All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism

By Marsha G. Witten | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Images and Mitigations of Sin

Vengeance is mine, and recompense, For the time when their foot shall skip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.

(Deuteronomy 32:35, Revised Standard Version)

IN THE YEAR 1741, while on a visit to the peaceful Connecticut Valley town of Enfield, the theologian Jonathan Edwards delivered one of the most unsettling sermons in American history. His message, titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” explicated the text of Deuteronomy 32:35. Edwards preached:

The God that 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: his wrath toward you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the re of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. 1

Edwards' sermon is one of the richest depictions of sin and hellfire in popular Protestant preaching in the United States. His elaboration of God's wrath emphasizes the utter separation between the righteous God and the sinful human being, and dramatizes the feelings of guilt and terror that sinful people should feel, Edwards believed, as a result of their fallen state. This message belongs in the context of the First Great Awakening, a powerful revivalist episode in American Protestant history. The movement married revival of Calvinistic teachings about the innate depravity of humankind to urgent exhortations to mass audiences to turn from sin and await the conversion that depends on God's grace. Under the influence of such preachers as Edwards,

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