The Slaves of Jonathan Edwards, Part 2

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For those late to the party, I wrote last week (9/18/19) about the slaves of Jonathan Edwards. This excited comment, and so I followed it up with a piece on white supremacy (9/23/19). And because the bulk of the questions and objections that have been raised had to do with the purchase of a slave by Edwards, and his possible complicity in the slave trade, a trade that was in fact manifestly wicked, I want to address that here.

Biblical Absolutism

Instead of trying to find my motivations for talking about such things in manufactured charges of racism or white supremacy, or a falsely attributed attachment on my part to a Lost Cause Narrative, where Robert E. Lee rides through my imagination on Traveller, over fallen autumn leaves, with ground mist swirling around the legs of that noble beast. If it were another country, and another war, and up in the highlands, I could almost hear the bagpipes in the distance. But shoot, it’s my imagination, so why not?

What is my motivation then? Commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture has to consist of more than statements that one “affirms inerrancy.” If we are committed to the authority of God’s Word, then we have to deal with particular things that it says. And by “dealing with” I do not mean “explaining away” or “serenely ignoring.”

The Bible teaches things about slavery that moderns find angular. These things run counter to many of our assumptions, and we have to stop pretending that we can affirm the Bible without also affirming what it says. When Scripture speaks, when the exegesis is done, it is the role of baptized Christians to simply submit to it. A corollary of this is that we should want to develop a worldview that incorporates a number of different texts without a lot of juggling. This will almost certainly mean that we will have to drop some of our carnal allegiances.

So the Scripture teaches that the Dred Scott case was decided wrongly:

“You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you”

Deut. 23:15 (ESV)

The Bible flatly prohibits the kind of man-stealing that made the slave trade possible.

“For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine”

1 Tim. 1:10 (KJV)

If a master knocks out a slave’s tooth, he must let that slave go free on account of it.

“And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake”

Ex. 21:27 (KJV)

If a master beats his slave so that he dies, the master must be charged. If the master beats his slave, and the slave does not die, the master cannot be charged.

“And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money”

Ex. 21:20-21 (KJV)

Now if you are part of Big Eva, you therefore have connections to organizations that require you to affirm that the Bible is without error in all that it affirms. What is entailed by that? The reason I get into this kind of trouble is that I am willing to assert that all these passages, the last one included, are holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12).  

Edwards and the Slave Trade

If R.L. Dabney, a stout defender of the “peculiar institution” of slavery as he was, could say of the slave trade that it was an “iniquitous traffick,” then surely this ought to be accepted as a given by all of us. The slave trade was horrendous, and the Middle Passage was horrific, and if anyone stood on the docks in this country with ready money, eager to buy himself some of that suffering cargo, insensible to the anguish and pain that went into his upcoming purchase, then I have no trouble calling such behavior sin and great wickedness. The possible range for such sin and wickedness could range from overt cruelty on one end to the existence of a manifestly culpable blind spot on the other.

And if Jonathan Edwards did anything like that, then such a general condemnation would include him.

But neither do I believe in condemning a man—particularly a great man with a good and righteous testimony—of guilt in a great wickedness simply because such great wickedness was a possibility. What we know is that he likely purchased a slave who most likely was brought from Africa on a slave ship. Was he doing it because he wanted to perpetuate the cruelty (i.e. he was a wicked man)? Was he doing it thoughtlessly (i.e. he was a sinful man with a blind spot)? 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 (i.e. he was a man with a character like Philemon)?

The slave trade was evil, but the slaves were not stolen cars. If someone is fencing stolen goods, and you know that this is what he is doing, then to buy all your used cars from such a person is simple complicity in the stealing. But slaves were not in the same category. They could not be returned. The great evil was already done, and if you kept your own hands clean, and the surplus “cargo” was then shipped off to Haiti or Brazil, what good did you actually do?

And please note, if Edwards was thinking anything like this, the issue is not whether he was correct in his factual assessments. The issue is whether a good and godly man could possibly think this way, and earnestly be attempting to do a good thing in a bad situation.

Because I believe strongly in the presumption of innocence, and because I believe that charges ought not to be brought against an elder without two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19), not even if that elder lived centuries ago, and because I believe we have an obligation to honor our fathers and mothers (Ex. 20:12), I do not believe we have any business condemning Edwards at this distance with the amount of information we have. And when all this evangelical soul-searching happens to be occurring in a time when mobs are attacking monuments all over, it makes me a tad suspicious. So I want to know why, and I want to know by what standard?

