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Burning Slaves at the Stake

On "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"

by THOMAS ST. JOHN

Rev. Jonathan Edwards delivered the hellfire and brimstone "spider" sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741. This topical sermon is a bitter jeremiad against the "New York Negro rebels" who were then being executed for plotting to burn the village of New York to the ground.

From late May to August 1741, in the public market place that later became known as "the Five Points", thirteen slaves were burned at the stake, sixteen were hanged, hundreds were jailed, and seventy-two were transported to certain death in the West Indies. Contemporaries compared these events to the Salem witch hysteria of 1692. When Edwards preached in early July, twelve slaves had already been burned, and nine were hanged; the minister had no way of knowing how many more would be tortured.

The courtroom tirades of Edwards’ personal friend, the prosecuting attorney William Smith sent many innocent slaves to their fiery deaths amid the screaming populace. Smith’s tirades echo in the nightmarish images that build to terrifying effect in "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God". Jonathan Edwards met William Smith at Yale University, and from August 1722 to May 1723 lodged with Susanna Odell, Madam Thomas Smith, in New York City–the prosecuting lawyer’s mother. Edwards supplied the pulpit of a small Presbyterian church on Williams Street, near the docks. Thomas Smith was a church trustee. William’s younger brother, John Smith, became Jonathan’s closest, and abiding friend both at Yale, and during the New York days, their correspondence continuing twenty years later.

There is a tradition that Edwards delivered his discourse while staring fixedly at the bell-rope that hanged directly opposite the pulpit. This uncharacteristic preaching manner drew attention. Edwards likely stared not to the rope, but directly beyond it to the Negroes segregated in the gallery.

Dwelling upon the scenes of agony in the New York colony, imagining his fellow ministers officiating at the stake and the scaffold, exhorting the rebels and sinners to confess, Jonathan Edwards chose his text: Deuteronomy 32 verse 35: "Their foot shall slide in due time.".

"In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, who were God’s visible people, and who lived under the means of grace; but who, notwithstanding all God’s wonderful works towards them, remained [as verse 28] void of counsel. . .". The expression "void of counsel" here refers to the fact that not one lawyer in New York came forward to defend the accused slaves.

The sheriff of New York dropped the scaffold trap so frequently that summer that Jonathan Edwards almost naturally describes and threatens a physical fall to perdition–the thought of him "that walks in slippery places", or that "walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering", and the failed rebel whose "foot shall slide in due time".

"O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath. . . .You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do to induce God to spare you one moment.".

Then there is that grotesque and pitiless image of the slave burning at the stake, seen as a fire- shrivelled spider:

"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 fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venemous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet, it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to wake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.".

Edwards plays on the racial fears of the Connecticut settlers and their memories of Indian uprisings with two Deuteronomy verses: "I will spend mine arrows upon them," and "I will make mine arrows drunk with blood".

"The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood." Enfield is reminded that "the arrows of death fly unseen at noonday; the sharpest sight cannot discern them".

Jonathan Edwards did not create terrifying visions of torture in order to hurl his people into despair. The congregation, unwilling to accept any responsibility for slavery and its trade, needed "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" to ease the intolerable pangs of conscience that were provoked by the events in New York.

The people in Enfield "yelled and shrieked, they rolled in the aisles, they crowded up into the pulpit and begged him to stop," forcing Edwards at one point to "speak to the people and desire silence, that he might be heard,". There was "great moaning & crying out through ye whole House. . .ye shrieks & crys were piercing & Amazing. . ." And yet the congregation knew its desire: a stilled conscience. Ultimately absolved by their minister, the jubilant people in Enfield were free; but thrilling sermons in Connecticut could be no solace to the tortured in New York.

"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is the most acute British colonial expression of the enduring conflict between Christian sentiment, and slavery’s crimes. This conflict still suffuses and contorts Amercian social thought:

You gave
her Pompey, a Negro slave,
and eleven children.
Yet people were spiders
in your moment of glory,
at the Great Awakening–"Alas, how many
in this very meeting house are more than likely
to remember my discourse in hell!"

–Robert Lowell "Jonathan Edwards in Western Massachusetts"

THOMAS ST. JOHN graduated from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and lived in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of "Forgotten Dreams: Ritual in American Popular Art" (New York: The Vantage Press, 1987), a collection of essays on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Reverend Jonathan Edwards’ "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", the black history driving the films "Casablanca" and the cartoon "The Three Little Pigs", and the Dakota Indian territory symbols in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz". The short book "Nathaniel Hawthorne: Studies in the House of the Seven Gables" is now almost complete and online. He can be reached at: seekingthephoenix@yahoo.com