John Piper, Desiring God, Jonathan Edwards, and Slavery

John Piper’s interest in Jonathan Edwards goes all the way back to his seminary days when Dan Fuller mentioned Edwards in class (see “Books That Have Influenced Me Most“). The resources on Edwards over at Desiring God start in the 1970s and include:

Few others, if any, have done as much as Pastor John to promote Jonathan Edwards to his generation.

Edwards and Slavery

It wasn’t until 1997 that Ken Minkema published “Jonathan Edwards on Slavery and the Slave Trade,” after discovering Edwards’s “Draft Letter on Slavery” in the archives of unpublished manuscripts. (You can find a link to Minkema’s article, and others, here: Jonathan Edwards and Slavery: A Bibliography). The letter was published in 1998 in volume 16 of Edwards’s works “Letters and Personal Writings.” Minkema followed up in 2002 with a lengthy article “Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” the result of five more years of study on the issue. Anyone wrestling with Edwards and slavery should start with this article (available here).

2003 happened to be the 300th birthday of Edwards. George Marsden published his monumental Jonathan Edwards: A Life and made free use of this recent scholarship. Marsden was perhaps the first biographer to treat Edwards’s slaveholding in any detail.

After this rediscovery, the scholarship on Edwards began to adjust to wrestle with this new information. Ever since then, John Piper and Desiring God have similarly tried to grapple with this issue.

“Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner”

In 2003 several commemorations were also held, including a national Desiring God conference held in October entirely devoted to Edwards. A book was published featuring the addresses from that conference (A God Entranced Vision of All Things), as well as some additional chapters, and Sherard Burns, an African American, was “assigned the difficult task of examining how Edwards could pursue a God-entranced vision of all things and yet own slaves” (God Entranced Vision, 16).

Burns begins his chapter lamenting that “Nothing has been more of a stain on our history than the institution and cruelty of slavery in America” and calls out “European ethnocentrism,” and “the belief that some has the authority to impose their rights on others in such a way that stealing men, women, and children from their native land, tearing families apart, and systematically dehumanizing them was condoned and rewarded” (145). Even worse, “one of the most troubling facts concerning slavery was its association with Christianity” and Edwards is a prime example of this (146).

Burns then works through the issue, drawing on the scholarship of Minkema, Marsden, and John Saillant, as well as wrestling with Edwards himself. He finds “theological compromise” (147), capitulation to culture (148), and the mindset of an “elite” member of society, for whom slaveholding was expected (150). Burns evaluates Edwards’s defense of slavery, including the inconsistency in condemning the slave trade (i.e. the trans-Atlantic aspect of it) while still owning slaves himself: “The dichotomy in all of this is that Edwards would ‘oppose the overseas trade, even though he had hitherto purchased his slaves through it.’ (Stout and Minkema, ‘The Edwardsean Tradition,’ 3) Thus, to condemn the trade and at the same time to participate in the selling and buying of slaves was a glaring contradiction” (153).

Burns wrestles with how Edwards could have compromised like this, and finds that “Edwards was a sinner saved by the grace of God, who still battled with the remaining effects of his fallen condition” (156). But Burns goes further and examines two excuses: the slaves were treated “humanely” and they were “Christianized.” Burns quotes Jonathan Edwards Jr. to dismantle the first excuse. “Should we be willing that the Africans or any other nation should purchase us, our wives and children, transport us into Africa and there sell us into perpetual and absolute slavery?” (Edwards Jr., Injustice and Impolity of the Slave Trade and of the Slavery of Africans). Burns presses it further:

“let’s say someone came to your home and took away your child. For years you searched and after much agony found her location and her captor. You then say to him that you are going to press charges against him because he kidnapped your child, broke up your family, and caused much grief and despair. To your charge he responds ‘But I treated her well'” (158).

Burns then turns to answer the excuse that the slaves were “Christianized” by their masters, and the “inherent contradiction in offering Christ to men and women whom you hold in bondage, against their will, and on the basis of man-stealing” (159), before explicating clearly “the difference between sanctioned slavery in the Bible and the institution of slavery in America” (160).

