Rev. Jonathan Edwards delivered the execution sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741. This execution sermon is a lurid and bitter jeremiad against the "New York Negro rebels" who were then being hanged and burned at the stake for a suspected plot to destroy the village of New York by arson fire.
From May to August in 1741, at a market place described as lying in "a grassy valley", thirteen slaves were burned at the stake and seventeen were hanged. The executed were interred within a six-acre burial ground lying a long stone's throw southwest to a "marshy ravine". Hundreds were jailed, and seventy two were transported to certain death in the West Indies. Contemporaries compared these events to the 1692 Salem witch hysteria.
When Jonathan Edwards preached during July, twelve slaves had already been burned and nine were hanged, and the minister had no way of knowing how the horror would end.
Location Near Columbus Park And The New York Criminal Court
The courtroom tirades and lyrical coruscations of Edwards' close friend---the prosecuting attorney William Smith---delivered in the old City Hall, sent the slaves to fiery deaths amid the screaming populace. Smith's tirades and Edwards' sermon contain very similar nightmarish images which build to terrifying effect. Jonathan Edwards first met the then tutor William Smith at Yale University.
The as yet unordained Jonathan Edwards supplied the pulpit of a small breakaway Presbyterian church at the foot of William Street for eight months from August 1722 to May 1723. Edwards lived near the docks and close by the synagogue at the east end of Jew's Alley, lodging with Thomas Smith and his wife Susanna Odell.
Thomas Smith, tallow-chandler, was a trustee who had accepted Edwards into the small church. He came to New York in 1715 on account of his religious opinions. His son William Smith, the future prosecutor, had a younger brother named John, who became Jonathan Edwards' closest and abiding friend. During these New York days they shared conversations and long walks along the Hudson River above the village. Their correspondence continued for twenty years.
The cock weathervane was common in Calvinist New York, symbolizing the cock that crowed again when Peter denied Christ for the third time in the night. The weathervane silently turning aloft's stark warning is
There is a tradition that Edwards delivered his discourse while staring fixedly at the bell-rope that hanged directly opposite the pulpit. This uncharacteristic preaching manner drew attention. Edwards likely stared not to the rope, but directly beyond it to the Negroes segregated aloft in the second-floor gallery.
Dwelling upon the scenes of agony in the New York colony, imagining his fellow ministers officiating at the stake and the scaffold, exhorting the rebels and sinners to confess, Jonathan Edwards chose his text---Deuteronomy 32 verse 35: "Their foot shall slide in due time.".
"In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, who were God's visible people, and who lived under the means of grace; but who, notwithstanding all God's wonderful works towards them, remained [as verse 28] void of counsel. . .". The expression "void of counsel" here refers to the fact that not one lawyer in New York came forward to defend the accused slaves.
The sheriff of New York dropped the scaffold trap so frequently that summer that Jonathan Edwards almost naturally describes and threatens a physical fall to perdition--the thought of him "that walks in slippery places", or that "walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering", and the failed rebel whose "foot shall slide in due time". Ministers in New York stood by the unconfessed, unrepentant, or defiant slaves, exhorting them to admit their guilt, and from afar, Jonathan Edwards considered these scenes of falling and fire:
"O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath. . .You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do to induce God to spare you one moment."
. . .The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. . .
. . .The corruption of the heart of man is immoderate and boundless in its fury; and while wicked men live here, it is like fire pent up by God's restraints, whereas if it were let loose, it would set on fire the course of nature; and as the heart is now a sink of sin, so, if sin was not restrained, it would immediately turn the soul into a fiery oven, or a furnace of fire and brimstone.
Jonathan Edwards' nightmarish stress builds relentlessly. And then there is that apocalytic, grotesque and pitiless image of the slave burning at the stake, described as a fire-shrivelled spider---
"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 more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venemous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet, it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to wake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not 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 do not this very moment drop down into hell."
Edwards plays on the racial fears of the Connecticut settlers and their memories of Indian uprisings with two Deuteronomy verses: "I will spend mine arrows upon them," and "I will make mine arrows drunk with blood". Enfield is reminded that "the arrows of death fly unseen at noonday; the sharpest sight cannot discern them".
"The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.".
Jonathan Edwards did not create terrifying visions of torture in order to hurl his people into despair. The congregation, unwilling to accept any responsibility for slavery and its trade, needed "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" to ease the intolerable pangs of conscience that were provoked by the events in New York.
The people in Enfield "yelled and shrieked, they rolled in the aisles, they crowded up into the pulpit and begged him to stop," forcing Edwards at one point to "speak to the people and desire silence, that he might be heard". There was "great moaning & crying out through ye whole House. . .ye shrieks & crys were piercing & Amazing. . ." And yet the congregation knew its desire for a dead conscience.
Seizing the congregation with terror and working them to the pitch of panic, Edwards reassures the Elect and glides to a composed and hopeful conclusion. The skilled revivalist preacher makes a direct and moving appeal to the unrepentant sinner, to seek again the better way: "Now God stands ready to pity you; this is a day of mercy; you may cry now with some encouragement of obtaining mercy."
Edwards chides the sore-distressed: "What would not those poor damned hopeless souls give for the day's opportunity such as you now enjoy!" He speaks of the Great Awakening itself: "God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the greater part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time." Edwards then makes a final appeal to the unconverted, "Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed."
