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Jonathan Edwards’ Sermons and Discourses

Author
Category Articles
Date January 9, 2004

The Works of Jonathan Edwards Vol. 22, Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742 by
Jonathan Edwards. Edited by Harry S. Stout and Nathan Hatch, with Kyle P. Farley. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Pp. 582, $95.00 cloth.

This most recent volume of Jonathan Edwards’s Sermons and Discourses is the fifth sermon volume in the Yale Works of Jonathan Edwards. Building chronologically on the previous four sermon collections, this latest collection covers one of the most active and fascinating periods in Edwards’s remarkable preaching career. Twenty-nine sermons (twenty-five never before published) have been selected to represent Edwards’s ministry from 1739-1742 and to illustrate the wide array of pastoral, doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and community concerns Edwards addressed from the pulpit during the so-called Great Awakening. With an excellent and highly informative editorial preface by Harry Stout as well as meticulously detailed headnotes by Nathan Hatch, assisted by Kyle Farley, these sermons effectively illuminate the larger context and local circumstances relating to the colonial revival that brought Edwards international renown and also produced one of Edwards’s – and America’s – most famous sermons, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (included in this volume in several different versions).

During 1739, Edwards composed and delivered, along with many other sermons, his comprehensive thirty-part sermon series on Isaiah 51:8 – published posthumously as A History of the Work of Redemption (volume 9 in the Yale Works). This sermon series with its emphasis on the three interacting levels of holy history (aptly described by Stout as "the history of heaven and redemption; the history of earth, from the fall to the approaching millennium; and the history of hell and the horrors of damnation ") significantly informs Edwards’s preaching throughout the Great Awakening as he labored "to bring his hearers into contact with these worlds, and by implication, with their own place in the history of planet Earth" (7). Each unit in this complex sermon continuum on redemption history is built upon one comprehensive doctrine: "The Work of Redemption is a work that God carries on from the fall of man to the end of the world." Every message in the series is driven by Edwards’s belief that God’s redemptive plan through time and eternity is the greatest of all God’s work. All else in God’s divine purpose is subordinate, connected, or reducible to the work of salvation.

Within this dynamic vision of sacred history, Edwards sees the mid-eighteenth-century awakenings in New England as part of God’s grand redemptive design; for Edwards, spiritual revivals are irrefutable signs of God’s direct call to his people to participate actively in the progressive work of renewal and redemption that will eventually spread Christianity to the length and breadth of the earth. Accordingly, the thrust of Edwards’s awakening sermons – powerful, assertive, urgent, and richly illustrated with concrete and impressive images of life in heaven, hell, and earth – is that of prompting, promoting, and sustaining the revivals and historic work of redemption that Edwards believed is God-ordained.

The years from 1739 to 1742 can thus be seen as a crucial stage of transition in Edwards’s professional, intellectual, and spiritual life. During these years, he ponders and preaches extensively on the grand design of redemptive history in a way that subordinates theology to the work of redemption and the role of revival in this work. Edwards becomes deeply engaged, one might almost say obsessed, in efforts to rekindle the earlier evidences of spiritual renewal that had appeared in Northampton during 1734 – 1735 but then had declined disappointingly. Accordingly, Edwards’s sermon manuscripts from 1739-1742 reveal his attempts to modify his homiletics and sermon-making to achieve "new modes of preaching" (80), among them a more free and spontaneous delivery after the manner of the British itinerant revivalist George Whitefield, who traveled throughout the colonies and was a guest in Edwards’s Northampton pulpit as well. A number of the sermons in volume 22 demonstrate the briefer, more telegraphic sermon form that Edwards creates at this time to allow for presentations that could, when desired, be more flexible or extemporaneous.

Above all, Edwards’s writings during these crucial years disclose his profound sense of responsibility and urgency to reveal clearly to his audience their personal part and role within God’s majestic redemptive plan. Edwards’s sermons and the passion with which he communicates his central themes underscore the imperative that there is "no such thing as neuters" (497) in matters of religion. Ultimately in Edwards’s view and sermons, each individual must be warned and awakened to the knowledge that all persons will be either redeemed or reprobate, either saved or damned; for each person, eternity will be either heaven or hell; there will be no middle ground. It is the gospel minister – ordained to be the caretaker of souls and God’s colaborer on earth in the necessary work of revival and redemption – who brings these vital messages plainly to the world.

Edwards’s pastoral and sermonic strategies from 1739 – 1742 are thus replete with attempts to arouse, promote, and advance revival. He deliberately targets particular cohorts and groups in his congregation (children, youth, middle-aged, elderly, parents, heads of households). He carefully crafts age-specific sermons ("Children Ought to Love the Lord Jesus Christ Above All," "The Danger of Corrupt Communication Among Young People," “Youth is Like a Flower That is Cut Down," "The Importance of Revival Among Heads of Families," and "Aged Men and Women Joyfully Receiving Christ," all of which are included in this volume). He takes to the pulpit to warn against sins he believes are rampant among his parishioners, i.e., generalized attitudes such as spiritual apathy and indolence and more specific transgressions such as materialistic envy, malicious gossip, lewd conversations and behavior, irreverence, disrespect for authority, lasciviousness, drunkenness, and tavern-haunting.

