“[Iain] Murray’s biography has been criticized for engaging in hagiography, painting an unrealistic portrait of Edwards as though the eighteenth-century pastor had no faults”
(Ian Clary, “Evangelical Historiography: The Debate over Christian History,” 240).
Last week, Douglas Wilson published a blog-post in which he criticized Jason Meyer for lamenting Jonathan Edwards’s slave-owning. No, says Wilson, for all we know Edwards was a kind master, supported by the Bible, and surrendering this point will lead us down the slippery slope toward outright rejection of Biblical authority. He followed up with answers to letters, and then another post defending his defense of Edwards.
For those who have followed Wilson’s work for any time, this is the same argument he attempted to put forward in Black & Tan with regard to the Southern slaveholders 100 years later, men like R.L. Dabney and others.
The argument proceeds like this:
- assume/assert hypotheses about historical figures based on partial evidence or historical revisionism
- on the basis of that assumption draw a straight line to New (and Old) Testament texts
- pivot to otherwise unrelated contemporary issues
- attack/accuse other Christians of doctrinal squishiness if they don’t agree
What’s interesting, though, is that if you pull out the foundational premise (the historical revisionism) the whole house of cards falls to the ground, and it is at precisely this point that I think Wilson has the weakest case, both here with Edwards, and also with the Southern slaveholding Presbyterians. In this post, I intend to focus on Edwards, but I do hope at some point to return to the issues surrounding Wilson’s “paleo-Confederate” views as well.
Wilson goes to great lengths to find any possible way of excusing Edwards’s purchase and ownership slaves, even speculating utterly implausible motives for his purchase of a fourteen year old girl named Venus. Reading his posts reminded me of the broader debate amongst Edwards’s evangelical biographers, which can be summed up in the difference between Iain Murray’s biography and George Marsden’s. Wilson links to a brief article on Princeton’s website, but when I checked out Wilson’s longer reading list, it was no surprise to find that he has read Murray’s biography, but not Marsden’s.
“Not so much biography as hagiography”
Evangelical historians have debated the best way to approach history for decades, with historians falling broadly into “providentialist” and “naturalist” approaches to history. (For a superb outline of the landscape, see Ian Hugh Clary, “Evangelical Historiography: The Debate over Christian History,” EvQ (2015): 225–251).
Iain Murray is no stranger to these controversies, tangling in 1994 with Harry Stout (over George Whitefield), and in 2010 with Carl Trueman (over Martyn Lloyd-Jones). Murray knows how to be sharply critical when he wants to be (see, for example, the way he treats J.I. Packer and Billy Graham in Evangelicalism Divided). His biography of Edwards, however, seems keen to avoid any negative hint: “Murray’s biography has been criticized for engaging in hagiography, painting an unrealistic portrait of Edwards as though the eighteenth-century pastor had no faults” (Clary, 280). Allan Guelzo’s review was sharply critical: “Murray’s Edwards is not so much a biography as it is a hagiography” (Guelzo, 81). Guelzo points out “several jarring errors,” concluding that “what we end up with, then, is Murray’s Edwards but not Jonathan Edwards” (82). Stephen Stein, an editor of several volumes in the Yale Works of Jonathan Edwards series, thinks that “This biography will be most satisfying to those who wish to see Edwards as the champion of fundamentalist Christianity… He [Murray] continually allows his affection for his subject to color his language. In some instances he sidesteps difficult, uncomplimentary dimensions of the story” (Stein, 565). George Marsden notes that Murray “produced a full biography published in 1987 for an admiring Reformed audience.” However, he finds that it “is intended ultimately as hagiography, not as a critical academic work” (Marsden, “The Quest for the Historical Edwards,” 3).
Now, I want to be clear, I don’t necessarily have a problem with pastors writing edifying biographies of their heroes, and I think they can serve some purpose. However this ought never to take the form of whitewashing. As John Piper said “no one is helped by whitewashing our heroes.” And further, a partial, hagiographical account of a historical figure ought never to be used as the basis for an attempt at Biblical comparison or present day cultural analysis. The faulty historical foundation of hagiography is too sandy a beach upon which to build that house.
