When You Love A Slave Owner: Jonathan Edwards and Slavery

This may come as a surprise to my readers, but I like Jonathan Edwards. Naturally, when you like anything or anyone, someone will be around to critique it. While we are it, I also have other things they could criticize. I’m a Cleveland Browns fan, I think Sriracha is too spicy and I don’t enjoy Kendrick Lamar’s music.

Back to the topic at hand: the problem with focusing on one person in particular is you will find out that they weren’t perfect. We all have this general knowledge that no one is perfect and that everyone has faults. Sometimes we forget about our own when we cry out against others. A recent example I saw was people getting riled up over Karl Barth’s adultery, as well as Art Azurdia’s. (Though, Art Azurdia has repented, praise God.)

You may think that disqualifies both of them from the kingdom and maybe you’re right. I’m not convinced, however. Because of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, I have hope for anyone who truly claims the Lord Jesus as their savior. I also find our monitoring of people to be entirely subjective, what causes someone to stray? Or to cause them to be deemed as those spoke of in 1 John 2:2?

Is it the amount of porn they watched? Is it how many times they cursed at someone who cut them off in traffic? Is it all the times they mistreated a spouse, child, or other family member?

I have a problem with those who speak without knowledge, they’re merely parroting the historical revisionism of the culture. We remove Robert E. Lee statues like some religious iconoclast, as if that would change history.

Through this distorted cultural lens, they view Jonathan Edwards. They look at this man and see a fire and brimstone preacher who owned slaves. This isn’t an accurate picture. If you think Jonathan Edwards was a fire and brimstone preacher, you’ve made it clear to me that you’ve only read one sermon. (His most popular one, that just so happens to be the inspiration behind the blog name.)

Christian Apologist Dr. James White once remarked that Jonathan Edwards used the word “sweet” so much in reference to God and his grace that there should be a warning for diabetics.

The Bigger Issue 

Slavery. With the election of Donald Trump and the culture war going on, slavery has been a topic that has seen much more media than usual. If I may respectfully ask those who are atheist who automatically assume the Bible encourages slavery and any African-Americans who read this to put away their presuppositions and hear me out.

Let’s start with the Bible. What does the Bible say about Slavery? Well, if we are talking about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Bible condemns it.

He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death(Exodus 21:16)

The old testament civil law required the death penalty of a person condemned of man-stealing. The Transatlantic Slave Trade was filled with kidnapping, thus the slave trade was condemned by the Bible in the second book of the Pentateuch.

In the new testament, Paul lists slave traders as one of the worst kinds of sinners. (1 Timothy 1:10)

The Indebted Servitude defense, that men willingly sold themselves into slavery is scoffed out by internet skeptics, but in reality, it is evident from the text and the time period that’s exactly what was occuring. (Exodus 21:1-17)

Now, we move on to Jonathan Edwards.

There is record of a receipt (July 1731) from Edwards who was known for writing on any type of paper he could get his hands on. The receipt was a purchase of a slave, he paid 80 pounds for her. (Consider that Edwards made 200 pounds a year.) This girl was named Venus and she was fourteen years old. He treated her like his own. (Edwards had 11 children, some biological.)

Because the slaver was a ship captain, it is rightly assumed that Venus was probably African. We have record of this receipt because Edwards had cut it into four pieces and used the backs to write notes for his sermons. Which is a powerful metaphor but we will get back to that later.

Jonathan Edwards was the first Northampton minister to baptize African Americans and admit them to full church membership. During the Connecticut Valley religious revival of 1734-35, he admitted 6 African Americans, including Leah, who was enslaved in his household. (That being said, scholars speculate that this may have been Venus with a new name). The publication in Boston and London of a dramatic account by Jonathan Edwards of the Connecticut Valley revivals helped spark the Great Awakening, which swept the colonies in the early 1740s.

In a letter against a fellow preacher’s congregation that were judging hypocritically, he condemned the African slave trade. It is theorized that since he himself had, ten years earlier, bought a girl who was very likely an African slave,  being a witness to her suffering had an influence on this shift in his thinking.

In no way does this lessen the light of slavery and its impact on African-Americans. However, in the pursuit of truth, though Edwards can rightly be lumped in with those who participated in the hideous blot of history, he cannot be lumped in with those who viewed africans as lesser than whites or those owners who raped, murdered or did other vile things to their slaves.

A student of Edwards and Edwards son cited Edwards as their inspiration for being against Slavery. Jonathan Edwards Jr. wrote:

“Perhaps, though this truth be clearly demonstrable both from reason and revelation, you scarcely dare receive it, because it seems to bear hardly on the characters of our pious fathers, who held slaves. But they did it ignorantly and in unbelief of the truth as Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon were ignorant, that polygamy or concubinage was wrong. As to domestic slavery, our fathers lived in a time of ignorance which God winked at ; but now he commandeth all men every where to repent of this wickedness, and to break off this sin by righteousness, and this iniquity by showing mercy to the poor, if it may be a lengthening out of their tranquility. You therefore to whom the present blaze of light, as to this subject, has reached, cannot sin at so cheap a rate as our fathers.”

Conclusion

In summary, I will leave the facts cited by Thabiti Anyabwile.

• He condemned the Transatlantic slave trade, rejecting the idea that other nations had power or right to disenfranchise all the nations of Africa.

He rejected the idea that Israel’s history could serve as precedent and warrant for Colonial abuse of Africa.

• He held that under the gospel God would not “wink” at unjust manstealing, but called his people to love their neighbors (writ large) as themselves.

• He explicitly denied that Africans and Native Americans were inferior in God’s eyes. He did not deny either their full humanity or the need to seek their spiritual good. He regarded them as equal to Christian nations (read, “White”) in their rights and potential.

• He regarded Africans and Native Americans as spiritual equals. He was the first pastor in Northampton to allow full communicant membership to African people.

• In the 1740s, he argued that there could be no advance in “Gospellizing” Africans until the slave trade ended.

Recommended Resource

Kenneth P. Minkema
The William and Mary Quarterly
Vol. 54, No. 4, Religion in Early America (Oct., 1997), pp. 823-834

 

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