Jonathan Edwards: Hysteria or Holy Spirit?

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Many Christians are unfamiliar with the mid-18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards. Do I blame them? He never told jokes, shared self-depreciating anecdotes, or illustrated his points with science experiments. Although he had a bland preaching style, he not only kept his audience awake for the entire sermon (one can only wonder if he could keep my father awake) but inspired an awakening in his church that spread to surrounding areas.

Who was this preacher, and what made him so effective?

Jonathan Edwards lived and preached during the Great Awaking. He believed deeply in the idea of human sinfulness, and many recognize his so-called “Fire and Brimstone” sermons.

Preaching was in his blood. His father was a pastor and his grandfather was the famous pastor Solomon Stoddard. At the young age of 13, Edwards began school at Yale—amazing to us, but, this was not too surprising at the time, because the only requirements were knowing fluent Latin and passable Greek. Okay, that’s still kind of amazing.

Edwards’ parents raised him to follow the Ten Commandments as much as possible, and this caused him to often become deeply troubled when he could not meet those standards.

Later in his life, Edwards became very sick and promised God he would change his ways (he was never very specific about what those ways were) if God would save him. After recovering, Edwards kept his promise and devoted himself to studying God using the science and logic that was popular in his day (Spock from Star Trek would approve).

The secularization of the people in his day concerned Edwards. Today, we may find it strange to think of the original settlers as secular considering their widespread push for piety. Many young people in Edwards town held off marriage until 25 for women and 29 for men, but it was quite common for a married couple to have kids only six or seven months after they were married (Edwards may not have devoted his life to math, but he could probably figure out something was wrong there). Petty crimes all throughout the town were also common.

Edwards was deeply concerned about this secularization because he greatly loved the people in his town and in his church. He sought to teach the people how the eternal consequences outweighed the short-term benefits of their sin. Many accuse him of trying to stir up hysteria, but his sermons were read straight off his paper without emotion or frantic arm waving. One excerpt from a famous speech of his, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, sounds pretty extreme by today’s standards:

“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”

Modern readers get caught up in a couple of things while reading his sermons.

First is the intensity of the imagery. It is easy to forget that imagery was a useful tool to early scholars and many early writings use a great deal of vivid imagery.

Second, people forget to look at is the rest of the sermon. Edwards is very firm in his teaching about the horror of Hell, but he also writes about the amazing power of grace. Later in that very sermon, Edwards said

“And now you have an extraordinary Opportunity,
a Day wherein Christ has flung the Door
of Mercy wide open, and stands in the Door calling
and crying with a loud Voice to poor Sinners; a
Day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing
into the Kingdom of God; many are daily coming
from the East, West, North and South; many
that were very lately in the same miserable Condition
that you are in, are in now an happy State,
with their Hearts filled with Love to Him that has
loved them and washed them for their Sins in his
own Blood, and rejoicing in Hope of the Glory
of God.”

That is the message he tries to communicate, and it is all the more powerful with the contrasting imagery.

Edwards also pushed for true faith leading to good deeds, and he expected his sermons to evoke a practical response, not just emotion.

Edwards revolutionized Bible study by using the tools of logic and the scientific method, but he is most well-known for his powerful sermons that helped start the Great Awakening. I could write much more, but others have already done that and this is already getting long (sorry about that). His contributions to theology remain important to this day. Although Jonathan Edwards’ speaking style could use some work, his ideas made a huge impact on the church. This is his snapshot from history.

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