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Intertextuality as a Veracity Mechanism. Jonathan Edwards’ Sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2019 13 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Komparatistik




Veracity Mechanisms

The King James Bible

Intertextuality as a Veracity Mechanism in Edwards’ Sermon




Jonathan Edwards delivered a sermon in Enfield, Connecticut, during the time of the so-called First Great Awakening (1730–1755) that is known by the title “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. This sermon combines vivid imagery of Hell with quotations from and plenty of allusions to the Bible. Reverend Steven Williams, who in his diary calls it “a very awakening sermon,”1 also notes that even “before the sermon was done there was a great moaning and crying out through the whole house […] so that the minister was obliged to desist”.2 The question thus arises, which elements or rhetorical aspects of the speech might have amplified the reactions of the crowd? As scholars like Edwin H. Cady, Thomas J. Steele and Eugene R. Delay have pointed out, it is the tactile sense first and foremost Edwards aims at in his sermon, a sense “which is all too seldom commanded by writing.”3 It is “his carefully contrived imagery” that “evokes a remarkably profound response.”4 But is this really all there is to it? Our assumption is that a specific type of intertextuality, consciously or unconsciously employed in the sermon, may have functioned as a “veracity mechanism” and augmented the effect of Edwards’ pulpit oratory.

Veracity Mechanisms

In his forthcoming book Tolkien Spirituality: Constructing Belief and Tradition in Fiction-based Religion, Markus A. Davidsen proposes that authors of supernatural fiction such as J. R. R. Tolkien may imitate rhetorical techniques usually employed in religious texts “in order to invest their stories with an aura of factuality.”5 He refers to these techniques as “veracity mechanisms” and distinguishes two main categories: “Evidence mechanisms”, which constitute the first category, “assert the reality of supernatural agents, places and processes within the story-world,” whereas “anchoring mechanisms”, the second category, either “assert or imply that the story speaks of the actual world.”6 Davidsen then further distinguishes different types of evidence mechanisms and anchoring mechanisms such as “conversion” and “teacher discourse” on the one hand, and “author-narrator compression” as well as “external prolepsis”, a term he borrows from Gérard Genette, on the other hand.7 This latter anchoring mechanism is meant to describe instances in which a narrator gives a representation of a thing as existing or happening before it actually does. Davidsen provides us with an example from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus tells his disciples that he will be with them until the end of time.8 Obviously, large sections of the Bible qualify as extending their prolepsis into the time of the reader (and possibly beyond, if it is not assumed that we live in the final years before the second coming of Christ).9 The Book of Revelation is, of course, a prime example: “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night….”10 Jonathan Edwards, as well, makes use of this anchoring mechanism – not to speak of the “author-narrator compression” which is, in the case of his sermon, total. Teacher discourse can be found throughout the Gospel wherever Jesus, “a character with narratively constructed authority, instructs the disciples about the Kingdom of God.”11 Last but not least, “conversion” comes into play as an evidence mechanism when a character in the fictional or religious narrative turns from being a non-believer to being a believer. This is, I would argue, best demonstrated in St. John 20:25–29 where the apostle Thomas declares that he will not believe in Jesus’ resurrection unless he shall put his finger into the print of the nails, and thrust his hand into Jesus’ side. When, eight days later, Jesus returns to the apostles and tells Thomas to examine his hands and thrust his hand into his side, Thomas finally believes, a scene painted by the Italian artist Caravaggio around 1600. Jesus then tells Thomas that “because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”12 The good Christian (he who is blessed) asks not for evidence, he believes without having seen. This type of veracity mechanism has probably had (and still has) a great impact. But which veracity mechanism is this paper all about? It is a veracity mechanism I would like to term “scriptural intertextuality.”13 The idea is that alluding to and quoting from a scripture such as the Bible or the Quran while preaching – an according audience presumed –, enhances the credibility of ones own words. One may in this manner recite passages that we have identified as evidence mechanisms within the religious text, such as the conversion of Thomas, and, at the same time, anchor ones own sermon within the realm of the assumed reality of the given text. To a religious person, this might be, in effect, very much the same as anchoring ones words in the actual world proper. In this study of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, we need not ponder the question whether a certain phrase he uses or a certain image he evokes is an intentional allusion to the Bible or an unconscious Biblicism that would come quite naturally to a preacher well-versed in and deeply influenced by the King James Bible.14 We are not so much interested in Edwards’ motifs as in the effects his sermon had and in the underlying mechanism that facilitated or boosted this effect, whether consciously or unconsciously employed.

