Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God
American Religious Literature Development Critical Essay
American religious experience traces its roots and origin from the time the land was discovered. Even before the discovery of America by westerners, the natives who are believed to be Red Indian had their religion that was widely practiced. The gusto and diversity of American religious history is well documented and captured in antebellum literature and culture.
In the antebellum era, religious forms that existed in America were largely a reflection of their parent organizations in Europe. However, the events that characterized the time transformed the religious movements making them uniquely American in the mainstream as well as new faiths that formed.
At the time, the dominant groups were direct creations of protestant evangelism. However, the time can be described as the spiritual awakening of America as it saw the eruption of religious diversity that makes it difficult for one to describe a comprehensive religious or theological label.
The period covering the year 1800 through 1865 onwards experienced religious realities that saw the formation and rise of powerful liberal and conservative movements competing for influence among the people.
The movements’ ideologies elicited strong reactions and opening rare debates about God, spirituality and the relationship between God and his creation principally, human beings. It is safe to conclude that the era saw a religious “volcano” that was more or less as a result of experimentation that was possible in the new found freedom.
The momentous events that shaped religious America at the time above saw the rise of numerous authors who expressed their opinion concerning the religious climate that prevailed. For instance, American literature was greatly influenced by puritan religious literature that can be compared to modern naturalism.
The Heath Anthology of American Literature by Lauter Paul has documented a number of quotes from different authors who sought to air their views about the religious climate of the time. Their texts have made rich contribution to American literature that will make the basis of analysis in this paper.
William Bradford (1590-1657)
“Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.
But here I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amazed at this poor people’s present condition; and so I think will the reader too when he well consider the same. (1908)”(Lauter 164).
William Bradford traces his roots to Yorkshire England. From an early age, he was plagued by misfortunes that ensured he was orphaned of both parents by the age of seven years. He would later find solace in religion.
By the time he was entering his early teens Bradford was an ardent listener to a non-conformist minister Richard Clyfton who fronted Puritanism. A congregation formed by the minister including Bradford as one of the members departed for the now Massachusetts to run a way from the conservatism that characterized Europe by then (Lauter 164).
Bradford engaged in Politics after arriving in America, getting elected to the position of Governor of Plymouth that he held till his death. The quote above refers to his thanking God for the safe arrival of immigrants in the new land while at the same time underscoring his strong religious beliefs.
His strong background in religion and politics helped him write his fist literally work “Of Plymouth Plantation” (Lauter 165). The challenges of setting up a new colony ensured he did not finish the piece and it was never published. Bradford also wrote a Plymouth journal, poems and numerous dialogues. In his works, Bradford drew comparison of the journey by Plymouth settlers, to the themes found in the Old Testament of the Bible.
Additionally he considered the Puritans journey to the new land as a covenanted agreement with God that can only be compared to that He gave to the Israelites. The interpretive style of Typology that he used in his works was later used as a model for historians in the US especially in New England
Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490–1556)
“When I was afflicted in this way, my only comfort and consolation was to think about the suffering of our redeemer Jesus Christ and the blood he shed for me, and to consider how much greater was the torment he suffered from the thorns than what I was suffering at that time (1993)” (Lauter 57)
Cabeza de Vaca was a noble assigned by the Emperor Carlos V to be the treasurer and sent to an expedition t the gulf coast. He was involved in a power struggle with orates to which he lost and wanted to establish his new area of exploitation. He successful experiences in Mexico but other parts of North America proved to be quite challenging for him. While in Florida, the governor abandoned and Narvaez lost almost all his men. They were finally capture d and enslaved by the Indians till his eventual return to Mexico (Lauter, 63).
The experiences he went through in North America were overwhelming and he chose writing as away to express himself. Narvaez used the medieval genre of hagiography that dwelled on the life of saints. In effect, the Christian conversion tale that the genre represented was the first in the US literary tradition.
The genre writings assume that the losses that people suffer are God’s plan to transform a chosen person for God’s purpose. In Narvaez case, he recounted how he was stripped of and lost all the signs of civilization including clothes, status and social context.
The quote above is one of the many that he used to describe his religious ways. He was a committed Christian who wrote and practiced the word or God from the Native American perspective as well as Catholic prayers (Lauter 67). Critics and other scholars agree that Narvaez is New World, mestizo and his literary contribution played a big part in creating the American culture.
Roger Williams (1603-1683)
“Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man shall be required to worship or maintain worship against his will (1990)” (Lauter 180).
