“Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 6

(Note: this post is part of a series—see “John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney,” for an introduction and links to the other articles)

In 2003, Desiring God devoted their entire National Conference to the 300 year anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards. The conference was entitled “A God-Entranced Vision of All Things: The Unrivaled Legacy of Jonathan Edwards,” and featured an all-white cast of plenary speakers: John Piper, Iain Murray, J. I. Packer, Mark Dever, Sam Storms, and Noël Piper. The following year, Crossway published a book, A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (2004), edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. The book was “a continuation and expansion of that tercentenary celebration” and the whole effort had a specific purpose: “the aim of introducing readers to Edwards, and more importantly to his ‘God-entranced vision of all things’” (Justin Taylor, “Introduction,” in A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 13).  The book was dedicated “To Iain H. Murray whose life and labors proclaim a God-entranced vision of all things” (A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 5).

Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner”

Sherard Burns

The book contains some chapters that are not available as conference messages on desiringgod.org, including one by Sherard Burns, then the “Associate Pastor of Evangelism, Discipleship, and Assimilation, Bethlehem Baptist Church,” entitled “Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner.” The fact that Edwards had been a slaveowner had recently been re-discovered in the Yale archives, and historians, theologians, and admirers were forced to take this into consideration (for more on this see “John Piper, Desiring God, Jonathan Edwards, and Slavery”).

While the chapter, like the conference, is focused on Edwards, Burns references Dabney near the end, and several portions of the chapter apply generally to both Edwards and Dabney.

Burns begins by acknowledging that 

“Nothing has been more of a stain on our history than the institution and cruelty of slavery in America… what formed the very heart of slavery was the belief that some had 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. Hence merchandise was made of oppression.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 145–46. 

Indeed, this belief characterizes Dabney fully (see for example, “[Nine of] Eleven Letters by Chorepiscopus [Robert Lewis Dabney] to the Richmond Enquirer, on “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (1851)”).

Burns then highlights the issue of Christian enslavers: 

“One of the most troubling facts concerning slavery was its association with Christianity. Not only those who were deemed unregenerate and heathen owned slaves; those who professed to have met the true Liberator, Christ, also refused such liberty to men… In preparing this chapter I wanted to understand how Edwards, with his intellect and theological understanding and love for God, could own slaves and do so till the day of his death. ”

Burns,”Trusting,” 146.

Later he articulates the central question this way: 

“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.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 162. 

This effort to “make sense of this hypocrisy” is what I have been trying to do as well.

“Giants of the Christian Faith”?

Burns offers a caveat early on: 

“R. C. Sproul has said that when he disagrees with the giants of the Christian faith, he does so with fear and trembling. I feel the same way as I write this concerning Edwards. It is a difficult thing to posit that Edwards compromised theologically when what we have known of him in virtually every other case is theological precision and conviction. Yet the facts remain. However, though such compromise happened, we must be careful to remember that, though he was a brilliant thinker, he, like all of us, still fought against the remaining effects of sin.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 148.

Here I need to pause and ask a question: who gets to decide who the “giants of the Christian faith” are? What are the qualifications for such an elevation of status? Here, it appears to be “theological precision” and being “a brilliant thinker,” “a man of great learning and religion” (148). This, to me, is part of the problem. Our criteria for “giant of the Christian faith” is ethically anemic; it elevates intellect, and ignores the obedience of love and justice. We elevate “heroes” based on their “theology,” and then find ourselves in a conundrum: “Now what do we do with their glaring inconsistencies?” Maybe we need to go all the way back to square one, and re-evaluate what makes a “giant,” and only hold those in esteem who are actually worthy of imitation, not just those who intellectually stimulate us through their books.

Burns then explores Edwards’s own words and actions regarding enslavement, and since the topic of this post is Robert Lewis Dabney, we won’t dig into that here (for my own reflections on Edwards and slavery, see: “The Edwards of History: A Reply to Doug Wilson”). However, in the middle of this section, Burns offers an assessment of the sin of owning slaves, which applies to Dabney as well: 

“In the cosmic sense of reality, owning slaves is no different from any other sin, in that all sin is against God, and all of us are capable of the greatest of evils were God to release his restraining hand for his eternal purposes. What is interesting, however, is that while we must see sin as the cause of Edwards’s behavior, Edwards himself never called what he and his other colonists were doing “sin.” To Edwards, slavery was a necessary evil that served some positive good in the natural order that God had decreed—a thought his disciples would take up some years following his death. Yet if Edwards was wrong, it is not his God or his theology that is to blame—only his sin (footnote 34: I am grateful to John Piper for this insight.) Reformed theology did not produce a heart to own slavery.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 156.

Here, again, I must take issue with this “insight” which Burns credits to Piper “it is not his theology that is to blame—only his sin. Reformed theology did not produce a heart to own slavery.” Unfortunately, I don’t think it is this simple. Reformed theology fit perfectly with the hierarchical view of the world that both Edwards and Dabney shared (i.e., “God has sovereignly appointed each his ‘proper place’”). It was just this intertwining of Reformed theology and White supremacy that started me on this project (“Providence is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist”). The more I have dug into this, the less I am convinced that “it is not their theology that is to blame”—I fear that it is indeed their theology that bears at least some of the blame. Whether the theology actively contributed to white-supremacy and enslavement (which it did at times) or passively failed to produce the necessary works of love or the impetus to dismantle enslavement and racism, the theology seems very much to blame.

