In the summer of 1741, Jonathan Edwards, a towering intellectual figure of the Great Awakening, author of books on a multitude of subjects, and one of the key ministers at the forefront of the call for a return to orthodoxy in the Puritan church, was asked to deliver a sermon in Enfield, Connecticut. The congregation there was exactly the type that Edwards would have determined was most in need of sermonizing. It had been described as wild, even out of control, and a shot of old-school Puritan preaching was exactly what they needed to get them back on the right side of God.
These were the circumstances that lead up to the day on which Edwards took his spot at the front of the church, focused his stare at a bell-rope hanging down in the back of the church, and began speaking in a quiet, measured voice the words he had written in Northampton, Massachusetts. Six hours later, that sermon—“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”—had had a profound effect on the previously ‘wild’ Enfield congregation. Many were in tears, some were crying openly, and such was the state of slowly intensifying hysteria that Edwards had to halt the sermon several times to voice a demand for silence. At no time did his voice ever rise to the level of shout nor did Edwards leave the podium or engage in gesturing to punctuate his points. What has been called the most terrifying fire-and-brimstone sermon of the colonial period in America was not delivered with the melodrama of modern evangelists, but almost in a monotone, allowing parishioners to focus on his words themselves rather than the way they were being said. And the words terrified them, and, reportedly, sent the wayward flock running as fast as they could back to Jesus’s fold.
Although Edwards was one of the most prolific and versatile writers in American history—not to mention the colonial period—and he wrote extensively about nearly every important subject of his era, his legacy today is for many defined by the sermon he delivered in that Connecticut church in 1741. Today, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is routinely studied not just in classes in theology, but as a significant contribution to colonial American literature.
Ironically, the man responsible for writing the most famous sermon in American history would be relieved of his ministerial duties at the church in Northampton less than a decade later. His removal as pastor was primarily due to criticism he endured for reading “improper material” which the elders deemed overly severe. The decision for removal, however, was also partly in response to Edwards having delivered sermons that openly castigated members of the congregation for being sinners.