Jonathan Edwards Paper


Sinners in the Audience

In his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards asserts that “every soul in this congregation that has not been born again, however moral and strict, sober and religious, they may otherwise may be” is subject to the wrath of God. Edwards is not targeting his message at a narrow segment of his audience but a somewhat broad audience of moderate Christians. Although this audience was probably energized by Edwards’ message of salvation only through God’s mercy, a modern audience would probably be much less enthusiastic about the speech. In this short essay I intend to provide evidence for each of these stances.

First of all, Edwards’ speech was most likely targeted at Christians of fairly average education and piousness. It seems likely that the most educated, critical thinkers of Edwards’ time may have been very skeptical of Edwards’ arguments, and the least educated may not have understood the arguments. Also, the most pious might not think Edwards went far enough, and the most secular might have viewed Edwards as a religious extremist. Therefore Edwards was clearly appealing to the moderates of this particular population in New England, and among the moderates he did not discriminate between “old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children.” He was appealing to all moderates who would listen to his speech and hopefully become energized by it to follow Christ.

Edwards’ sermon energized the audience to take positive action for several reasons. The main cause for this positive energy in the crowd was the result of Edwards’ skillful use of fear and then hope in his speech. The first part of Edward’s speech enumerates the various reasons why most men belong in hell and why God is the only thing standing in the way. Convincing a Christian that they are damned to an eternal hell is probably the ultimate fear for that individual. Edwards realizes this, and he goes on to provide a solution for this dilemma, claiming that “Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open.” Edwards also uses peer pressure in referring to the town of Suffield as “already flocking…to Christ.” By using fear, hope and peer pressure, Edwards describes a train which his audience cannot afford to miss, and he energizes them to climb aboard. The audience likely felt an urge to take advantage of this second chance and probably breathed a sigh of relief after doing so. This same positive energy may not, however, be present in different context.

If Edwards were to give his sermon in a church to a group of modern Christians who had average levels of education and piousness, he would probably have a much less energetic response today. Perhaps a more fundamental sect of Christians would be energized by Edward’s sermon, but the vast majority of Christians would be unlikely to take Edwards’ seriously. Although his use of fear and hope to energize is still an effective tool today, his sermon would still be less appreciated today. Most moderate, working class Christians today are probably not as well versed in the Biblical language as those during Edwards’ time, and many Christians today have studied basic science, and may be skeptical of Edwards’ descriptions of damnation and hell without scientific evidence. If Edwards were to use the same language today he would probably be looked upon as an extremist, and might be more likely to end up preaching on a street corner, than in a modern mainline church. This change in reaction is the result of cultural changes over the past couple centuries, which call for more scientific evidence to verify claims, rather than simply blind faith.

Edwards was almost certainly well received by his mainline audience 250 years ago, and although an audience of mainline Christians today might not be as enthusiastic about the details of his speech, Edwards’ use of fear and hope would still be effective today. Modern audiences are probably just as susceptible to these emotions in any number of speeches given by anyone from George Bush to Osama Bin Laden.


Post a Comment

<< Home