ENFIELD, Connecticut, July 8, 1741 – The highest-flaming reach of Calvinist orthodoxy, aimed at frightening materialistic-minded New Englanders into a renewal of faith, already termed the Great Awakening, inspired Jonathan Edwards to deliver here today a notable sermon.
Soaring above even his own famous levels of eloquence, he exhorted his congregation, and all within reach of his thoughts, to look upon themselves as instruments of sin, saved from perdition only by the grace of a God whose patience they are taxing, and whose pity they are straining.
The 38-year-old theologian is forceful in exhortation and uncompromising in his doctrine of man as an earthly sinner. In some quarters his strong denunciation of sin-filled mankind already is making theological enemies, while unquestionably awakening lay-men to a renewed interest in religious matters.
Dr. Edwards was graduated from Yale College in 1720, at the age of 17, studied theology and for a while tutored at Yale. In his studies he has been a notable disciple of John Locke. In 1727 he became the colleague of his grandfather, John Stoddard, in the ministry at Northampton, Mass., and in 1729 succeeded to that parish, upon I the death of the Rev. Stoddard. Excerpts from this sermon follow.
The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose. ‘Tis true, that judgment against your evil work has not been executed hitherto; the floods of God’s vengeance have been withheld; but your guilt in the meantime is constantly increasing, and you are every day treasuring up more wrath; the waters are continually rising, and waxing more and more mighty; and there is nothing but the mere pleasure of God that holds the waters back, that are unwilling to be stopped, and press hard to go forward.
If God should only withdraw his hand from the floodgate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of the fierceness and wrath of God would rush forth with inconceivable fury, and would come upon you with omnipotent power; and if your strength were ten thousand times greater than it is, yea, ten thousand times greater than the strength of the stoutest, sturdiest devil in hell, it would be nothing to withstand or endure it..
The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.
Thus are all you that never passed under a great change of heart by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin to a state of new and before altogether unexperienced light and life (however you may have reformed your life in many things, and may have had religious affections, and may keep up a form of religion in your families and closets, and in the house of God, and may be strict in it), you are thus in the hands of an angry God; ’tis nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. ‘Tis ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world after you closed your eyes to sleep; and there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you haven’t gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you don’t this very moment drop down into hell. …
And let every one that is yet out of Christ and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women or middle-aged or young people or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God’s word and providence. This acceptable year of the Lord that is a day of such great favor to some will doubtless be a day of as remarkable vengeance to others. Now undoubtedly it is as it was in the days of John the Baptist, the ax is in an extraordinary manner laid at the root of the trees, that very tree that bringeth not forth good fruit may be hewn down and cast into the fire.
Therefore let every one that is out of Christ now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of his congregation. Let every one fly out of Sodom. “Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest ye be consumed.
~ Postlogue ~
Jonathan Edwards died in 1758, the last of the great New England Calvinists. Ironically he lived in a period when great preaching was awakening new religious consciousness in men and women, but he himself was a martyr to his own uncompromising orthodoxy.
The concept of an “angry God” was being questioned more and more by men equally as devout as Dr. Edwards, who came to lay more stress on the divine qualities of mercy as preached by St. John in his writings based on the simple premise that, “God is love.”
In 1750, Northampton Parish could no longer agree with the Edwards philosophy and he was dismissed. In his depression he went to Stockbridge, Mass., where he ministered to a small, mixed congregation of Indians and whites. But there he used his free time to complete the notable introspective work, “The Freedom of the Will.”
Mellowing with maturity, Dr. Edwards was called in 1757 to the presidency of the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton. However, within a year he died.