The Slaves of Jonathan Edwards

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Some people might want to raise the question why I have chosen to write on slavery as much as I have. The reason is actually a pretty simple one: I wrote the other day about the functional authority of Scripture, and the issue of slavery gives us a wonderful opportunity to see just how committed to Scripture we actually are. Unfortunately, in too many cases, the answer comes back, “not very.”

Heroes and Monuments

We live in a toppling time. As the corrosion of critical theory has made its way through our history texts and city parks, the demands for removing so-called hurtful images and reminders have grown increasingly urgent. Whether we are talking about Columbus, or Robert E. Lee, or some other miscreant, the snowflakes have done a good job organizing their blizzard. As the expression goes, you should visit the Washington monument while you still can.

And of course, given that this is the moment that has seized the unbelievers, and given that great evangelical principle of “monkey see, monkey do,” the cries to revisit our heroes have also gone aloft in Christian circles. Whenever the zeitgeist gets a going, you can count on evangelicals to show up with their relevance kites.

And so it is that the issue has now come to the legacy of Jonathan Edwards. He was a monumental theologian, a revivalist, a foundational figure in North American evangelicalism, and . . . a slave owner.

The Slaves of Edwards

We don’t have a ton of information about the slaves of Jonathan Edwards, but we do know a few things about his ownership of a handful of slaves, as well as his attitude toward some other issues related to race and slavery, such as the slave trade.

Here are some of the basic facts. Jonathan Edwards grew up in a home that had a household slave. In 1731, Edwards visited Rhode Island, where he purchased a young girl named Venus. The Edwards household also owned a black boy named Titus. They may have owned another female slave named Leah, or it is possible that Leah was a biblical name that they gave to Venus.

By 1741, there was a controversy in a nearby town over slavery, where some parishioners had denounced their minister for his ownership of a slave. Edwards was tasked with drafting a response, which he did, and in which he defended the accused minister. This should not be surprising, in that Edwards was in the same position. In that response, he condemned the cruelty of the slave trade, doing so on biblical grounds. He argued for the spiritual equality of blacks and whites, and this, despite the servitude of the blacks. Under the ministry of Edwards, nine blacks were admitted to the membership of his Northampton congregation as full communicants, with the Edwards’ slave Leah as one of those nine.

For economic and agricultural reasons, slavery was never as common in New England as it was in the South, but in the eighteenth century, it wasn’t exactly uncommon either. The slavery in New England, while it lasted, did not consist of vast number of field hands, but rather a relatively small number of domestic slaves.

For a bit more background, you can look here. And for the reaction of an evangelical pastor who has admired Edwards, and who admires men who were shaped in their ministries by Edwards, you can read what Jason Meyer writes here.

The Problem With All of This

The difficulty with the approach taken by Meyer is this. While he is very careful and judicious, urging us not to overreact, as well as cautioning us not to under react, he simply assumes great sin on the part of Edwards. He assumes this from the mere fact of slave owning. He wants us to avoid great sin in how we respond to it all, but he is in effect urging us to follow Aristotle’s golden mean. But what we ought to do is ask ourselves if we have any evidence, biblical evidence, that Edwards was guilty of any personal hypocrisy or compromise in this circumstance.

The issue is not whether we think slavery as an institution was a good thing. It was not. It is not whether the slave trade was wicked and cruel. Of course it was. The issue is not whether there were numerous masters who mistreated their slaves. Of course there were.

The issue is whether or not Edwards followed the teaching of the New Testament for men in his position. We have no evidence that he did not, and a reasonable bit of evidence that he did submit to the authority of Scripture in this.

Side by Side

When I acknowledge the horrors that a large number of slaves had to go through, I am not just ticking off a box on a pro forma checklist. As Eugene Genovese once put it, the abusive treatment of slaves was no bagatelle. Wickedness is wickedness and should be treated as such, and rejected as such.

During the FDR administration, some men were put to work collecting the reminiscences of former slaves. A number of those former slaves were still alive at that time, and so their recollections were gathered together in a book called The Slave Narratives. Here is one recollection from one of those slaves.

Dey used a plain strap, another one with holes in it, and one dey call de cat wid nine tails which was a number of straps plated and de ends unplated. Dey would whip de slaves wid a wide strap wid holes in it and de holes would make blisters. Den dey would take de cat wide nine tails and burst de blisters and den rub de sores wid turpentine and red pepper.

Sallie Carder in the Slave Narratives, Loc. 421

Now the question before us is a simple one. Was Jonathan Edwards that kind of master? Did he do anything like that? If he did, then I for one would be more than happy to topple him from his pedestal. I would be delighted to go back through his theological writings with a jaundiced eye, looking for the places where such obvious wickedness would have crept in — because it would have crept in. The fact that Heidegger was brilliant enough should not make us forget that he was a Nazi. Smart people don’t get a pass when it comes to basic moral considerations.

But here is another recollection.

She was a fine woman. The Brown boys and their wives was just as good. Wouldn’t let nobody mistreat the slaves . . . They teach the young ones how to read, say it was good for the Negroes to know about such things. Sunday was a great day around the plantation. The fields was forgotten, the light chores was hurried through and everybody got ready for the church meeting . . . The white folks on the next plantation would lick their slaves for trying to do like we did. No praying there, no singing . . . The Master gave out the week’s supply on Saturday. Plenty of hams, lean bacon, flour, corn meal, coffee, and more’n enough for the week. Nobody go hungry on that place! . . . I stayed on the plantation ’til the last Brown die. Then I come to Oklahoma and works on the railroad ’til I was too old to hustle the grips and packages. Now I just sits thinking how much better off would I be on the old plantation.

John Brown in the Slave Narratives, Loc. 394

Now compare these two accounts, and place them side by side. Is the latter account more in keeping with the apostle Paul’s instructions to Christian masters? Or not? Or are these masters equally vile because they are both slave owners? The answer is no. The former was wicked and the latter not.

So Jonathan Edwards owned slaves. Did he remember that he too had a master in Heaven (Eph. 6:9)? Was he careful to give his slaves what was just and equitable (Col. 4:1)? Did Venus honor and respect her master all the more because he was a believer, and a partaker of the benefit (1 Tim. 6:2)? If they did, and we have good reasons for supposing that they did, then where to we get off countermanding the apostle, and saying, “no, none of that matters?”

Just You Wait . . .

Ignoring Scripture is the prelude to denying Scripture, and denying Scripture is the prelude to attacking Scripture. If you have admitted a false principle into your thought processes, you will find it difficult to turn that false principle off when the devil finally springs the final trap.

If you thought that all that Robert E. Lee business was going to stop there, and not proceed merrily onward to Washington and Jefferson, then the word for you resembles naive, and rhymes with chump. And if you think it will all stop with Washington, and not proceed onward to Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, and from them down to Philemon, and through him to his friend the apostle Paul, then, as the saying goes, you have another think coming.

Because the apostle Paul has been the long game target all along. He wrote so many hurtful things. And is it a coincidence that the books we decided to remove from the canon, with all appropriate solemnity and regret, and with the requisite ceremonies, those books being Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Timothy, were books that not only included nefarious thought crimes about slavery, but were also filled with a misogynistic and magma hot contempt for women. It is high time the Church outgrew our sinful past on these issues.

For those of you who think I am hyperventilating again, a few hours ago Union Seminary — “where faith and scholarship meet to reimagine the work of justice” — tweeted this:

“Today in chapel, we confessed to plants. Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?”

Ummm . . . totally not making this up.

This was accompanied by a photo of people apologizing to house plants, a sad picture of what happens when you reimagine justice. Crikey.