“The Problem of Evil and its Relation to the Ministry to an Underprivileged Minority”

Fall 2020 I took a class on “the problem of evil,” and decided to write a paper exploring Richard Ishmael McKinney’s work on the problem of evil from a Black perspective.

McKinney earned his Bachelor of Divinity at Newton Theological Institution in 1934 and wrote a thesis paper on “The Problem of Evil and its Relation to the Ministry to an Underprivileged Minority.” McKinney would go on to a PhD at Yale, and then a lifelong academic career in philosophy in Historically Black Colleges and Universities. McKinney’s life spans nearly the entire range of the 20th Century as a Black academic serving in Black schools, though unfortunately his academic career would essentially remain behind the shadow of ‘The Color Line’ of segregation and Jim Crow.

Here’s the introduction to the paper:

All of the work on the problem of evil that I have been exposed to has been written by white theologians and philosophers, either Christian or otherwise. Often their examples and reflections betray their status from the highest of upper classes, those afforded the opportunity to pursue PhD level education at elite universities, and then to go on to academic and publishing careers. Yet an important voice seems missing, the voice of the marginalized. Interestingly, there are identifiable traditions of Black Theology and Black Philosophy that have wrestled with the problem of evil from within the context of the Black experience in the United States. This paper will explore one vein within these traditions, that provided by Richard I. McKinney (1906–2005), and the thinkers he engaged with, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Thurman, seeking to discover what unique contribution this tradition has to offer to our thinking on this topic.  We find that Black theologians have a unique perspective on the Problem of Evil from their perspective within a marginalized community, a perspective that is vital to hear when engaging this subject.

The bibliography includes as nearly a complete c.v. for McKinney as I could construct.

You can read the whole thing here:

Here are a few quotes:

These peoples voice their experience thus: “Why must I or my people suffer? Is my kind cursed of God? Why, if God is good, does he let injustice go on? Is not God himself partial to certain races? What about these inequalities in human life?” In the face of these questions, McKinney asks: “What in view of these facts, are the resources of religion for such suffering?”

McKinney would later suggest that “Doubtless Jesus himself would be outraged if he were to witness in the flesh some of the un-Christian and undemocratic practices of the institution and people which bear his name.”

McKinney claims that “In general, the Negro spirituals represent one of the most significant aspects of Negro life in America.” Here it is worth pausing to make an observation regarding theological method. Normally, students of theology focus our attention on written texts, great works of systematic theology or philosophical theology. One thinks of the “Great Books,” including works by Jonathan Edwards or (for some traditions) the great Reformed Theologian Robert Lewis Dabney. Why is it that we don’t have works of theology from the same time period written by Black Christians and thinkers? Individual theologians like Jonathan Edwards or Robert Lewis Dabney were afforded the luxury of time and energy to think and to write, in part, because they owned African slaves. Theological institutions like the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary were sustained, in part, by the labor of slaves and the financial support of slave-owners. What could the enslaved produce? Songs. And a case could be made that the source material for a more genuine form of Christianity will be found in these spirituals, than in the books that were written on the backs of those who sang them.

Howard Thurman captures the deep paradox and opportunity seen in Black Christianity: “the slave took over the religion of the master and became a traditional Christian. In many ways this fact is amazing as well as ironical. It was a fateful moment in the life of the new world when the African slave was brought face to face with the Christian religion. It may be that then, as now, this black minority was called upon to redeem a religion that the master and his posterity disgraced in their midst.”

In facing the problem, McKinney does not want us to pull any punches: “he would be Christian in this world must not close his eyes to any of its facts. The problem of evil and suffering is a fact, and a very immediate one for many people; and as such it cannot be lightly explained away. We must not be afraid to look at life with open eyes.”

McKinney regularly referred to a quote from Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History: “the noted historian Arnold Toynbee asserted that it is likely that a revitalization of Christianity, if it comes at all, will come as a result of the religion of the Black people.”

