Tuesday, September 12

Continuation to yesterday's post!

Jonathan Edwards Was a Slave Owner

We hear a lot of good things about Edwards and these are no doubt encouraging and helpful to our faith as Christians. But rarely do we hear the negative things about Edwards, and if we do they are typically secondary issues. Certainly however, there is a more serious concern with the life of Edwards. Unfortunately, history reveals to us this whole issue of Edwards and slavery.[1] The truth is - Edwards owned slaves until the day he died. What’s more is that he was not ambivalent about this idea/practice of owning slaves because he owned them his whole life and seemed to be quite happy in that position.

God in his sovereignty always plans for events to occur. How we understand these events and their implications is a question that must be dealt with from the overarching reality of God’s complete sovereign hand. God is in control of men, events, the forces of evil that take place in this world – even slavery. Nevertheless, evil is not justified because God is sovereign.

Therefore there is this mysterious working of God in the midst of evil. God sovereignly decrees that an event take place through the agency of wicked men. What is perplexing is how God can will/desire for an even to take place in his will of decree and at the same time justly punish and condemn man for participating in an act that is contrary to his will of command, namely, what is outlined in the scriptures about how we should live and conduct ourselves. The prime example of this is the crucifixion of the Son of God. We know from Acts 4 that is was “according to the definite plan of God” that Christ was crucified. But in the same context it is stated that “lawless men” crucified the son of God.

If we really want to know Edwards the whole man, the whole person we must live with him, and see him not only in all of his glories but also in all of his faults. It may be that in some ways we have not come to truly know Edwards the man because we have not gotten to know Edwards in the context of his weaknesses and deficiencies, not least of which was his owning of slaves. Edwards was a slave owner.

Before we can speak of Edwards and slavery we must not follow our tendency which is to remove Edwards from his context and put him in our context and immediately condemn him as a wicked slave owner. We must try to understand the issue of Edwards owning slaves in the midst of his own historical context. Doing this is not an attempt to absolve Edwards of sin, but rather charitable approach to understanding just how Edwards, given his culture and context, could have been involved with slavery.

What exactly did Edwards believe about slavery? In short: He not only condoned slavery, but condemned slave trading. The only published document we have on Edwards and slavery is a letter he wrote in defense of a pastor named Benjamin Doolittle defending his owning of slaves. What George Marsden points out in his biography on Edwards is that it is unbelievable that Edwards in his vehemence against Arminianism and the Anti-Awakening movement, he nevertheless came to the defense and aid of both an Arminian and a pastor who openly opposed the awakening. Why? Benjamin Doolittle was on the verge of being removed from his office as minister of the gospel because he owned slaves. His church, and those surrounding him felt that he had forfeited the right to be a minister of the gospel in part because he owned slaves. Edwards was asked to come to his defense. Therefore, Edwards wrote a letter defending Doolittle. In this letter he attempts to provide a justification for the owning of slaves.

For Edwards this was a theological compromise. In other contexts Benjamin Doolittle would have been a staunch foe of Edwards for his erroneous theology and unorthodoxy. Thus, it is striking that Edwards comes to the defense (of all people) this man.

Obviously much more can and should be said about this issue. The goal of this blog, however, is simply to introduce some of us to another side of Edwards. While I appreciate Edwards so much I also know that he was a fallen individual who had some serious inconsistencies in his life. In some ways, I can understand both historically and contextually how Edwards could have owned slaves. Nevertheless, he is not to be commended or defended in this practice. I thank God for what we can learn from the life of Edwards, both the good and the bad.

[1] Historical information gathered from the work of Sherard Burns in his essay, Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner in A God Entranced Vision of All Things: John Piper & Justin Taylor, Crossway Books: 2004.

No comments:

Back to the top