The King James Bible

It goes without saying that part of the corpus for our analysis is Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” this text being our most important primary source.15 However, the choice of our second comparand, the King James Bible, might need some explanation. Stating simply, “the assertion that two items deserve to be compared implies that they have already been compared,”16 does not provide the reader with a sufficient explanation for why we have chosen the King James Bible instead of the Geneva Bible. Edwards was, after all, a theologian in the Reformed tradition, and the Puritans on the Mayflower had initially carried three copies of the Geneva Bible with them across the Atlantic to the New World.17 While the King James Version, which was first printed a mere decade before the Mayflower’s departure,18 was not immediately accepted by the Puritan dissenters, it had almost entirely replaced the Geneva Bible on the American continent by 1670. As Philip Stine notes, by 1700 the King James Bible had become “the Bible of America.”19 It would seem strange to assume that in spite of this Edwards had used the Geneva Bible instead for his 1741 sermon. Another scholar, Leland Ryken, rather polemically asserts: “What translation did Jonathan Edwards use? […] We hardly need to ask. It was the King James Version …”20

Intertextuality as a Veracity Mechanism in Edwards’ Sermon

Thus far we have established our research question, discussed the tools we will use in our analysis, and defined the corpus. In what follows we will take a closer look at Jonathan Edwards’ sermon. In particular, we will analyze the sections of the text in which he quotes the King James Bible directly. Fortunately, in the 1741 edition of the sermon these sections are visually highlighted. Not only are they emphasized by italics, but they are also initiated by the actual references such as Luk. 11. 21. While the congregation could of course not see the italics, they did hear the minister read the references out aloud which likely augmented the veracity mechanism presumably at work. It is therefore almost irrelevant whether most people who attended the “very awakening” sermon were themselves well-versed in the Bible. Even if some of them might have been in fact illiterate, the veracity mechanism would have still worked, because everyone knew that the Bible was meant to be the word of God, and they most certainly knew what a scriptural reference sounded like. Since, due to all the great moaning and crying,21 “the minister was obliged to desist,”22 it seems appropriate to go through the sermon chronologically and to focus on the first three quarters of the sermon. Trying to explain the reactions of the crowd by analyzing the last few pages of the printed version would be a barren and fruitless endeavour since these lines were not preached at Enfield.

The first words the minister utters during his sermon stem from the The Fith Book of Moses, called Deuteronomy. It is the verse that is most crucial to his sermon and its interpretation. The part he quotes from Deut. 32:35 reads: “[T]heir foot shall slide in due time.”23 The Bible continues: “[F]or the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.”24 Given the powerful and intimidating language of the entire verse, one is left to wonder why Edwards did not quote the rest of it. He does, however, pursue the motif of the sliding foot at length and quotes another Bible verse (Psal. 73:18) to demonstrate that the Israelites were always exposed to destruction since God had set them in slippery places and “one that stands or walks in slippery Places is always exposed to fall.”25 A second point he emphasizes by quoting Psal. 73:18 and 19 is that those who fall, fall “at once, without Warning.”26 In the Bible it says: “Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castedst them down into destruction. How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! they are utterly consumed with terrors.”27 As with the remainder of Deut. 32:35, Jonathan Edwards does not quote the second part of verse 19. At this stage of his sermon he is first and foremost keen to prove the suddenness of destruction. The horrors of Hell are not his focus here but they will be in due time. Two more things Edwards finds to be implied in Deut. 32:35 and Psal. 73:18: Firstly, that the sinners “are liable to fall of themselves […] As he that stands or walks on slippery Ground, needs nothing but his own Weight to throw him down.”28 Secondly, that “the Reason why they are not fallen already, and don’t fall now, is only that God’s appointed Time is not come. For it is said, that when that due Time, or appointed Time comes, their Foot shall slide.”29 Now, at the very latest, everyone in the congregation must have been convinced that what Jonathan Edwards was preaching was only what the Bible says – and what the Bible says makes sense not only because it is the word of God but also because phenomena like gravity can be observed in everyday life. Christopher Lukasik has pointed out that Edwards “coupled the certainty and universality of gravity’s action upon objects in the physical world with the certainty and universality of unregenerate man’s utter depravity and dependence on God in the metaphysical world.”30 This rhetoric could of course be described in terms of a veracity mechanism as well – just as repetition could be seen as a veracity mechanism. And Edwards makes extensive use of repetition …

