The Targets of George Whitefield & Jonathan Edwards

English: Lesson 45

“If you had heard these two sermons, would you have assumed that you were the target?”

George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards were masters at writing and delivering sermons, but were especially good at conveying emotion to sway a crowd. Both men are at the top of the list of the most famous preachers in American history, achieving their places through their extraordinary capabilities of speaking and writing sermons.

Whitefield was the greatest orator to ever live, gifted with the ability to speak to 20,000 people in an open field without amplification of any kind. His sermon, Marks of a True Conversion, was short but full of emotion, in which he raised the question in the minds of the audience, am I truly converted or just going through the motions of a Christian? He started with a verse from Matthew 18: 3, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven,” and returned to this verse throughout the sermon, but by the end of the sermon he never gave an answer on how to become like little children or to tell if you were truly converted. But this did not hinder Whitefield’s popularity or credibility in any way. The people responded to his emotion, not his logic.

Edwards, though not as great an orator as Whitefield, wrote the most famous “fire and brimstone” sermon in America.  Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God was a sermon packed full of powerful imagery which frightened a congregation about God’s terrible wrath and the horrors of Hell. He spoke to the congregation as if they were goats in sheep’s clothing, acting like Christians but not truly converted. He misused text from the bible to reinforce his points on the final judgement and ignored the New Testament text on Hell. The sermon invoked the rhetoric of terror, and it worked.

If I was a person in the audience listening to these two emotionally frightening sermons, I would most defiantly think they were targeted toward me. In Whitefield’s sermon, he is targeting Christians. In Edward’s sermon, he is targeting Christians that are not converted. If I walked into Edward’s sermon confident in my conversion, his terrifying imagery would be enough to make me start doubting if I actually was converted. The sermons were meant to scare you, and they certainly did. It would also have been much more powerful listening to the sermons than reading them. There is also the risk of being caught up in the emotion of a large crowd. Whitefield preached to thousands of people at one time, and if everyone there was full of emotion, it would be a miracle if you were not moved by the overwhelming emotion of every individual there. Not only would I be at risk for not trusting myself on whether I am converted or not, but I would not be able to trust anyone else. How do you know if that person is truly a Christian or just a goat in sheep’s clothing? No one in the audience, of Whitefield or Edward, would feel strong in their faith. Everyone would be desperately trying to find an answer to the question, am I saved or am I going to Hell? The only problem is, Whitefield and Edwards had their audience so wrapped up in emotion they do not realize that they never gave an answer. At the end of the day, the audience had just been preached what they had always been preached, only now they had the fear of the wrath of God in them and would leave thinking of ways to be better Christians.

In conclusion, these sermons would have felt like they were targeting me. How I would respond to them afterwards, I do not know. I am strong in my faith, but powerful imagery can change you, and I don’t think I would have been able to stand in the middle of an emotional crowd and say, I don’t think that’s right. I would have to step away from that sermon and discuss it with someone I trusted, if the sermon did not completely demolish the trust I had in all other Christians.

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