to grapple with the religious fervor that cyclically falls upon the nation and the reasoned thinking that the nation was founded on.
CHERNOW, RON. ALEXANDER HAMILTON. S.l.: HEAD OF ZEUS, 2017. Print.
Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. The Norton anthology of American literature. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012. Print.
A Merciful God from Violent Imagery
In 1742, Jonathan Edwards undertook the task of crafting a sermon that would be powerful in the eyes of both believers and unbelievers. The result exists today as his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The sermon differs from traditional sermons both of his time and in modern times. Rather than depicting the merciful and loving God of the Christian faith, Edwards brings to light a wrathful and angry God. He takes a look into the human condition while justifying the wrath of God. However, this is not the image of God that one is intended to take away from this message. While the language and imagery of the sermon were intended to cause feelings of hopelessness and fear, these are not the emotions that Edwards intended his audience to leave with. In his sermon, Edwards identifies the human condition and man’s depravity while justifying the building wrath of God only to use such harsh and violent imagery to paint a picture of a merciful and just God.
Edwards uses oversimplification and imagery to establish the human situation and man’s depravity. His first set of points establishes the dire situation of all human beings. He establishes a world where the possibility of destruction is ever-present and where a man “that stands on such slippery declining ground, on that edge of a pit, he cannot stand alone, when he is let go he immediately falls and is lost” (Edwards 430). He sees the human race on the brink of destruction with no power within to prevent such ruin. He furthers this by speaking about human nature: “There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God’s restraints” (Edwards 432). Men are not simply in constant danger of destruction; they are in danger of destruction at their own hands. Humans are by their nature corrupt and even self-destructive. He goes on to comment on God’s role in this situation: “…if God should leave it without restraints, there would need nothing else to make the soul perfectly miserable… it would immediately turn the soul into a fiery oven, or a furnace of fire and brimstone” (Edwards 432). This transformation of the soul echoes the imagery of hell. “Edwards thought of himself as a spokesman of God’s threat of terrible punishment to the unregenerate sinner… frequently [using] imagery that calls upon such violent and destructive events as would activate the pain receptors” (Steele and Delay 250). He is using this type of imagery to appeal to his audience’s senses in order to horrify them of the darkness of their hearts and the reality of the place devoted to such degradation. Hell is supposed to be a place of fire and eternal torment and pain for the souls of unbelievers. With this overlap of imagery, Edwards seems to be suggesting that hell is simply a manifestation of unrestrained human nature. It is a place where the hand of God does not hold men back from their destructive tendencies and the result is a place of eternal misery. “Hell is what every day would be if it were not God’s continuing mercy” (Adams and Yarbrough 30). However, the blame resides on humans themselves rather than God because hell is not simply a place that God has created to punish them. It is the manifestation of their nature and sin from which the hand of God has attempted to save them.
After setting the scene and revealing the darkness of human nature, Edwards establishes both man’s ability to anger of God and his futility against the immeasurable and eternal power of God. Edwards moves from an attack on human nature to an attack on human intelligence. He claims, “Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering” (Edwards 433). He is claiming that men without God walk the earth and remain ignorant of the possibility of death and destruction that is ever-present. In fact, any man aware of hell “finds that [he is] kept out of hell, but [does] not see the hand of God in it; but looks at other things” (Edwards 434). He reveals unbelievers to be ignorant of their circumstances with a false sense of security found in their own intelligence. Human ignorance in regards to the human situation and the means by which everyone is kept from destruction is the reason for God’s anger. Edwards claims, “…the sun does not willingly shine upon you to give you light to serve sin and Satan” (Edwards 435). He uses natural imagery because nature is the creation of God and is intended for the benefit of men, and yet men use it simply to further their sinful nature in opposition to God. This is the justification of God’s wrath against the human race. Human ignorance extends to the power of God, which is to be feared: “…fear him, which after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell” (Edwards 437). Depraved and ignorant beings have no standing against such power. Humans are without the means to abstain from sin and Satan, the enemy of God. Such opposition can only be met with anger and the ultimate punishment from an all-powerful God.
Edwards offers hope in the end by stating the anger of God is only to come and that he is currently ready to pity and have mercy on depraved human beings. He has established the dire situation in which all humans find themselves and has justified God’s anger against such depraved creatures. In the end of his sermon, Edwards changes the mood of the sermon slightly in stating, “And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open” (Edwards 440). This statement reveals that the impending wrath of God is still in the future and that the angry God described in the sermon is still open to reconciliation and offering mercy at the current moment. With the emergence of this hopeful point, Edwards changes the meaning of the harsh imagery and descriptions used in the earlier portion of the sermon. The emphasis on the justified anger of the almighty God and the impending demise of all unbelievers serves as a foil to highlight the mercifulness of God. This makes the message’s impact twofold. In the words of John Adams and Stephen Yarbrough, “…saintly auditors will identify with the hand of God. They may shriek with joy. Grounded in assurance, saints are able to discern the awesome beauty of God’s justice…” (Adams and Yarbrough 32). To believers, the dire situation of humans and the merciful God that keeps them from such destruction is a reason to praise and rejoice. To the unbeliever, the sermon strips away the complications and reveals their desperate situation. It also reveals to them the wrath they will be subject to while offering hope and a way to circumvent such demise. Therefore, the image taken from the sermon does not have to be that of a vengeful God that seeks only to destroy people. The image that Edwards, as a believer, would have taken from this message is the depraved nature of human beings and the merciful and just God that saves such beings from self-destruction and eternal damnation. His main goal was to convert his audience. Therefore, this image is the one that Edwards would have wanted his audience to remember and hold on to; he would have wanted them to live in awe and praise of such a merciful God rather than in fear of such anger and wrath.
