When Jonathan Edwards begins his famous (and infamous) sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” with a story about the Israelites, many modern readers, unlike the congregation present at the time, know what’s coming. Namely, that the real “sinners” of the sermon are not the Israelites, but the listeners themselves. Yet less obvious is the significance of his choosing the story of the Israelites, which goes beyond a simple parable meant to illustrate the sinfulness of the congregation he’s addressing.
For Edwards also specifies that the Israelites “were God’s visible people,” and this is, implicitly, a status they also share with his New England audience. As “Sinners…” is a sermon, and not a work of theory or theology, much of the more nuanced thought that undergirds it operates behind the scenes, so to speak. But here we see expressed one of Jonathan Edwards's great contributions to the history of American theology and of thinking about the concept of America itself.
Edwards, along with other significant Puritain theologians such as Cotton Mather, believed in, and helped develop, an interpretation of the history of the “New World” colonies that sought to see it as shaped in the “mold of sacred teleology,” as historian Sacvan Bercovitch writes in The Puritan Origins of the American Self (136). Edwards believed that “this new world is probably now discovered that the new and most glorious state of God’s church on earth might commence there.” The “wilderness” in which that “new world” found itself was not merely literal, but also a figure of its spiritual state. And yet the “lowness” of this state simultaneously proved the latent potential of the colonists as God’s chosen people, as Edwards believed that the redemptive spirit of Christ “begins its work ‘at the lower end’ of personality, in the ‘utmost, meanest, youngest, and weakest part’” (Bercovitch, 154).
Finding themselves in the wildness, the Israelites had failed to live up to their role as God’s chosen people; the American colonists, according to Puritan theologians, had the momentous, unique opportunity to succeed. Thus the pervasive sense of urgency in Edwards’s sermon; his attempt, through insisting that death and damnation are a constant, impending threat, that they are “always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction,” and his returning again and again to images that express the lowliness, the fallen, despicable state of his parishioners, which (though this largely goes unsaid) is ultimately proof of the heights to which they might climb (Edwards Selected Works, 89).
We also can see here the source of an internal logical tension evident throughout “Sinners…” At several points, Edwards moves without comment from the sacred, eternal time in which God exists (along with the state of humankind’s damnation) into the register of human, historical time, as evidenced here: “And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has flung the door of mercy wide open…” and in assertions such as “God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the bigger part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time…” (103-104). The notion of God—who is eternal, omnipotent, and exists “outside” of human time—doing anything “hastily” should strike us, without this context, as somewhat odd.
Edwards’s millenarian hopes for the new world also help to explain the definitively “Old Testament” feel of the God presented in this sermon, as well as his emphasis on Christ as the only path to salvation. It’s almost as though Christ has yet to appear, and, in sacrificing himself, cleanse humanity of its original sin. Or, perhaps more aptly, that he has in some sense returned, once again (briefly) offering a means toward salvation. This theory of history, and of America’s special position within it, developed by Edwards and others had implications that went far beyond the theological. It formed the intellectual roots of what we might think of the mythology of America, or “American Exceptionalism,” subsequently reflected in such thoroughly secular ideologies as Emerson’s “moral perfectionism” or the persistent national belief in the utopian possibilities of technological progress (Bercovitch, 136).