Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jonathan Edwards's Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards, one of the most renowned and influential American pastors and theologians, was born in 1703 in Connecticut. At the age of thirteen, Edwards enrolled at Yale, where he nurtured interests in philosophy, science, and theology. In college, Edwards experienced a religious awakening that would change the course of his life. In 1727, after several years of preaching intermittently around the northeastern United States, Edwards became the minister of a congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts. That year, he also married Sarah Pierpont, a woman whose devotion to God had long inspired him. In the 1730s, as the Protestant revivals that would become known as the First Great Awakening were building steam in New England, Edwards gained a reputation as one of the most powerful and effective pastors in New England. This led him to be called to the unruly congregation in Enfield, Connecticut, where he preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in 1741. Edwards’ theology was controversial, and his radical beliefs on salvation and grace eventually got him fired from Northampton. After this, he presided over a Native American congregation in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and began to write prolifically, producing many books on theology. In 1758, Edwards became president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), but he died of smallpox almost immediately. He and Sarah had eleven children, many of whom went on to prolific careers in public life.
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Historical Context of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is the canonical text of the Great Awakening (sometimes known as the First Great Awakening). The Great Awakening was a Protestant religious revival, lasting from roughly 1730-1755, that dispensed with religious ceremony and tradition in order to emphasize the importance of a personal connection to religion and the need for Christ’s salvation. This new religious fervor breathed life into American Protestantism, particularly in New England, where many Christians had grown more materially comfortable in tandem with their Churches becoming more academic and less spiritual, and the ideas of the Enlightenment spreading and eroding their faith. The impact of the Great Awakening on American life was tremendous and difficult to quantify. However, undoubtedly this movement increased religious fervor, as well as religious diversity, in the United States (directly influencing the adoption of the First Amendment to the Constitution). Some historians even argue that the Great Awakening helped inspire the American Revolution, since its ideas encouraged individuals to question authority, and its tactics—pamphleteering, rallies, and fiery rhetoric—would usher in the Revolution several decades later.

Other Books Related to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is doubtless the most famous sermon ever preached on American soil, but Edwards gave other famous sermons that reflected his fiery theology, including “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners” and “The Manner in Which the Salvation of the Soul is to be Sought.” Edwards also wrote books on theology, the most famous of which are Religious Affectations and Freedom of the Will. Other well-known New England ministers from the Colonial period include Cotton Mather, George Whitefield, and John Cotton, who all gave sermons that reverberated through American religious life. Jonathan Edwards was interested in science and Enlightenment philosophy—he loved Isaac Newton and John Locke—and his writing is deeply influenced by Puritan theology. Many early American writers grappled, as Edwards did, with the legacy and ideas of Puritanism; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, for example, shares with “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” the theme of damnation lurking behind ordinary life in New England. In addition, the African American poet Phyllis Wheatley—who was converted in a religious revival much like those Edwards led—wrote passionately of her experiences of 18th century New England Christianity. Edwards’ influence on literature is still felt today. Susan Howe, the contemporary American poet, writes often of Edwards, most recently in her poetry collection That This.
Key Facts about Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
  • Full Title: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
  • When Written: 1741
  • Where Written: Northampton, Massachusetts
  • When Published: Delivered on July 8, 1941 to a congregation in Enfield, Connecticut
  • Literary Period: Great Awakening
  • Genre: Sermon
  • Climax: When Edwards has thoroughly described God’s wrath and then offers sinners the chance to be saved through Christ
  • Antagonist: Sin, God’s wrath, Hell

Extra Credit for Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

Writing on the Run. Edwards would often compose sermons in his head while riding on horseback from town to town. Since he couldn’t write while riding, he would associate a thought with an area of his clothing and pin a piece of paper there to remind him. At the end of a journey, his clothes would sometimes be covered in paper.

Distinguished Descendants. The descendants of Jonathan Edwards and his wife, Sarah Pierpont Edwards, are notoriously distinguished. The couple is related to, among others, Vice President Aaron Burr, First Lady Edith Roosevelt, writers O. Henry and Robert Lowell, and several U.S. Senators, college presidents, governors, and judges.