Evangelistic Enslavement: James Hervey’s “gift” of a slave to George Whitefield

James Hervey (1714–1758) was an English pastor in Weston Favell, England. Though not as well known as figures like John Wesley or George Whitefield, in his own day Hervey was ranked among the most influential of the evangelicals in England. While Whitefield was known for his preaching and Wesley for his organizing, Hervey was known for his writing, especially two works: Contemplations and Meditations (1747) and Theron and Aspasio: Or, A Series of Dialogues and Letters: Upon the Most Important and Interesting Subjects (1755).

J. C. Ryle said of Hervey, 

“I therefore boldly claim for him a high place among the spiritual heroes of the last century… let us not grudge Hervey his crown. He deserves to be had in remembrance.”

J. C. Ryle, The Christian Leaders of the Last Century: Or, England a Hundred Years Ago (1869), 356.

Another 19th century author said compared to Wesley and Whitefield: 

The person who contributed most effectually by his writings to revive evangelical doctrine in his native country was unquestionably the Reverend James Hervey.”

“No book was more popular [than Theron and Aspasio] in England in Scotland for many long years”

James Hervey and the Evangelism of His Times,” The British and Foreign Evangelical Review, (1853), 814, 820.

Luke Tyerman, the prolific Methodist historian, said this: 

“Hervey was one of the most godly men of the age in which he lived; and certainly, he was one of the most popular and successful authors.” 

Tyerman, The Oxford Methodists: Memoirs of the Rev. Messrs. Clayton, Ingham, Gambold, Hervey, and Broughton (1873), 326.

Baptist John Collett Ryland wrote an entire memorial to The character of the Rev. James Hervey (1791); and the preface to John Brown’s said this:

The Rev. James Hervey, the subject of the fol­lowing Memoirs, exhibits in his writings a most zeal­ous attachment to the great doctrines of the glorious gospel, and in his life a most eminent example of evan­gelical holiness

John Brown, Memoirs of the life and Character of James Hervey, 2nd edition [“considerably enlarged”] (1822), ix.

Hervey was a man highly esteemed in his own time, and by generations following him.


If Hervey is as representative and prominent a figure as there was in 18th century evangelicalism, a question naturally arises (for me, at least): what, if anything, did Hervey have to say (or do) regarding the enslavement of Africans in the American colonies?

As far as I can tell, Hervey never visited America (though his works were published, read, and debated there), and never owned any slaves himself (though I am uncertain of the status of the “worthy domestic” cited below). Nevertheless, Hervey’s friendship with George Whitefield resulted in an active participation in slavery that is worth reflecting on.

Though Hervey pastored in Weston Favell, in 1750 he took a trip to London, about 70 miles away, at the behest of some of his friends:

“In June 1750, his health being much impaired by his great attention to duty, and his friends judging that the change of air might be of benefit to him, they formed a design, which they executed, of conveying him to London, under a pretence of riding a few miles in a friend’s post-chaise, who was going thither.”

Brown, Memoirs, 149. 

Hervey would remain there nearly two years, until April or May 1752, and during this time he stayed at a few places in London, including his friend George Whitefield’s house:

“One of the winters he staid in Lon­don, he lodged at the house of his good friend Mr. Whitefield, in Tottenham-court Road; here he was very happy”

Brown, Memoirs, 152.
George Whitefield

Hervey and Whitefield were lifelong friends, and Whitefield had previously visited him up on Weston Favell:

“A worthy domestic, yet alive (in 1811) intimates, his usual visitors were the Rev. Messrs. Whitefield, T. Jones, Cudworth, Doddridge, Ryland, and a pious young man, a stone mason ; these righteous men, their lips fed one another; in­deed almost none but religious persons called on him.”

Brown, Memoirs, 156.

Among the things Hervey and Whitefield did was review each others’ manuscripts (though, Hervey being the more literary of the two, this seems to have been a one-sided affair):

“In his friendship to Mr. Whitefield, he also review­ed his manuscripts. So this good man [Whitefield] writes Mr. Hervey; “ I thank you a thousand times for the trouble you have been at in revising my poor compositions, which I am afraid you have not treated with a becoming severity.”

Brown, Memoirs, 263.

Sometime in 1752, Hervey sent some of his own manuscripts to Whitefield for comment (Luke Tyerman thinks these were “Probably “Theron and Aspasio,” now in hand, though not published far three years afterwards” (Tyerman, Oxford Methodists, 277).) Whitefield wrote back:

“London, June 9, 1752.

“My very dear Friend,— I have received and read your manu­scripts; but for me to play the critic upon them, would be like holding up a candle to the sun. However, before I leave town, I will just mark a few places as you desire, and then send the manuscripts to your brother. I foretell their fate: nothing but your scenery can screen you. Self will never bear to die, though slain in so genteel a manner, without showing some resentment against its artful murderer.”

The Works of the Rev. George Whitefield, 431–32.

