Rhetorical Choices In Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God
Before the American Revolution, a movement known as the Great Awakening changed the way colonists looked at religion. The passion for religion had grown stale and colonists began to turn away and focus more on ideas like secular rationalism. Johnathan Edwards, a preacher during this time, wrote a sermon known as Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God to combat this movement. Edwards uses many rhetorical devices like diction and tone to sway his audience back to their God-fearing lifestyle through fear and guilt.
Edwards’s graphic diction plays a major role in convincing his audience to stay loyal to religion through fear and guilt. His use of active verbs with negative connotations allows his audience to see the urgency in his words, ” Your wickedness makes you as it was heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf”(Edwards 98). Edwards uses adjectives alongside these active verbs which strengthen the visual aspect of his sermon. The combination of negative sounding active verbs and adjectives like ”bottomless”, ”swiftly” and ”plunge” give the reader an idea of how they will be punished and what that will look like which instills great guilt in the audience. Edwards makes sure to directly state that it is ”you” the person reading that is the cause for your sin, ”It is true, that judgment against your evil works has not been executed hitherto”(Edwards 98). Using the word ”you” gives the reader accountability for what they have done. It makes them see that they are the reason they will be damned and become fearful of their actions, this fear would make them want to repent and remain faithful to religion.
Edwards also uses strong imagery to maintain a tone that is meant to scare the audience. He allows the reader to picture the harsh reality of their fate while emphasizing his harsh tone,” All your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock”(Edwards 98). Instead of just saying that your righteousness cannot save you, Edwards uses a metaphor that involves a spider’s web. Not only does the spider web fit with the dark fearful tone, but it also allows the audience to visualize how hopeless they truly are without religion. Their ideas of the Great Awakening will then be replaced by their fear of not being righteous enough for heaven. At another point, Edwards writes, ”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 a fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire”(Edwards 100). The spider is used once again to give the reader an idea that they are just a tiny insignificant bug in the eyes of an all-powerful spider that is God. He writes God this way so people can logically see that God is not someone whom you would want to oppose. The imagery that supports the tone allows the audience to gather an image of their fate Edwards is describing, and from there come to a logical conclusion that it would be best to stay loyal to their faith.
In conclusion, Edwards uses diction and tone to give the reader a feeling of hopelessness, guilt, and fear with which they would come to a logical conclusion to stay loyal to religion. The sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God was so effective due to its ability to scare its audience. Without Edwards’s excellent use of rhetorical devices, the sermon would most likely be forgotten and ineffective. Excellent writing did prevail and is why this will forever be a staple in American history.
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