Jonathan EdwardsThe antithesis of John Woolman is Jonathan Edwards, who was born only 17 years before the Quaker notable. Woolman had little formal schooling; Edwards was highly educated. Woolman followed his inner light; Edwards was devoted to the law and authority. Both men were fine writers, but they reveal opposite poles of the colonial religious experience.
Edwards was molded by his extreme sense of duty and by the rigid Puritan environment, which conspired to make him defend strict and gloomy Calvinism from the forces of liberalism springing up around him. He is best known for his frightening, powerful sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (1741):
[I]f God should let you go, you would immediately sink, and
sinfully descend, and plunge into the bottomless gulf....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....he looks upon you as worthy of nothing
else but to be cast into the bottomless gulf.
Edwards's sermons had enormous impact, sending whole congregations into hysterical fits of weeping. In the long run, though, their grotesque harshness alienated people from the Calvinism that Edwards valiantly defended. Edwards's dogmatic, medieval sermons no longer fit the experiences of relatively peaceful, prosperous 18th-century colonists. After Edwards, fresh, liberal currents of tolerance gathered force.