The Edwards of History
“We just don’t know” is the refrain that Wilson repeats throughout his posts. But is that true? Are those who lament Edwards’s slaveholding merely speculating about the nature and context of Edwards’s slaveholding?
The account of Edwards drawn from Marsden and other historians provides us with a far more complete picture of his life and times, including the social and cultural attitudes in which he took part. Marsden’s biography is over 600 pages long (including footnotes) and offers a thorough and historically accurate account of Edwards’s life. Here are a few relevant pieces of background information that help us situate Edwards in his time.
The “River Gods”
Jonathan Edwards “was an eighteenth-century British provincial aristocrat—a slaveholding Tory hierarchist—whose social views need to be understood according to the standards of his own day” (Marsden, “Quest,” 11). In his biography, Marsden notes that “Edwards belonged to an elite extended family that was part of the ruling class of clergy, magistrates, judges, military leaders, village squires, and merchants. The Stoddards and Williamses, along with a few other families with whom they intermarried, ruled the Connecticut River Valley” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 3). Again: “this clan dominated the commercial, political, and ecclesiastical affairs of western Massachusetts” (Marsden, “Quest,” 11). This powerful clan was dubbed the “River Gods” by Kevin Michael Sweeney in his 1986 Yale dissertation, drawing the term from its use in the period (Marsden, Edwards, 531 n. 2).
Not surprisingly for someone who was part of the highest class of society, Edwards also held extremely hierarchical views. You don’t have to read much Edwards before finding talk about what is “fitting” for various stations in life. Here’s an example from True Virtue:
“There is a beauty of order, in society, besides what consists in benevolence, or can be referred to it, which is of the secondary kind. As, when the different members of society have all their appointed office, place and station, according to their several capacities and talents, and every one keeps his place, and continues in his proper business” (True Virtue, chapter 3).
Edwards’s hierarchical view of a “beautiful” society included slaves: “Men would hardly count it worthy of the name of humility, in a contemptible slave that formerly affected to be a prince, to have his spirit so far brought down as to take the place of a nobleman; when this is still so far above his proper station” (Religious Affections, 259).
In Edwards’s world, if you were born into the highest ruling classes of aristocracy, it was fitting and orderly that you should enjoy the privileges according to that station: “The Edwardses always had an African slave. Household slaves were particularly common among New England clergy, both because of a pastor’s social status and because the head of the house was not primarily engaged in physical labor” (Marsden, Edwards, 20). Ken Minkema adds this: “Owning a slave had become a prerequisite for the gentry, a symbol of rank as much as a source of profit” and Edwards was firmly a part of that gentry class (Minkema, “Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” 29–30)
Marsden draws attention to the fact that the issue of slavery was not a “blind spot” in the New England colonies: “by 1700 at least some whites recognized the unusual inequities of African slavery. Solomon Stoddard’s [Edward’s grandfather] Boston friend Judge Samuel Sewall raised the issue most forcefully in The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial (Boston, 1700).” Yet, “if some New England slave owners had uneasy consciences, their most common way of dealing with the subject was to avoid it”—which is exactly what Edwards did (Marsden, Edwards, 20).
A Family Affair
Marsden devotes a section of his biography to “Slavery” (Marsden, Edwards, 255–258, footnotes on 555–56). He reiterates that “many elite New Englanders owned African slaves, and Edwards and his close relatives seem usually to have had one or two slaves per household… Most British-Americans simply absorbed African slavery into their hierarchical views of society, where it was assumed that the higher orders of society would have servants to perform domestic and farm labor” (Marsden, Edwards, 255–56).
For the Edwardses, this was a family affair. Ken Minkema notes that, “Sarah, who as regulator of the domestic sphere was probably more directly concerned in the daily oversight of the family slaves than Jonathan, aggressively searched out potential slaves, which shows that women could take an active hand in the slave market.” (“Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” 43). Sarah inquired of multiple family members seeking to purchase their slaves from them (See “My wife desires to buy your Negro woman”).
