Jonathan Edwards on James 5:1–6 and American-Slavery

James 5:1–6 contains one of the clearest denunciations in the New Testament of slavery:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.

Jonathan Edwards owned slaves. Not surprisingly, when he commented in his “Blank Bible” on this passage (available for free at Yale’s Works of Jonathan Edwards Online), he gives us an illuminating example of how a New Testament exegete can completely miss the point:

James 5:1–6. Dr. Doddridge supposes that in these verses the Apostle has respect to those dreadful calamities on the Jewish nation which were then just at hand. The James 5:1 he translates, “Come now, ye rich men, weep and howl over the miseries that are coming upon you,” and says in his notes, “Josephus particularly observes how much the rich men suffered by the Romans in the Jewish war. I have rendered ταλαιπωρίαις ταῖς ὲπερχομέναις, ‘miseries which are coming upon you,’ and I think it more agreeable to the original than our English version, ἐπερχομέναις being a participle of the present tense.” “For the last days.” “This phrase does not merely signify, for the time to come, but that period when the whole Jewish economy was to close, and when those awful judgments threatened in the Prophets to be poured out upon wicked men in the last days, are just coming (Acts 2:17, Hebrews 1:2, 2 Peter 3:3, and the like). Compare Matthew 24:33–34, 1 Corinthians 10:11.” 1 Corinthians 10:5, “You have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.” Dr. Doddridge renders this thus. “Ye have pampered your hearts for a day of slaughter,” i.e. as beasts fed for a day of slaughter, and observes, “That there are some who render ὡς ἐν ἡμέρα σφαγῆς ‘as in a festival,’ when many sacrifices are slain, but Wolsius observes that the word is always used in the Seventy to signify not a day of feasting, but of slaughter.” 1 Corinthians 10:6, “Ye have condemned and killed the just.” Dr. Doddridge renders it, “Ye have condemned and murdered the righteous one,” supposing Christ especially intended by the righteous or just one.

Edwards performs some of the important steps of exegesis: historical/cultural background (the Jewish war, Josephus), he parses the Greek verb (ἐπερχομέναις), he does a little word study (ἡμέρα σφαγῆς). He even has a nice “Christocentric” turn at the end in his interpretation of “righteous one.”

All of this nice exegesis, even the “Christ-centered” part, completely misses the point of this passage. It’s all a distraction. Edwards could explore all of these facets of Biblical interpretation while at the same time depriving his own laborers of their wages. In fact, he was probably afforded the leisure needed to do his studies and write these words because of the free labor extracted from his slaves.

Interpretation without application is mis-interpretation.

(Note that a search of the WJE archives for James 5, including sermons, retrieves zero instances where he treats this passage in any more detail than here.)

(Photo by Aleksander Suszyński on Unsplash)

9 thoughts on “Jonathan Edwards on James 5:1–6 and American-Slavery”

  1. I am actually convinced of Edwards’ preterist reading here. The “rich” in this passage refers to the wealthy Jewish ruling class, who persecute Jewish converts to Christianity. It is not purely metaphorical, given that the Jewish ruling class as a whole do not accept Christ, and the church is made up of lowly, relatively poor Jewish converts at the time of James’ writing. But it is not purely literal either.

    Regardless of if I’m right on that, James 5:1ff does not itself condemn slavery. It is not about slaves, but “laborers” (ἐργάτης). Laborers are hired workers: they work for pay and deserve their wages (Matt 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1 Tim 5:18). The word is not used for slaves. Slaves are not hired. At the end of the day they have only done their duty (Luke 17:7–10). Masters are required to treat their slaves justly and fairly, and this involves giving them protection and sustenance. But this passage does not neatly equate owning a slave with stealing or despoiling (ἀπεστερημένος). The OT likewise condemned ἀποστερέω in the Ten Commandments (Mark 10:19) and the prophets (Mal 3:5 LXX), and this condemnation existed right along with the allowance of slavery. James 5 is not a denunciation of slavery.

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    1. And I should also say: Jonathan Edwards was wrong to own slaves. Chattel slavery as it existed in the U.S. was bad. So go ahead and say he was wrong to do that. I’m just addressing your claim that James 5 is a denunciation of slavery.

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    2. Thanks Clayton,

      1. The fact that James addresses his epistle to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” disinclines me to Edwards’s preterism which would see reference to events in Judea in 70AD. When Jourdan Anderson says “Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire” a preterism that answers, “no, that already happened in Jerusalem” simply will not hold.

      2. I may have been imprecise. I would maintain that James 5:1–6 absolutely does apply to American-slavery. Equating the NT term δουλος or the OT term עֶבֶד with the American-slavery is the error at the root of the entire “biblical” defense of American-slavery used by Christians in their day (and paleo-confederates in ours). The OT clearly distinguishes between a system of servitude that is voluntary, carefully regulated, and incorporates Jubilee, and a practice built on man-stealing. The American-slave system was built on stealing (or defrauding, here) start to finish: defrauding human beings of their liberty, and then of their labor, without their consent.

      Thus the entire system of American-slavery falls not under the category of Colossians 3, but under the condemnation of James 5.

      I should have been more precise. I’m usually very careful in hyphenating my terms (“Southern-slavery”) to distinguish it from what the Bible teaches. I’m going to edit the title to be more precise.

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      1. 1. I think the “dispersion” (διασπορᾷ) in view is found in Acts 8:1. The (Jewish) persecutions that arose after Stephen’s martyrdom lead to the church (Jewish at this point) being dispersed (διεσπάρησαν) throughout Judea and Samaria. Your last sentence is a bit confusing to me. Just as Jesus judged in AD 70, or as he threatens to judge the first-century churches in Rev 2–3, so we may expect him to judge throughout history, and all of this prefigures the final judgment of the living and the dead. Preterist readings do not mean that they cannot have further application. But that further applications should match with the original fulfillment, which brings us to #2.

