Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield and slavery

One of the most shocking things that evangelicals today discover is that some of the great heroes of the 18th Century Evangelical Awakening owned slaves, in particular George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards.  This is shocking because we associate the Evangelical Awakening with the campaign to abolish slavery with John Newton, John Wesley and of course William Wilberforce being in the vanguard of that campaign.

This leaves us with the question about how to respond to such discoveries.  I’ve seen two reactions at either end of the extremes in the last week or two.  On the one hand, I’ve seen people argue that it is impossible for us to recognise Whitfield and Edwards as believers because they were in serious sin.  One person asked how can we even claim to appreciate Edward’s Doctrine of God because if he owned slaves he cannot have really known and enjoyed God.

At the other end of the spectrum are those seeking to protect the reputation of Edwards and Whitfield who have argued that they were simply men of their time. Slave ownership was the cultural norm and they had no particular reason to depart from it. I have three problems with that particular argument.

First, I don’t think we can even as believers accept the excuse that someone is simply a person of their time. Would that argument be acceptable in the early 20th century if Christians had gone along with fascism?  Would it be acceptable today for us to buy into the cultural beliefs we see around us.  Only this week, I’ve been writing about how our society and law discriminates against the unborn child, those with Downs Syndrome and people with serious handicaps.  Would we be excused as “people of our time” if we were to fail to stand with Heidi Crowter. Well perhaps the label might be applied but to condemn not to excuse.  God’s Word warns us that the cultures of this world stand against his ways. We are meant to be counter cultural.

Secondly, on so much else, Whitfield and Edwards were counter cultural. They were challenging the religiosity and idolatry of their day.  They knew that the society they lived in had wandered far from God. That’s why the preaching of the Gospel was needed. That’s why revival was needed.

Thirdly, others such as Wesley and Wilberforce were clearly getting it.  Whitfield and Edwards could hardly claim to be ignorant.  There were in fact strong rebukes for believers who were continuing to own slaves and support the trade.

So, it will simply not do for us to say that they were “simply men of their time” as though that makes everything okay.  What then of the opposite view, that we must write them off and everything they have ever said?  Well, first of all, it does seem a little strange to me that people seem more determined at times to recover potentially helpful teaching from those who very clearly did not know Christ but still through common grace had interesting or helpful observations to make.  However, I think we also need to be alert to how our use and endorsement of people may affect those most significantly affected by the consequences of their sin. And to be clear, I believe that Africans and Black Americans and British today are suffering the consequences of  18th and 19th century sin.

The sin was serious and should not have been left unchallenged.   There should have been church discipline.  We also need to take seriously the insistence of Scripture that believers must bear fruit.  We have to acknowledge that for Whitfield and Edwards, the fruit is a mixed bag.  Yet, even when we challenge people over serious sin to the point of discipline and even excommunication, we are not saying that they definitely did not belong to Christ. We are saying that the fruit is not demonstrating that and that there are serious concerns. Yet, we always leave it to God to judge our hearts. 

My problem with those who go to the extreme of claiming to be able to assess Edwards’ heart and find him wanting is that they are betraying their own blind spots.  We might ask that “he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  You see, whilst Edwards may have sinned in a very specific manner that was unique to his context, a way in which we would not fail today, his sin was of a kind that I think most if not all of us are prone to.

Would we try and buy or sell people as property? No?  Would we consider it appropriate to discriminate on people and look down on them based on ethnicity? I think that most people in my generation and younger would be shocked at such a suggestion. However, it is worth remembering that such discrimination has been acceptable within our lifetimes, our society remains fairly relaxed about ongoing systemic discrimination and it is only 3 years ago that one form of racism – antisemitism – was allowed to get very close to the heart of mainstream British politics.

Furthermore, racism and slavery are specific forms of certain sins including self-centred pride, despising others, seeking to control and use.  If our society or our understanding of Scripture constrains us from sinning in specific ways, then we will still find other ways of expressing that sin, unless and until Christ’s Lordship means that we have put to death that particular sinful desire through the Holy Spirit. Before we seek to judged flawed men from the past, we need to have a long look at our own hearts.

Returning to Whitfield and Edwards, what should we do with them?  I think that we should tell their stories fully.  Just as the Bible points us to the work of God’s grace in the lives of Abraham and David whilst not shying away from their flaws.  We too can both be thankful for God’s grace at work in the lives of these men, the way that many came to faith through their ministry and the fruits of Whitfield’s theological labours too. However, we should not put them on pedestals as heroes that become idols to worship. We should non create Protestant saints (except in the sense that we are all saints). We should recognise that they were flawed, sinful human beings, needing God’s grace.  We should redouble our efforts to confront the particular sin that they failed in where we see it in our own lives and own communities today.

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