Should We Not Read Jonathan Edwards Because He Owned Slaves?

An upcoming event at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School tackles this question, and does so by way of a major lecture by esteemed pastor Thabiti Anyabwile.  This lecture, entitled “Jonathan Edwards and American Racism: Can the Theology of a Slave Owner Be Trusted by Descendants of Slaves?,” will be held this Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 1pm CST (2pm EST) on the campus of TEDS.  The event will be live-streamed here.

Two leading African-American Chicago pastors, Charlie Dates and Louis Love, will respond.

Here’s the lecture description:

Jonathan Edwards is arguably the most important theologian that North America has produced. He is a hero to many Christians. Yet he also owned slaves, a fact that has raised important questions about his moral credibility. Should we really be holding Edwards up as a theological role model? Should we be trying to learn from him? These are live questions here at Trinity and beyond. Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile has thought about these questions–as a pastor, an African American, and adherent to Reformed theology. We invite you to listen in as he reflects about them personally, engaging two other African-American pastors and the audience in an edifying installment of the Edwards Center series ‘Jonathan Edwards and the Church,’ moderated by Dr. Sweeney.

Again, make sure to watch the free live-stream of this important lecture.

I am personally very glad that the JEC at TEDS is hosting this conversation and that they have invited three African-American pastors to lead the conversation.  Evangelicalism very much needs this kind of honest and open discussion about racism in our past (I’m glad for pastor John Piper’s Bloodlines as well–see the arresting video).  The fact that Edwards owned slaves revolts me, to be frank, and was the most difficult matter with which I had to square in writing the Essential Edwards Collection with Dr. Sweeney.

My own conviction as a white Christian is that Edwards’s horrific sin should not cause us to ignore his theological voice.  If we were to adopt this kind of posture, we would find ourselves with precious few guides from past ages.  Luther denounced the Jews; Zwingli kept a mistress for some time; John Wesley was a less-than-ideal husband, to say the least.  The list could go on.

None of this means that we take Edwards’s slaveholding lightly.  We must not.  But it does mean that we must tread carefully in disqualifying leaders, not least because we ourselves are no better than they.  We are sinners.  We have gross faults, too.  Is this not one of Scripture’s greatest lessons?  Sin is in our house.  It is not only in our neighbor’s, as the log in our eye would obscure us from seeing.

All of us have sin; all of us need Christ, and forgiveness from our brothers and sisters.  There will be no weeping and anger in heaven, but it is a sweet thing indeed to think that there, Jonathan Edwards has recognized that the slaves he held, those who knew Christ, were not his property.  They, like all humanity–saved or not–were not his possession.  They were his kin, his spiritual kin, and Jesus has bestowed on them a dignity that the world denied them.

One hopes that this conversation at TEDS will lead evangelicals to continue to realize just how strong our union in Christ is, to meditate more on how great is the bond between us, much as our past suggests–to our shame–otherwise.

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15 Comments

Filed under jonathan edwards, racism

15 responses to “Should We Not Read Jonathan Edwards Because He Owned Slaves?

  1. Owen,

    Thabiti spoke on this topic last night at the Henry Forum at CHBC. One of the questions he was asked was “What would we think of a man equal in theological and intellectual stature as Edwards, but instead of the sin of slave-holding, the sin was being an abortionist”? i’m curious as to how you would respond to this question. And i wonder if you could expound on your comment that “we must tread carefully in disqualifying leaders.” What type of disqualification did you have in mind? i think it’s clear that neither Edwards nor the fictitious abortionist described by the questioner could be understood to be “above reproach” as required in 1 Tim. 3.

  2. Franklin Peaker

    According to scripture would the concern be what type of slave-owner he was? I believer that during his time it was still legal and commonplace.

