Why Was the Preaching of Jonathan Edwards So Effective?

Reverend Jonathan Edwards was a powerful leader in the American First Great Awakening. His style, but more important his heart, can inform us today.  

By Mark D. Harris

The name Jonathan Edwards is the first many people remember when discussing the Great Awakening. His signature sermon, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, delivered 8 July 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut, was electrifying; with wails and cries in the congregation and the fear of God on the lips of His people. It is the most famous sermon of the Great Awakening, a move of the Holy Spirit in which an estimated 5% of the population of the colonies found the Lord.

In a communications class today, however, Edwards might have received a failing grade on delivery. Most modern speakers are taught to speak from notes, to gesticulate, to vary the inflection of their voices, and to mix current events, humor, and even music and drama into their preaching. Edwards did nothing of the sort. He was an academic who spent most of his work hours in his pastor’s study. He wrote every speech, choosing each word with exquisite care, and read the sermon in a monotone voice. Edwards was so nearsighted that he kept his text close in front of his face to see it. Sinners has neither jokes nor anything calculated to identify with or engage the congregation. Churchill, the foremost orator of the first half of the 20th century, would probably have commended Edwards for reading his sermons but condemned him for his presentation.

Why, then, was Edwards effective? Edwards’ first and greatest asset was the power of God in his life. Effective communication requires the right message, the right messenger, the right method, and the right recipients at the right time. Edwards was a willing and faithful tool in the hand of God, who in His perfect wisdom and power, accomplished the results. Also, Edwards slaved to find exactly the right words and construction for his sermons. Even today his word pictures impale the haughty heart:

“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.”

Such images, delivered by a faithful man of God, himself bursting with the power of the Spirit, were overwhelming. Like Samuel before him, the Lord let none of Edwards’ words fall to the ground. Culture in 2013 is vastly different than in 1740, but the Truth is unchanged. Nonetheless how many preachers today would have the courage to preach a 21st century version of Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God? No wonder Screwtape in CS Lewis’ Screwtape Proposes a Toast calls modern man “insipid”.

Andre Agassi tells us that “Image is everything” and our life coaches teach that “it is appearance that counts”. Jonathan Edwards, poor as he was with what modern man calls effective public speaking, transformed a nation with the power of God.

We will let Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, have the last word. In his farewell address, January 11, 1989, Reagan said:

“I won a nickname, ‘The Great Communicator.’ But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things.”

Jonathan Edwards was a great communicator who helped change America into the nation it has become because he communicated great things.

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