The following is an edited excerpt of chapter three, “God in the Hands of Angry People” from the new book Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity by author, blogger, and Daily Beast contributor Matthew Paul Turner. In Our Great Big American God, Turner explores the complex relationship between God and America—from the Puritans to Billy Graham—highlighting the people, theologies, and events that have altered, manipulated, and edited the story of God.
On the eve of the 18th century, America and God were in trouble. That’s hardly shocking, since God and America are always in trouble. One of the common themes throughout America’s Christian history is that God and America are usually sleeping in separate bedrooms. And it’s always America’s fault.
However, as you may know or have experienced, America’s God always provides an answer, or at the very least he provides a man who’s convinced he knows the answer. In 1703, God provided the latter. He created Jonathan Edwards, a minister far too intelligent for his own good.
When Edwards was 9 years old, he possessed an enthralling passion for God. “My sense of divine things gradually increased,” he wrote in his diary, “and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness.” That’s how Edwards described the astute spirituality of his youth, like a man destined to become the 18th century’s Captain Kangaroo. Nonetheless, that “inward sweetness” awakened the future preacher to a rather uncommon youthful aptitude for holiness.
Shortly after his ninth birthday, Edwards experienced a “season of awakening.” That moment left a lasting impression on the prodigy. For months, young Edwards prayed in secret five times a day. He engaged his friends in conversations about God, even assembling groups for meetings of prayer and Bible study. “My mind was much engaged in it,” he wrote. But much to his and God’s chagrin, the poor kid soon “lost all of those affections and delights” and, as he put it, “returned like a dog to its vomit.”
Eventually, God’s last Puritan, as many consider him, turned away from his own retch and back to the things of God.
Jonathan Edwards is one of the most misunderstood individuals in American history. Some people praise him for his near-divine understanding of God, while others loathe him for personifying everything they hate about American Christianity. He was a complex individual. But those who play leading roles in the drama of American Christianity usually are complicated creatures.
Prior to Edwards’s gambling his career for the topic of hell, his words and wisdom helped people see God. And what a God it was, too. Compared to the God that most Americans were subject to at the time, Edwards’s God was glorious, full of beauty, and seemingly uninterested in making people feel insecure. Edwards was a mystic, a man who didn’t simply write or preach about God, he experienced him.
“And as I was walking there,” he wrote after having a spiritual vision, “and looked up on the sky and clouds; there came into my mind, a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express.”
How Edwards described God’s acclaim was unlike most before him, melding conservative theology with mystical revelations, spiritual pluses he called “the river of God’s pleasures.” Edwards’s skill with words helped him launch the 18th century’s “New Calvinism,” a born-again message that not only paid respect to the rich doctrine of John Calvin, but regenerated a lust within people to know God, feel God, and become moved to pursue living everyday holiness.
During his early tenure at his church in Northampton, Edwards became concerned about his town’s youth and their carelessness about spiritual matters. “Licentious and immoral practices seem to get great head amongst young people,” he preached.
In the spring of 1734, the untimely death of a young man became a catalyst for Edwards to reach Northampton’s youth. At the young man’s funeral, Edwards preached a sermon that, for him, turned into a memorial service for every soul in attendance:
“Consider, if you should die in youth… when others stand by your bedside and see you gasping and breathing your last or… see you put into the coffin and behold the awful visage which death has given you, how shocking will it be to them to think this is the person that used to be so vain and frothy in conversation. This is he that was so lewd a companion. This is he that used to spend of his time in his leisure hours so much in frolicking.”
Believe it or not, those dark words knocked ’em dead, which was exactly his intention. Later, Edwards noted that many of his youngest members “clearly exemplified” what he called the universal holiness of life.
The more spiritual successes that Edwards experienced, the more he seemed to intentionally infuse his sermons with language deemed to move a person’s emotional center—their souls—to spiritually and physically respond.
Edwards called these responses “the Affections,” bodily manifestations that he describes in such a way that they sound more like symptoms caused by zombie bites than the Spirit of God. “The children there were very generally and greatly affected with the warnings and counsels that were given them,” he once wrote after having taught the children of his church, “the room was filled with cries: and when they were dismissed, they, almost all of them, went home crying aloud through the streets, to all parts of the town.”
After engaging the youngest children, Edwards tested his words on the 16- to 26-year-olds. That gathering, like the others, also went better than he expected. By the time he finished talking, the Affections were everywhere. “Many seemed to be very greatly and most agreeably affected,” Edwards wrote. “[They were feeling] humility, self-condemnation, self-abhorrence.”
