29 Mar

Jonathan Edwards, “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741)

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.”

28 Mar

George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003)

George M. Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life has been hailed as “a magisterial biography” by the Wall Street Journal and as “the finest biography of Edwards” by Harry S. Stout.[1] And, indeed, Marsden’s work deserves this praise. Jonathan Edwards is a riveting story of the life, times, and theology of Edwards. Marsden argues that historians should incorporate Jonathan Edwards–the preacher, theologian, father, husband, and philosopher– into the larger story of American history. Like other prize-winning historians, Marsden implements a cultural-historical method that historians of American religion should emulate. However, his method cannot escape a review unscathed. Particularly, Marsden poses a challenge to historians in his discussion of “the point of historical scholarship” (502). Before turning to this challenge, we should recognize what Marsden does well as a cultural historian.

Rather than providing a tedious list of historical facts, Marsden presents Edwards’ life through his familial, pastoral, and intellectual relationships. This method of historical writing works well in several ways. First, it allows Marsden to present a plethora of primary sources written by Edwards, to Edwards, and about Edwards. These diverse resources help readers recognize Edwards as a multi-dimensional, eighteenth-century man who had eighteenth-century concerns. Edwards was a theologian, a logician, a critic of Arminianism, and a proponent of human depravity. Edwards was also a compassionate man concerned with the salvation of his family and parishioners.  As Marsden notes, “Edwards’s universe is essentially a universe of personal relationship. Reality is a communication of affections, ultimately of God’s love and creature’s responses” (503). This focus on relationships helps readers grasp how Edwards would have thought about his worldview and his relationship to God.

Although Marsden re-creates a plausible eighteenth-century worldview, he falls short of his goal of providing “relatively few interpretive intrusions” (5). Marsden interrupts his narrative innumerable times to explain terms, ideas, and historical figures, and to conjecture about moments in Edwards’ life for which historians have little or no evidence. Even so, most of these intrusions are necessary. They create a seamless narrative so that readers are not left wondering how Isaac Watts or the “Old Lights” and “New Lights” related to Edwards and the eighteenth century. These interpretive intrusions allow Marsden to analyze evidence, piece it together for readers, and produce a cohesive narrative of Edwards’ life and times. These are necessary intrusions in the narrative and are how good historians should do their work.

Even so, there are times when Marsden’s interpretive intrusions go beyond analysis to the elevation of Edwards as a larger-than-life figure. In contextualizing Edwards’ conception of good, evil, and justice, Marsden suggests, “that Edwards’ universe was similar to that of many of our own moral tales, from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to countless other lesser entertainments” (137). In a narrative intended to situate Edwards in “real-life,” eighteenth-century British-America, this interpretive intrusion distorts Edwards’ world. Edwards would not have recognized his moral universe as one of entertainment or folklore. Edwards feared for his and others’ eternal souls. His recognition of the battle between good and evil were very real and imminent. To be sure, Marsden employs this comparison to catch readers’ attention. Nevertheless, this intrusion extracts Edwards from his eighteenth-century context, and elevates him to a mythological status of which Marsden warns his readers he will not do. While good historians should make interpretive intrusions, they must be mindful of the relevance of these intrusions to their historical subjects’ lives and times.

Perhaps the best methodological advice that Marsden gives to historians is that “objectivity is not neutrality” (5). Marsden suggests that historians should confess their faith community and the opinions they have of the faith communities they study. This enables historians to recognize and limit any bias towards their subjects. Objectivity is not neutrality, but a recognition of a historians’ time, place, and circumstances in relation to other people’s circumstances.

Marsden provides another methodological insight for historians in his description of the meaning of historical research. In Chapter 30 “The Transitory and the Ending,” Marsden suggests that “The point of historical scholarship should not be, as it so often is today, simply to take things apart, to destroy myths, or to say that what looks simple is really complex…We need to use history for the guidance it offers, learning from great figures in the past—both in their brilliance and in their shortcomings” (502). Most historians would agree with Marsden on these points. But, Marsden takes the point of historical scholarship one step further. He suggests that “one of the uses of being a historian, particularly if one is part of a community of faith, is to help persons of such communities better understand what they and their community might appropriate from the great mentors of the past and what is extraneous and nonessential” (502). While historians should help people learn from history, Marsden’s attempt at theological guidance poses challenges for his historical project and for historians, in general.