The citizens of Enfield, Connecticut were deeply satisfied with "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God." Rev. Stephen Williams records this content:
We went over to Enfl___where we met dear Mr E___of N___H___who preachd a most awakening sermon from these words---Deut. 32-35 and before sermon was done---there was a great moaning & crying out through ye whole House---What Shall I do to be Savd---oh I am going to Hell---Oh what shall I do for Christ &c. &c. So yt ye minister was obliged to desist---ye shrieks & crys were piercing & Amazing---after some time of waiting the Congregation were Still so yt a prayer was made by Mr W. & after that we descend from the pulpitt and discoursd with the people---Some in one place and Some in another---and Amazing and Astonishing ye power of God was seen---Several souls were hopefully wrought upon yt night. & oh ye cheerfulness and pleasantness of their countenances yt receivd comfort---oh yt God wd strengthen and confirm---we sung an hymn & prayd & dismissd ye Assembly.
The Enfield congregation was jubilant, but thrilling sermons in Connecticut could be no solace to the slaves in New York City.
The execution sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" became an American literary classic by expressing so purely, the acute and enduring British colonial conflicts between the popular, simple Christian sentiments, and the crimes of the merchant slave traders.
This sermon expresses the agony of an admirable, early American thinker, possessing reflexive intelligence, who could not ever bring himself to answer to these questions and conflicts. There is no resolution here, and Edwards' failure still suffuses, contorts, and ultimately darkening our spiritual and intellect life.
her Pompey, a Negro slave,
and eleven children.
Yet people were spiders
in your moment of glory,
at the Great Awakening--"Alas, how many
in this very meeting house are more than likely
to remember my discourse in hell!"
"Jonathan Edwards in Western Massachusetts".
(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1965), p. 42.
Edited with an Introduction by Thomas J. Davis.
(Boston: The Beacon Press, 1971).
Ronald A. Bosco, "Lectures at the Pillory; The Early American Execution Sermon". American Quarterly 30:3 (1978): 156-176.
Wayne C. Minnick, "The New England Execution Sermon, 1639-1800".
Speech Monographs 35 (1968): 77-89.
Kenneth P. Minkema, "Jonathan Edward's Defense of Slavery".
Massachusetts Historical Review: Vol. 4, 2002.
Kenneth P. Minkema and Harry S. Stout
"The Edwardsean Tradition and the Antislavery Debate, 1740-1865".
The Journal of American History: Vol. 92, No. 1, June 2005.
Wilson H. Kimnach was the first scholar to see Jonathan Edwards' famous Sinners as an execution sermon, stressing that such sermons had a literary format that was very different from the "hellfire and brimstone" sermon. Edwards was not characteristically a hellfire preacher.
Kenneth P. Minkema, Caleb J. D. Maskell, and Wilson H. Kimnach, Jonathan Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God": A Casebook. (New Haven: The Yale University Press, 2010). Authorized and elegantly sophistical analyses here, skillfully triangulated.
Scott D. Seay, Hanging Between Heaven and Earth: Capital Crime, Execution Preaching, and Theology in Early New England. (De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009): xi, 217.
Murder Most Foul; The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination.
(Harvard University Press, 1998).
The Gospel According To Mark, Chapter 14, Verse 72.
Detail From A Plan Of City Hall Circa 1740
Drawn By David Grim 1776
The artist is sighting into the southeast end of the Collect, with the main body of water hidden from view behind the small promontory which is seen in this lithograph at dead center. Potter's Hill was partly levelled to fill in the Collect. Also known as Hangman's Hill, it stood roughly on the present site of the Reade and Centre Streets crossing.
Topographical Drawing Of Hangman's Hill Overlooking Chambers Street
Representing New York During The Years 1742--1744
David Grim writes on this map, "Plot Negro's burnt here" by the drawing of a bonfire, and "Plot Negro Gibbeted" by the drawing of a man hanging from a gallows.
Between The Collect And Chambers Street
David Grim (1737--1826) was a Loyalist during the Revolutionary War in 1776 and kept "The Three Tuns" tavern in the Chapel Street. He later retailed in William Street. In New York City During the Revolution, Charles F. Allen describes "David Grim, the antiquarian tavern keeper, so well known and gratefully remembered in New York by every student of local history".
Charcoal Drawing By E. P. Christie
For the fire engine houses built here this was called "Fire Alley".
Sanguinis innocui, non satiata, aluit.
Sospite nunc patria, fracto nunc funeris antro,
Mors ubi dira fuit, vita salusque patent.
Here the wicked mob, unappeased,
Long cherished a hatred of innocent blood.
Now that the fatherland is saved,
And the cave of death demolished;
Where grim death has been,
Life and health appear.
Edgar Allen Poe's epigraph for "The Pit and the Pendulum".
Thomas St. John graduated from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and lived in Boston and Cambridge. He has published in the University of Utah's Western Humanities Review, in the Ball State University Forum, and in Counterpunch.
Forgotten Dreams: Ritual in American Popular Art (New York: The Vantage Press, 1987) is a collection of essays on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables; Rev. Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"; the Dakota Territory political symbols in Lyman Frank Baum's 1899 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; and the popular movie "Casablanca".
Nathaniel Hawthorne: Studies in The House of the Seven Gables is at http://www.hawthornessevengables.com.
Established In 1711