Jonathan Edwards 
& the Puritan Sermon

"Before the sermon was done there was a great moaning and crying out throughout the whole house, "What shall I do to be saved?! Oh, I am going to Hell! Oh, what shall I do for Christ?!" etc. etc. So that the minister was obliged to desist. Shrieks and cries were piercing and amazing. After some time of waiting, the congregation were still so that a prayer was made, and after that we descended from the pulpit and discoursed with the people, some in one place and some in another, and--amazing and astonishing!--the power of God was seen, and several souls were hopefully wrought upon that night, and oh, the pleasantness of their countenances that received comfort."
--Reverend Stephen Williams' description of the congregation's reaction at Enfield 
to Edwards' Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

Typical Sermonic Structure for Edwards

  1. Biblical text with brief overview--stresses the biblical warrant and authority behind the preaching without which the congregation should not be expected to give credence to what the preacher says.
  2. Doctrinal assertion with various reasons enumerated--stresses the use of human reason in understanding the theological truth; Edwards also includes imaginative and effective language seeking to move his audience's emotions.
  3. Application often with enumerated "uses"--stresses the response of the congregation in everyday life and conduct.

Exceptions to this structure include sermons entitled "Lectures" by Edwards that focus more on an extended study of doctrine and do not include the application section, as well as Edwards' sermons to the Indians at Stockbridge which are more concise and without excessive enumeration.

The Performative Context

  1. One should keep in mind when reading a sermon that sermons, like plays or public speeches, are meant to be spoken before an audience. 

  2. Moreover, the regular sermon, unlike the revival or field sermon, is typically spoken before a regular congregation that the preacher knows well and has a long-term relationship with. 

  3. Unlike speeches and plays, sermons occur in a liturgical context: they are a part of worship, and ideally, they are to be an instrument of the voice of God instructing and convicting the gathered people. They aren't listened to in quite the same way as a dramatic performance.

  4. Or at least, they shouldn't be. Sermons in the period formed a key element of cultural and intellectual life. Attentive audiences went to hear sermons as a form of diversion and instruction. As a result, sermons were often discussed and evaluated on theological and homiletical grounds.

  5. Sermons, like Edwards', were typically written out, though Edwards did experiment with the extemporaneous outline after 1740 in his career. Puritan sermons typically made strong demands on the audience's time and attention, and Edwards follows in this tradition.

  6. However, unlike the often overly florid style of the previous century, Edwards typically chose a more straight-forward and plain style, one appreciated and admired by congregations who held to a "simple" and "plain" faith.

  7. Still, Edwards' sermons also strived for a powerful affective style that moved the imaginations and emotions of the hearers. He strived in particular to put into creative language theologically dense ideas and intense spiritual experiences, and much of his energy as a preacher was concerned with awakening his congregants from spiritual stupor.


Contemporary comments on Edwards' preaching

“His delivery was easy, natural and very solemn. He had not a strong, loud voice; but appeared with such gravity and solemnity.”
--Samuel Hopkins

"As a preacher, he was well known, neither quick nor slow of speech. His language was full, but not ornamented. He regarded thoughts more than words. Precision of sentiment and clearness of diction formed the principal character of his style. In middle life he appeared emaciated (I had almost said mortified) by intense study and hard labour; hence his voice was a little low for a large assembly, but much helped by a proper emphasis, just cadence, and great distinctness in pronunciation.”
--1758 Obituary 

“He had no studied varieties of the voice, and no strong emphasis. He scarcely gestured, or even moved; and he made no attempt, by the elegance of his style, or the beauty of his pictures, to gratify the taste, and fascinate the imagination. But, if you mean by eloquence, the power of presenting an important truth before an audience, with overwhelming weight of argument, and with such intenseness of feeling, that the whole soul of the speaker is thrown into every part of the conception and delivery; so that the solemn attention of the whole audience is riveted, from the beginning to the close, and impressions are left that cannot be effaced; Mr. Edwards was the most eloquent man I ever heard speak”
--Stephen West


"Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God"

  1. What are the key points Edwards makes concerning the spiritual state of unconverted (or natural) people? Do you agree with them? Why or why not?
  2. What are his most affecting images? What makes them so?
  3. What distinguishes the application section of this sermon from the doctrine section?
  4. How does he employ personal address to move his audience?
  5. Why does his tone shift at near the very end?
  6. Why do you think the congregation at Enfield responded in the manner that they did? (Incidentally, his own congregation at Northampton did not.)

"Heaven is a World of Love"

  1. How does Edwards describe heaven?
  2. How is the Trinity an essential aspect of the infinite love of/from God?
  3. How are Edwards ethical and aesthetic ideas present in this sermon?
  4. What will mark the conduct of heaven? What will motivate it?
  5. What imagery does Edwards use to reinforce his points?
  6. What other ways does Edwards use language to move his hearers?
  7. According to Edwards, what practical lessons for this life does heaven have to teach us?
  8. Is it possible for Edwards' doctrines of hell and heaven to exist together, including their descriptions of God? Why or why not?

 

 

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding