Princeton, slaveowners and statues again


Once again, there’s a debate rumbling about what to do with a statue of someone from the past. Once again, the issue is that the person concerned had been a slave owner.  This time, we’re talking about John Witherspoon, the former president of Princeton.

Students at Princeton have been campaigning for Witherspoon’s statue to be removed and for the University to disassociate itself from its past.  Kevin DeYoung whose PHD was on Witherspoon has written a response in which he argues that the current debate hasn’t properly engaged with the actual history of the time. In turn, DeYoung has been accused of rushing to the defence of a slaveowner and caring more for him than for the slaves.  He’s also been accused of using the “man of his times” argument to support Witherspoon, excusing his sin from that day because his culture was ignorant on the matter whilst being quick to judge Christians today who align with the mistakes of their culture.

It’s worthwhile making two observations at the outset, therefore.  First, I’ve too often seen the “man of his times” argument deployed concerning slave owners and supporters of the trade. It’s been used for example in regards to Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield.  Such an argument falls short historically, ethically and theologically.  Historically because the defence is often employed to support people at the very time when other contemporaries such as Newton, Wesley, Clarkeson and Wilberforce were awakening to the issue.  It also does not pay attention to their argument that Scripture, tradition and reason were all on the side of abolition and that it was the slavers who were the innovators. This is important because if Edwards was “a man of his time” on this matter, then so too are those today who align with our current culture’s ethics. 

Ethically, it seems to treat evil as morally relative.  Sin and wickedness are judged against the standards of the culture and other human beings.  We as Christians want to insist that the true standard is objective and concerns itself with what God has to say. This leads to theological issues too. We hold to this standard because we believe in the clarity of Scripture on such issues and in the ability of the Holy Spirit to convict of sin and idolatry.  Not only that, theologically we do not see the need to excuse sin because we delight in justification through God’s grace. If Witherspoon were a believer in Jesus Christ then all of his sin was forgiven, even if he had sinned in ignorance.

However, I’m not sure that DeYoung is deploying the “man of his times” excuse, or not at least in the manner he seems to be being attacked for.  This leads me to the second observation.  DeYoung’s complaint that the actual history is not being engaged with still seems to hold, ironically because it seems to me that people are not even engaging with the content of DeYoung’s article but attacking him and using the accusation not to focus on the specific evils of the slave trade but to further attack DeYoung and other evangelical leaders regarding their position on a whole host of other contemporary issues today.  It seems that DeYoung is himself now a bogeyman.  He shouldn’t be expecting his own statue anytime soon.

So, what is DeYoung’s argument?  Well, it is summed up in this paragraph.

It is often said that Witherpoon’s relationship to slavery was complicated. And I suppose that’s true in so far as most human beings are complicated, especially as they relate to the contested moral issues of their age. At the same time, Witherspoon’s views on slavery were fairly straightforward: he believed that bringing people into slavery was wrong (except as a punishment for crimes), that abolition should be sought after and prayed for, that slaves and Black people should be treated with decency and dignity, that immediate abolition (on a personal and national scale) would likely do more harm than good, and that slavery would soon disappear in America. In all these views, and in his personal practice, Witherspoon was typical of many educated men in Britain and in America, and more enlightened than several of our most famous founders.

DeYoung’s argument is not that we should be okay with Witherspoon’s support for and involvement in slavery because he was simply part of the culture of his day. Nor is it that his views were slightly less bad than his contemporaries because he treated his slaves well (an argument often deployed in support of others). Rather, rightly or wrongly, DeYoung’s argument seems to be that Witherspoon himself was not okay with slavery and that is what distinguishes him from his contemporaries, including some of the US’ founding fathers.  His point is that Witherspoon saw the slave trade as immoral and should end.

What distinguished Witherspoon from Wilberforce and co was that they therefore concluded that immediate abolition and manumission was possible and vital. Witherspoon seemed to have disagreed with that political and radical approach.  DeYoung is suggesting that the disagreement was over tactics.  He thought that slavery would in any case collapse of its own accord and that an evolutionary/incremental approach was best.  Presumably his concerns would have been two-fold, first that it would impact the economy generally, secondly, that the emancipated slaves would themselves suffer loss and hardship. If DeYoung is correct, then it is important to distinguish that kind of tactical disagreement from a moral difference.  This does not mean that we need to agree with Witherspoon’s position.

We may also have question marks about whether this was a consistent and true position. One concern I have today is when I see others (not DeYoung) talking in favour of the kind of view that slavery was not right but wasn’t as bad as suggested and should have been left to fade away of its own accord and it sounds at times like some of them wouldn’t have been too uncomfortable if it hadn’t faded away.

My view remains that the Abolitionist movement was correct.  Even with a commitment to radical abolition it still took many years here in Great Britain to abolish the Slave Trade and then slavery itself.

It’s worth noting also how DeYoung approaches the question not just of Witherspoon’s general view of slavery but also of his personal practice.  It seems to be DeYoung’s understanding that Witherspoon saw Christian faith as transformative on the individual relationships of slaves to masters so that their status moved from owned chattel to employee or even household member. This would presumably be in line with Paul’s methodology with regards to Philemon and Onesimus.  DeYoung raises the case of James Montgomery where he believes that Witherspoon did work for Montgomery’s emancipation.

At the end of the article, DeYoung does seem to get closest to an argument that Witherspoon should be judged against his times. However, even at that point, his argument is not that Witherspoon should be excused, nor that he was flawless.  Rather, it is an argument that in terms of how we relate to him and regard him now, we should do so no differently to how we would others.  We do not banish, exclude, cancel people because of one fault we hold against them. 

This is important for two reasons.  First, because whilst we are not judging people subjectively by the standards of their own day, we need to ensure that we replace that subjective judgement with the objective judgement I raised above.  We shouldn’t replace it with the equally subjective judgement of our time and that’s the point, a lot of the cancel culture decision making about statues and heroes relies on the assumption that our culture now is morally superior. 

Secondly, it is worth remembering what assessment is being made.  The assessment is not about Witherspoon’s overall moral character, nor about his eternal standing. Rather the assessment is actually concerning how history should treat him. In that regard, history as judge must take into account context and circumstances. History cannot make that objective and final judgement. 

For those reasons, I don’t think the attacks on DeYoung are fair.  I must admit though that I’m not sure he has helped himself.  It seems to me that he has offered the academic/historian’s assessment and forgotten that whilst he has a PHD, his role is first and foremost as a pastor and that’s how he is heard.  We need emotional intelligence to be alert to how our words are heard and by who.  I would encourage DeYoung to consider the possibility that his words might be heard as defending a slave owner and therefore slave ownership. I wonder whether he has quite heard the heart cries of the descendants of those who were enslaved.

Now, in terms of statues and the specific question of Princeton, I was struck by a set of comments I saw yesterday. The commentator argued that sin and virtue are nuanced but or society cannot cope with nuance and finally that the decision to remove a statue is a binary one so also doesn’t help with nuance.  Therein is the problem, it’s not just that the decision to remove a statue is unnuanced, binary but that the decision to erect it in the first place also is.

Erecting statues and naming buildings and places after people is a risky business because it may communicate far more about a person and how they are viewed than we want. It idolises them and I don’t think that’s a good thing.  Better to remember those people by telling their stories, warts and all, by preserving the good parts of their work and by seeking to pursue those good things ourselves recognising that failures can be corrected and weaknesses improved.

Perhaps the win-win would be for De-Young’s article to be widely read and debated, then for the statue to be taken down!

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