“Men of their times”?

On the next page, Burns repeats an oft-heard warning: 

“Marsden cautions us against the natural inclination to view men of history from our own contexts, stating that we should think ‘about Edwards as an eighteenth-century figure and about how that context should shape [our] understanding of him . . . it would be a failure of imagination if we were to start out by simply judging people of the past for having outlooks that are not like our own. Rather, we must first try to enter sympathetically into an earlier world and to under- stand its people.’”

Burns, “Trusting,” 157, quoting George Marsden’s biography of Edwards, 2). 

However, judging enslavers like Edwards or Dabney is not a matter of importing a present moral judgment onto the past. An anti-slavery witness has existed in North American since as early as 1688 (see “Quaker Protest Against Slavery in the New World, Germantown (Pa.) 1688”), and one of Edwards’s contemporaries, John Woolman (1720–1772), argued vehemently against enslavement, and even for reparations (plus interest!) to the descendants of slaves (see The Journal and Essays of John Woolman, and Woolman, “A Plea for the Poor”). One need not read 21st century sensibilities onto the 18th or 19th centuries in order to condemn slaveholders; one needs only to be better acquainted with those centuries.

Burns demonstrates an awareness of some of the recent scholarship on Dabney in particular when he cites Sean Michael Lucas’s article, “‘He cuts up Edwardsism by the roots’: Robert Lewis Dabney and the Edwardsean Legacy in the Nineteenth-Century South,” (in The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards) which interacts specifically with Dabney’s opposition to the Edwardsean abolitionists. This is important because some might say “we just didn’t know about Dabney’s racism until much recently.” The scholarship has been there for decades, and it was accessible to the staff at Bethlehem at the time.

It is in his concluding section that Burns references Dabney explicitly: 

“’the challenge of the African American within the Reformed context is that we are called to embrace the theology of our oppressors and to reject the theology of our liberators.’ This means that the odd and ironic position of the African American who seeks to be shaped by orthodox theology must reject, in many respects, the theology of a Martin Luther King, Jr., and embrace the theology of a Jonathan Edwards or Robert Dabney. While I admire Dr. King for his work and efforts in fighting for the freedom of African Americans in this country (my freedom), I am not hesitant to note that he will not offer much help in theological precision. While, on the other hand, Edwards never held the mantle as social liberator, his theology will saturate a man in orthodoxy.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 170.

I agree with Burns that it does seem “odd and ironic,” and this sense sharp sense of irony is why I think there is more to see here than what Burns, or Piper, have acknowledged. I would call into question this conclusion that the theology of slaveholders will “saturate a man in orthodoxy.” If our theological calculus results in conclusions like this, we need to re-evaluate what it truly means to be “orthodox.”

Burns thinks that good theology will eradicate racism: 

“the eradication of racism today, as would be the case with slavery then, will not come about through programs, but by means of a God-centered and God-entranced view of reality… Whatever we may think of Edwards, one thing is for certain: He left the American church with the necessary theological truths to kill racism in our hearts and to be conquerors of it in the church.”

“the eradication of racism today, as would be the case with slavery then, will not come about through programs, but by means of a God-centered and God-entranced view of reality… Whatever we may think of Edwards, one thing is for certain: He left the American church with the necessary theological truths to kill racism in our hearts and to be conquerors of it in the church.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 170–71.

Again, I must demur. The “eradication of slavery” did not come through Edwards’s “God-entranced view of reality” — it only finally came as a result of a bloody Civil War. As much as we may wish that “good theology” is all it takes to change the world, we must face the actual historical record: Edwards did not leave the church with the necessary theological truths to end slavery and kill racism, and the evidence is seen a thousandfold on the pages of actual history, in the lives of 18th century Reformed slaveholders, 19th century Reformed white-supremacists, 20th century Reformed segregationists, and their 21st century Reformed admirers. To pretend otherwise is wishful thinking.

Conclusion

Burns had acknowledged up front that this topic is complex and vast: 

“I do not suppose that I will answer every question that will arise from the reading of this chapter. The topic is so vast and varied that it may raise additional questions that, I hope, will compel each of us to dig and find what is there to be explored and attained”

Burns, “Trusting,” 146. 

Indeed, this is what I have felt as I face the issue of Reformed White-Supremacy. In this Burns was successful: I have felt compelled to dig and explore and the more I dig, the more “additional questions” my digging has raised.

This post has not focused directly on John Piper, but is part of the slightly broader circle of people who served with him in ministry at Bethlehem Baptist Church, and were published as part of Desiring God’s efforts. It illustrates the kind of influence that Piper’s ministry had on those around him, including a Black pastor like Sherard Burns. As the “two streams” of the Black “soul dynamic” and the white “Reformed theology” mingled, the Black stream was faced with white-supremacy and forced to wrestle hard with it. I still haven’t found the chapter or article from a white figure entitled “Trusting the Theology of a Liberation Theologian.” It seems like all this work to assimilate into the “single river” was being done from one direction.

Next: 7. “Great Saints of the Past” (Suffering and the Sovereignty of God)