The minister stresses that it is the “meer Pleasure of GOD” (i.e. “his arbitrary Will”) that “keeps wicked Men at any one Moment, out of Hell.”31 He then goes on to demonstrate how easily God may cast sinners into Hell and why this should be justified: As we “find it easy to tread on and crush a Worm […] thus easy it is for God when he pleases to cast his Enemies down to Hell.”32 That “[t]hey deserve to be cast into Hell” is clear to Edwards from yet another Bible verse. He quotes Luk. 13:7 where it is said about the tree which brings forth grapes of Sodom: “Cut it down, why cumbreth in the ground.”33 And reading the first sentence of the following paragraph: “They are already under a Sentence of Condemnation to Hell,”34 I immediately thought of Joh. 8:18 where it is written that “he that believeth not is condemned already …” To my delight this is exactly the verse he cites in the middle of said paragraph, adding that “every unconverted Man properly belongs to Hell; that is his Place; from thence he is. Joh. 8. 23. Ye are from beneath.”35 In the following paragraph, which is almost Ciceronian in style and worth citing completely, he states that all these poor unconverted sinners are now the Objects of that very same Anger & Wrath of God that is expressed in the Torments of Hell: and the Reason why they don’t go down to Hell at each Moment, is not because God, in whose Power they are, is not very angry with them; as angry as he is with many of those miserable Creatures that he is now tormenting in Hell, and do there feel and bear the fierceness of his Wrath. Yea God is a great deal more angry with great Numbers that are now on Earth, yea doubtless with many that are now in this Congregation, that it may be are at Ease and Quiet, than he is with many of those that are now in the Flames of Hell.36


1 Cited from Kimnach 2010, p. 1.

2 Ibid.

3 Cady 1949, p. 69.

4 Steele and Delay 1983, p. 242.

5 Davidsen 2020, p. 9.

6 Ibid., p. 10.

7 See ibid., pp. 11–15. – Other veracity mechanisms are the “matter-of-fact effect”, “justification” (being evidence mechanisms), “reader-narratee compression”, “onomastic anchoring”, and “thematic mirroring”.

8 See ibid., p. 14.

9 It is noteworthy that Jesus’ words in St. Matthew 16:28 have not completely discredited his narrative. At this point Jesus assures his listeners that many of them will not die before the end of time: “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” Cf. also St. Mark 9:1; St. Luke 9:27.

10 Revelation 14:11.

11 Davidsen 2016, p. 532.

12 St. John 20:29.

13 Calling it “biblical intertextuality” would exclude references to other “sacred” scriptures such as the Quran and the Talmud. – Also, by using the term “intertextuality”, I am not referring to any particular theory of “intertextuality” such as the one put forth by Gérard Genette (see Genette 1997), who terms what most other authors have called “intertextuality” “transtextuality” and restricts its use to “plagiarism, quotation or allusion” (Martínez Alfaro 1996, p. 281; cf. Allen 2011, p. 98), but rather vaguely to a potentially perceptible interconnection between texts (whether intended or not) that may influence an audience’s interpretation of a given text or speech. However, as a matter of pragmatism, we will first and foremost consider quotations and allusions noteworthy.

14 Cf. Luz 2004, p. 130 who does formulate “criteria for identifying biblical allusions in the Gospel of Matthew.”

15 I will rely on the digital version put forth by the University of Nebraska which was edited by Reiner Smolinski: Edwards 1741.

16 Freiberger 2018, p. 8.

17 Cf. Stine 2011, p. 204.

18 Cf. ibid., p. 196.

19 Ibid., p. 204.

20 Ryken 2011a. – Leland Ryken is the author of the book The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation: Ryken 2011b.

21 People shouted “What shall I do to be saved?” and “Oh, I am going to hell!” and similar things (cited from Kimnach 2010, p. 1). Reverend Steven Williams also notes that “[the] shrieks and cries were piercing and amazing” (ibid.).

22 Ibid.

23 Deut. 32:35; Edwards 1741, p. 3.

24 Ibid.

25 Edwards 1741, p. 4.

26 Ibid.

27 Psal. 73:18,19; Edwards 1741, p. 4.

28 Edwards 1741, p. 4.

29 Ibid.

30 Lukasik 2000, p. 222.

31 Edwards 1741, p. 5.

32 Ibid.

33 Luk. 13:7.

34 Edwards 1741, p. 6.

35 Ibid.

36 Edwards 1741, p. 6f.


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Titel: Intertextuality as a Veracity Mechanism. Jonathan Edwards’ Sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"