Edwards recorded numerous events in which results included some combination of fainting, convulsions, seizures, distress, love, trembling, groans, agonies of body, humility, the failing of bodily strength, and terrible, heartwrenching outcries of terror.
And yet, without question, Edwards saw that it was all good.
On July 8, Edwards traveled to the town of Enfield, Connecticut. He’d been invited to preach because some of Enfield’s holier residents were concerned that the Affections had as of yet passed over their town like the angel of death. According to one of the concerned few, the most they’d managed to muster out of their local heathens was some “considerable crying among the people” and a bit of “screeching in the streets.” That simply wasn’t good enough. They wanted the people of their town to experience whatever was happening in places like Suffield, Longmeadow, and Coventry, locations where the Affections had hit people like an atom bomb and proceeded to induce seizures, night sweats, and fits of rage. So they contacted Edwards and assigned to him a clear mission: Bring the Affections to Enfield.
Chances are, upon receiving his marching orders, Edwards knew which sermon he was going to preach, an effective number he’d delivered once before called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
With a calm demeanor, Edwards told the people of Enfield that God stood ready to toss their meaningless sin-ridden souls into a black hole of fiery torment, a terrible place where Satan waited and gleefully pined for the chance to manifest his dominion over their bodies. The picture that Edwards painted was horrendous and frightening, a duty he performed with ease, as if he’d gone on a field trip to hell a couple days before with his kids, witnessed its horror, and on the way home stopped at Olive Garden. But that’s how Edwards viewed hell, as if it were a geographical location. His words brought hell to life, making it real, tangible, and terrifying, like France or New Jersey or a Carnival cruise to Cozumel.
In his book Erasing Hell, Francis Chan, one of evangelicalism’s well-loved Bible teachers, writes, “God is love, but [God] also defines what love is. We don’t have the license to define love according to our standards.” If Chan is correct, this is how Jonathan Edwards defined the love of God in 1741:
“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 so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet ’tis nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment: ’tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to Hell the last night… but that God’s hand has held you up: there is no other reason to be given why you han’t 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 don’t this very moment drop down into Hell. Oh sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in.”
Even in context, taking on the presence of an individual from Enfield, Connecticut, in 1741, this prose was a vile, reprehensible excuse for a sermon. Nevertheless, for Edwards, the presentation was a success. The Affections fell over the crowd that night. In fact, Edwards’s words caused such a ruckus that he wasn’t able to finish his sermon. The one slightly hopeful line at the end didn’t even get spoken. Instead, the residents of Enfield were left dangling like spiders over the pits of hell that night, overcome with the spirit of Edwards’s “Affections.”
One day God will officially survive Jonathan Edwards. Some might argue that he doesn’t have to. But that, quite honestly, undermines the roles that humanity plays in telling and defining God’s story. While it’s unfair to pigeonhole Edwards simply as a mean, hell-obsessed preacher, it’s also impossible to separate his more Affections-driven banter from the richer, more heartfelt theologies that he was also known for writing and preaching.
Throughout his career, Edwards’s greatest battle was an inward struggle with self-glorification; he once wrote that he was “greatly afflicted with a proud and self-righteous spirit.” Comparing pride to a serpent, he admitted—and was confronted by others—that his pride was constantly “rising and putting forth its head, continually, everywhere.”
Jonathan Edwards changed the story of America’s God. He changed how the people of his time engaged God, editing a theology that was often portrayed harshly and dogmatically. He made strides to shape it with words into an almost beloved relationship between a grandiose God and a broken and depraved American heart. His words set the stage for what would become a steady foundation for America’s God to revolt against the Old World and bring about revolution. Historian Perry Miller suggests that America’s Enlightenment began and ended with Jonathan Edwards. And Edwards played a most defining role in bridging the space between Puritanism and what would eventually become American evangelicalism.
It was Edwards’s talent as a writer that, on one hand, makes him unforgettably important to so many still today. Preachers like John Piper, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, and others wouldn’t have much to write or preach about without Edwards dedicating the majority of his existence to literally emoting his version of John Calvin’s God onto the page. But it’s that same talent, that profound ability to create rich imagery with sentences and paragraphs, that would ultimately backfire on him. Rather than his gift becoming defined by his thoughts on God’s glory or God’s beauty, Edwards’s words helped to Americanize God’s hell, turning this country’s doctrines about fire and brimstone into HELLTM, an idea that would eventually become a method for introducing millions to God.
Excerpted from Our Great Big American God by Matthew Paul Turner. Used with permission from Jericho Books, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. See book for notes and attributions of quotes.