Roger Williams is touted as one of the first people to express freely of the cherished American ideals of Democracy and religious freedom and emancipation as demonstrated by the above quote.
Many people including his friend contend that he was a Godly and ambitious person with a unique sense of judgment (Lauter 180). He was a very tolerant person and advocated fro freedoms to extreme positions that he was branded a rebel to the church order that prevailed then. Roger represented the struggle for spiritual liberation as well as separatism as taught by Puritans.
It is believed his literal mind was the biggest asset he had and employed in analyzing Christian scripture to encourage religious tolerance. Later, he forsook the puritans and became a chaplain. In his quest to separate the church from the state and to advocate against political leadership of the church, Williams had various run-ins with authorities. He sailed to the new land in 1630 with the great migration Lauter 182.
In America, he produced his first work of literature “A key into the Language of America.” like Bradford; he too lent to the American literature the style of dialogues that characterizes his boo in almost every chapter. Dialogue together with the general observations in the book provide moral through meditation and analogy.
The book also does offer views about Indian civilization, damnation of pagans and paradoxical comparisons as well as comparisons on civilization and barbarism. William did write other works that presented rhetorical presentations, erudite arguments rich on biblical and classical perspectives and quotations. “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution” was his most famous work that was an explicit case presentation for authorities as well as society to leave the human conscience to evolve unimpeded.
American literature is reminiscent of Williams works. Tolerance that is experienced in both religious and secular literature that came after William’s through today is the ultimate goal of William’s teachings and principles. The dialogue style and the openness that is found in American literature today owe a lot to Williams’ works and spirit.
Edward Taylor (1642–1729)
“In this sad state, God Tender Bowells run Out streams of Grace: And he to end all strife The Purest Wheate in Heaven, his deare-dear Son Grinds, and kneads up into this Bread of Life (1950)” (Lauter 232).
Edward Taylor is celebrated as being the US’s most accomplished poet. Despite his accomplishments in the literally world, all his works were unpublished (Lauter 232). The quote above is from one of his poems that he published in the 17th century and that serves to highlight his religious believes.
He was also a minister in the Congregational Church in Westfield. In his poems, Taylor heavily used colloquialisms as well as the imagery of provincial farming and weaving. He is thought to have studied at the Cambridge University where his protestant dissentment grew. He was supported by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Common Wealth but was unable to tech in after failing to sign the Act of Uniformity in 1662. He was also unable to pursue his clerical career and practice worship.
Taylor wrote a number of funeral elegies for public figures and verse declamations that were in support of the English Language. However, he pursued a varied approach to poetry by adopting the lyrical approach. His poems were directed at his wife to be. In addition, his other poems like “Upon Wedlock, & Death of Children” (1682?) bought out his personal feelings how is faith in God was tested when many of his children died at infancy (Lauter 237).
The poetic traditions and beliefs that Taylor had were deeply rooted in Calvinism and are apparent in every American literary text. He laments of the fallen language and that he reckons needs divine intervention. His contribution through poems and soul-searching writings helped the development of American literature that encompasses both faith and art.
Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758)
“True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures (1959)”(Lauter 315).
Novelist William Dean believes Jonathan gave America provinciality world standing (Lauter 316). He studies in Collegiate School, now Yale University where he received a B.A in 1720. In 1722 he received a pastor’s job at Presbyterian Church. Jonathan preached sermons emphasizing Calvinist principles but that touched on Augustinian and Pauline tenets (Lauter 328)
His literary works included A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God and Treatise Concerning Religious Affections that attempted to de politicize issues about salvation and gave them a more philosophical touch. However the best of his works that would give him wide acclaim was The Freedom of the Will.
The book concentrated on human beings’ self determination. Self determination is rooted in Calvinism where he believes supported success as away of determine one’s fate before God. Self determination therefore was achieved through material success. Today, thanks to his works and other like minded authors, American literature is vibrant on the issues of self determination, which are especially supported by democratic and capitalistic principles.
The quotes presented above had different influences religious literature had on the development of American literature as we know it today. While there has been a great deal of development since the seventeenth century, the influence that the works had on the development of American literature will last for as along as literature exists.
Lauter, Paul. The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Concise Edition Cengage/Wadsworth Publishing. N.d. Print.
Roger Williams. Web.
Alvaz Nunez. Web.
Jonathan Edwards. Web.
