What is the essential underlying call to action in this sermon?
A sermon is essentially just a persuasive speech. Sermons exist to sell an idea just like commercials. In this particular case, the “product” being sold is the salvation of the soul or, at least, the avoidance of eternal damnation. Every effective persuasive speech delivers a call to action which motives the listener to actively engage in the persuasion. The call to action toward salvation or away from everlasting damnation could take the form of inspiring a congregation to go forth and do acts of charity and goodwill or to practice meekness and turning one’s check to one’s enemy. For Edwards, however, there is one and only one path to avoiding an eternity in the hellish afterlife he envisions, and that singular path: repentance for one’s sins. This becomes the fundamental teaching point or call to action of the sermon.
What specific examples of imagery does Edwards use repetitively to make his argument that everyone is a sinner?
A central controlling thesis of the sermon is that humans—as sinners—are viewed with contempt by God. To cement this idea, Edwards compares humans to the most loathsome of creatures in order to draw an analogy between the chasm which separates God and man to that which separates man from lesser creatures. Perhaps the most famous image in the sermon is that of God looking at humans the way humans look at spiders. In addition to spiders, humans are also cast in the eyes of God as being comparable to “despicable worms of the dust” and “hateful, venomous serpents.”
How does the broader social and intellectual context in which Edwards delivered “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” help to explain the vehemence, even the violence, of the sermon?
Though the passion for Enlightenment ideals that would characterize the American and French Revolutions towards the end of the 18th century was yet to fully emerge, these ideas were certainly already percolating in both European and colonial society. Edwards, as a highly educated man, was very familiar with the works of philosophers such as Spinoza and Leibniz, and others, for whom the rational human intellect took on an increasing significance. Reason, one might say, had already begun to threaten Faith as the most important human capacity, or virtue, and Edwards wanted to fight back. One can also see this reaction in his frequent comparison of God to a king or a prince—figures whose so-called “divine right” to rule would soon be called into question.