The early American writers Jonathan Edwards and John Winthrop had quite little in common even though they were backers of the same basic principles of Christianity. Perhaps this difference is because of the situations each faced during his time of writing sermons. Edwards felt as though the ideals that the new world were built upon were slipping whereas his predecessor, Winthrop, wrote while on the threshold of a new religious and social experience.
When it comes to performing an analysis of Winthrop and Edwards, it should be noted that nonetheless, both Jonathan Edwards and the Puritan John Winthrop have a number of traits common to Puritan writers and although these are expressed differently, the same basic understanding of God as a deity who wished for his people to lead good, generous lives is present throughout. Even though these variations between the two men could be situational, it is worth exploring how they were similar based on basic Puritan ideas.
Unlike some earlier prominent Puritans, Jonathan Edwards uses the “fire and brimstone” approach to confront his congregations with what he feels to be the rage of God. The sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was meant to make Edward’s listeners aware of the fact that their behavior and conduct on earth was far more important than anything else and that certain punishment in hell awaited those who did not adhere to proper religious values as expressed in the Bible. While he clearly wished to have an impact on the increasingly different behavior of the colonists, Edwards considered it most effective to discuss God’s wrath with rampant sin rather than offer gentle protestations about sinful behavior. To achieve his end of making his congregants aware of their precarious position on earth (as they could be cast into hell at any time) he reminded them of the power of God and his capacity for doing away with sinners.
In Edwards’ view, despite the fact that they could be redeemed through Christian behavior and were not elected to either burn in hell or savor heaven from birth, human beings were still pathetic creatures, always at the mercy of God. He equates the relationship between men and God by reminding his listeners how it is, “easy to tread on and crush a worm that we see crawling on the earth” (Edwards 499) and how it is much the same for God when he views people. By equating human beings with worms in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” Edwards is stressing the level of God’s mercy as well as inspiring his congregants to strive to be something higher and more worthy in the eyes of God. In general, through his sermon aimed at changing the behavior or his congregation by reminding them that they were always at God’s mercy, Edwards is attempting to create better individuals. Although “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is certainly a frightening sermon, it appears that Edwards wished it to be so in hopes that he could inspire his people.
Edwards believed that human beings had the power to save themselves and that the idea of election was not valid. Although he suggests that all human beings are born with innate depravity, by living a good life, this can be overcome. There is a lack of the typology present in many other Puritan writings and instead of integrating this aspect, Edwards instead focuses on the present actions of individuals, rather than the prophesy or the lives of scriptural figures. One of the most prominent themes in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is that of irresistible grace. This idea is based upon the notion that it is always up to God whether he wishes to save or condemn someone and that at any moment, one could be cast away into hell, or in other words, “There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment” (Edwards 499).
To the Puritan Jonathan Edwards, and along the lines of irresistible grace, sinners are only kept on earth because God is not ready to take them yet. At one point in ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” , Edwards expresses this by stating, “The only reason why they [sinners] are not fallen already, and do not fall now, is only that God’s appointed time has not yet come. For it is said when that due time, or appointed time comes…then they shall be left to fall, as they are inclined by their own weight” (Edwards 499). This “weight” they carry is not just that of their present sin, but of the innate depravity all humans are burdened with. After Edwards states this, he makes this “threat” more palpable by directing it toward individuals and says, “God is a great deal angry with great numbers that are now on earth; yea, doubtless, with many that are now in this congregation” (Edwards 500). Although one cannot help but think this is a “scare tactic” method of reforming a congregation and inspiring them to have a rebirth in their actions and behaviors, it is nonetheless a striking departure from many other Puritan texts and must have been a radical sermon at the time.
While Edwards (who came quite a bit later than Winthrop) was beginning to see a deterioration in many of the motivating principles behind the Puritan and religious immigration to America, his predecessor, John Winthrop came at a time when the colonies were new. As a governor in the newly-founded Massachusetts Bay Colony and prominent religious and civic person, Winthrop saw it as his duty to remind fellow Puritans of why they came and the importance of what they were doing. To John Winthrop, the new communities that were being set up were a test of sorts as they would either serve as a model for (or warning against) the new religious communities. While Edwards gave much credence to the idea of irresistible grace and innate depravity, Winthrop urged his people to act their best and live up to the standards God would want. He was more based in the tradition of covenant theology as he believed that every individual had particular duties and roles to fulfill. Furthermore, Winthop relies more on typology and presents models of behavior from stories from the bible. The main difference between these two early writers is not only in these few details, but rather in their approaches and reasons for what they wrote. When Winthrop was writing “Model of Christian Charity”, he believed in the idea of a perfect community based on shared values. In many ways, it seems as though he saw the potential for a utopia to exist in the new land. Edwards, however, was on the other side of the Puritan movement. When he gave his sermon discussed above, he was fearing new influences on the pure values that Winthrop and other religious leaders founded and feared that the people of the new land were digressing into increasing sin and depravity.
Winthrop also communicated through sermons. One of the most powerful sermons is entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity.” While this sermon deals with some mundane questions, particularly about when and how to give money to help another who is less fortunate, it also espouses some very typical Puritan ideas. For instance, Winthrop sees it as a Christian duty to help the needy, no matter what the cost. As he states in one of the important quotes from “A Model of Christian Charity”, “When there is no other means by whereby our Christian brother may be relieved in his distress, we must help him beyond our ability” (208). He details at length the importance of doing this and by doing so he is expressing his hope for a utopian Christian community based on ideals expressed in the bible. By using religious typology and discussing the situations biblical characters faced, Winthrop is guiding (as opposed to scaring) his people into the “right” way. When the question is posed within the sermon, “What rule must we observe and walk by in cause of community of peril” (Winthrop 210) Winthrop is suggesting how the rules he discusses for his community must apply in a new world with Indians and other challenging situations. His answer to this and other questions is that it is only by being a true generous Christian that one is fulfilling his or her covenant with God and this, rather than the threat of hell, is the way to righteousness and salvation.
Although it seems that Winthrop’s optimism in “A Model of Christian Charity” may have played a role in many of the ideas behind his sermon, it is clear that he believed in a just God. Edwards also seemed to believe that God was just, but he is presented in a more harsh light. Although both representations of God are different, they reflect the range of fundamental Puritan ideas.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : The Influence of the Enlightenment on The Formation of the United States • Full Summary and Analysis of “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne • Full Plot Summary and Analysis of “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne : The Effects of Sin on the Mind, Body, and Soul • Analysis and Plot Summary of “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathnaiel Hawthorne