Making Sense of the Sermon

First sitting down to trudge through Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a somewhat overwhelming experience marked by frustration and doubt. To explain: It’s overwhelming because the first thing a reader notices is the length of the text. Twenty-two pages worth of sermon is likely to discourage even experienced, interested readers, but the typical high school student is almost certainly going to feel overwhelmed. Secondly, to overwhelmed readers, Edwards seems to be saying the same thing over and over again, filling us with a sense of frustration and impatience until we want to scream for him to get to the point. To make matters worse, his antiquated prose is marked by long, tortuous sentences rife with semicolons that ensure whatever tenuous connection readers may have to the subject matter is unquestionably severed. Finally, it is reasonable to expect that many readers will doubt the relevance and question the significance of such a text, wondering at the purpose of having to struggle through the assigned reading.

As accomplished readers and students of literature, we found this seminal work of Colonial American literature instilled in us all of the above emotions, making the mere completion of the reading a challenge in itself. Though we read each sentence and were able to understand the words and concepts, it cannot be said that we really made sense of it. At best, we came away with a vague impression of a preacher shouting condemnatory admonitions in an attempt to put the fear of God into the sinners in the congregation. Our first reading situated this lauded sermon on the same level as those delivered by red-faced, pulpit-banging charlatans who foam at the mouth as they appeal only to the emotions of the audience.
Even though it is possible to defend an interpretation of the sermon as an example of the fire-and-brimstone trope, doing so risks oversimplifying the text in a manner that robs it of its rhetorical genius and artistry. After all, we don’t expect the fist-shaking preacher to have attended carefully to his lines of argument, bolstering them with explanation, clarification, and support. Instead, we associate the discourse with a kind of irrationality that is designed to stir up the fervor of the masses rather than provoke the intellect.

In an attempt to gain a fuller understanding of the text, we decided to read portions of it aloud to see if hearing the language and rhythm would help to make sense of it. Given that sermons are meant to be delivered rather than pored over, we felt it would be worthwhile to try giving some life to the words. Though this portion of our experience with the text was indeed entertaining, our tendency was to adopt personae aligned with our perceptions of the fire-and-brimstone trope. Therefore, rather than supplementing and expanding the way we understood the text, the strategy only served to reinforce what we already felt. Convinced that the text had more to offer, we chose to consult outside sources with the hope that they might help to move us forward in making sense of it.

Predictably, our search led us to biographical and historical information that provided a context for the sermon, and while such information can be useful, it didn’t really give a sense that we understood what the text was doing. It wasn’t until we came across a document from the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University that the craft and artistry of the sermon became apparent. Distracted by the style of prose, violent imagery, and condemnatory tone, we had failed to notice the very logical and organized structure of the piece as a whole. However, after learning about the structure and delivery of Puritan sermons, we began to read the document in a different manner.

The standard Puritan sermon begins with a biblical epigraph and its explanation, which leads to a statement and discussion of the main message, known as the doctrine. The third section includes reasons that support the validity of the doctrine, followed by its application to the lives of those in the congregation and world at large. During the fifth section, or epilogue, the speaker will restate his main points and administer a direct call to action. Our discovery of this structure led us to read the sermon more as a philosophical treatise or legal document than an emotionally driven indictment of the behaviors of others. Paying attention to the claims and subsequent support that Edwards offers reveals him as an intellectual skilled in rhetorical design and delivery.

Reading the sermon as a systematic argument brings to light the way Edwards weaves together different motifs in support of his overarching theme of illustrating mankind’s insignificance and God’s immense power. Through all of the sections, Edwards returns again and again to the notion that it is through God’s restraint alone that the sinners of the earth are not immediately cast into Hell. Edwards repeatedly employs expressions like, “if God should withdraw his hand” and “if it were not for God’s Restraints” to emphasize his point that mankind’s existence is a tenuous one (7). He warns the sinners to “consider the fearful Danger [they] are in” and reminds each one that he “hang[s] by a single thread” (16). The use of such rhetoric is pervasive and repetitious, but the repetition is used with the explicit purpose of supporting his argument. He continues to develop his argument by coupling observations about mankind’s foolishness with statements about the unpredictability of death. He explains that “the foolish Children of Men do miserably delude themselves” by succumbing to a sort of spiritual procrastination that prevents them from true conversion and salvation (10). A systematic outline describing the incomprehensible severity of God’s wrath serves to underscore the importance and urgency of his message. While there is certainly a lot of violent imagery and threatening language, the sermon is ultimately not fatalistic. After repeatedly emphasizing that mankind is perpetually on the verge of destruction at the hand of God, Edwards reminds us that redemption is indeed possible, noting that we have “en extraordinary Opportunity” to come to Christ and avoid being “left behind” (23).

Without question, Edwards utilizes the threat of Hell and eternal damnation to support his position and urge members of the congregation to change their ways. That was clear to us on our first reading, and we recognized a familiar trope. Had we stopped there, however, the rhetorical and poetic skill of the text would have remained hidden.