Enlightenment in Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” Sermon
Enlightenment is a product of the Scientific Revolution which began in the sixteenth centuries. The scientific revolution changed medieval beliefs held on for centuries; through the use of reason and scientific method, it had made people look at the universe differently. By the 17th century, thinkers hoped to apply the scientific and systematic ways of solving problems with government and society. They believed that by using reason to all aspects of social, political and religious life they could improve people’s lives. This age of Enlightenment is also called the Age of Reason (Perry 407). Jonathan Edwards is a Puritan preacher of Massachusetts, whose sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” reflects Enlightenment thinking in five ways: 1) he uses empirical approach in evaluating religious truths, 3) he believes that the senses plays an important role in gaining knowledge, 3) he recognizes man’s free will, 4) he provides a cause in explaining human behavior, and 5) he shared in the common sense view of God.
Jonathan Edwards in this sermon employs the Enlightenment’s empirical approach. To drive his message home, not only does he relies in the Biblical theology but also followed the Enlightenment thinker’s way of explaining truth by pointing out observable natural phenomena to make an argument more convincing ( Perry 402 ) . For example, he tells of man’s possibility of going to hell at any moment by reminding his listeners that in “the manifold and continual experience of the world in all ages” it has been the story of man that without warning he is suddenly transported into the other world (Edwards 8). Human experience through the ages shows health is not even a guarantee that man will not be suddenly swept into the other world and be cast down to Hell. So many observable cases points out that even if man does prepare to avoid this particular event, he cannot escape for “the unseen, unthought-of ways and means of persons going suddenly out of the world are innumerable and inconceivable” ( Edwards 8 ). Edwards’s listeners therefore are brought into the realization of how close they are of going to Hell based on this observable human experience. Just like Enlightenment thinkers, Edwards rely on observable phenomena to support his argument and draw conclusion.
The essay also reflects Edwards enlightened reliance in imparting knowledge and understanding by arousing the senses. John Locke believes that “all knowledge is derived from the senses and sense experience… and knowledge is nothing but a sense of perception acquired by external and internal experience” (Zakai 281 ). An analysis into Edwards’s life reveals that he was open to John Locke’s enlightened views. It is not surprising therefore that he believes on the importance of arousing the senses to impart knowledge and motivate his listeners to action. As a result he finds it useful to resort to sensationalistic type of preaching, as shown by this sermon. Here, one will not fail to notice his use of powerful imagery to strike fear on the hearts of his listeners and hopefully this fear will change the way they live and also make them believe in God’s redemptive grace. Edwards describes hell with words such as “the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow” and that “hell opens its mouth wide to receive them” (Edwards 7). Moreover, Edwards points to his congregation how close they are in going to hell by comparing their situation to how easy it is to cut a thread. With that imagery, he is warning his listeners by reminding them how loose their hold on life is and that they at any moment, without any difficulty , even while sitting there listening to him, may slid into hell.
One important thing that must be taken into account is that Edwards’s listeners may consists of women and blacks who does not know how to read and write as the case is in his time ( Perry 413,427 ). These people therefore have no individual access to Biblical truths, and their views of hell and God may be limited. With their mental faculties untrained for higher forms of imagination and critical thinking, Edwards’ may have seen it fit to use powerful yet everyday or ordinary phenomena to awaken their imagination and hence, a deeper appreciation of Biblical truths. The use of imagery therefore is a powerful tool with which Edwards’, applying the enlightened view of John Locke, imparts the truth of impending destruction that awaits any unconverted, unbelieving individual.