Throughout his book Marsden warns readers that good historical scholarship should situate Edwards in his own time and his own terms. Marsden excels at this until the conclusion. Granted, Marsden does acknowledge that he steps out of his historical framework, “Excepting a few comments on the concluding pages, I have attempted to follow my working principle of explaining as best I can Edwards’ thought in it historical context, pointing out what I see as especially significant but also allowing readers to make most of their own critical judgments” (6). In the conclusion, Marsden blurs the boundary between his role as a historian and a theologian. Some fuzziness around boundaries is expected when one accepts the notion that “objectivity is not neutrality.” We all have particular interests in our subjects that, likely, developed from personal reflections and struggles. Books and papers reflect our own thoughts and feelings about particular subjects that we are drawn to. However, blurring the boundaries too much between historian, counselor, and theologian impacts the ways we use history and construct historical narratives.

Marsden begins to upend his historical framework in his analysis of Edwards’ death. Marsden presents Dr. William Shippen’s letter to Sarah that described Edwards’ “good death.” Marsden notes, “Although this account was written by a devotee to a bereaved widow in an era when it was conventional to give embellished accounts of how the saintly had ‘died well,’ it is also consistent with everything we know about Edwards. Edwards, despite some evident shortcomings, was a saint according to the highest Reformed spiritual standards to which he aspired” (495; italics mine). Edwards certainly would have understood himself to represent the highest standards of the Reformed tradition. But, Edwards never confirmed his election or sainthood. Marsden employs the deathbed narrative, a particular genre of eighteenth-century writing, to confirm his own notions of Edwards’ sainthood. On the surface, this appears to be a smooth transition from a historical account of Edwards to Marsden’s own comments. However, something disturbing is at work. Marsden employs the death bed narrative as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century evangelicals would have: to confirm the election of the dying. Marsden sweeps aside the deathbed narrative genre and its historical importance, and takes it as evidence of Edwards’ election just as Dr. William Shippen does. Reports of Edward’s demeanor, although no doubt sensationalized, mark Edwards as a confirmed saint for Marsden.

Marsden further skews his historical framework in the last paragraphs of the book when his voice intertwines with Edwards’ voice. Marsden extols Edwards’ theological “solution” as it is the way that “ultimately the vast majority of humans” can recognize “the redemptive love of Christ as the true center of reality, they will love God and all that he created” (505). Thus, Marsden’s cultural-historical biography becomes a missionizing tool for the contemporary Reformed tradition. Marsden’s conclusion extracts the book from its eighteenth-century context in order to present his larger intention for writing a biography of Edwards: to resuscitate Edwardsian theology for Reformed communities. The larger purpose of Marsden’s book is transformed from historical inquiry to hagiography. In the end, Marsden’s good historical scholarship sounds more like theology than a bridge between the two.

These criticisms may seem trivial until one realizes how this use of history impacts the larger historical narrative. In the end, Marsden suggests that “As a biographer attempting to understand Edwards first as an eighteenth-century figure, I have been working most directly as a cultural theologian. Yet I have been doing this always with an eye on the theological question, taking his thought seriously as part of the larger Christian tradition” (502). Thinking about “the larger Christian tradition,” impacts scholarship in ways that historians are now just beginning to understand. Placing Edwards within “the larger Christian tradition” supposes that there is a Christian tradition. It supports the notion that the Reformed tradition sustained and directed American religion throughout the nineteenth-century. It supports notions that “evangelicalism” is a thing that can be traced throughout American history and people. Marsden notes, “Edwards’ eighteenth-century Calvinistic evangelicalism is significant not merely as an early instance of a wider phenomenon, but also because it played a prominent role in subsequent American history. After the American Revolution, New England Calvinism with a deep Edwardsian imprint emerged as one of the most influential movements shaping the new American voluntary religious culture” (8). Placing Edwards within “the Christian tradition” of the devotee poses the risk of looking to the past to validate evangelicalism as a category of historical analysis. To be sure, Edwards was influential to nineteenth-century evangelicals. But, they appropriated Edwards and his theology in ways that Edwards himself would not have recognized and approved. Condensing history and theology runs the risk of tracing “evangelicalism” from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries. Looking for Edwards and his evangelicalism in American history masks transformations in how people employed and applied Edwards, and supposes that evangelicalism was one thing. The risk of merging historical frameworks with theological points of view is that the historical narrative will continue to support ahistorical views of evangelicalism as American religion.