Not only so, but we need to recognize that in slave-holding societies—unlike with the abortion carnage—there is a way for decent people to navigate such institutional realities without personal moral corruption. That is why the New Testament is written the way it is written. For critics to say—as has actually been said—that Roman slavery was not that bad, or was somehow not chattel slavery, is simple historical ignorance. Roman slavery was every bit as appalling as the slavery we had here in America, and the New Testament still treated it the way it did. And see my comments above about biblical authority.

And so let me make my point perfectly clear. Those soft progressive evangelicals who are eager to condemn Edwards for this slave purchase are far more likely to be complicit in our current abortion carnage than he was complicit in that abomination called the slave trade. If challenged to make that case, I would simply ask who that person voted for in the last three presidential elections. If—for whatever reason—it was Obama/Obama/Hillary, then he voted for the perpetuation of the slaughter of the unborn, with many more blacks dying under our current regime than died in the Middle Passage.

And as a general rule, I think it is far more spiritually healthy to examine our own possible complicity with current evils than the possible complicity of a great theologian, dead for centuries now. And if you have all kinds of complications and rationalizations and workarounds for yourself that would justify certain moves on your part, and you deny even the possibility of any additional factors in the case of a man like Edwards, then you are not using equal weights and measures.       

An Actual Conversation About Race

So we clearly need to work through these issues, and we are refusing to do so. For quite a number of years now, I have been offering to meet with various interlocutors (and accusers). The offers I have extended over the years may be considered standing offers. Here is an example of one offer to Anthony Bradley, and here is a more general offer.

“Unfortunately, the more we have a need for an adult conversation, the less capable we seem to be of actually having one. For a conversation needs to have more involved in it than one side venting grievances, or the other side blithely pretending that nothing bad ever happened. There are whites who do that, but I have not been in their number. A conversation needs to have both sides able to talk, it needs both sides to speak with respect, and it needs both sides to listen with respect. The only way this is possible is through the blood of Jesus Christ, in whom all racial bigotries and resentments must die.

So, speaking of having such a conversation, let me reiterate the invitation that I gave to Anthony Bradley when this issue surfaced the last time. This invitation goes to Bryan Loritts, Thabiti Anyabwile, and Eric Mason, and is reissued to Anthony Bradley. You are welcome to fly to Moscow at anytime, on our dime, in order to have that conversation. We can have it in public or in private, and it will be a conversation, not a brawl. If you come out we will find or create a venue for you to minister to us, and that will be in addition to our conversation. If that won’t work out, then why don’t you issue me an invitation to come have that conversation where you are? I will do what I can to make it.”

And here was yet another invite.

“If someone ever puts together a Christian conference on racial reconciliation that commits to a genuine conversation about race, and I am invited to it, I would make every effort to be there. I know that some people would say that this is like inviting Typhoid Mary to address the attendees at a Center for Disease Control conference, and so I know that I will never be invited to anything they put together. But that works out, because I don’t want to be part of the racial reconciliation industrial complex. You can’t really have a conversation with a hustler, or with someone whose income depends on things staying inflamed. Eric Hoffer’s comments come to mind—first a movement, then a business, then a racket. But if biblical people decide to risk having a conversation about what we really need to do to advance the biblicalimperatives concerning racial harmony, I would love to be part of it. Deal me in. Racial harmony? I am for it.

And last, when it comes to this topic we have sought to maintain a public and standing invitation to bring our critics here to Moscow, pay their way, provide them with a good venue for addressing our people, provide them with an honorarium, put no restrictions on what they would say, and show them good hospitality. This kind of invitation has been extended to hostile critics like Anthony Bradley, and so of course if someone like Thabiti were ever willing to come, we would love to have him address us.”

So cut to the chase. I believe that Thabiti’s vote for Hillary was every bit as morally problematic as anything Edwards might possibly have done. But I would love to sit down with him, as a brother in Christ, in order to talk about it. Culture-wide sins can be complicated and confusing, and tangled up with other issues, and so we should address them with open Bibles on the table before us, and open hearts toward our brother. What I don’t want to allow is the pernicious idea that the Scriptures address eighteenth century sins in big, block letters, three feet high, while our very twenty-first century sins invariably have their built-in excuses.

My offer to any of these gentlemen remains a standing offer.