The Puritan Schizophrenic
Author Jonathan Edwards, at an early age, turned his probing intelligence toward God. From that time, Edwards began to notice feelings of deep spirituality and a longing within him, as he describes in Personal Narrative. Slowing growing in faith, constantly drawn back to Christ, Edwards became a minister. As a minister, however, he describes a different relationship with God than he himself came to know. In Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, one of his sermons, he portrays the Creator as an omnipotent and omniscient entity, with the ability to both crush and save a soul. To instill fear in his audience, Edwards draws upon the flames of hell as images, effectively captivating the assembly and stressing his points. Through repetition and such imagery, the piece yields extreme force. In contrast, his personal experience differs from that which he describes to his congregation. For him, salvation and enlightenment came gradually, peacefully, pleasurably. Yet, for his congregation, that same spirituality, according to him, will come out of fear.
To understand Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, one must believe that the essay is an actual sermon. With this in mind, the overwhelming use of repetition in language and symbolism only supports the points Edwards tries to make. His use of statement and analysis adds to this method of writing, or rather of speech. For instance, Edwards begins with the expression “their foot shall slide in due time” (99). The author then continues with a list of remarks explaining and supporting this statement, in a style quite similar to the outline of an essay:
The expression that I have chosen for my text, Their foot shall slide in due time, seems to imply the following things, relating to the punishment and destruction that these wicked Israelites were exposed to.
1. That they were always exposed to destruction, as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall…
2. It implies that they were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction… (99)
By using such a system, the points become clearer and more direct, allowing for easy grasp by the assembly. This, not to mention the language and imagery the author chooses, adds to the strength of the sermon as a whole.
Jonathan Edwards exhibits a powerful mastery of his language, not entirely surprising due to his background—admittance to Yale at age thirteen and the completion of a few serious and logical works by that time. Again, with the intent of provoking and frightening his audience, Edwards inserts images of “flames” and “torments” into the sermon (101). By continuing then to refer to these same images throughout the work, he manages to convey the tremendous, endless suffering of hell effectively. Through these concepts, Edwards expected to compel those present to turn to God, and, most likely, he did.
By skillfully covering all parts of his idea, Edwards was able to leave little room for dispute. He stresses the extreme power of God, the omnipotent being, as being so great that no earthly force can even begin to resist it: “He is not only able to cast wicked men into Hell, but he can most easily do it” (100). He describes who will fall into hell, and that they are already sentenced to condemnation, for God is omniscient, and knows of one’s actions before one even performs them. God knows who will turn to and who will turn from Him. Edwards also accounts for the forces of the Devil, and shows that there is no escape but religion itself:
All wicked men’s pains and contrivance they use to escape Hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, don’t secure ‘em from Hell one moment. (102)
By covering every possible face of the argument, Edwards succeeds in making an almost infallible statement. The overall solidity of his sermon aids the general theme and makes the piece all the more effective and horrific. With the consequence, of course, being either everlasting hellfire or everlasting harmony, it it likely that many chose to follow God.
Contrastly, to a great degree, is another piece by Edwards, his Personal Narrative. This, not intended as a sermon, shows Edwards’ own journey to spirituality. Unlike Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, his own road to salvation had little to do with fear. Instead, it was centered upon a basic longing, drawing him constantly back to Christ. Once realized, Edwards writes of how he spent many hours in contemplation of Scripture, each passage invigorating him. While Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God was almost a formulated commandment, a Personal Narrative is more of a struggle for Edwards with the constraints on language, as he seems to be unable to express his devotion. Again, he turns to words like “flames” and “kindle,” used this time coupled with forms of “sweetness” in positive connotation (112). While using the same words, the tone of the piece dictates a revolution in the emotions, affections, symbolized by these images.
In Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Edwards expects the members of the congregation to accept Christ out of necessity and to avoid Hell, whereas Edwards himself came about his spirituality in a radically different way. There was no one forcing him, but rather his own heart compelled him to wonder about religion and God, to such an extent that he began to see visions of Christ himself. Feeling amazed, honored, and at the same time unworthy of such a presence, Edwards again found himself at a seeming loss of words to describe such intense emotions:
I had a view that for me was extraordinary, of the Glory of the Son of God, as Mediator between God and man, and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension… The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception—which continued as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone… (117)
A man who in one work is terrorizing a congregation with thoughts of eternal suffering and advocating spirituality, is in another weeping uncontrollably and lowering himself in front of the incarnation of that same religion.
This shocking contrast between two works by the same author on the same subject seems unreal. To Jonathan Edwards, however, religion was a source of much in his life, perhaps allowing for these two, evidently contradictory, views of attaining salvation. It may be true, still, that Edwards felt that it too late for gradual spiritual gain as he had acquired, and therefore resorted to scare tactics in an effort to save the souls of his congregation quickly. Either way, the latter seems a much more cheapened view of salvation, but nonetheless, Edwards’ intentions as a minister were genuine indeed.