October 5 is the birthday of Jonathan Edwards, born in 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut. The Congregational minister’s preaching and writing made him one of the most important figures in colonial America. His famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” threatened doom for the unrepentant (“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”) but also emphasized the transforming power of Christ’s love (“Christ has flung the door of mercy wide open, and stands in the door calling”).
Edwards became an influential voice in the Great Awakening, the religious revival that swept the colonies in the 1730s and ’40s. Ministers with powerful preaching styles, such as George Whitefield from England, attracted huge audiences. Many established religious authorities, including Church of England officials, rejected the emotion-filled gatherings, but thousands of Americans listened spellbound. Even Ben Franklin, a genial skeptic, was moved. “It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manner of our inhabitants. . . . [O]ne could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street,” he wrote.
The Great Awakening was a religious movement, but it ultimately affected the politics of the era. It was the first truly mass movement in America, helping the colonists find a common identity. Many preachers emphasized democratic theories, such as that all people stand equal in the eyes of God, and that churches should be run by the people, not kings or bishops. As historians have noted, colonists who had already rejected the authority of a powerful clergy tied to the British monarchy were more likely to reject as well the power of royal officials.