  3. owenstrachan

    Christopher,

    This is a good and complex question. I have great respect for Thabiti and his thinking, which is why I commended his lecture publicly. However, I don’t agree that owning slaves and doing abortions are the same. Slavery is, as I took pains to say, egregious and revolting, wrong as wrong can be. But it is not the same as abortion, which is murder. Slavery could of course lead to murder and other heinous things–and it surely did. But Edwards did not murder any of his slaves, and there are indications that he actually cared for them and preached the gospel to them. This does not excuse his sin, but it does fill out the context, and it shows that his slave-holding was different than the work of an abortionist.

    By “disqualify,” per the tone of the piece, I meant not reading or studying Edwards. If that is our standard, then we can’t read most leaders from the Christian past, several of which I mentioned. John Knox was something of a warmonger; his preaching undoubtedly accelerated conflict between Scotland and England, which led to the unnecessary deaths of some. Ulrich Zwingli kept a mistress for some years before marrying her. Martin Luther was viciously anti-Semitic. John Calvin was sensitive and preening and no doubt sinned greatly against some of his brothers by acting in pride. John Wesley and George Whitefield were each rather bad husbands. Augustine was an ascetic was taught that sex was bad, leading many Christians to be confused on that point.

    In other words, there is sin, very ugly sin, in the lives of many leaders of the Christian past. You may be right that now, if these men were in our churches, their sins would disqualify them from ministry. But you must be careful in how you read church history. Rarely in the past did churches in various regions possess even a handful of qualified men. God used imperfect figures who, yes, lived in patterns of sin to lead his church. That’s a part of our heritage, and we have to square with it. Church history is not perfect, and neither were its leaders. Only God is perfect.

    We do also have to take context into account, and sadly, Edwards’s sin is not out of the ordinary for his day. That must be said. That does not excuse him, but it does inform this sin. So there is much to consider here that a quick glance at the past does not allow.

    Hope that helps–good question.

  4. Robert S.

    Owen, could you describe his slave-owning more? How many? How long? Did he ever repent? Were these short-term bondages, as in the Bible’s OT laws? Were slaves really that common in New England? How did he acquire them? How did he treat them? Did he or his children abuse them or rape women? Did he sell slaves?

    • chris

      The “slavery” in Scripture is not the same as what we call slavery with regard to the Americas. Im assuming you know the ways slaves were acquired. However, just for the sake of it, ill mention it anyway. Many African leaders became traitors, selling their own people or their captured enemies to Englishmen as slaves. Or the most known, English people going around and capturing/kidnapping people and forcing them to be slaves. Well, read Exodus 21:16.

      What was done in America 200 years ago, was considered illegal by Scripture, and not only those that did the kidnapping, but also those that may sell them (maybe a middle man), and those that possessed them “in his hand” were to be put to death. It was a heinous crime, and is.

      But the KJV says “slavery”, and because most people try to discredit Scripture, this is the first place they look. What Scripture defines as “okay” is what we woudl call “indentured servants”. There was NEVERa situation where it was legal to FORCE someone to work for someone else. They ALWAYS chose to work for them. And even more, after a certain amount of servitude, God had in place things like the Year of Jubilee, as well as the weekly day rest (look at the commandment, it specifically includes slaves; Deut. 5:14). If someone was dumb enough to sign a contract into working for a terrible master, after I think 50 years they were allowed to go free (so they didnt waste their whole life).

      And on the same token, you dont have to go too far through Scripture to understand the care and concern God has for the “oppressed” and “widows”. Of course we can look to Ephesians when describing the good treatment of “slaves” that is required by Christian masters, but you can see the punishment that God has for those that treat servants harshly by beating them, tricking them, etc. in the Old Testament.

  5. Owen,

    Thanks for responding to my comment. i hope i was not unclear in bringing up the issue of abortion. My point really was not to argue that slave-holding is morally equivalent to performing abortions. (So, please don’t let that be a distraction.) But neither do i think Edwards’ so-called humane treatment of his slaves mitigates the fact that he was an un-repentant man-stealer (which 1 Tim. 1:10 lists as contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel). Sin performed kindly is still sin. (i.e., abortions performed out of compassion for the poor, uneducated, single mother are still murder.)

    i agree with you that only Christ is perfect, and that even the best leaders sin. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit has given us 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1 as a guide for appointing elders/pastors. Unless these virtues are merely aspirational, and not attainable, then we must submit to the authority of Scripture. If a man was nominated to be an elder in your church, but unrepentantly practiced the sins you’ve attributed to Zwingli, Luther or Wesley, how would you vote? i hope you understand what i’m getting at here. i’m trying to understand why we would “disqualify” our contemporaries, but not our predecessors. Why?