However, in the same letter sending the manuscripts to Whitefield, Hervey had also said this:

“When you please to demand, my brother will pay you £30, for the purchase of a negro; and may the Lord Jesus Christ give you, or rather take for himself, the precious soul of the poor slave.”

Brown, Memoir, 215.

Whitefield replied:

“You are resolved not to die in my debt. I think to call your intended purchase Weston, and shall take care to remind him by whose means he was brought under the everlasting Gospel.”

Whitefield’s 1252 letter to Hervey

It seems unlikely to me that Whitefield literally thought Hervey was repaying a debt, especially not for his editorial comments on his manuscript. It is more likely that Hervey meant this as a “gift” to his friend, and Whitefield’s response is a courteous reply. Whitefield likely named the enslaved man “Weston” after the town where Hervey was pastor (Weston Favell).


How was this incident received and transmitted by historians and biographers? Luke Tyerman called it an “act … too curious to be omitted” and emphasizes its strangeness like this:

“Every one knows, that, Whitefield believed, that, the keeping of slaves was sanc­tioned by the Scriptures; that, hot countries could not be cultivated without negroes; and, that, the lives of numbers of white people had been destroyed in Georgia, and large amounts of money wasted, for want of negro labour. Hold­ing such principles, Whitefield, in 1751, bought a number of slaves, partly to cultivate the land attached to his Orphan House, in Georgia: and partly to instruct them, and to make them Christians. Strange to say, the gentle Hervey ap­proved of this procedure; and having, during his residence in London, largely shared in Whitefield’s hospitality, he gave to him, as a souvenir on leaving,—what ? A slave!”

Tyerman, The Oxford Methodists, 277.
Whitefield’s Orphanage in Georgia

However, other biographers of Hervey tried to frame this act in an entirely different light. One of Hervey’s earliest biographers, John Brown, called this an instance of charity:

“Among other instances of his charity, he proposed to buy a slave, to instruct him in the Christian religion.”

Brown, Memoirs, 215.

A whole book was edited in honor of Hervey, called Herveiana; Or, Graphic and Literary Sketches Illustrative of the Life and Writings of the Rev. James Hervey (1822) edited by John Cole. Cole actually attempts to compare Hervey to the great English abolitionist William Wilberforce:

“The following splendid instance of his charity is noticed by Brown, which shews that he possessed alike the spirit that animated Wilberforce, and that which influences Christians of the present day. Mr. Whitefield, being in America, Mr. Hervey proposed to buy a slave, (whom his friend there had opportunity to purchase) to in­struct him in the Christian religion…”

Herveiana, 98.

Cole goes on:

““The above account displays that Hervey did as far as was in his power as an individual in the cause of humanity, what Wilberforce as the repre­sentative of a body of individuals completely effected in the total overthrow of the cruelty in­flicted upon our fellow creatures. Our country­men of this age are endeavouring with a laudable zeal to convert heathens, and give them the glorious light of the gospel. Hervey used his power to effect the same desirable object in this brilliant and beneficent purchase, which is in every instance worthy of the man.”

Herveiana, 99.


To modern eyes, (mine at least), this appears to be a bizarre incident. Yet, in other respects, it is to be expected of evangelicals, who seamlessly wedded enslavement of others with their own evangelical theology (for another example, see “The Edwards of History: A Reply to Douglas Wilson”). In fact, it seems clear that Hervey meant this as a form of evangelism: “may the Lord Jesus Christ give you the precious soul of the poor slave.” For those who believed that God providentially intended the trans-Atlantic slave trade so that  enslaved Africans could hear the “gospel,” this is a completely consistent act.

This incident also tells us about how Whitefield was known amongst his friends. Hervey knew that Whitefield would appreciate the “gift” of an enslaved person, and perhaps knew all about the enslaved workers at the Bethesda orphanage in Georgia. When you spend good money on a gift for a friend (£30 was no small sum), you want to be sure they will appreciate it, and whatever Hervey knew of Whitefield, he knew he would appreciate this.

Consider further that Whitefield had said that he would “take care to remind him by whose means he was brought under the everlasting Gospel.” Imagine being Weston, and imagine if Whitefield held true to his promise. Imagine constant reminders to “Reverend Hervey” — another link in the chain of events that brought you from your home in Africa, across the middle passage, to a slave block in London. All along, you are treated as “transferrable property,” such that you could be “given” as a “gift,” from one evangelical preacher to another.

In all, the ethical distortion in the original episode, and the further distortion in the historical reception of it (Tyerman excluded), are illustrative of 18th and 19th century evangelicalism.


