Jonathan Edwards and Slavery
Thank you for being a voice of reason in the national evangelical conversation about social justice/racial reconciliation. I appreciate your writing.
But wait, there may still be a way in which you would be considered a white supremacist by progressives. Correct me if I am wrong but you would say western civilization is superior to all other civilizations. Since SJWs have no regard for logic, distinctions, or rational thought you would be a white supremacist on the basis of that belief alone.
JSM, thanks, and you have a point.
By choosing to buy a slave from the owner of a slave ship, Edwards seems to me to be more complicit in the slave trade than later owners who inherited slaves and were at quite a distant remove from the actual sin of man-stealing. Historians believe that “Venus” had been brought by Richard Perkins from Africa to America. Given that Edwards could have hired a free person to do the domestic work, his buying someone he knew to have been brought here in chains seems to me to be a bit problematic.
But I think it’s fascinating that his son became a passionate abolitionist.
Jill, I certainly agree that it was potentially far more problematic than obtaining slaves at a distant remove. But I would still want to know a lot more about the circumstances before condemning him.
I like Jonathan Edwards and I’m glad he lived and preached. I hope to meet him in heaven someday. Nevertheless, a defense of him based upon how he treated his slaves, while biblical, is a pretty thin and reedy biblicism.
Ex. 21:16 is an apt description of the functional foundation of the slave market as it existed in Edward’s day. These Africans were by and large stolen. Edwards was highly intelligent. Everyone is capable of doing this math. Even unbelievers. If someone has credible evidence to suggest this was the exception rather than the rule, and that these Africans were mostly selling themselves into bondservantood, I’m all ears.
The kind of naiveté of Ex 21:16 which allowed saints like Edwards to keep their slaves rather than manumit them is probably similar to the kind of naiveté in our own day exhibited by Christian parents sending their kids to public school. Damnable naiveté? Maybe not. Worthy of stern rebuke and fundamental turnabout? Convince me otherwise.
I completely get the concern about pulling down statues. If we start at Lee, we’ll end up with Washington. If Washington’s reputation were that much more dear to me than Lee’s I’d probably care more.
I don’t favor “burn it all down,” French-revolution style “Christian” revolution. That kind can go to hell. On the other hand, I don’t favor mincing around Ex 21:16, either. There must be a way to deal with both.
If this is a biblical as we’re willing to get, that’s fine. But as a consequence we really should be more honest and downplay Wilberforce’s contribution.
Judd, Wilberforce is an evangelical hero, and rightly so. And, to the extent that Ex. 21:16 applied, straight across, I think we should be willing to say that purchasing a slave in such a market would be complicity in the crime, even if it applies to someone with the stature of Edwards. But in OT law, that passage applied to kidnapping, say, and not to war captives. But to your main point, I grant there could be a real problem here. As I said to Jill, before condemning a man, I just want to know more about what the actual situation was, and what Edwards knew, and what he actually did, and why he did it.
Thanks for this post. It’s truly sad that some people are willing to jettison Edwards and his writings simply because he owned slaves. I do have a question though. Can you elaborate on the moral dynamic between the slave trade and slave-owning? (Or point me some place where you’ve already elaborated on it.) If I understand you correctly, the slave trade was evil, but slave-owning was not necessarily evil. Yet I would assume a slave-owner had to have some idea where these slaves that he was purchasing came from. When Edwards purchased Venus, would he have known that she had been stolen from somewhere? And if so, would that make him complicit in and supportive of the slave trade?
Joel, yes, it could have, and see above. I have written more about the slave trade in Black & Tan.
If I’m reading you correctly, you are saying Edwards did not sin because he followed Scripture’s admonitions for how he should treat the slave(s) he owned (based on the evidence available). But that is not the issue Meyer and others are addressing. They are addressing whether or not Edwards’ decision to purchase a slave was sinful. If you appeal to Paul’s instructions you must admit, as you have in other posts, that Paul was not addressing whether one should or should not own a slave . . . but how one should treat the slave they already own. However, to take those admonitions and say Paul must have been ok with slave ownership is an argument from silence. So the question we should ask is, did Edward’s commit a sin when he purchased a slave? If the answer to that question is “yes” then we should have no issue making that clear. If the answer is ‘no” then why would we argue against slave ownership today? But, to skip over the answer to that first question to argue that he followed the biblical prescription for how a slave should be treated is the equivalent of dismissing infidelity because the couple eventually married and remained faithful to one another. No, we would have no issue calling the infidelity sin. Regarding Edwards specifically, we should not throw out his contribution to the church and the kingdom because he was a slave owner. Where he got it right . . . we should rejoice . . . and where he got it wrong . . . we should admit.
Michael, in principle, I am certainly willing to do that. But I don’t think we know enough about those particular circumstances to condemn (or even indict) Edwards. So I am not maintaining that he did not sin, or that he could not have sinned. I am saying that we don’t know enough to condemn him for a particular sin. We don’t know enough.
It’s like condemning someone today for buying X-brand shoes once the news has released the story that they were made in a factory with child labor or slave labor in terrible conditions. Someone who knows about that and still buys the shoes is complicit on the same level.
If everyone buys X-brand shoes and it’s the way to fit in, and you’re not sure about the news story but don’t care enough to verify it and just go with the flow, you’re like a lot of people these days, but you’re still complicit to some degree.
Buying another person can’t be compared to buying a pair of shoes. The Biblical criteria for slavery are very narrow, and there would have been severe penalties when kidnapping was involved. To discover, after the fact, that X-brand shoes used slave labor is one thing, but it’s difficult to accept that someone like Edwards would have been ignorant of the history of African kidnapping. It wasn’t a secret waiting for an exposé. Apparently, not long after Edwards’ time, census records indicate that free blacks owned slaves at disproportionately greater rates than did whites. When this curious fact is pointed out,… Read more »
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