Marsden no doubt provides a model for the way historians should do good historical scholarship. But, his conclusion brackets his cultural-historical methodology and elevates the theological intentions of his work over the historical and cultural aspects. Bridging the gap between history and theology impacts the ways scholars read evidence and construct historical narratives.

[1] Yale University Press, “Reviews” of Jonathan Edwards: A Life, Yale University Press Online, http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/reviews.asp?isbn=9780300105964. (23 April 2012).

17 Mar

Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737)

Following the Northampton and Connecticut Valley revivals of 1734 and 1735, rumors spread that the conversions had been sensationalized. Opponents of Edwards suggested that the overzealousness of participants was actually the work of Satan. To set the record straight, Benjamin Coleman requested that Edwards write an account of the revival to be distributed throughout New England.[1] Edwards’s account of the revival, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, argued that there was nothing about “this great work of God” that was new or extraordinary except its universality. The awakening included men and women, young and old.[2] Edwards’s account particularly stressed the awakening of the young people. According to Edwards, “The young people also have been reforming more and more.”[3] Notably, “near thirty [youth] were savingly wrought upon [awakened] between ten and fourteen, and two between nine and ten, and one about four years old.”[4] God bestowed his grace on children just as easily as He bestowed it on adults. As evidence of the operation of God’s Spirit in the awakenings, Edwards included in this account the conversion narratives of Abigail Hutchinson, a woman who died young, and Phebe Bartlet, a four-year-old girl.[5] This review will only focus on Phebe’s narrative since it relates most closely to my other projects about children in religion.

Edwards relayed Phebe’s conversion narrative in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. Phebe’s parents had not talked to her about religion because they thought she was too young and “not capable of understanding.” Nonetheless, Phebe’s eleven-year-old brother “seriously talked to her about the things of religion” and she was “greatly affected.” Five or six times a day Phebe secretly prayed in a closet. One day while observing Phebe in the closet, Mrs. Bartlet heard Phebe say, “Pray, blessed Lord, give me salvation! I pray, beg, pardon all my sins!” When Phebe came out of the closet, she sat by her mother and cried. Mrs. Bartlet tried to comfort her, but Phebe began “wreathing her body to and fro, like one in anguish of spirit.” When asked what was wrong, Phebe shouted, “I am afraid I shall go to hell!” She began crying, but suddenly stopped, smiled at her mother, and exclaimed, “Mother, the kingdom of heaven is come to me!” Phebe explained to her mother how three passages from her catechism had come to her mind and enlightened her thoughts.[6]

Phebe returned to her closet, prayed, and on exiting declared, “I can find God now!” Phebe told her mother that she loved God “better than anything,” even her father, mother, and sisters. She was not even afraid of going to hell now. Phebe’s mother asked her if she thought God had given her salvation. Phebe replied, “Yes…Today.” For the rest of the afternoon, Phebe appeared “exceeding [sic] cheerful and joyful.” That evening she witnessed to a male cousin that “heaven was better than earth.” The next day Phebe resumed crying and her spirits were low. She explained to her mother and a neighbor that “she cried because she was afraid they [her sisters] would go to hell.”[7] Phebe urged her sisters to turn their hearts to Jesus that afternoon.[8]

