Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, & Douglas A. Sweeney, eds. The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), xlvii, 281 pp.

Recently our local newspaper announced a legal judgment against Bill Gates with the headline “Microsoft in Hands of an Angry Judge.” Apparently Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741) is still a fixture in America’s popular imagination--if only as a literary relic of America’s most terrifying preacher. The editors of this sermons reader point out that Edwards’s intent in this most famous American sermon was to “raise people up from their fears and doubts to a higher reality, and to everlasting peace” (p. xli). They could have also indicated that Edwards argued several years later in his Religious Affections (1746) that while fear can never inspire true religious affections, it is sometimes useful to show the complacent their need for true religion. The preacher of “Sinners” is like the passer-by, Edwards explained, who calls out to an oblivious neighbor relaxing on the first floor of his house that the second floor is on fire and he had better get out.

It is high time that Americans learn that their “greatest religious genius” (p. ix) preached more about God’s beauty than God’s wrath, and suggested that those driven to religion by terror are probably unconverted. This collection of fourteen sermons, five of which have never been published before, will go a long way toward remedying that and other misperceptions. They will also help show scholars, who typically bypass the sermons on their way to his more accessible and academically respectable treatises, that for Edwards the sermon was of all genres “the most revealing of his inmost thought” (Wilson Kimnach). As Kimnach has argued, sermon production was Edwards’s mental workshop, where he constructed daring theological visions from the stuff of biblical narrative. Yet because most of Edwards’s 1250 extant sermons are still unpublished, and only seventy were in print before the current Yale edition of Edwards’s Works started publishing more from manuscript, some of that theological daring is yet to be seen.


" There are signs . . . in one of the previously-unpublished sermons (“He That Believeth Shall Be Saved” [1751]) of Edwards’s departure from Reformation soteriology."

But this volume gives us a foretaste of things to come. It shows, among other things, that like all great religious thinkers Edwards defies categorization. It is anachronistic to call him a Puritan because, among other things, he championed a revivalism most Puritans would have scorned. He was neither medieval (because he devoured Locke and Newton, and used them to help formulate his new theological vision) nor modern (since he was convinced that reason needed revelation). In fact, philosopher Stephen Daniel has recently pegged Edwards as a postmodern because of his construal of reality and meaning as a system of communicative being. Yet Edwards had far more confidence in reason than most (even religious) postmoderns have today.

The Sermons Reader also contains surprises for those who are familiar with Edwards only through secondary accounts and a cursory reading of the most widely published Edwardseana--all too common for scholars who write about Edwards. There are signs, for example, in one of the previously-unpublished sermons (“He That Believeth Shall Be Saved” [1751]) of Edwards’s departure from Reformation soteriology. Edwards preached, “We can’t be saved without being good, but ‘tis not because our goodness is sufficient, or can do anything of itself. But ‘tis because all whose hearts come to Christ will be good, and if men ben’t good, their hearts never will come to Christ” (p. 115). This is not semi-Pelagianism, but the sinner’s disposition plays a far more prominent role for Edwards than it does for theologians in the Reformed and Lutheran traditions. It is for this emphasis on infusion--which Edwards derived by the “Dutch connection” from scholastics such as Peter van Mastricht (1630-1706), who grew up in the Catholic region of Holland and was steeped in Suarez--that Anri Morimoto could describe Edwards’s soteriology as “Catholic” (Jonathan Edwards and the Catholic Vision of Salvation, Penn State Press, 1995), and others could talk about Edwards serving as a bridge between the Roman Catholic and Reformed traditions.

These sermons also show both Edwards’s assurance of salvation--which scholars have questioned for decades--and the reason why Edwards’s heirs often had difficulty finding assurance. In a newly published sermon from 1740 the Massachusetts pastor was confident that assurance of salvation was an “ordinary” privilege enjoyed by most Christians (“I Know My Redeemer Lives,” p. 156). But in an earlier sermon--not uncharacteristic of later preachings and writings--he described holiness as being conformed in heart and life to Jesus Christ, and then proclaimed that “those that have not this holiness are not in the way to heaven.” By way of testing one’s holiness, the seeker is asked, “Is it your delight to obey and hearken to the will of God?” (“The Way of Holiness,” 1722, pp. 5, 7, 11) This was the sort of spiritual rigor that could send those with the spiritual honesty of Martin Luther into the pit of despair. And it is for this reason that the spiritually sensitive would do well to read Luther on justification after reading Edwards on sanctification.