  6. Job

    Show me in the Bible, in the OT or the NT, where slaveholding is forbidden. Pastors are to be judged by the Bible, not by human morality, which shifts like the breeze and the only constant being that it reflects man’s fallen nature.

  7. Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7; Lev. 25:39-42; Jer. 34:9, 17; Amos 2:6, 8:6; Matt. 25:40; 1 Cor. 6:10; 1 Tim. 1:10

  8. Job

    Christopher:

    None of those verses forbid slavery. Your claiming otherwise does not make it so, and your stance that manstealing applies to slavery itself is not only dishonest, but it creates a contradiction in the Holy Scriptures. You are taking Jer. 34:9, 17 out of context. (Please note that the gospels make it clear that Jews continued to hold slaves in NT times, so they did not adhere to your interpretation either.) Applying to Amos 2:6 to this matter is agenda-driven hermeneutics. And your listing Matthew 25:40 shows that you are reading your own values into the Bible texts. What say you to homosexuals and their gay rights advocates do the same?

    Like so many other issues, the church followed the world in declaring slavery to be wrong, and interprets the Bible accordingly. This is no different from the “if God spoke through Balaam’s donkey certainly he can speak through a woman” sort of “exegesis” used to defend women preachers. Because the feminists say that it should be OK, and because the women’s movement has succeeded in the U.S., the church has to follow along too and come up with eisegesis to make it work.

    The abolitionists were primarily humanists, enlightenment thinkers and unitarians like Thomas Jefferson and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Otherwise, they were folks whose eschatology had them believing that they could improve society to prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ, and this improvement meant adding contemporary human morality to the Biblical revelation (such as prohibition when 1 Timothy 5:23 specifically tells Christians to drink wine).

    Now I am not telling any Christian to go to Sudan and buy a slave; such would cast unnecessary stumblingblocks before people of the sort that Paul wisely avoided among the Jews by circumcising Timothy. Instead, I am pointing out that judging people like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield according to the standards of the world instead of the standards of the Bible is sinful, while their owning slaves was not. And abusing scripture to make the case against slavery when no case exists in scripture is yet another sin still.

    • chris

      The “slavery” in Scripture is not the same as what we call slavery with regard to the Americas. Im assuming you know the ways slaves were acquired. However, just for the sake of it, ill mention it anyway. Many African leaders became traitors, selling their own people or their captured enemies to Englishmen as slaves. Or the most known, English people going around and capturing/kidnapping people and forcing them to be slaves. Well, read Exodus 21:16.

      What was done in America 200 years ago, was considered illegal by Scripture, and not only those that did the kidnapping, but also those that may sell them (maybe a middle man), and those that possessed them “in his hand” were to be put to death. It was a heinous crime, and is.

      But the KJV says “slavery”, and because most people try to discredit Scripture, this is the first place they look. What Scripture defines as “okay” is what we woudl call “indentured servants”. There was NEVERa situation where it was legal to FORCE someone to work for someone else. They ALWAYS chose to work for them. And even more, after a certain amount of servitude, God had in place things like the Year of Jubilee, as well as the weekly day rest (look at the commandment, it specifically includes slaves; Deut. 5:14). If someone was dumb enough to sign a contract into working for a terrible master, after I think 50 years they were allowed to go free (so they didnt waste their whole life).

      And on the same token, you dont have to go too far through Scripture to understand the care and concern God has for the “oppressed” and “widows”. Of course we can look to Ephesians when describing the good treatment of “slaves” that is required by Christian masters, but you can see the punishment that God has for those that treat servants harshly by beating them, tricking them, etc. in the Old Testament.