William Bradford. Web.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God Analytical Essay
“So that whatever some have imagined and pretended about promises made to natural men’s earnest seeking and knocking, ’tis plain and manifest that whatever pains a natural man takes in religion, whatever prayers he makes, till he believes in Christ, God is under no manner of obligation to keep him a moment from eternal destruction.” (Edwards, 1)
When examining the quote seen above it becomes immediately obvious that it can be considered offensive to nearly every other major religion on the planet. The reason behind this is that it contextually implies that so long as one does not believe in Christ the end result is eternal destruction since God is under no obligation to save them.
Since belief in the divinity of Christ is primarily isolated to Christianity and its various iterations this selection of text in effect declares that individuals who are part of other religions are doomed to eternal destruction. This is despite any good they do on Earth as indicated by the phrase “whatever pains a natural man takes in religion” (Edwards, 1).
Concept of Faith and Religion
It is based on this that it can be stated that the concept of faith and religion espoused by Jonathan Edwards is “absolute” in nature which prevents possible alternative methods of thought from taking root.
One way of looking at this is to think that Edwards views Christianity as the only means by which salvation can be attained. The general theme of the work of Edwards is primarily based on the concept of sufficiently creating fear through the concept of damnation which in effect helps to persuade people towards a particular way of thinking.
When reading through his entire sermon one cannot help but notice that he employs the carrot and stick approach wherein he combines the potential for eternal suffering and damnation with the promise for eternal salvation under Jesus. This is so long as people obey the rules of the Church and follow the teachings of Christ.
It must be noted though that the contextual basis of this particular quote is important when comparing it to the rest of the work of Edwards in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. This is due to the fact that it shows how black and white Edwards is making the concept of either salvation or destruction out to be.
For him there are no alternatives whether in the form of other religions, good behavior, or simply by living a good life. Under his thought process which permeates throughout the entirety of the sermon, the only one true way in which someone can attain eternal salvation is through belief in the Christian God and his teachings.
Accuracy of the Sermon of Edwards as Compared to Modern day Views on the Concept of Salvation
A comparison between the views of Edwards and that of modern day society shows a highly contrasting situation wherein it is generally believed that salvation is not isolated primarily through an absolute belief in doctrine. Instead it is believed that salvation can be attained through any number of possible ways and through a variety of religions (Cordry, 61).
This contrast in the way of thinking regarding the concept of salvation is indicative of the social changes that have occurred since the times of Edwards. This is related to people becoming more open in terms of developing and understanding what it truly means to obtain eternal salvation whether through word or deed.
Cordry, Benjamin S. “A More Dangerous Enemy? Philo’s ‘Confession’ And Hume’s Soft
Atheism.” International Journal For Philosophy Of Religion 70.1 (2011): 61-83. Academic Search Premier. Web.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Jonathan Edwards Section. Yale University, 2012. Web.
Creating a Model of Christian Charity
The Great Awakening induced a tonal shift of the language used in sermons by employing different literary devices and methods of delivery than had been used prior, and this changed the way in which preachers discussed the covenant and election in order to portray a merciless God. Throughout this paper, I will be using textual evidence from two sermons, one before the Great Awakening and one during, as well as drawing upon scholarly articles to validate my theory.
First, I looked at “A Model of Christian Charity,” which was first spoken by John Winthrop in 1630 whilst aboard the Arbella. I selected this text in particular due to its historical renown as the “very emblem of the Puritan quest” (Morgan 145). Additionally, it provided me with a solid baseline upon which I could see how drastically sermons changed as a result of the Great Awakening.
The literary devices used by Winthrop appeal primarily to logic, especially with regards to his diction. One of the hallmarks of early New England sermons is a “folksy” manner of speech that is “attentive to the needs of a popular audience,” and this type of logical diction is evident in “A Model of Christian Charity” (Jones 14). Instead of hyperbolic imagery, Winthrop took to merisms, or the contrasting of two words to refer to an entirety, and in doing this, Winthrop made his teachings easier to remember. We can see specific examples of merisms within the lines “… some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjugation” (Winthrop 178). In this, “rich” contrasts with “poor” and “high and eminent in power and dignity” contrasts with “mean and in subjugation,” but these contrasting words refer to humanity as a whole. Another example can be seen in the line “needs partake of each other’s strength and infirmity; joy and sorrow, weal and woe” (Winthrop 183). Again, Winthrop is referring to humanity, and the contrasting words form a sort of mnemonic device.