Ironically, Edwards’s immediate followers–his protege Samuel Hopkins, his son Jonathan Edwards Jr., and Lemuel Haynes–became outspoken abolitionists. Whatever they saw in their mentor (and father!) it did not persuade them of American slavery’s legitimacy. In fact, Hopkins counted slave traders and slaveholders among “Satan’s followers” (162)!

Burns concludes by making the case for still reading Edwards, and wrestling with the tension of being “black and Reformed” (citing Tony Carter’s book On Being Black and Reformed.)

“Slavery was and still is a blemish upon America. Even after its abolition the residual effects are evident in the culture at large and regrettably within the church. As an African American who loves Reformed theology and Jonathan Edwards and who desires to see these truths embraced by all, especially those within the African-American context, I have to make sense of this hypocrisy. Edwards was only a small part of a much larger picture of Reformed thinkers and preachers. The theology I love so much is tainted with the stains of slavery, and my heroes–one of which is Jonathan Edwards–owned my ancestors and cared not to destroy the institution of slavery” (162).

“The agony and the ecstasy”

In 2009 John Piper made his first personal acknowledgement of Edwards’s slaveowning in an article pointing to Yale’s online archive (“Thank You, Yale, For This Gift“). Piper says: “The agony and the ecstasy of Jonathan Edwards is laid bare in this breathtaking availability of all that remains of him. From the bill of sale for a slave named Venus (the agony) to 68 titles on Heaven in the Miscellanies (the ecstasy), you can find it with the search engine built into the website.”

Bloodlines

In 2011, John Piper published Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. In the book he makes observations like this: “Race relations in America were plunged into ruin and destruction the day the first slave arrived in America, kidnapped for white gain against God’s law (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7)” (96).

He also acknowledges his indebtedness to Edwards: “I will put my theological cards on the table. I am a lover of the Reformed faith—the legacy of the Protestant Reformation expressed broadly in the writings of John Calvin and John Owen and Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon, and contemporaries such as R. C. Sproul and J. I. Packer and John Frame” (129).

He acknowledges the stain on his own tradition: “I know that those white, Reformed, Puritan roots are contaminated with the poison of racist slavery” (247).

Yet, interestingly, he never puts all the pieces together explicitly. In the book devoted to racism and slavery, he doesn’t mention the fact that Edwards himself owned slaves. Maybe he thought he didn’t need to, since he said as much generally. Maybe he thought that the publication of Burns’s chapter several years previously had done the job. Whatever the case, it does seem odd that Edwards’s slaveowning wasn’t specifically acknowledged in the book devoted to the topic.

“Slavery is a great evil”

In 2012, Desiring God published a piece by Trevin Wax: “What Do We Do With Our Slavery-Affirming Theological Heroes?” Wax is “amazed” at the depth of Edwards theology, yet “astounded that these theological giants could justify the owning of slaves, support slavery as a system, and conform to the racial prejudice common in their day.” Wax confronts the “man of his times” argument: “The one thing we cannot do is to explain away our theological forebears’ attitudes and actions by appealing to the historical context of their time… we must make sure that as we point out the general social ethics of the day we do not diminish the sinfulness of their practice.” He concludes: “Slavery is a great evil, but even slavery cannot stand in the way of the grace and glory of the gospel,” and thinks we can learn lessons from their blind spots.

“Edwards’ Failure”

In 2013, Pastor John devoted an entire podcast episode to the issue of “Slavery and Jonathan Edwards.” John was asked “How does his slaveholding factor into your evaluation Jonathan Edwards’ theological legacy?” and he finds 5 responses:

  1. It warns me not to idolize or idealize any man except Jesus.
  2. It cautions me that if he had blind spots on that issue, he may well have had blind spots on other issues, which means that I am going to now read with some more care.
  3. It makes me marvel that God uses any of us.
  4. Edwards’ failure in that regard teaches me that sanctification has blank spots like knowledge has blind spots.
  5. Edwards’ failure here makes me pray for light on my life and on my day.

“Call Them Out”

In 2017, Piper revisited the question again, “How Do I Process the Moral Failures of My Historical Heroes?” including Jonathan Edwards. After emphasizing the need to address present day sin, he asks, “Now, what about those who are dead, who’ve written books that we have found helpful?” He has a few suggestions.