The Enlightenment idea of free will is also strongly supported in this sermon. Edwards had clearly carried the message that man will no doubt go to hell unless he will believe in God’s promise of grace and salvation through his Mediator. He quoted John 3.18 `He that believeth not is condemned already” (Edwards 6). This verse clearly states that it is man’s fault if he did go to hell because he chooses not to believe. The responsibility therefore of man’s salvation lies in his free will to believe. If he chooses to reject God’s truth, in line in what he sees and observes in the Bible, then he is already condemned to go to Hell. It is not then as if man is condemned to hell without reason and without his consent, implying that he has nothing to do in the matter of his eternal destiny. His independent will as dictated by his reason is what determines his eternal abode. Therefore he must decide and think for himself where he wants to go, unlike in the Dark Ages where the Church and the clergy decides his religious beliefs and make him believe that the latter played a big role on his eternal destiny. In that dark period, the people in their ignorance to question religious teachings were made to pay large sums of money by the Church just so their souls, or the souls of their dead relative, will go to heaven. As a result they had become religious victims, their lives and property used to serve the personal interest of the clergy (Perry 336). But in this sermon, Edwards’ points out their personal responsibility and the exercise of their will concerning religious matters. Edward made no one else responsible for man’s suffering in hell other than their own individual personal choice. This is in line with enlightenment thinking where individual free will and ability to reason is given primary importance.
Another important enlightenment thinking with which Edwards crafted this sermon is in giving causality to the universality and morality of human behavior. Edwards does not discriminate any human being as not worthy of the condemnation of Hell. He does not exclude the elites or middle-class from going to Hell but instead points out that all, unless they believe in God’s promise of salvation, will suffer torment in Hell. For him all men have a corrupted heart and that “the corruption of the heart of man is immoderate and boundless in its fury…” (Edwards 8).
The word “all” is very significant as the middle class and the whites had the tendency to think that they are superior. But Edwards’ says “all” and by that he means any person (man or woman, black or white, rich or poor) has a corrupted heart. Other enlightenment thinkers had expressed the same idea of the predictability and universality of human behavior. According to Hobbes, “there are basic laws governing human behavior and that these laws are as precise as those in the physical world. If these laws were correctly understood, he said, it would be possible to create a government that works according to scientific principles” (Perry 408). Hobbes continued that people are naturally selfish; they want power, possession, security, honor, and fame and in pursuing this they compete violently with each other. But why do people act this way? Edwards’s points out the cause: original sin. According to Edwards man is destined to go to hell because of his tendency to sin. He states that, “There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire” (Edwards 8). Furthermore he declares, “There is laid in the very nature of carnal men…in full possession of them…seeds of hell fire” (Edwards 8). No doubt the seeds refer to the original sin, the sin that Adam committed and which he passed down to all humanity ( Zakai 46). Moreover these seeds are not only present in them but that they “are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature” (Edwards 8). Edwards implies that these seed are the cause of humanity’s inclination to sin. Although the issue of original sin was a matter of debate in the Enlightenment period, contradicting some enlightened views of man’s innate goodness and potentialities, nevertheless this was a pervading explanation and rationalization of why man behaves the way he does (Zakai 47).
Edwards also shared the Enlightenment’s common sense view of God and the need to exercise faith based on reason. Just as there is order and laws in His Universe, God also has laws in His dealings with man. God is not a vague deity who acts without reason and without consistency, as if He is someone who is dictated by whims and fancy but that He is someone who acts reasonably. In Edwards’ argument, men go to Hell because he deserves to go there and it “makes no objection against God using his power at any moment to destroy them” (Edwards 6). Man’s sin violated God’s law of righteousness and naturally divine justice calls for punishment and torment in Hell. As Edwards says, “Justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins” (Edwards 6). Edwards were convincing his listeners that God’s punishments are reasonable and man must have faith in the rightness of that act. Edward goes further to say that at any moment, in his wrath, God can send anybody to Hell. However, because of His nature as merciful, He put a restraining hand and offers a way of salvation through faith.
Therefore, based on the above arguments, John Edwards’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” strongly reflects the influence of Enlightenment thinking on Edwards’s philosophy. As a religious figure, he relies both on the teachings of the Bible as well as the views of Enlightenment thinkers of his day.
Edwards, Jonathan. Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God. Tennessee: Sword of the Lord Publishers, 2000.
Perry, Marvin. A History of the World. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1988.
Zakai, Avihu. John Edwards’s Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003.