Remember that the practice of owning another human being to do your manual labor for you was not something enjoyed by everyone in New England society–it’s not as if “everyone was doing it.” In fact, controversy over the luxuries enjoyed by the upper class reared its head specifically between congregants and their “elite” slaveholding pastors.
In 1741, “some parishioners of the church in Northfield had denounced their pastor, Benjamin Doolittle, for owning African slaves… The ‘disaffected brethren’ accused Doolittle, who had been their pastor since 1716, of making exorbitant salary demands—an issue Edwards and many other pastors were also encountering” (Marsden, Edwards, 256). Edwards was called upon to write a defense of Doolittle, which he did, and the surviving draft of that letter is the only piece of writing we have in which Edwards specifically speaks to the issue of slavery. Marsden notes: “Edwards and his slaveowning colleagues and ‘river gods’ friends and relatives must have been especially eager in 1741 that the status quo regarding slaveholding not be disturbed… If the word got around that, as was claimed, the minister ‘could say nothing that was worth saying’ in defense of slaveholding, such talk could inflame the slaves” (Marsden, Edwards 257). Ironically, there was a twist ending to this saga: Doolittle “freed Abijah Prince and gave him a legacy and land in Northfield,”–liberty and reparations!–something that Edwards never did (Minkema, “Slavery” 42).
This class tension between the elite pastor and his congregation also flared up for Edwards. “As in many New England towns, tensions had been building regarding the pastor’s salary, a tax matter decided at yearly town meetings” (Marsden, Edwards 301). Sarah complained that “many jealousies expressed of me and my family, as though we were lavish… much fault was found… with our manner of spending, with the clothes that we wore and the like (in Marsden, Edwards, 302). Was it true? Marsden notes this: “One clue that the family did occasionally display some aristocratic pretensions is a surviving bill for £11 (about a week’s salary) for ‘a gold locket and chain’ for Mrs. Edwards” (Marsden, Edwards, 302). Minkema also notes this tension: “In 1744, a number of his parishioners insisted upon an account of his own expenditures, an action suggesting the jealousy and resentment aroused by the family’s taste for jewelry, chocolate, Boston-made clothing, children’s toys—and slaves” (Minkema, “Slavery,” 36).
Edwards’s purchase of “a Negro Girle named Venus aged Fourteen years or thereabout” in 1731 is all the more striking when seen in this light. Minkema notes that “Edwards’s annual salary in 1731 was £200, out of which he paid £80 for Venus.” Edwards likely travelled over a week to get to the slave port city of Newport, Rhode Island where he spent nearly half a year’s salary on this girl.
Douglas Wilson wonders: “Or was he doing it because he knew that she was already irrevocably torn from her people and enslaved, and that if he purchased her he would treat her decently, and that if he did not do so there was a high risk that another master would not treat her decently?” Was he “attempting to do a good thing in a bad situation”?
Here’s my question: does Wilson’s hypothetical question fit at all with the historical and cultural context of his time? It’s not as if Edwards lived in Newport, constantly seeing Africans dragged in off the ships and then sold off at auction, families ripped apart, children separated from their parents, and when he just couldn’t take it anymore he did the only thing he could think of: he bought a girl to save her from a worse fate. No, Edwards travelled over a week on horseback to spend over a third of his yearly salary on a luxury “item” (a person!), the possession of which would be “fitting” to his status as a member of the wealthy elite. He and Sarah pursued the purchase of additional slaves throughout their lives all the way until the end, and in Edwards’s last will and testament, a “boy named Titus” is listed alongside the other “quick stock” (see “A Negro Boy named Titus; Horse; Yoke of Oxen”). Rather than following the example of Doolittle in freeing his slaves, Edwards participated in one of the chief mechanisms used to break up the black family: selling off an estate at auction, in this case, selling a boy to whoever turned out to be the highest bidder. No amount of “kind treatment” can justify the breaking up of a family like this.
