Edwards the Preacher
- There are approximately 1,200 extant sermons, probably four-fifths of the original number.
- His favorite sermon texts, in order of preference: Matthew, Luke, Isaiah, Psalms, John, 1 Corinthians, Proverbs, and Romans.
- “Edwards considered every sermon to be, in a very literal sense, ‘occasional.’ That is, every sermon, despite the abstract tone resulting from the conventions of the traditional sermon, form, is a response to a specific situation in society” (Yale 10:138).
- Many, if not most, of Edwards’ later theological treatises, for which he is justly famous, appear to have been built on sermons he earlier preached.
- His sermon “booklets” were 3 7/8 inches by 4 1/8 inches.
(1) Text (the Scripture passage, often followed by a definition of difficult terms, parallel passages, and a brief explanation of its meaning)
(2) Doctrine (structurally the most complex part of a sermon; usually begins with a brief, singular statement of the doctrine; however “sometimes, when the Scripture text is a clear, concise statement of thesis in itself and in need of no explication, Text and Doctrine elide and the Scripture quotation becomes the statement of doctrine” [Yale, 10:38]; often the doctrine is divided into a number of individual propositions, each of which is then developed under subheadings such as Inquiries, Observations, Arguments, and Reasons)
(3) Application (in most sermons this is the largest section, often longer than the Text and Doctrine combined; the focus is experience and practice).
In his early years Edwards wrote out his sermons in full manuscript form. With the onset of the Great Awakening in 1740 many of his sermons were in outline form only. Many believe this was due in part to the influence of Whitefield who had perfected the art of extemporaneous preaching.
His delivery was undramatic. He had an unimpressive voice, but did not preach in a monotone.
According to his student, Samuel Hopkins,
“his delivery was easy, natural and very solemn. He had not a strong, loud voice; but appeared with such gravity and solemnity.” When asked if Edwards was “eloquent”, Stephen West remarked, “He had no studied varieties of the voice, and no strong emphasis. He scarcely gestured, or even moved; and he made no attempt, by the elegance of his style, or the beauty of his pictures, to gratify the taste, and fascinate the imagination. But, if you mean by eloquence, the power of presenting an important truth before an audience, with overwhelming weight of argument, and with such intenseness of feeling, that the whole soul of the speaker is thrown into every part of the conception and delivery; so that the solemn attention of the whole audience is riveted, from the beginning to the close, and impressions are left that cannot be effaced; Mr. Edwards was the most eloquent man I ever heard speak” (Banner, 1:cxc).
An obituary that appeared on April 10, 1758, described him thusly:
“As a preacher, he was well known, neither quick nor slow of speech. His language was full, but not ornamented. He regarded thoughts more than words. Precision of sentiment and clearness of diction formed the principal character of his style. In middle life he appeared emaciated (I had almost said mortified) by intense study and hard labour; hence his voice was a little low for a large assembly, but much helped by a proper emphasis, just cadence, and great distinctness in pronunciation.”
There is some evidence that early in his career he tended to read his sermon manuscripts. However, Solomon Stoddard had spoken harshly against the practice and no eyewitness ever records him reading a manuscript. By the 1740s sought to memorize his sermons and brought only an outline into the pulpit with him (“By the time of his death over a third of his surviving sermon manuscripts were outlines rather than the fully written work of earlier years,” Murray, 189). He often inserted extemporaneous remarks when helpful.