Jonathan Edwards and Slavery: A Bibliography

  • Anyabwile, Thabiti. “Jonathan Edwards, Slavery, and the Theology of African Americans” (2012): 1–10. (pdf available here)
  • Burns, Sherard. “Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner.” Pages 145–71 in A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards. Edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004. (pdf available here)
  • Byrd, James P. “We Can If We Will: Regeneration and Benevolence.” Pages 63–77 in After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of New England Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Edwards, Jonathan. “Draft Letter on Slavery,” 1738. (available on the Yale site)
  • ———. “Jonathan Edwards’s Last Will and the Inventory of His Estate,” Bibliotheca Sacra 33 (1876): 438–47.  (pdf available here)
  • ———. “Letter to Esther Edwards Burr, Letter 231, Stockbridge, November 20, 1757 (available on the Yale site)
  • ———. “Letter to Joseph Bellamy,” Letter 186, Stockbridge, February 28, 1754 (available on the Yale site)
  • ———. “One Great End In God’s Appointing The Gospel Ministry,” (1750) (available on the Yale site)
  • ———. “Receipt for Slave Named Venus,” (available on the Yale site)
  • Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E. “All Things Were New and Astonishing: Edwardsian Piety, the New Divinity, and Race.” Pages 121–36 in Jonathan Edwards at Home and Abroad: Historical Memories, Cultural Movements, Global Horizons. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2003.
  • Lucas, Sean Michael. “‘He Cuts up Edwardsism by the Roots’ : Robert Lewis Dabney and Edwardsian Legacy in Nineteenth Century South.” Pages 200–14 in The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards: American Religion and Evangelical Tradition. Edited by D.G. Hart, Sean Michael Lucas, and Stephen J. Nichols. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.
  • Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
  • McClymond, Michael J. “Edwards and Slavery.” in The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012: 526–27.
  • Minkema, Kenneth P. “Jonathan Edwards on Slavery and the Slave Trade.” William and Mary Quarterly 54 (1997): 823–33. (available on JSTOR)
  • ———. “Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery.” The Massachusetts Historical Review 4 (2002): 23–59. (available on JSTOR)
  • Minkema, Kenneth P., and Harry S. Stout. “The Edwardsean Tradition and the Antislavery Debate, 1740–1865.” The Journal of American History (2005): 47–74. (available on JSTOR)
  • Saillant, John. “African American Engagements with Edwards in the Era of the Slave Trade,” in Jonathan Edwards at 300: Essays on the Tercentenary of His Birth. Edited by Harry S. Stout, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Caleb J.D. Maskell. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005: 141–151.
  • ———. “Lemuel Haynes and the Revolutionary Origins of Black Theology, 1776-1801.” Religion and American Culture 2.1 (1992): 79–102. (available on JSTOR)
  • ———. “Slavery and Divine Providence in New England Calvinism: The New Divinity and a Black Protest, 1775-1805.” The New England Quarterly 68.4 (1995): 584–608. (available on JSTOR)

NOTE: If you know of other published sources (journals, chapters, books) please let me know!

(Photo by João Silas on Unsplash)

“Baptist” or “Evangelical”?

We moved to the heart of Minneapolis this summer and immediately found ourselves surrounded by Somali immigrants. There is a Somali ‘mall’ directly across the street, including a mosque, and many of the local shops are owned by and cater to Somalis.

The first week we were here, I stopped in one particular deli and ordered a large Americano (from a Somali deli, I know). Since then, I’ve stopped in about twice a week and ordered the same thing. It’s cheaper than Starbucks, and I think I like it even better.

I’ve gotten to know the shop-owner by name, and at this point he starts making my drink before I even have to order it. I’m starting to care about him as a person, and pray for his salvation.

This morning I asked if he was religious (of course — 99.9% of Somalis are Muslim) and he reciprocated the question. It seems like Somalis love to talk about religion — there was no guardedness about him at all, actually an eagerness to compare our beliefs, and in a very friendly manner.

When I told him I was Christian, he asked what kind, Catholic . . . ? I froze for a second. What label could I give him that would mean anything to him? I didn’t know, and I grabbed “Baptist”. We talked for a couple minutes about the Torah, the Injil (New Testament) and the Quran. “What to Baptists believe about the Quran?” he asked at one point, and I briefly told him. It was a good, if brief, conversation, and I think the door is wide open to go further. Pray for this man if you think of it.

I kept thinking, and I’m not satisfied with “Baptist” — I wish I would have said “evangelical” instead. It’s not that “evangelical” would be any more meaningful to him than “Baptist” but using “evangelical” would give me a straight and direct excuse to talk about the evangel that defines me as a Christian, rather than the mode of Baptism that distinguishes me from other Christians. For evangelistic purposes, one term keeps us focused on the gospel, the other opens up rabbit trails that are totally meaningless at this point. Even in encounters with Americans, I think “evangelical” is a more useful term. Regardless of how the broader culture defines (or vilifies) a particular label, we define the terms for the people we interact with. “I thought evangelicals were _______, but I know Daniel, and he says he’s an evangelical.”

I’m not ashamed of being a Baptist. I’m as strong in that conviction as I have ever been. Yet, I’ve determined that for purposes of evangelism, I need to identify as an evangelical.