        2. The OT certainly does have a category for voluntary and temporary slavery; however, the Jubilee laws apply only to Hebrew slaves. Gentile slaves could be had for life (Lev 25:44–46). But it is certainly the case that both OT and NT clearly condemn man-stealing, which condemns American chattel slavery too. Yet here I wonder about the status of Roman slavery. Many of these slaves were from conquered nations, as a result of Roman wars which may have been unjust. Even in that system it wasn’t a sin for a Christian to own a slave. I could see the argument that even though American slavery was unjust, a Christian might have bought a slave to save them from their plight under the ownership of the slave-trader. Then the Christian might have either freed them (as with Onesimus), or treated his slave lovingly, justly, and fairly (as in Colossians, Ephesians). So I don’t know: to me it matters more how Edwards viewed and treated his slaves rather than simply the fact that he had them.

        I do think though that the Bible nowhere commands slavery, and the mere allowance of it–with regulations–does not amount to an endorsement of it as salutary practice. As civilizations and societies grow and develop, many of the societal circumstances that slavery was intended to remedy (the problem of debt, what to do with conquered nations, an alternative to other legal penalties) become non-issues, such that there is really no reason to justify its practice. I also think we see indication in Scripture that slavery itself is unnatural to man (quite the opposite of what many pro-slavery proponents in the South were saying) and contrary to the logic and tenor of the gospel (“you were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men”). And the sad fact is that few masters, and even Christian masters, treated their slaves at all in accordance with what the NT teaches. Instead we find racial superiority run amok, and much abuse. All of this comes together to make me an abolitionist, but of a particular sort. I don’t think we find anywhere in the NT an “outright condemnation of slavery.” But yes, we do find an outright condemnation of American chattel slavery, and on that we do agree–though I don’t find it in James 5 but in 1 Tim 1:10.

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      2. 1. “Further applications should match the original fulfillment.” Could you unpack this, or point me to a “Preterist Interpretation 101” that concisely unpacks this? Are there any contemporary preterist interpreters of James that you’re drawing on for this passage? A quick survey of Davids and Moo didn’t even raise the question. I like Calvin, myself: “they are piling up God’s wrath and curse unto the last day” (comm. Ep. James, 5:3)

        2. So which is it — “Edwards was wrong to own slaves” or “it matters more to me how Edwards viewed and treated his slaves rather than simply the fact that he had them”? If you don’t “find anywhere in the NT an outright condemnation of slavery” then on what basis do you hold that “Edwards was wrong to hold slaves”?

        The Southern-Presbyerians (Dabney, etc.) had no patience for those who appealed to the “general tenor of the gospel” but couldn’t provide any firm Scriptural basis against slavery.

        If the only NT teaching you see applying to American-slavery is 1 Timothy 1:10, then how do you claim that Edwards was wrong? Edwards himself didn’t “kidnap” anyone. He simply purchased kidnapped men, women, and even a child to provide free labor for his family. (Just writing that sentence makes me sick.)

        It seems misguided to claim that a Christian could purchase slaves and then either (a) free them or (b) keep them for his own, so long as he treats them well. This would be like saying: when a Christian recovers stolen goods from a thief, he could either (a) return it to its rightful owner or (b) just keep it, so long as he invests it well, or gives it to the church, or to missions, all in the name of Christ, while the rightful owner stares him in the face.

        I maintain that the entire institution of American-slavery falls under the condemnation of “stealing” — from the kidnapping in Africa (1 Tim 1:10) to the stolen labor in the field (James 5). I don’t need to rely only on the “tenor of the Gospel” when I have clear texts condemning it.

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      3. 1. I can certainly send you some preterist 101 type resources. When it comes to the book of James specifically, I have been most shaped by some Biblical Horizons materials—preeminently Jeff Meyers, but Peter Leithart, James Jordan, and Alastair Roberts have touched on it as well. And as you can see from Edwards and who he’s quoting, it goes back further. Calvin is often not preterist enough for me. One Baptist who was especially good in this area though is John Gill.

        2. Yeah, sorry for being confusing regarding Edwards. I think I was too eager to find common ground when I said he was ipso facto wrong to own slaves. Our common ground is that the Bible condemns the system of American chattel slavery. But that does not answer the question of whether a Christian could conceivably acquire a slave even from that system without sin. An important thing to recognize here is that the “system” of Greco-Roman slavery was likewise corrupt. Many people were enslaved by the Romans after they conquered a people in an unjust war, and yet the NT regulations do not make slave-owning a sin issue. So it is not the case that the NT regulations only apply to a non-corrupt system.

        I know Dabney et al. would disagree. But they seem to share certain biblicist assumptions here that I do not share. I do not think the mere regulation of a system means that that system is best or must always be preserved. I think there is a natural law and biblical argument to be made that slavery as an institution is unideal and should pass away when it becomes possible. But God bears with somethings for longer periods of times, sort of like with polygamy, I think.

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  2. Examples like this lead me to wonder, Where am I equally blind? If a giant like Edwards could miss such an obvious implications (I am stealing another human being’s labor without pay), then what do I miss?

    Thanks for the post and the discussion

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    1. Thanks Edward,

      I agree — “Where am I equally blind?” is an important question, and is why I’m thankful for Christians from other cultures, perspectives, and even other centuries, who help me see things I would have otherwise missed.

      This post is really just one small attempt to dig deeper into the nature of blindspots. Not just in general “how could this happen” but a close up look: “How did Edwards treat a passage that could have confronted him in his blindness? What was missing from his exegesis? How does my own exegesis follow similar patterns?”

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