Response to Critical Essays/Books on Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

Length: 900 words

There are strengths and weaknesses to the book by Kimnach et al. Its strength is its comprehensiveness and its utility in the classroom environment. The background essays included in the compilation help dispel some of the myths and simplistic caricatures surrounding the personal of Jonathan Edwards. The book’s attempt to link the Sermon with the socio-historical phenomenon of the Great Awakening is of immeasurable value to students and lay readers. It also traces Edwards’ opinions on conversion, as well as his take on Puritan methods for Christian propaganda. The book succeeds in making 18th century theology intelligible to twenty-first century minds, but it accomplishes this with grace and ease and transparency of thought that is the envy of any who have taught American religious history. For example, esoteric concepts like the “sovereignty of God, predestination of the elect, origin of sin, and divine justice” are all neatly explained and weaved together into a logical whole that is easy for students to understand.

As for the shortcomings in the book by Kimnach et al, it falls short in including leading commentators on Edwardian scholarship. Perry Miller was included, but conspicuous by his absence is George Marsden. Instead

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of these noted figures, popular cultural icons were included, which has the effect of diluting scholarly rigor. The views of Mark Twain, Robert Lowell, Edwin H. Cady and Marilynne Robinson are all interesting, but are not directly focused on Edwards and his key scholarship. Other inclusions are more perplexing. For example, Teddy Roosevelt and participants in the Toronto Blessing are a bit out of place in the context of the book. Despite these drawbacks, the casebook is still offers value for students and will be of use in the classroom. (Kimnach et. al. 12)

The anecdotal recapturing of the sermon experience is one of the highlights of the work by Stephan Turley. For example, the immediate reaction of the congregation upon hearing the sermon is noted thus: “…before the Sermon was done there was a great moaning & crying out throughout the whole house: what Shall I do to be Saved–oh I am going to Hell–of what shall I do for a Christ, etc. The shrieks & cries were piercing & amazing (qtd. in Medlicott 218).” (Turley 78) Another positive feature of the book is its location of Edwards’ famous sermon in the context of larger American sermonic literature. To this extent the book is a continuation of the work by scholars Wilson Kimnach and Helen Westra, who excelled in documenting the evolution of American Christianity.

What is fresh about the anthology by Sang Hung Lee is its documentation of the cultural aftershocks that the Sinners sermon had had on American society. Indeed, so controversial was the sermon at the time of its first delivery that 18th and 19th century scholars evaded the topic of Edwards’ theological inheritance and its rather unwilling descendants. But the commentaries by Sang Hyun Lee fills this void in scholarship satisfactorily. It is not hyperbole to claim that we all owe Sang Hyun Lee for not only performing apt editing on the Edwardian oeuvre, but also adding valuable commentary that complements the core texts. Coverage is given to Edwards’ thought on a wide range of subjects, including the nature of God, God’s love, and human faith.

The book by Jon Meacham titled American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation has more drawbacks than merits. Rather than being a niche scholarship meant for students and professors, this book is addressed to a popular audience. While this increases its reach, in the same token it decreases its rigor and depth. Author Jon Meacham agrees as much when he states in his acknowledgements that “it is not a work of historical or theological scholarship … it is an essay that covers a great deal of territory quickly and briefly” (pp. 389-90). Though this is a big drawback it is covered up by impressive touch ups and blurbs by the publisher. The provision of a Bibliographical list at the end of the book is no compensation for its overall misguidance. Sweeping generalizations and overtly political censorship are demerits attached to the book. Rather than illuminating and advancing this important field of religion and politics, it obscures and retards it. Of the past twenty years of careful, intelligent scholarship on the subject, he seems wholly unfamiliar. Therefore, what purports to be a balanced, careful, and accurate study, is in fact a superficial, ideologically biased, and historically inaccurate account. The work and influence of the most important Christian theologian of the 18th century, Jonathan Edwards, is only briefly dealt with. For example the Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God sermon is mostly criticized for its vehement message with no attention paid to its literary and historical significance.

Works Cited:

Wilson H. Kimnach, Caleb J.D. Maskell, and Kenneth P. Minkema, editors. Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”: A Casebook. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010. 204 pages.

Turley, Stephen Richard. “Awakened to the Holy: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in Ritualized Context.” Christianity and Literature 57.4 (2008): 507+.

Sang Hyun Lee (Editor), The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 21. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. xii + 566 pp.

Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. New York: Random House, 2006. 416 pp.

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