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!

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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.’”

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“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.

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“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.”

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“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.

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“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.

 

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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).