Smoke Stacs and Hellfire: Determinism in Jonathan Edwards and Rebecca Harding Davis

People from ancient antiquity to now ask the question of the destiny of human beings. Many people from various theological, philosophical and scientific backgrounds take the position that we don’t have control over our lives that it is determined. Jonathan Edwards in his sermon Sinners in the hands of an Angry God takes this position “it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.” (Edwards, 198) Author Rebecca Harding Davis in her work Life in the Iron Mills also takes this position “What am I worth, Deb? Is it my fault that I am no better? My fault? May fault?” (Davis, 1241) I’m comparint and contrast the differences in how both approach determinism.

“There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.” (Edwards, 198) The first thing Edwards introduces in this passage is the “dreadful pit” in which we are standing over. Every human being who has ever existed is standing over this pit. The point is that all humanity is destined for this very place.

Mankind’s control over the conditions of his life amount to nothing, Edwards states that “there is nothing between you and hell but the air.” That is all your actions can not dissuade the course that your life is going. All actions to Edwards are wicked. “All wicked men’s pains and contrivance which they use to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, do not secure them from hell one moment.” (Edwards, 197) and our “wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell” (Edwards, 199) Even the things we do don’t matter we are heading toward hell.

“It is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up” (Edwards, 198). According to Edwards the power over our lives that keeps us from this place is God. The motive of God is his “mere pleasure”. That our lives are sustained and kept from hell based on the sovereignty of God.

“Whatever pains a natural man takes in religion, whatever prayers he makes, till he believes in Christ, God is under no manner of obligation to keep him a moment from eternal destruction.” (Edwards, 198) Edwards indicates that God’s motives are based on the individual’s obligation to Christ. Until God motivates a person to believe in Jesus a person is destined for “eternal destruction”.

Rebecca Harding Davis takes a different approach. “The idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke. It rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets.” (Davis, 1227) Harding like Edwards begins on the misery of humanity. The distinction though is not because man is wicked. But that man lives in miserable conditions. The smoke touches every bit of the workers existence much the same as wickedness does for Edwards.

“I would tell you that your works look like Dante’s Inferno.” (Davis, 1234) Davis relates the iron mill as a picture of hell from Dante’s Inferno. Her idea of hell is different than Edwards rather than it being a place in which you die and then you’re there. She seems to infer that daily existence for the Iron mill workers is hell.

“He seized eagerly every chance that brought him into contact with this mysterious class that shone down on him perpetually with the glamour of another order of being. What made the difference between them?” (Davis, 1234) Though hell is not the case for everyone, Harding makes a stark difference between the iron mill workers and the other “order of being.” These are the people who have money who are “visitors” of the mill, people who observe and leave, because they have the money to do so. This different order is a significant distinction between peoples, the rich and the poor, the rich people who come to observe and lead happy lives outside the iron mill and the poor who lead miserable lives in the iron mill.

“What are you going to do with them? Keep them puddling iron?’ Kirby shrugged his shoulders.” (Davis, 1238) The power to change people’s lives is a much different force for Harding than for Edwards. The power for Harding it would seem rests in those who have money to change the conditions for those in the Iron mill. The problem is that those with money to change conditions do not see it as their problem.

“The Lord will take care of his own; or else they can work out their own salvation. I have hard you call our American System a Ladder which any man can scale. Do you doubt it? Or perhaps you want to banish all social Ladders” (Davis, 1238).  Here we see why the Iron mill workers will remain to be trapped in their hell. Davis doesn’t explicitly say sin as Edwards would say, but because much like the “sinners” in Edwards sermon they don’t have the means to escape it. The means to Harding isn’t the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ but money to ascend the social ladder out of poverty. The greater problem is that since the iron mill workers have no way of making enough to leave the iron mills. The only people that can help them are the rich. But, since the rich fail to see the flaws in the system that they put their trust in or to take any responsibility for the poor the poor remain perpetually stuck in their position of poverty. The rich assume someone or something else will save the poor. The “Lord will take care of his own”.

Davis here has a very different system of salvation from Edwards. Heaven and Hell seem to be here on the earth. This distinction she makes with two different earthly lives exemplified by two different social classes. The iron mill and town filled with smoke is hell lived by the poor. Outside the Iron mill is heaven lived by the rich. The way to get to heaven is money to buy your way out of hell and to sustain you in Heaven rather than eternal life made way by Jesus’ crucifixion.

Both Edwards and Davis agree that a wrong has been done. Edwards believes this wrong has been done by man to God “In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites.” (Edwards, 194) Harding is ambiguous “rage against God, man, whoever it is that has forced this vile, slimy life upon him” (Davis, 1234). Harding’s temporality of Heaven and Hell also make them possibility to being crossed over where Edward’s are eternally set by God. But like Edwards she sees these set because of human inability to change the system set in place to reward the rich and to keep the poor in poverty.

Both Davis and Edwards believe life is determined, whether you’re rich or poor, going to heaven or hell, these destinies are set in place and unmovable.

Works citied

Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” The Norton Anthology American literature Volume 1. Ed 3. Julia Reidhead. New York, NY. W.W. Norton & Company, inc, 2008.194-199. Print

Davis, Rebbeca. “Life in the Iron Mills.” The Norton Anthology American literature Volume 1. Ed 3. Julia Reidhead. New York, NY. W.W. Norton & Company, inc, 2008.1227-1241. print


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