Readings

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

  • Of Insects (1720)
  • In 1720 at the age of 16, Edwards wrote this brilliant short set of observations on the behavior of spiders. He loosely follows the scientific method. Edwards believed that the natural world is a work of God that man must study in order to understand the divine. In other words, one might be both a scientist and a religious believer. Even though he also held that God could choose at anytime to overturn the laws of nature and produce miracles, Edwards remained committed to scientific and other forms of inquiry throughout his life. For him, accepting that miracles can occur does not excuse one from understanding how the natural world of God's creation works.
  • A Divine and Supernatural Light (1734)
  • In 1721, Edwards had a religious conversion—an experience of receiving God's grace—in the woods outside the town of Enfield in the Connecticut River Valley. In this sermon, Edwards tries to describe the difference between the kind of knowledge we gain from a religious conversion and the kind we discover through scientific inquiry. He defines religious knowledge as "immediate insight" into the "divine and supernatural" that one "feels" in the mind and the heart with great "delight." In contrast, scientific knowledge is an objective understanding of the "natural" world that neither produces nor requires any kind of feeling. Edwards helped to establish the idea that "true" religion is an inner, individual experience and not simply a commitment to doctrines. In this sermon, he also is beginning to define criteria for judging whether potential church members have had true conversion experiences and hence are eligible to become full members of the church. In 1746, he develops these criteria into 12 distinct "signs," or tests, of "true" religious conversion in one of his major works A Treatise on the Religious Affections.
  • Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741)
  • Edwards preached this furious and now most famous of his sermons in 1741 during the height of the Great Awakening, a period of religious revivalism in America that began in the Connecticut River Valley in 1734 and lasted through the 1740s. He was infuriated and morally outraged by church members who, in his view, sinned willfully and without worry because they too proudly assumed that, in the end, God would redeem their sins and save them from eternal damnation. With this theatrical sermon that vividly describes the horrors of hell and God's willingness to send the sinful there, Edwards frightened his audiences into remembering their own vulnerability before God's absolute power. Word of the sermon spread far and inspired similar fear in other congregations.