After speaking with “a certain minister” [Edwards] on the Sabbath, “there appeared a very remarkable change in the child.” Phebe longed for the Sabbath so she could visit God’s house and hear Mr. Edwards preach. She also attended private religious meetings, prayed at home, and never missed her catechism before bed. Once, when she unknowingly stole Plums from a neighbor, Phebe was so overcome with her sin that she cried for “a considerable time” and formed an aversion to the fruit. Phebe appeared “greatly affected, and delighted with texts of Scripture.” She also continued to witness to her sisters. She said to her mother, “I told ‘em they must pray, and prepare to die, that they had but a little while to live in this world, and they must be always ready.” Phebe even encouraged her mother to pray with her sisters. By and by, Phebe “discovered an uncommon degree of the spirit of charity.” When a poor neighbor’s cow was lost, Phebe urged her father to either give the neighbor a cow, or allow him and his family to live with the Bartlets. Phebe also “manifested a great love to her minister.”[9]

While Phebe was hopefully converted, she proved humble when asked about her salvation. Edwards wrote “She sometimes appears to be in doubt about the condition of her soul, and when asked whether she thinks that she is prepared for death, speaks something doubtfully about it. At other times [she] seems to have no doubt, but when asked replies ‘Yes’ without hesitation.”[10] For Edwards, Phebe was a model convert because she recognized her sinful nature, feared punishment in hell, prepared to die, and loved God, Jesus, and her minister.

Although Phebe’s conversion narrative embodied Edwards’s theology of childhood, A Faithful Narrative was not widely published in America until the Second Great Awakening.[11] The unpopularity A Faithful Narrative was likely related, not to its grim view of the destiny of unconverted children, but to its inclusion of Abigail Hutchinson and Phebe Bartlet’s conversion narratives. Two of the three 1738 American printings of A Faithful Narrative included the 1737 preface written by Isaac Watts and John Guyse. The preface endorsed the Northampton and Connecticut Valley awakenings, but it also included a harsh critique. Watts and Guyse deplored Edwards’s inclusion of the narratives of Hutchinson and Bartlet. They suggested that Edwards “might have chosen others perhaps, of more significancy in the eyes of the world, than the woman [Abigail] and the child [Phebe] whose experiences he relates at large.” Of Phebe’s narrative Watts and Guyse wrote, “those who were present, and saw and heard such a remarkable and lasting change on one so very young, must necessarily receive a stronger impression from it, and a more agreeable surprise than the mere narration of it can communicate to others at a distance. Children’s language always loses its striking beauties at second hand.”[12] Phebe’s preparations for death and hell, and her yearning for God and her minister did not impress Edwards’s eighteenth-century critics. Phebe was too young to experience a hopeful conversion. She had not reached the age of reason and could not properly relate her account to others. Eighteenth-century adults, generally, accepted the age of reason to be no less than seven-years-old. Phebe’s mutterings were the incomprehensible musings of an irrational child.[13] Moreover, like Abigail, Phebe was a female. It was inappropriate for Phebe to witness to others and gain recognition for her piety.[14] This honor was reserved for men. Watts and Guyse relegated the conversion narratives of Phebe and Abigail to the recesses of the eighteenth century Protestant imagination.

[1] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 172-73, 201-202.

[2] Jonathan Edwards and C.C. Goen (ed.), “A Faithful Narrative,” in The Great Awakening (Works of Jonathan Edwards Online Vol. 4), 160.

[3] Unpublished letter of May 30, 1735 from Edwards to Coleman, WJE Online, http://edwards.yale.edu.

[4] Edwards and Goen (ed.), A Faithful Narrative, 158.

[5] Ibid., 199-205..

[6] Ibid., 199-200.

[7] Ibid., 200-202.

[8] Ibid., 202-205.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, & American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 45.

[12] Edwards and Goen (ed.), “Preface to the First Edition (London, 1737),” in The Great Awakening (WJE Online Vol. 4), 130-143.

[13] See Chamberlain, “Edwards and Social Issues,” 331.

[14] See Watts and Guyse’s critique of Edwards’s inclusion of Abigail Hutchinson’s conversion narrative in A Faithful Narrative in: Edwards and Goen (ed.), “Preface to the First Edition (London, 1737),” in The Great Awakening (WJE Online Vol. 4), 136.