First, “We need to acknowledge and be ready to admit the worst. It’s possible that a person was unregenerate that we have admired. And I think we should hope for the best, and we should be slow to pass final judgment on a Luther or an Edwards or a King.”

Second, “We should be consciously aware of their sins and call them out. Call them out. Name them; don’t white-wash it. Say the sin. And we should take that sin and watch out for its effects in their books. And that’s really important. In other words, if we say, “Here is a man who is a racist,” what could have possibly, in his theology or in his sermons, been affected by that, so we don’t get contaminated by that?”

Third, Piper reminds us that “the Bible itself encourages us that God uses flawed people, even to write Scripture.”

In conclusion, “we should probably be slow to judge and yet never white-wash the sins of any pastor or any writer. Call them out on it. Be alert to how those sins might have influenced their writings, and then profit from the writings to the degree that they are in sync with Scripture.”

“Limits of Godliness”

In April 2018, Piper published a biographical article on Edwards: “His Head and Heart Were God’s.” In it, he devotes an entire section to “The Limits of Godliness.” After quoting another author on the “mythic picture” of Edwards, Piper turns to “aspects of Edwards’s life that do not fit with his ‘mythic picture.'” He acknowledges that “Edwards’s freedom from conformity to the fallen world did not include freedom from slaveholding. The eradication of slavery in the body of Christ, to which God had pointed in the New Testament (Matthew 7:12; 23:8–12; Romans 10:12; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28; 5:14; Philippians 2:3–4; Colossians 3:11; Philemon 16; Revelation 5:9–10), was long overdue.” He points out the abolitionism of the second generation of Edwardseans, and links to several other resources, including Thabiti Anyabwile’s article.

“No one is helped by whitewashing our heroes”

In October 2018, in an interview with Justin Taylor, Piper wrestled with the purpose of Christian biography (“Friends You Need Are Buried in the Past
Q&A on Reading Christian Biographies“). He compares Iain Murray’s biography of Edwards (which doesn’t mention slavery), and George Marsden’s (which does). Yet, there were other biographers, even atheists, who didn’t mention his slavery either, and Piper posits that “Murray didn’t mention slavery may not be owing to a whitewash, but something else.” Now, that is a question for another post, exploring both Iain Murray’s enthusiasm for R.L. Dabney, and Banner of Truth’s devotion to the Southern Presbyterians.

Taylor followed up with the question: “How do we think about our heroes who not only are sinners as we all are — nobody should be surprised that our heroes sin — but what do we do with significant ongoing blind spots and sinfulness that is unrepented of.” Taylor specifically notes how differently white evangelicals treat the sins of Edwards versus the sins of someone like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Pastor John comes out strong: “The first thing I would say is that no one is helped by whitewashing our heroes, your heroes. No one has been helped by it.” He repeats this: “you don’t benefit by whitewashing your heroes. You won’t ever ask yourself the hardest questions about life if the people you love are whitewashed and you don’t ever come to terms with their sinfulness.”

He then gives us a method for wrestling with this: “And another thought comes to my mind, namely, that if you see in Edwards, Luther, Dabney, if you see sin, you should flag it, wave it, acknowledge it. That’s why the book, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy has the subtitle Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful. “Flawed” — put that right on the cover. If you see it, you should wave the flag and then be alert. Where might that have infected the theology I love, right? So I love Jonathan Edwards’s theology, but his theology didn’t keep him from having blind spots. So why not? Is there something about his theology I could discern where it needs to be tweaked so that if he would have had that right, then he would have had this right? That’s a huge benefit from acknowledging the sins. It makes us intensify our vigilance over our appropriation of their theology.”

Passing the Baton

In 2013, Pastor John retired from preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church, and Pastor Jason Meyer took his place (“Pastoral Transition After a 32-Year Ministry“). On issues of ethnic harmony, Pastor Jason picked up where John left off, preaching the yearly Ethnic Harmony Sunday sermons in January, and leading the congregations efforts to address issues of race.