Winthrop also makes use of alliteration for the same purpose. This is especially evident in the line “Thou must observe whether thy brother hath present or probable, or possible means of repaying thee…” (Winthrop 181). The “p” sound is repeated for a memorable effect.
“A Model of Christian Charity,” like most pre-Awakening sermons, works largely through typology, or the idea that the biblical events of the Old Testament prefigure future events. In Deuteronomy, Moses delivers a sermon on the banks of the Jordan River before he and the Israelites enter Canaan, and this event prefigures John Winthrop’s delivery of a sermon aboard the Arbella before he and the passengers enter the New World (Authorized King James Version, Deut. 29). Much of the typology in Winthrop’s sermon is done through extended metaphors and allusions.
The passage “… he doth not lay a hand on the hammer, which is the immediate instrument of the sound, but sets on work the first mover or main wheel, knowing that will certainly produce the sound which he intends” contains a few of the several extended metaphors in “A Model of Christian Charity” (Winthrop 183). The “hammer” refers to Jesus, the “first mover” refers to the Puritans, and the “sound which he intends” is salvation and peace on earth. What this passage essentially says is that God will not send Jesus to immediately save the Puritans. Rather, God will prepare the Puritans to fulfill their covenant.
Perhaps the best example of allusion is in Winthrop’s iconic line, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill” (Winthrop 188). This is an important reference to the verse, “Yee are the light of the world. A citie that is set on an hill, cannot be hid,” because it shows how Winthrop views the Puritans (Mark 5.14).
John Winthrop approaches the concept of election as something that is impermeable and unchanging, and for Winthrop and the passengers aboard the Arbella, their election was never in doubt because “He loves His elect because they are like Himself” (Winthrop 185). Winthrop goes even further and says that not only are the Puritans like God, but that “true Christians are of one body in Christ” (Winthrop 183). According to Winthrop, the Puritans are so sure of their election because they are one with God.
This brings me to how the idea of the covenant is viewed in “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop approaches the covenant similarly to many pre-Awakening sermons— through the belief that “God and the soul enter into a covenant for the soul’s salvation” (Jones 21). He even addresses this directly and says, “Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work” (Winthrop 187). As part of their covenant, the passengers of the Arbella are required to extend mercy to their fellow Christians by “giving, lending and forgiving” (Winthrop 180). This is in keeping with the “law of nature” that regulates how Christians are supposed to behave (Winthrop 179). Additionally, it paints the covenant as something that is communal in the sense that everyone must follow the laws set forth by it because “Christ and His church make one body” (Winthrop 183).
All of this encourages a specific narrative of a kind and loving God, and the tone in which John Winthrop refers to God throughout is perhaps the most crucial to this narrative. Winthrop even quotes a bible verse and says, “1 John: 4.7. “love cometh of God and every one that loveth is born of God,” so that this love is the fruit of the new birth” (Winthrop 184). He calls Christ’s love the “bond or ligament” that connects the Puritans to God (Winthrop 183). Winthrop says God “commanded [him] to love his neighbor as himself”, and this cements the Puritan’s God as one who is loving.
In the eyes of Puritans before the Great Awakening, sympathy was considered “both a doctrine and a duty” that stemmed from God (Engen 534). Indeed, part of their covenant was to extend a merciful hand to others as God had done for them in entering into a covenant that secured their salvation. God, in the eyes of John Winthrop, has given them these rules because He wants the Puritans to be like Him, and his reverent and loving tone echoes this sentiment.
The Great Awakening brought about much change, and the most prominent piece of literature that shows this is Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I selected this sermon in particular because of its “unquestioned historic importance” as one of the premier texts from the Great Awakening, and also because it proves that there was a shift in tone regarding God (Hearn 452).
The literary devices used by Edwards appeal primarily to emotion, especially with regards to his diction. One of the hallmarks of sermons during the Great Awakening is a “curious indifference” to “social concerns” that plays “into the hands of reaction,” and this type of emotional diction is evident in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (Miller 52). Instead of the merisms and alliteration used by John Winthrop, Edwards took to anaphora, hyperboles, and metaphors.
We can see how Edwards used anaphora with the excerpt “nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do” (Edwards 397). The repetition of the word “nothing” has the same memorable effect that Winthrop’s merisms and alliteration did, but the reason behind it has changed. Instead of relying on simple phrases that are easy to remember, Edwards creates an emotional connection to the word “nothing” that builds upon itself with each time he repeats it. His lesson to the parishioners is thus ingrained in their emotions as opposed to their logic.
