This article originally appeared at the official website of Credo Magazine on April 12, 2016. It is reprinted here at EdwardsStudies.com with permission.
The full article can be found in the new print edition of Credo Magazine entitled, “Preach the Word: Preachers Who Changed the World.” David Barshinger (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is an editor in the book division at Crossway, and has taught as an adjunct professor at Trinity International University and Trinity Christian College. He is the author of Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms: A Redemptive-Historical Vision of Scripture.
Dangling like a spider over tongues of fire. Standing before floodgates holding back furious waters. Targeted with an arrow waiting to be drunk with your blood. These images of the sinner’s condition have both captivated and horrified listeners and readers ever since Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) preached his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in the hot summer of 1741. Those who heard him give this sermon in Enfield, Connecticut, on July 8 of that year became so terrified that they screamed out in the middle of it, “Oh, I am going to Hell,” and “What shall I do to be Sav[e]d?” Their shrieking forced Edwards to stop preaching so he and the other pastors present could minister to the congregation.
While perhaps the most dramatic response to one of his sermons that Edwards ever encountered, this event was just one in a long preaching ministry stretching from 1720 to 1758. Edwards would eventually be remembered more for his contributions to theology, yet his preaching played an important role in promoting revival in his congregation and throughout New England.
Aiming at hearts
The common depiction of Edwards is that of a stilted, rigid, wig-wearing figure reading his sermons in a monotone voice that lulled his listeners to sleep. Edwards was certainly no George Whitefield (1714–1770)—Edwards’s younger contemporary and the far better known preacher of the day—but the evidence suggests a more complicated picture than this caricature portrays.
During his first years in Northampton, Massachusetts, Edwards served as an assistant to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard (1643–1729), a well-respected pastor who called preachers to deliver their sermons without notes. For years Edwards felt slightly embarrassed that he could not manage to preach without writing his sermons out in full. Over time, though, Edwards loosened up, inspired in large part by a local visit from none other than Whitefield. After seeing Whitefield’s effect on his congregation—and feeling it himself (Edwards was brought to tears at his preaching)—Edwards worked harder at preaching extemporaneously, to the point that by the end of his career, he was often speaking from bare outlines.
Ultimately, Edwards preached to the hearts of his listeners, and he understood that how he delivered his sermon played a role in reaching them. As he explained in Religious Affections, Edwards believed that one of the main reasons God ordained the preaching of his Word was “the impressing divine things on the hearts and affections of men.” And he defended “an appearance of affection and earnestness in the manner of delivery” so long as it was “agreeable to the nature of the subject” and affected the listeners “with nothing but truth.” Edwards thus devoted himself to the earnest preaching of truth that penetrated the heart. …