Christians seeking to find a more authentic expression of Christianity, the family of those who follow the crucified and risen Lord, would do well to look to the Black church tradition, and will find there abundant resources for engaging the problem of evil, and numerous other situations as well.

The Edwards of History: A Reply to Doug Wilson

“[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, Doug 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).

Hierarchy

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)

Anti-slavery voices

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”).

Doolittle

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).

Controversies

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).

Venus

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.

Doug 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.

Conclusion

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.

Sources Consulted:

(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)

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.

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)

The Edwardseans and Immediatism

From Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 622:

“New England Congregationalism showed a moral intensity that could be traced back to Edwardseanism. ‘It is only when we have in hand the puzzle piece of the ethics of disinterested benevolence,’ write Sweeney and Guelzo, that we can grasp ‘the fiery urgency of William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown. Indeed, it was on the topic of slavery that the Edwardseans became known for their radicalism. By 1771, [Samuel] Hopkins was preaching against the slave trade. By 1773, he was attacking slavery itself. Hopkins’s moral radicalism and theological intransigence prepared him to be the preacher of abolition in Newport, Rhode Island—the epicenter of the American slave trade. He won a following in among African Americans in Newport, as well as enduring hostility from slave ship owners. For Hopkins, slavery was a flagrant offense against benevolence and the result of a ‘most criminal, contracted selfishness.’ The only remedy was immediate emancipation, as Hopkins argued in A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans (1776). Similarly, Jonathan Edwards Jr. wrote in The Injustice and Impolity of the Slave Trade and of Slavery (1791) that ‘I conceive it [the slave trade] to be unjust in itself’ and ‘contrary to every principle of justice and humanity.’ Nathanael Emmons also denounced slavery from the pulpit. ‘Immediatism’—the demand for immediate, unconditional emancipation of all slaves, rather than gradual or partial solutions—was the socio-political correlate of Hopkins’s view of conversion and his call for ‘immediate repentance.’”

(Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash)

“My wife desires to buy your Negro woman”

Slavery, for the Edwards, was a family affair.

George Marsden, in his biography of Jonathan Edwards, notes that his wife Sarah was herself active in perpetuating their slaveholding: “During the 1750s, Sarah Edwards was actively seeking to purchase a slave and had Jonathan ask both Joseph Bellamy… and their daughter Esther Edwards Burr… about the availability of one of theirs.” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 555 n. 5).

Ken Minkema describes it like this: “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)

Here are the letters that document this:

Letter to Joseph Bellamy, Letter 186, Stockbridge, February 28, 1754 (available on the Yale site)

Edwards main reason for writing regards “the affair of your going to New York,” as the minister of the church. He needs more information (“I wish you had been a little more particular in your information. I desire you would write to me again as soon as possible.”) in order to help. Bellamy himself was a slaveowner, and Edwards offhandedly asks at the end, that if Bellamy indeed moved to New York, could Edwards buy his slave?

If it should finally so come to pass that you should remove to New York, my wife desires to buy your Negro woman, as she supposes she will do better for the country than the city. She will probably come along through your place some time in April, when she will talk with you about it.

 

Letter to Esther Edwards Burr, Letter 231, Stockbridge, November 20, 1757 (available on the Yale site

After thanking God for sustaining her faith after the death of her husband, Edwards writes about his pending move to Princeton. Wrapping up the letter, he talks about seeing his granddaughter, Lucy, and then offhandedly:

If you think of selling Harry, your mother desires you not to sell him, without letting her know it.

(Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

“Bad wounds must be searched to the bottom”

If any would object to exposing the sins of our theological heroes, let them hear from Jonathan Edwards himself. In his Miscellanies, he gives us a vivid picture of the depths of sin and its ugliness. Racism and slavery is a “bad wound” in the Reformed tradition that has been “skinned over” for too long and we are just starting to “lay open its core.” Indeed, each succeeding generation of Christians in America has seen this sore “break out again.” Edwards gives us great warrant for exposing–searching!–and lancing the deep, bad wounds present in his own life and theology:

635. CONVICTION. HUMILIATION.

Bad wounds must be searched to the bottom; and oftentimes when they are very deep they must be lanced, and the core laid open, though it be very painful to endure, before they can have a good cure. The surgeon may skin them over, so that it may look like a cure without this, without much hurting the patient, but it will not do the patient much good. He does but deceive him for the present, but it will be no lasting benefit to him; the sore will break out again. This figures forth to us the case of our spiritual wound. The plague of our hearts, which is great and deep and must be searched, must be lanced by painful conviction. The core must be laid open. We must be made to see that fountain of sin and corruption there is, and what a dreadful state we are in by nature, in order to a thorough and saving cure.

Jeremiah 8:11, speaking of the teachers of Israel, their prophets and priests, “They have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, peace, peace, when there is no peace.”

(Photo by Brian Patrick Tagalog on Unsplash)

“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)

“A Negro Boy named Titus; Horse; Yoke of Oxen”

Jonathan Edwards’s last will and testament can be seen here:  “Jonathan Edward’s Last Will, and the Inventory of His Estate”.

Here’s what he listed under the category “Quick Stock”:

  • A Negro Boy named Titus
  • Horse
  • Yoke of Oxen
  • Yoke of Steers
  • Two Cows
  • Four D [?]
  • Two Heifers
  • One Calf
  • Six Hogs

One of these things is dramatically not like the others, namely, a human being–a boy(!)–made in the image of God. The fact that Edwards could categorize a boy alongside his animals in his will is appalling, to say the least, and indicative of a deep category error in his view of reality.

Kenneth Minkema notes the following:

“There is some evidence that he was the young son of Joab and Rose Binney, though, through a confusion of names, he could have been Joseph and Sue’s child. In either case, Titus’s continued slavery illustrates how easily free or enslaved blacks in New England could be separated from their children, even by masters who saw themselves as more Christian than others.”

(“Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” The Massachusetts Historical Review (2002), 44).

Minkema cites William Allen, An Address Delivered at Northampton, Mass (Northampton, Mass, 1855), 52 (available here).

Edwards not only owned slaves as a general category, he owned children, and he separated them from their parents. No amount of “kind treatment” on the part of a “Christian master” can make up for the trauma this would produce. I have two boys, and I seethe to imagine someone doing this to them.

UPDATE (2021-08-16): in 2019 “Yale University received a donation of a major collection of manuscripts and ephemera centering on the Dwight family of New England fame. The collection also includes a significant number of documents by members of the Edwards family, and several by Jonathan Edwards himself.” This collection included the receipt for Edwards’s purchase of Titus, and the Jonathan Edwards Studies article includes brief biographical notes on Titus’s later life: “A New Edwards Document: Receipt for a Slave” Jonathan Edwards Studies Vol 9, No 2 (2019): 98–99. [NOTE: to access this article, you must register with the site, but registration is free].

(Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

Comparing Princeton, Edwards, and the Dutch on the Bible and Society

Mark Noll contributed a chapter to Reformed Theology in America on “The Princeton Theology.” Toward the end, he compares the theologians of Princeton with two other representatives of Reformed theology: Jonathan Edwards and the Dutch. His second point of comparison, on the Bible and society, was illuminating:

“Second, the three differed in how their approach to Scripture affected their picture of the Christian’s task in society. Princeton used the Bible to construct dogma, while it was content to accept the cultural conventions of the merchant-yeoman middle class without question. To Edwards the Bible was a resource for reflective piety, for discovering the divine and supernatural light that graciously converts the darkened heart; his absorption was so thorough on this theme that he seems to have given little thought to the late-Puritan society in which he lived. The Dutch, by contrast, almost defined themselves by their capacity to find scriptural principles for cultural formation, whether in education, politics, voluntary organizations, or economics. These varied uses of Scripture have appeared complementary in some circumstances and competitive in others” (28–29).