Following a February 1742 sermon ("Renewing our Covenant with God"), Edwards urges his congregation to assent to a lengthy written covenant of renewal and accountability, a move felt by some to be an unwarranted assertion of ministerial control over their lives. Eventually, Edwards’s throbbing message on sin and divine wrath buttressed by increasingly stern judgments leveled regularly from the pulpit also provide evidence of Edwards’s own anxieties and fears (over such things as diminution of pastoral authority, inability to control unsanctified speech and activities, excessive religious enthusiasm, unregulated lay preaching, and so forth). Furthermore, the tenor and substance of the sermons during this period disclose signs of Edwards ‘s "changing relationship with his church" (511) and what hindsight would reveal, in Harry Stout’s words, to "the beginning of the end" (47) of Edwards’s pastoral supremacy in the Northampton parish. Membership in Edwards’s Northampton congregation increased only very slightly during the revivals, parishioners blocked him on issues he considered essential, and there were repeated evidences of strife and contention within the community Edwards so ardently hoped would be a shining example to the world of Christian grace and harmony. Paradoxically then, as the editors of this volume suggest, the Great Awakening was in fact "far from being great" (47) for the revivalist that America would come to associate with era of unprecedented vitality in American religious history.

Along with strikingly intense "awakening" sermons (for example, "Sinners in Zion," "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and "Zeal an Essential Virtue of a Christian"), this volume includes a number of "occasional" sermons that illustrate Edwards’s enormous skill and sensitivity to language and metaphor communicating to audiences in particular circumstances. There are funeral sermons such as "Youth Is Like a Flower Cut Down" (a moving message Edwards preached first upon the death of a young boy in 1740 and then tenderly revised for the funeral of his own daughter Jerusha some years later) as well as "The Sorrows of the Bereaved Spread Before Jesus" (a gentle, consoling sermon commemorating the life and death of Rev. William Williams, a fellow pastor and relative). There are also sermons delivered for designated fast days: "God’s Care for His Servants in Time of Public Commotions" (a fascinating exegesis of Revelation 7:13 as a call to self-examination and an offer of comfort in time of tumult and confusion during Britain’s war with Spain); "Praying for the Spirit" (a sermon in which Edwards asserts of his Northampton congregation that a "great part of you pretended to have been converted a few years ago” and then urges his parishioners to a united prayer of repentance); and "Importunate Prayer for Millennial Glory" (a message in which Edwards expresses his apocalyptic hopes and yearnings in light of recent awakenings and province-wide revivals).

One also finds in this collection such notable sermons as "They Sing a New Song" (a Thanksgiving sermon of great lyric beauty) and "The Means and Ends of Excommunication" (Edwards’s only extant excommunication sermon, delivered upon the removal from church membership of a Northampton woman known for her drunkenness). There are sermons of remarkable joy and encouragement: "Seeking After Christ" and "Like Rain upon Mown Grass." There are sermons that spring from pressing theological and pastoral issues facing Edwards: what does one say to parishioners who think they have faith but seem not to have experienced true conversion? In "The Subjects of a First Work of Grace May Need a New Conversion" Edwards carefully draws distinctions between true and false signs of conversion and between emotionalism and genuine piety. He likewise elaborates on the differences between justification and sanctification in sermons such as "Mercy Not Sacrifice," "Seasons of Ingathering," and "Zeal an Essential Virtue of a Christian." In each of these sermons are manifestations of ideas and materials that Edwards would develop more extensively in works such as Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival (written in late 1742), Religious Affections (1746), and An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People (1747).

In reading the sermonic messages in volume 22, one is struck by the weighty task Edwards took upon himself as spokesman for the momentous religious developments that shook the colonies in the mid-1700s. Edwards stood as a foremost voice in promoting, celebrating, and defending this movement, which for him was undeniable evidence of God’s power and presence at work among his chosen people on the North American continent. However, Edwards also found himself severely pressed to become a vocal opponent of the disturbing excesses and dissent that accompanied some of the phenomenal religious activity during the Great Awakening. To Edwards came the challenge of articulating the distinctions between true religion and the flashy, insubstantial shows of emotion that many mistook for revival and conversion. Finally, it is the brilliant clarity and depth as well as the nearly inexorable logic with which Edwards wrote and preached that makes his sermons even today a worthy subject of study and examination, whether in seminary or in literature classes around the world or in the hands of individual readers wishing for a vivid glimpse of one of the liveliest periods of religious history in America – and of one of the keenest minds that participated in it.

Helen Westra, the Associate Professor of English, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan, USA.

This review is taken from the Calvin Theological Journal November 2003, Volume 38, Number 2.
3233 Burton Street SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49546-43-87 and reprinted with permission.

The Banner of Truth publishes the following works by and on the great preacher. All of them are available from the on-line catalogue and shop:

ISBNTitleAuthor
3514Charity and Its FruitsJonathan Edwards
4855Religious AffectionsJonathan Edwards
5835Jonathan Edwards on Knowing ChristJonathan Edwards
4316Jonathan Edwards on RevivalJonathan Edwards
8443A History of the Work of RedemptionJonathan Edwards
3972The Works of Edwards (2 volume set)Jonathan Edwards
4944Jonathan Edwards – A New Biography (now in hardback)Iain Murray

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