Hopkins, Edwards Jr., Haynes
One often hears the objection of “presentism,” of forgetting that “the past is a foreign country,” and of reading our own moral judgements onto the past. But what did Edwards’s own immediate followers think of slaveholding? Ken Minkema and Harry Stout answer this directly in “The Edwardsean Tradition and the Antislavery Debate, 1740–1865).” In it, they draw particular attention to Samuel Hopkins, Jonathan Edwards Jr., and Lemuel Haynes.
Hopkins was Edwards’s “most renowned intellectual heir.” Minkema and Stout note that he “studied divinity at Edwards’s parsonage in late 1741–curiously, the very time Edwards was grappling with the slavery issue–and again in the late spring and summer of 1742. Thereafter, he and Edwards were close friends and constant correspondents” (“Edwardsean Tradition,” 51). Hopkins had a first hand view of slavery as practiced in the Edwards household. If anyone was poised to be a sympathetic observer, and read American slavery in the best possible light, it was Hopkins. Yet, by 1770, Hopkins had become an ardent abolitionist, pressing for immediate emancipation. He published books (A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans) and treatises (“This whole country have their hands full of blood this day“). Hopkins had no hesitation to call slavery a “cruel” and “shocking” sin, and attributed it to American society at large:
“the Blood of Millions who have perished by means of the accursed Slave trade long practised by these States is crying to heaven for venjance on them and tho’ everyone has not had an equal share in this wickedness, not having been actually guilty of Enslaving his brother, yet by a general connivance it his become now the Sin of the Land” (“Hands full of Blood,” 67).
Jonathan Edwards Jr. also called slavery “wickedness” and “sin.” He was one of the founders of the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom and the Relief of Persons Unlawfully Holden in Bondage, and in an address given at its first annual meeting, he said: “As to domestic slavery our fathers lived in a time of ignorance which God winked at; but now he commandeth all men to repent of this wickedness, and to break off this sin by righteousness” (Edwards Jr., The Injustice and Impolity of the Slave Trade, and of Slavery, 31).
Lemuel Haynes was “A student of Bellamy’s and strongly influenced by Hopkins” (Minkema and Stout, “Edwardseans,” 60). He was the first black “Edwardsean,” and went further than even Hopkins and Edwards Jr. in pushing not just for abolition but for integration. In his powerful and moving address, “Liberty Further Extended,” Haynes repeatedly refers to slavery as a “sin” (95, 99, 100, 102, 103). Directly opposed to Edwards’s (and Wilson’s) attempt to separate the sinful trade from the (allegedly) Biblical practice, Haynes presses the sin of slaveholding all the way home (original spelling retained):
“And not only are they gilty of man-stealing that are the immediate actors in this trade, But those in these colonys that Buy them at their hands, ar far from Being guiltless: for when they saw the theif they consented with him. if men would forbear to Buy Slaves off the hands of the Slave-merchants, then the trade would of necessaty cease; if I buy a man, whether I am told he was stole, or not, yet I have no right to Enslave him, Because he is a human Being: and the immutable Laws of God, and indefeasible Laws of nature, pronounced him free.” (“Liberty Further Extended,” 99).
Does Wilson really intend to charge 21st century Edwardseans (like Jason Meyers) with biblical infidelity simply for echoing what Edwards immediate followers said in the 18th century? Was Samuel Hopkins part of “the zeitgeist”? Was Edwards Jr. under the sway of “Critical Theory”? Was Lemuel Haynes a “snowflake”? The absurdity of impugning such a courageous man as Haynes is evident on its face, and one almost feels ashamed to consider the question rhetorically.
New England Slavery v. Southern Plantations
Wilson makes the observation that New England slavery was a different thing than the Southern plantations. He’s right about that, and I also view the two differently. Under the general category of “grievous sin”—in which a human being made in the imago dei is stolen from her land, sold over an ocean, and held as a piece of property for life—I agree that there are degrees of brutality within that category, and the southern plantation was about as brutal as it could get.
