Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Awakened to the Holy: "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in Ritualized Context

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Awakened to the Holy: "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in Ritualized Context

Article excerpt

On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 8, 1741, the Northampton pastor Jonathan Edwards began to preach a sermon titled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" at the second meetinghouse in the town of Enfield. Following George Whitefield's visit earlier that year, the neighboring town of Suffield was experiencing a significant revival, with ninety-five communicants added the previous Sunday (Medlicott 218). Such enthusiasm, however, had not reached Enfield. In response to this spiritual lethargy, a number of clergy had banded together to stoke the fires of revival by instituting a series of weekday services, traveling back and forth between pious Suffield and impious Enfield (Marsden 219-20). Those weekday services included a visit from Northampton's pastor. What greeted the Enfield congregation was a sermon of unparalleled logic and vivacious imagery delivered by an orator known not for theatrics but for a pulpit voice characterized by "a powerful sense of restraint, authority, and discipline" (Buckingham 139). Stephen Williams provides the contemporary account of the congregation's response to Edwards:

   He preached a most awakening Sermon from those words [in] Deut.
   32:35 and before [the] Sermon was done there was a great moaning &
   crying out throughout the whole house: what Shall I do to be
   Saved--oh I am going to Hell--of what shall I do for a Christ, etc.
   The Shreiks & crys were piercing & Amazing (qtd. in Medlicott 218).

The people of Enfield had just experienced what would be considered "the most famous sermon in American history" (Minkema 663).

It took a while, however, before "Sinners" received the attention of literary analysts. Kenneth P. Minkema documents that studies on Edwards's preaching style and sermons began in the late eighteenth century as part of larger studies in American sermonic literature and continued into the twentieth century in the work of literary scholars such as Wilson Kimnach and Helen Westra (663-64). Originally published in 1741 in Boston, "Sinners" began receiving literary attention only in the 1930s with its inclusion in the Faust and Johnson Representative Selections of the Writings of Jonathan Edwards. But in 1949, three prominent events converged around Edwards and "Sinners": Edwin Cady published his "Artistry of Jonathan Edwards" in the New England Quarterly (detailing Edwards's masterful use of images of suspension and suppression in "Sinners"), Perry Miller published his biography of Edwards, and Billy Graham preached "Sinners" in Los Angeles (Minkema 664). (1) By the 1960s, "Sinners" became the "proxy" for Edwards in high school and college early American literary anthologies, though the sermon has been "balanced" with the inclusion of other selections of Edwards' writings in the Norton Anthology of American Literature and Carla Mulford's Early American Writings. Cady's article was followed by a stream of literary analyses of "Sinners" with the sermon receiving the attention of two articles in the June 2000 issue of the New England Quarterly (Minkema 669). (2)

In rehearsing the various proposals for explaining precisely how Edwards' rhetoric moved his contemporary audience, Edward J. Gallagher concludes that the question for literary critics has always been accounting for the how and the why of the sermon's power (220). And yet, in the midst of rehearsing the various proposals, each observing aspects of Edwards's rhetorical strategies, logic, form, and stylistic artistry, there appears a basic assumption that the sermon's original power can be accounted for by inherent rhetorical features abstracted from the nature of religious discourse and its ritualized context. (3) Several historical factors contribute to the implausibility of such an assumption. First, Edwards preached the sermon earlier to his own congregation in Northampton with no notable effect. Though widely recognized among literary analysts, there is very little account for this discrepancy of reaction between Northampton and Enfield in the secondary literature, other than Northampton had perhaps been desensitized having heard sermon content like "Sinners" before. …

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