      The Jews continued to hold “slaves”, in fact, Paul even mentioned buying (or compensating for another’s possible theft) a slave, Onsimus. But if you think that the Jews did what was done in America, that is a faulty assumption founded off complete ignorance of Jewish and American culture. They were not allowed to rape, or committ fornication (Gen 19). They were not allowed to steal/kidnap people or sell kidnapped people, or own kidnapped people, to make them work (Ex. 21:16). They were forced to give their slaves a choice to leave after a period of time (Hebrews worked for 6 years, and were allowed to go free after) and also the Year of Jubilee. Masters were also ordered to have the slaves rest one full day once a week (Deut. 5:14). Often slaves were bought for 30 shekels of silver. A shekel is about 10.52 grams (silver in this case), which when converted to U.S. dollar currency, is about $11.43 today. Multiplied by 30, it is $342.

      Can you, with clear conscience see that there is a differene between what was done in America? and taught in Scripture?

  9. owenstrachan

    Job,

    The NT does indicate pretty clearly that it is wrong to treat a slave without dignity (Eph 6:9; Col 4:3). You could make a pretty convincing argument that the biblical approach to slaves is to invest them with a kind of dignity that chattel slavery of the kind practiced in America did not. There’s a seed of anti-slavery thought in Paul’s declaration in 1 Cor 7:23: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.” Slavery is understood there in a clearly derogatory sense.

    In terms of the history you provide, it’s insufficient. William Lloyd Garrison and Lyman Beecher were incredibly influential in America in stirring the public conscience against slavery even as Wilberforce, John Newton, and the Pitts were in Britain. Harriet Beecher Stowe and her brother Henry–children of Lyman–contended for the dignity of slaves from Christian theology, though Harriet modified her views over time. The 19th century housed what historians secular and evangelical call the “Benevolent Empire,” a huge group of Christian social causes that demonstrate on many fronts that the Christian conscience, informed by Scripture, led the charge against numerous social ills. This is surely true of the fight against slavery.

    Furthermore, there will crop up practices that are not directly condemned by Scripture that Christians nonetheless condemn and decry. Chattel slavery is one such example, as is abortion. There’s no explicit command against abortion as an act in the Bible, but it’s clear from a moral perspective that it is unspeakably heinous. So it is with chattel slavery.

  10. Derek

    Although it’s probably hard for us to conceive of this, some slaveowners purchased slaves because they were concerned that wicked men would treat them brutally and cruelly. It doesn’t make it the best way that they could have responded to a truly wicked institution, but if they did treat their slaves well, educate them, invite them to Christ and eventually free them (as some did), I am hopeful that God takes all of that into account.

  11. JJ

    Would you still read and quote Edwards if he were a homosexual?

  12. Julian

    Job,

    Your historical understanding of slavery is incomplete to say the least. To compare the indentured servitude of the Old Testament with the Chattel slave trade that the Western World invented is sheer naivety. The form of slavery invented by Westerners cannot be found in the ancient world. In biblical times slaves lived inside the household of their masters, and could often be considered members of the family. If the male patriarch was unable to produce an heir, he could bequeath his inheritance to his slave–which was not a completely uncommon practice. Western forms of chattel slavery completely dehumanized the african slaves. They were stripped of any familial or cultural identity; their name was changed, they were intentionally separated from family members, and they were selectively bred much like animals. Your view is strangely devoid of historical context, and your ignorance–given your clear command of the english language, and your knowledge of Scripture–is quite frightening. I am quite embarrassed by the logical conclusions of your reasoning. You are essentially justifying slave holding, but then say that it would not be right because you would “create a stumbling block.” In doing so you violate the entire spirit of the law, by despising your fellow man who is made in God’s image, and failing to love your neighbor as yourself. We, as Christians, are called to uphold the law, not desecrate it in some antinomian plea for freedom. Shame on you brother.

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