Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in June 1741 to his congregation in Northampton. Edwards delivered the sermon as the area revival in religion was building. The sermon became famous after Edwards delivered it at a meeting in Enfield, Massachusetts in July 1741. The sermon was meant to induce an awakening, or conversion experiences, among the community of Enfield. In the previous weeks, the itinerant preacher George Whitefield induced an awakening with his preaching in the neighboring town of Suffield. Area minsters were distressed that the same had not happened in Enfield. They set-up a preaching circuit among local pastors including Wheelock, Edwards, and Meacham to awaken Enfield and the other surrounding towns.
Edwards did not preach with dramatic gestures and theatrics like Whitefield. Nonetheless, Edwards’s sermon had a significant effect on the Enfield congregation. Before Edwards finished delivering the sermon, congregants moaned and cried out for their salvation. They feared going to hell and asked what they could do for Christ. At one point, Edwards asked the congregation for silence because its shrieks and cries filled the room. Edwards did not finish this sermon because he could not be heard over the audience’s shouting and crying.
Edwards delivered the sermon several times after the Enfield address as one of the standard sermons in his revival itineracy. In later versions of the sermon, Edwards appended six practical steps for seeking salvation. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is one of Edwards more infamous sermons. Its focus on hell to induce conversion leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many twenty-first-century Americans. Edwards’s focus on hell and death, however, were not unusual topics in the eighteenth-century. Edwards and other preachers found these topics effective for awakening souls to God. This sermon has been one of the most widely reproduced of Edwards’s sermons. (See George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 219-224.)
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” interpreted and applieed Deuteronomy 32:35, “Their foot shall slide in due time.” According to Edwards, “In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, that were God’s visible people.” The verse related to the punishment and destruction of the Israelites for their sins. Edwards explained that this verse meant the Israelites were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction. The immanence of that destruction was of their own doing. They had not been destroyed already because God had not allowed it to happen yet. Edwards concluded as doctrine: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” Edwards proved this doctrine by reminding his audience of the omnipotent power of God, that men deserve to be cast into hell, and that men are already sentenced to hell. God was angry and displeased with those on earth as with those in hell. The only thing that saved men from hell in every moment was God’s restraint. The devil stood ready to seize them when God permited. The living were to have no security in the fact that there were no “visible means of death at hand.” There was no security in life. Men continued to reject Christ in their attempts to evade death and hell. But, no one could escape hell. “God has laid himself under no obligation by any promise to keep any natural man out of hell one moment.” Until men believed in Christ, God was under no obligation to save anyone from hell.
Edwards then applied this doctrine. He argued that “the use may be of awakening to unconverted persons in this congregation.” He urged people to recognize that “God holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked…you hang by a slender thread.” Edwards called the congregation to realize that the wrath of God was fierce and infinite, that congregants were always expose to this misery, and that this misery was eternal. He called the congregants to awaken to Christ in the hope of being spared from God’s wrath. Edwards called on the old as well as young women, young men, and children to awaken. He urged “God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the bigger part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and it will be as it was on that great outpouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles’ days, the election will obtain, and the rest will be blinded.” Congregants were to make haste and seek Christ to “fly from the wrath to come.”