From the perspective of this sermon, God is not simply an angry force that is hungry for punishment. He is trying to save the human race from self-destruction and, for all his efforts, is ignored and abandoned by his people for his enemy. He owes such people nothing and yet has mercy enough to hold them from destruction on a daily basis. His anger is against human ignorance and defiance and will only be enacted upon those who remain in such a state. Edwards carefully crafted this message to apply to both believers and unbelievers in his audience. As he reveals the helpless situation that people are in with their own depravity and destructive nature, both groups of people would have been humbled and aware of their own inadequacy. As he then moves on to justify God’s anger against humanity, unbelievers would have the image of a vengeful and angry God while believers would see the merciful God that holds back such rightful anger. Edwards is simply painting a violent picture in order to highlight the mercifulness of God and the evil that resides within human nature. The violence is simply a foil to highlight the mercy of God, who holds his people back from themselves and prevents immediate destruction that is imminent according to the depraved state of human nature. Therefore, the image to take away is not one of sinners at the mercy of a violent God. The takeaway is intended to be the image of a God with the capacity for such immense and justifiable anger that holds back such wrath in mercy. However, as Edwards points out, this anger will not be held back indefinitely and his mercy extends for a certain amount of time. The angry God in the title is the God to come while the merciful God is the God that exists for humans in their lifetime.
Adams, John C., and Stephen R. Yarbrough. “‘Sinners’ In The Hands Of An Angry God, Saints In The Hands Of Their Father.” Journal Of Communication & Religion, vol. 20, no. 1, 1997, pp. 25-35. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Jonathan Edwards.” Beginnings to 1820, edited by Nina Baym, 8th ed., W. W. Norton and Company, 2012, pp. 430-41. 2 vols.
Steele, Thomas J., and Eugene R. Delay. “Vertigo In History: The Threatening Tactility Of ‘Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God.’” Early American Literature, vol. 18. no. 3, 1983, p. 242. Religion and Philosophy Collection. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
Chosen People, or Coerced Patronage?
The literature produced during the Puritan era was striking in its ever popular sermon format and its condescending tones. Authors like Jonathan Edwards and Michael Wigglesworth were not reluctant to use fear and intimidation to get their messages across. Wigglesworth’s “The Day of Doom,” and Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” include vivid imagery and crude descriptions of the mind-numbing path to righteousness. With themes relating to idealism, both political and religious, and the emphasis on practicality and piety, these Puritan writings are filled with elegiac verses and fiery allusions to make fear one of the driving forces to “find God”.Most Puritan works of literature were written to inspire the ideals of Puritan living. Puritans were children of a covenant; this gave them the purpose to write these biblical supplements. Just like people of any society or culture, the requirements and duties were a product of their beliefs, and the Puritans belief that they were God’s “chosen” people assumed it their duty to bring religion into the lives of those who seemed un-influenced.Jonathan Edwards was one of the many who felt it his duty as a Puritan author to use his abilities and knowledge to influence his readers. He “stressed the emotional side of religion,” believing that it was “easier to experience emotional excitement than rational understanding.” His writing “made religion trans-colonial; breakdown of distinctions between church and creed, it encouraged the proliferation of sects which led to vagueness in doctrine, laxness in discipline, and faded into general religious indifference. It gave rise to a community organized in pursuit of secular values” (Rueben Chap. 2). Edwards wanted people to feel God since God is not tangible; he thought it highly important to take in the love of God through emotions. The emotions he initiated in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” were abrasive and harsh. He preached that “Hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out” (Perkins 235). Leaving people afraid, yet in awe, was one of the greatest ways for them to become conscious of the powers their God held.Just like Edwards, Wigglesworth’s powers of intimidation were unbeatable. The Puritans were so involved in religion that “The Day of Doom” was not only an amazing testament of their faith but was memorized and used for reference just as the Bible would have been. “The overwhelming popularity of the poem suggests that most New England citizens considered themselves to be among the righteous, and the threatening tone only reinforced their faith” (Warren). Wigglesworth’s poem is filled with passages so vividly described one can instantly feel emotions of confusion, desire, and a longing to be holy for fear of the consequences: “From Judge’s ire, more hot than fire, for whom it may abide? No hiding place can from his face sinners at all conceal. Whose flaming eyes hid things doth ‘spy, and darkest things reveal” (Perkins 109). With only the devout Christians eligible to rule in this theocracy, striving for overall righteousness was a main goal. Even if one wasn’t an ideal model of Puritan Christianity, Wigglesworth ends this masterpiece with the moral that everyone can be saved.Even while on the path to becoming righteous some Puritans showed signs of decay. Some became overly prideful, especially among those who became newly rich. There were also violations of the Sabbath, sins of sex and alcohol, and questions involving business morality. In these instances menacing words of these Puritan authors would prove to be beneficial, intimidating these sinners back into the life that they had abandoned and serving as a rehab for their souls.Whether the citizens of the Puritan era were coerced into being part of this movement by the intensity of the atmosphere, or by choice to better themselves, they were given many great resources including these works to expand their knowledge of religion. The fear these stories instilled was a driving force for the extreme changes many of the Puritans made. “The Day of Doom” and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” are as frightening as the backdrop against which they were placed.