"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
--Reverend Stephen Williams' description of the congregation's reaction at
to Edwards' Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
Typical Sermonic Structure for Edwards
- 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
- 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.
- 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
One should keep in mind when
reading a sermon that sermons, like plays or public speeches, are
meant to be spoken before an audience.
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
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.
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.
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.
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"
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'
“His delivery was easy, natural and very
solemn. He had not a strong, loud voice; but appeared with such gravity
"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.”
“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
"Sinners in the Hands of An Angry
- 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?
- What are his most affecting images? What
makes them so?
- What distinguishes the application
section of this sermon from the doctrine section?
- How does he employ personal address to
move his audience?
- Why does his tone shift at near the very
- 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"
- How does Edwards describe heaven?
- How is the Trinity an essential aspect
of the infinite love of/from God?
- How are Edwards ethical and aesthetic
ideas present in this sermon?
- What will mark the conduct of heaven?
What will motivate it?
- What imagery does Edwards use to
reinforce his points?
- What other ways does Edwards use
language to move his hearers?
- According to Edwards, what practical
lessons for this life does heaven have to teach us?
- Is it possible for Edwards' doctrines of
hell and heaven to exist together, including their descriptions of
God? Why or why not?