Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) preached the most famous fire and brimstone sermon in history in Massachusetts in 1741: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It was Edward’s custom to read his sermons, instead of speaking extemporaneously. So the text of this famous sermon was afterwards published. It spread far and wide throughout Colonial America, and thus is still available to us today. At one church where he delivered this message, an eyewitness reported an “audience so moved by the sermon that people moaned, shrieked, and cried out for salvation while the preacher was speaking.”
Historical records note that Edwards didn’t use an emotional style of delivery, instead merely reading in a monotone! So what did he read that had such an emotional impact on his audience? Here’s a sample.
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 more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful 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. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was 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 have not 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 do not this very moment drop down into hell.
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.
It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity: there will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery: when you look forward, you shall see a long forever, a boundless duration before you, which shall swallow up your thoughts and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all; you will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.
Notice that in Edward’s famous sermon he referred to his listeners as “sinners.” But don’t assume he was speaking in an evangelistic campaign to the public, addressing the town drunk or local prostitutes. And don’t assume he was referring only to unsaved, mature adults in his audience, who were perhaps guilty of vile sins such as adultery.
This sermon was first given not to the public, but to his own congregation of Puritans, on a Sunday morning. And he was careful to make it clear that he was not limiting his warning to adults:
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.
Can you imagine what sort of thoughts a child of seven might have had, sitting in the congregation that day and listening to Edwards’ threats?
So was Edwards speaking the truth about God? Does He really constantly hold even little children metaphorically over Hell, ready to drop them into the pit at any moment if they should die before responding to this sort of fiery message?
Although absolutely nothing in the Bible indicates such a scenario, the vivid and powerful imagery that came from Edwards’ fertile imagination has convinced huge numbers of people to believe it anyway.
And the power of the rhetoric did not die out in Edwards’ own generation. Many 21st century websites include the text of his message—not as an historical oddity, or as a sample of colonial American literature. They offer it as a timely warning message to contemporary readers.
It is even published in the form of inexpensive little 32-page paperbacks that can be used as tools of evangelism by modern Christians. Order yours from Amazon today! At just $2.51 you could afford to order a dozen … and get free Super-Saver Shipping!
On the go a lot? You can even get a Kindle edition to read on your Amazon Kindle reader, so you can read in the dentist’s office while waiting for your appointment.
If you don’t have a Kindle, you can get a free PDF version from one website to read on your Ipad or laptop.
And you can even get it on CD, to give as a gift to your unconverted friends so that they can listen to it in the car or while doing dishes. Or, of course, they could also let their “little children” listen to it as they drift off to sleep in their little beds. In fact, if your own little children aren’t saved yet, you can get an extra copy to play next to their crib.
What’s wrong with this picture?