John Piper on Jonathan Edwards and the slave trade

John Piper has come in for a little bit of stick for this article on Jonathan Edwards and the slave trade. See the twitter thread below as an example.

In Piper’s defence it is worth noting that:

  • His observation that he hadn’t been alert to Edwards’ holding slaves is not about a recent awareness but rather that he found these things out in 1988 when he moved from reading Edwards’ work to researching his biographical history.  Whilst it would be difficult to be naïve on this point today, I could envisage a situation back over 30 years ago when this would have been new news to someone doing the historical research.
  • At no point in the article does Piper support slavery. In fact Piper has been strongly outspoken against racism. See for example his book “Bloodlines.”

There are two specific objections to consider here. The first is that Edwards is referred to by Piper as a hero and the second that he develops a novel interpretation to explain away events.  I think to criticise him for the former is a misunderstanding. It is clear that Piper had been substantially blessed by Edward’s theology and that had and still shapes some of his own core thinking about what it means to desire, enjoy and glorify God.  Furthermore, Edwards had a significant role in the 18th Century Great awakening meaning that he is a significant figure in church history.  Is it wrong to see people as heroes of faith? I think not. Indeed, Scripture does present men and women as heroes. It is possible to distinguish heroes who are loved and admired from idols that are worshipped.

However, the question comes “what do we do when we are alerted to our heroes flaws, failings, sins?” There is a genuine and understandable desire to say “maybe it’s not true.” It is natural to hope that the accusation is false. In that respect, I can understand Piper’s “wishful thinking” we would be dishonest hypocrites if we didn’t admit that we have all at some point participated in similar thought exercises. Indeed, I’m sure that the majority of us would love for Piper’s hypothesis to be proved right.  It would make life easier all round.

However, my issue with Piper here is not his motives for wishful thinking, it’s not his emotions that have let him down here but rather his mind.  When he moves to attempt to argue that there may be more to his hypothesis than wishful thinking then I think he falls seriously short.

Of course  there was an attempt throughout the 18th and 19th century and it seems particular among American reformed circles to justify slave owners on the basis of their treatment of slaves. However, a benign slave owner is still an owner.  It is of course conceivable that Edwards bought slaves in order to rescue them from a worse fate but that does not change the fact that they were still recorded as chattels in his will. 

Edwards lived and died a little before the abolition movement gathered momentum in Great Britain and significantly before the issue was tackled head on in the States. However, I don’t agree that his actions in owning slaves can be justified on the basis that he was a man of his time. He was a contemporary of those who were becoming awakened to the issue such as Wesley, Wilberforce, Newton and Clarkson (the original “Woke”).  Furthermore, their whole argument was that it is obvious in Scripture as well as by way of tradition, experience and reason that owning and trading in slaves is wrong. 

So, I think Piper’s wishful thinking whilst understandable is unhelpful.  We would do better to say simply that Edwards was wrong on this. Indeed, if Piper is right and Edward’s theology helped convict Piper on these very issues then that makes the situation worse not better. Edwards own works condemn him on this issue.

We need to be ready to recognise that those we consider heroes were men and women with feet of clay. They sinned, they failed, they were far from perfect.  Those who owned slaves and justified slave ownership were wrong to do so.  Their place in Christ’s kingdom is not based on a rose-tinted assessment of perfection but on faith in the God who forgives and justifies sinners. Our response should be at one and the same time to recognise that slavery and racism are inexcusable, to turn our backs on wishful thinking and instead point people to the forgiving power of the Gospel.

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