Edwards makes use of hyperboles in a similar way. He tells his congregation, “Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell…” (Edwards 395). Logically, wickedness cannot make you weigh as much as lead nor has it any effect on your weight whatsoever, but this over-exaggeration ultimately succeeds at explaining there will be consequences if one is wicked.
Additionally, Edwards likes to employ metaphors and similes. The metaphor “the bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart” has the stated comparison of God’s wrath to a bow, the implied comparison of God’s vengeance to an arrow, and the personification of justice (Edwards 396). Likewise, the simile “That God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider…” has the stated comparison of Edwards’ audience to a spider (Edwards 397).
Perhaps the most effect device used by Edwards is his liberal usage of vivid imagery, and it is in his imagery that the tone of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is set. Over the course of his (approximately) twelve page sermon, Jonathan Edwards includes thirty-two separate descriptions of fire and flames. Roughly four percent of “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God” references flames or fire in some way, and this explains quite a bit with regards to the tone. Fire is commonly used in literature to symbolize anger and violence, and I argue that Edwards does that in his sermon, especially when considering the images of “flames of divine wrath” and “His wrath towards you burns like fire” (Edwards 397). These images of flames are made even more terrifying when combined with mentions of hell, which appears in the text fifty-one times.
Jonathan Edwards challenges the long-held notion that their election is secure, which is a direct callback to John Winthrop’s teachings in “A Model of Christian Charity.” Unless you have been born again, he says, you are subject to the “dismal case” of eternal torment (Edwards 400). The very concept of election is shunned as he says, “Whatever pains a natural man takes in religion, whatever prayers he makes, till he believes in Christ, God is under no manner of obligation to keep him a moment from eternal destruction” (Edwards 394). Essentially, Jonathan Edwards believes that no one is elect and that it is up to oneself to commit to God. Only then is salvation possible, and he asks of his parishioners if they know they are going to hell (Edwards 401). This is diametrically opposed to John Winthrop’s communal views, as Edwards is placing a clear emphasis on the individual.
Regarding the idea of election, Edwards claims that “God certainly has made no promises either of eternal life… but what are contained in the covenant of grace” (Edwards 394). It is the in the covenant that most men fail, he believes. Edwards tells his audience that, by human nature, they are corrupt. Specifically, he says, “There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire…” (Edwards 393). Because humans are wicked by nature, it is up to the individual to commit to the covenant in order to “secure them from hell one moment” (Edwards 394).
All of these devices are used by Jonathan Edwards to strengthen the narrative of a merciless God. Whereas the Puritans and Christians before the Great Awakening believed that God was kind and merciful, Christians during the Great Awakening believed that God was angry and vengeful. Edwards makes the claim that God “abhors” his congregation because they are the same as “the wicked unbelieving Israelites” (Edwards 390, 397). He tells the members of his church, “When the great and angry God hath risen up and executed his awful vengeance on the poor sinner… then will God call upon the whole universe to behold that awful majesty and mighty power that is to be seen in it” (Edwards 399). Here, Edwards uses the word “awful” to describe God, and this is especially interesting considering the word’s multiplicity. Up until the nineteenth century, it was used to refer to something that was “worthy of respect or fear,” and this is how it is used in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (Harper). Jonathan Edwards uses this word in particular because he wants his listeners to know “the fierceness of His wrath” is something to be feared (Edwards 392). In fact, he mentions God’s wrath a total of fifty-one times throughout the sermon in order to be certain his church knows God is angry with them.
The contrast between the two texts is obvious, and this makes it easy to trace how the language surrounding God changed during the Great Awakening. Before the Great Awakening, Puritans like John Winthrop spoke about God as being merciful and used the logic of direct and frank mnemonic methods to work primarily through typology and theological argument. One could say the Great Awakening awakened a shift in tone because the perspective changed.
Instead of mercy, the God of Jonathan Edwards’ day extolled vengeance and wrath. Christians no longer saw themselves as chosen by a benevolent God. The Great Awakening caused Christians to question the salvation given to them by a merciless God. Ultimately, preachers of the Great Awakening shifted the tone of the language in sermons by employing emotional imagery combined with hyperbolic metaphors to scare church congregations into honoring their covenant by fully committing to God. This new method changed the perspective from which preachers discussed the covenant and election, and the merciful God of the century prior made way for the merciless God of the Great Awakening.