I also weigh differently the sinner who does so with an uneasy conscience versus the one who does so with a seared conscience and a high hand. Marsden notes Edwards’s “deep ambivalence” expressed in the draft letter (Marsden, Edwards, 257). Edwards knew this was not ideal, and felt sharply the charge of hypocrisy. By contrast, a man like Robert Lewis Dabney defended the southern form of slavery in hundreds of pages, spoke repeatedly of his hatred for black people, pleaded passionately for his denomination not to integrate with black pastors, and did so unapologetically (see: “What’s so Bad About R.L Dabney?”). I hold Dabney to a greater judgment due to the accentuated nature of his sin. This is not to excuse Edwards at all. His hypocrisy is evident, but it is certainly to a different degree than Dabney’s.
The problem even in this is that Wilson loves Dabney and the Confederates, and applies the same flawed historical approach to their era as he does to Edwards’s. But again, that is worth its own treatment at another time.
History matters. Imagine you saw me out to coffee with my younger sister, assumed what was going on, and then jumped straight to Biblical texts about “adultery.” When I reply with “no, those texts don’t apply here,” it’s not because I’ve abandoned Biblical authority, but precisely because I hold to it and can’t bear to see it mis-applied. The same holds true with NT texts about δουλοι or OT texts about עבדים. Whether or not these texts apply depends first on the historical facts, and in the case of American race-based chattel slavery, they don’t, and I hold that because I hold to Biblical authority, not in spite of it.
Pursuing historical accuracy rather than hagiography, and feeling appropriately about what one finds (i.e., lament) is something that Christians should never flinch from. It is not because “we live in a toppling time”; it is not a sign of “drift”; it has nothing to do with “critical theory.” Faithful evangelical historians have been carefully working through these matters for decades. Especially the Reformed historian, who believes in “total depravity” is not shocked or surprised when he finds sin in the past. Rather, he expects it, and he has nothing to fear: “because of Christ’s death on our behalf, Christians need not run from guilt. Christ was condemned in our place, which means we can face wrongdoing head-on — both our own and that of our forebears” (Johnathon Bowers, “Bound Together for Good”)
When we lament Edwards’s slaveholding, and draw back from the rampant hero-worship he has received in some circles, it’s not because we are capitulating to a snowflake culture, but because we have been faithfully taught how to handle history: by Marsden, by Piper, by Meyer, but also by Hopkins, by Edwards Jr., and by Lemuel Haynes.
(See here for a bibliography on Edwards and Slavery”)
1987 Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.
1989 Allan C. Guelzo, “Review: Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography.” Fides et Historia: 81–83
1990 Stephen J. Stein. “Review: Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography.” Church History: 564–65.
2003 George M.. Marsden. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press.
2003 Iain H. Murray. “Review: Jonathan Edwards: A Life.” Banner of Truth: 14–15.
2003 George M. Marsden. “The Quest for the Historical Edwards: The Challenge of Biography,” in Jonathan Edwards at Home and Abroad. Edited by David W. Kling and Douglas A. Sweeney. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
2003 Allen C. Guelzo. “America’s Theologian: Piety and Intellect.” Christian Century 20: 30–33.
2006 R. Bryan Bademan, “The Edwards of History and the Edwards of Faith.” Reviews in American History 34: 131–49.
2014 Douglas A. Sweeney. “Jonathan Edwards and the Study of His Eighteenth Century World: George Marsden’s Contribution to Colonial American Religious Historiography,” in American Evangelicalism: George Marsden and the State of American Religious History. Edited by Darren Dochuk, Thomas S. Kidd, Kurt W. Peterson. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
2015 Ian Hugh Clary. “Evangelical Historiography: The Debate over Christian History.” Evangelical Quarterly (87.3): 225–51.
(image taken from the Wikimedia Commons)