Though he loves the theology of Jonathan Edwards, he too has not been afraid to confront the issue of his slavery, in:

In that article, for example, Pastor Jason talks about the two ditches of underreacting or overreacting. Underreacting happens when we:

  1. Ignore the Issue
  2. Minimize the Issue by Maximizing the Positive Impact Elsewhere
  3. Minimize the Issue by Making It Historically Understandable

He exhorts us to obey Romans 12:9: ““Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” He elaborates on this further: “It should be noted that abhorrence is something beyond awareness. We mustn’t stop short at the mere awareness that Edwards owned slaves. We should abhor it. This response requires a strong emotional reaction in keeping with the nature of the evil involved.” He then describes his own reaction as he confronted this issue in greater depth than ever before. The whole thing is really worth reading.

Conclusion

For over 15 years, John Piper and Desiring God have been wrestling with the flaws of one of their biggest heroes, Jonathan Edwards. They have not whitewashed him, but have tried to deal honestly with this legacy. Some will think they have gone too far (“why bring up the past?”); others think they haven’t gone far enough (“why read Edwards at all?”). I confess, I tend toward the latter category. But no one can accuse them of ignoring the issue, and no one can accuse them of “capitulating to culture” on this. Pastor John has been fighting for ethnic harmony (imperfectly, to be sure) for decades, and has inspired a new generation of evangelicals, of which I count myself, who are motivated to take that baton even further.

UPDATE (2021-08-18): “Wishful thinking”

On August 10, 2021, John Piper published another article: “How Could Jonathan Edwards Own Slaves? Wrestling with the History of a Hero.” He describes his decades long journey of reading Edwards, and being surprised to learn of his slaveholding. Piper affirms that Edwards probably sinned in his slaveholding, and then pivots to equating slaveholding with 21st century American life: “I doubt that he was sinless in it (any more than I think our own American lifestyles are sinless).”

Piper had found so much good in Edwards: “It was unfathomable to me that anyone should think I was being set up by Edwards to have the mind of a slaveholder.” He then outlines what he sees as the New Testament teaching on “slavery,” concluding: “But in spite of all this transformation, the New Testament does not say in so many words, “There are no more master-slave relations in the church.”

Piper acknowledges Edwards ownership of Venus and Titus notes that “The scope of what we do not know is very great,” but he neglects to include some of the basic facts that we do know, like the fact that he wrote a sermon on the back of Venus’s receipt on “faithful gospel ministry” (see “a Negro Girle named Venus aged Fourteen years or thereabout”) or that when he died, Titus was listed among his other animals in the inventory of the estate (see “A Negro Boy named Titus; Horse; Yoke of Oxen”).

Piper acknowledges that this is wishful thinking on his part: “If someone says, “Piper, this is just wishful thinking,” my answer is that indeed it is wishful thinking.” But he thinks that “My wishes are not baseless, however unlikely they may seem against the backdrop of mid-eighteenth-century attitudes.” (for more on this “backdrop,” see The Edwards of History: A Reply to Doug Wilson)

In the end, after decades of wrestling, Piper still views Edwards as the best author he’s ever read, outside of the Bible:

Whatever explanation I might give for why Edwards did not see his way clear to the renunciation of slaveowning at his moment in history, one thing I cannot deny: fifty years of reading and pondering Edwards has been for me more heart-humbling, more Christ-exalting, more God-revering, more Bible-illuminating, more righteousness-beckoning, more prayer-sweetening, more missions-advancing, and more love-deepening than any other author outside the Bible. Whether this ought to be the case, I leave for others to judge. That it is the case is undeniable. And for this mercy I give thanks.

For myself, having read thousands of pages on or by Edwards, his having been commended to me by men like Piper, Edwards does none of these things for me any more. I cannot read his glorious rhapsodizing in “Heaven is a World of Love” without noting the radical disjunction between his vision of reality there, and his practice here on earth. I cannot read his account of “True Virtue” without noting his hierarchical sense of “beauty” where “everyone keeps his place” (see here). I cannot read his account of “humility” in Religious Affections where he draws an analogy to slavery (see here). There are thousands of other Christian authors and theologians to read, and I no longer am interested in Edwards, not because someone has told me I shouldn’t read him, but because I have lost all taste for his theology.

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4 thoughts on “John Piper, Desiring God, Jonathan Edwards, and Slavery”

  1. Thank you for this article and time you out into it. Thank you for being a faithful Christian in this. As someone who has learned much from Piper over the last decade, it’s healthy to acknowledge where he fails. It’s also very healthy to examine HOW these things take place.

    Like

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