The sermon issued by Jonathan Edwards in his Church in Enfield, Connecticut is a powerful oratorical work. Delivered on July 8 1741, it is an important work that continues to hold relevance for its theological content as well as literary style. Consistent with founding texts of Christianity, there is a pronounced tenor of Godly retribution in Edwards’ work. For example, the following passage from the opening of the sermon indicates the scale of fear and inhibition which Edwards sought to place in the hearts of the congregated audience.
“They are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell. And the reason why they do not go down to hell at each moment, is not because God, in whose power they are, is not then very angry with them; as he is with many miserable creatures now tormented in hell, who there feel and bear the fierceness of his wrath. Yes, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth…” (Edwards 1741)
Edward gives detailed account of the nature of God’s wrath. Indeed the torture and torment that awaits the sinners in hell is presented in an elaborate fashion. For example, he says, “They are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell”. (Edwards 1741) Following this opening, Edwards highlights that though God is omnipotent he only exacts his punishment on the sinners at the moment of his choosing. In other words, in the divine scheme of things, God disposes justice at an opportune moment that may not be immediate. The reason Edwards points to how God plans retribution is to alert the faithful from shrugging their responsibility. It is only too easy and natural for people to take divine mandates casually if the punitive action against sin is not immediate. Edwards ensures that such complacency does not occur. The tone and intensity of the following message makes clear that the faithful will disregard divine dictates at their own peril.
“You probably are not sensible of this; you find you are kept out of hell, but do not see the hand of God in it; but look at other things, as the good state of your bodily constitution, your care of your own life, and the means you use for your own preservation. But indeed these things are nothing; if God should withdraw his hand, they would avail no more to keep you from falling, than the thin air to hold up a person that is suspended in it.” (Edwards 1741)
Much of the sermon is devoted to instill a sense of dire fear in the hearts of the listeners. Adopting an evangelist style of speech, there are numerous repetitions and variations on the same theme. The text of the sermon taken as a whole is an effective document in creating fear among the believers. Effective as the literary device it might be, it eventually proves counter-productive. For the congregated audience to remember the delivered message, they must be offered some incentive for good action. But by focusing so much on sin and retribution, the author creates sourness rather than moral motivation. Rather than making the assembled audience more morally upright, the sermon may only make them utterly scared and prone to succumb to temptations and vices.
There are strengths and weaknesses to the book by Kimnach et al. Its strength is its comprehensiveness and its utility in the classroom environment. The background essays included in the compilation help dispel some of the myths and simplistic caricatures surrounding the personal of Jonathan Edwards. The book’s attempt to link the Sermon with the socio-historical phenomenon of the Great Awakening is of immeasurable value to students and lay readers. It also traces Edwards’ opinions on conversion, as well as his take on Puritan methods for Christian propaganda. The book succeeds in making 18th century theology intelligible to twenty-first century minds, but it accomplishes this with grace and ease and transparency of thought that is the envy of any who have taught American religious history. For example, esoteric concepts like the “sovereignty of God, predestination of the elect, origin of sin, and divine justice” are all neatly explained and weaved .