A Tale of Two Sermons

In our class discussions the past two weeks, we have encountered two sermons, one orated by Jonathan Edwards entitled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and the other written by James Baldwin called “Down at the Cross.” While I did not initially view “Down at the Cross” as a sermon, I began to see the common elements of a sermon in Baldwin’s essay when Dr. Kinyon asked us to consider it in class. Baldwin tells two stories from his life and connects them to the Church, concluding with a call to action for African Americans to “do all in one’s power to change [one’s] fate” (Baldwin 346). He chooses words meant to stir emotion in his readers and cajole them to recognize how the Church can perpetuate white supremacy. For instance, he appeals to African American history, remarking how they have fought for so long against white supremacist institutions. He then becomes more specific by discussing how Black people in America “knew that the job had to be done, and they put their pride in their pockets in order to do it” (Baldwin 344). The Black people reading “Down at the Cross” would likely connect with Baldwin’s references to such shared experiences. He uses rhetorical questions and long, complex sentences that read as if Baldwin is preaching off the page about what America should be like and how we might try to better it. 

During her presentation, Theresa asked us to consider Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God, one of the most famous and influential sermons in American history that perpetuates the idea of a vengeful, rage-filled God. Baldwin’s sermon counters this notion by discussing the need for love in the Black Church. He writes, “People, I felt, ought to love the Lord because they loved Him, and not because they were afraid of going to Hell” (Baldwin 307). Edwards’ fiery language promotes fear surrounding the afterlife, saying that “the God that holds you over the pit of hell…abhors you” (Edwards). Instead of discussing a God of love, Edwards depicts one filled with hate. Baldwin’s sermon, which acknowledges the significance of love in the Church, proves Edwards wrong. 

One thought on “A Tale of Two Sermons”

  1. I think viewing Baldwin’s depiction of a loving God alongside Edwards’ depiction of a vengeful, angry God help us to determine what love is. Most people would be hard-pressed to say that Gabriel loves his children, John specifically. Gabriel’s rhetoric toward John and physical hitting of his children casts him in a negative light. Yet we should consider whether his personality or his understanding of God leads to his behavior toward his children. If Gabriel believes in an angry God, his violent parenting is directed toward keeping his children out of the pits of hell. His violence recognizes the urgency of the situation since God seemingly adits any excuse to drop humans into the eternal flame. In a way, Edwards creates a backwards understanding of love: Gabriel’s violence is his love. Baldwin removes the hypocrisy by saying that loving one’s neighbor is love. He critiques Edwards in a way that emphasizes real love rather than love hidden behind hate. In doing so, Baldwin reconciles eternal life and life on earth, which Edwards’ theology struggles to connect.

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