“a Negro Girle named Venus aged Fourteen years or thereabout”

In 1731 Jonathan Edwards traveled to Newport, Rhode Island and bought a 14 year old girl to be his slave. Her name was Venus. You can read the full receipt on the Yale site.

KNOW ALL MEN by these presents That I Richard Perkins of Newport in the County of Newport & Colony of Rhode Island &c Marriner For & in Consideration of the Sum of Eighty pounds of lawful Current money of said Colony To me in hand well & truly paid at & before the ensealing & delivery hereof by Jonathan Edwards of Northampton… And I the said Richard Perkins do hereby bargain sell & deliver unto the said Jonathan Edwards a Negro Girle named Venus aged Fourteen years or thereabout TO HAVE & TO HOLD the said Negro girl named Venus unto the said Jonathan Edwards his heirs Execrs & Assigns and to his & their own proper Use & behoof for Ever.

I can’t help but wonder what her life had been until that point, and what she thought of white people, of her new master and his family, and of their Christianity. I wonder what trauma she had been through, and what awaited her. I wonder who her father was and where he was and what he felt, and if he prayed to the same God that Edwards did, and how God answered some of those prayers.

We have volumes writings and treatises and biographies documenting the life of Edwards. For Venus we have but a single receipt for her sale.

How long, O Lord.

 

What is bitterly ironic is that in 1750 Edwards used the receipt for her sale as paper to write a sermon on: “One Great End In God’s Appointing The Gospel Ministry.” The irony only sharpens when you read the sermon. In it, he discusses “the enjoyment of a well-instructed, faithful gospel ministry to instruct and lead God’s people.” In particular, God

has set ministers to be lights to his people that they might be stars held in Christ’s right hand, and he will make use of them at that day to clear divine truths and to refute errors, and to reclaim and correct God’s people wherein in any respect they have been mistaken and have been going out of the way of duty.”

And this:

 This is a great part of the proper work and business of ministers. It properly belongs to them to endeavor to find out the truth and to exhibit it to the people of God, to search and see whether the way they are going on in be right or no; and if they see them to be going in a wrong way,’tis their proper business to declare it to them. They are set to be shepherds of the flock of Christ, and ’tis the proper business of shepherds, when they see the flock going astray or gone astray out of the right way, to endeavor to reclaim ’em. Ministers are not to make the present or past opinions of their flocks the rule of their teaching.

The physical, tangible, material reality belies the lofty spiritual ideals, both in life and on the very paper which documents them both. It’s as if you can sum up American evangelicalism in a single, two-sided, document.

 

(This post was set in motion by a footnote in Kenneth P. Minkema, “Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” The Massachusetts Historical Review (2002): 23–59.

(Photo by Andreea Swank on Unsplash)

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