Another surprise for the casual reader of Edwards is his insistence that charity to the poor is more important than “external duties to God” (“The Reality of Conversion,” 1740, p. 98). In fact, Edwards went on, liberality toward the indigent is God’s appointed way for both sinners and saints to “seek his face.” It is a good way to get the Holy Ghost “poured out upon families . . . [and] upon a people.” Even [the Roman centurion] Cornelius’ salvation was in some sense a reward for his almsgiving (“Much in Deeds of Charity,” 1741, pp. 203, 206, 210). So much for those who would label Edwards as a stereotypical evangelical.

Edwards was not so above his time that he did not fall prey to some of its racist presuppositions. Although he proclaimed the spiritual equality of regenerate slaves, he nevertheless owned some. But he was willing to condemn racist attitudes toward Native Americans. In another newly-published sermon delivered “to the Mohawks at the Treaty, August 16, 1751” he lambasted the “white people” who “have greatly neglected you.” Especially guilty were “many of the English and the Dutch [who] choose to keep you in the dark [by refusing to teach Indians to read] for the sake of making a gain of you” (pp. 107, 108).

If this collection shows a new Edwards unfamiliar to most, it also reveals why this philosopher-theologian has fascinated so many for so long. “The Reality of Conversion,” the first of the newly-published sermons, suggests why readers in our day feel both connected and alienated when reading this shy and bookish preacher. The overwhelming sense of sin and evil which Edwards conveys is understandable and even reassuring in this era of holocausts and ethnic cleansings. We want to know that our sense of horror is not illusory, and that others have also seen that humanity can be damnable. But at the same time Edwards’s vision of God’s holiness--and the resulting light years of distance between us and God--make Edwards seem to be from another planet. God will hate the damned, he charges, and nothing we seekers can ever do will bring us closer to God. Even if “it were all done from love to him, yea, and ten thousand times as much, still all would deserve no regard from God from such a rebel as you have been . . . for sin is a thing of infinite demerit and, therefore, if you can fill millions of ages in prayers and sufferings and watchfulness and labor, it would be nothing, for nothing short of an infinite merit can be an atonement for your sin” (p. 103).

It was for preaching like this that Unitarians, who controlled intellectual culture after the Civil War, read Edwards out of the American literary and philosophical canon. It took the horrors of the world wars in this century to convince atheist Harvard historian Perry Miller that only Edwards’s fixed stare at evil could rescue America from its disastrous dalliance with liberalism’s pollyannish naiveté.

But there are other hints in this collection of why there is a continuing renaissance of interest in Edwards among American intellectuals. There is his aesthetic vision, which distinguishes him as probably the foremost of Christian theologians who relate God and beauty. There is his incomparable use of imagery. Consider, for instance, the following image proffered to his Indian auditors (the kind of earthy imagery that was routinely excised by fussy 19th-century editors): “A wicked man that hears the Word of God and won’t receive it is like a piece of dung in the light of the sun. It sends forth a stink, but reflects no light” (”To the Mohawks at the Treaty,” pp. 109-10). And there is his mysticism. As the editors put it, Edwards is the “first major Reformed thinker since the Reformation era to place a high premium on the doctrine of union with Christ” (p. xliv).

This collection was assembled by three of the top Edwards scholars. Wilson Kimnach is the general editor of the Yale edition’s sermon volumes; his 250-page introduction in volume ten of that series is magisterial. Kenneth Minkema is the executive editor of the Yale edition and may know more about the Edwards corpus than anyone alive. Douglas Sweeney was an associate editor of the Yale edition for several years, and is editing one of its volumes on the private notebooks. Their introduction to Edwards’s preaching, life and times, and theological aims is clear and illuminating.

There is no better place than his sermons to get at the way Edwards’s bold theological vision absorbs and transforms the biblical text. And there is no more representative selection of his sermons in one volume than this collection.

Gerald R. McDermott, Roanoke College


McDermott is the author of Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths (Oxford University Press, March 2000).

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