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Jonathan Edwards and His Support of Slavery: A Lament

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There are two people who have significantly shaped my pastoral ministry: John Piper and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. They share the person who molded them most in ministry: Jonathan Edwards.

John Piper’s pastoral debt to Jonathan Edwards is widely known and well-documented. The pastoral debt that Lloyd-Jones owes Edwards isn’t as well known. Lloyd-Jones discovered the two-volume works of Edwards at a secondhand book shop and later said, “I devoured these volumes and literally just read and read them. It is certainly true that they helped me more than anything else” (Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones125). Lloyd-Jones’s discovery of Edwards left an indelible impact on his life and ministry.

So the direct and indirect debt I owe to Jonathan Edwards is inestimable. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned he owned one or two slaves (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 255). It felt similar to what happened when I learned to drive on icy South Dakota highways. It was easy to either underreact or overreact—and end up in one ditch or another.

When it comes to our theological heroes, here are a few thoughts on avoiding ditches when we hit an icy patch on the highway of history.

First Ditch: Underreact

The first ditch becomes an inevitable destination when one underreacts. I’ll expound on the dangers of this ditch more, since I believe people in Reformed circles tend to underreact rather than overreact on this issue.

There are three primary ways to underreact when we learn that Edwards owned slaves.

1. Ignore the Issue

Some people wish to ignore the obvious, but the ice is there. It does no good to change the subject or look away. Such a response is dishonest. We shouldn’t pretend we can’t see undesirable things simply because they’re undesirable. If we’re willing to overlook this troubling fact, what other things are we willing to overlook?

2. Minimize the Issue by Maximizing the Positive Impact Elsewhere

If ignoring the issue doesn’t work, one may try to minimize it by drawing attention to all the good the person did. This response is essentially a diversionary tactic to draw our gaze away from slavery and toward Edwards’s incredible legacy of preaching, writing, and the Great Awakening.

3. Minimize the Issue by Making It Historically Understandable

If redirection doesn’t work, one may try to minimize Edwards’s support of slavery by offering excuses for him. Some argue that he was simply a “man of his times”: slavery was so common and the economy so dependent on it that Edwards’s support of slavery is, though perhaps not excusable, entirely understandable.

My problem with this response is twofold. First, excusing or minimizing injustice never honors God. I never want to form the habit of making excuses for things that hurt people, things that God hates. We must practice faithful naming. Call it what it is without flinching. Let the full horror be felt. I never want to speak of slavery as so “understandable” that it starts to seem more palatable and less lamentable. Slavery dishonors God and dehumanizes those made in his image. Regarding and treating a fellow human being as property devalues the intrinsic worth of the imago Dei.

Second, excusing Edwards’s support of slavery by comparing him to his contemporaries simply doesn’t work. The argument is self-defeating. It’s true that many in his day supported slavery, but it’s also true that others fiercely opposed it.

Second Ditch: Overreact

It is also possible at this point to overreact and overcorrect by saying slavery cancels out the entirety of Edwards’s legacy. This reaction is rare in Reformed circles, but it’s still a ditch and thus we should be wary of it. Scrapping his legacy because of slavery would effectively lock away Edwards’s theological contributions and throw away the key. If people like Piper and Lloyd-Jones had never discovered the works of Edwards, we would be worse off, not better off.

Straight and Narrow Road

The only way to stay on the straight and narrow is to practice this biblical principle: “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9). What does it mean to abhor what is evil in the legacy of Jonathan Edwards?

It should be noted that abhorrence is something beyond awareness. We mustn’t stop short at the mere awareness that Edwards owned slaves. We should abhor it. This response requires a strong emotional reaction in keeping with the nature of the evil involved. After all, awareness without abhorrence breeds apathy. Are our ethical sensibilities functioning properly when we read that Edwards owned human beings? Let me tell you about the moment this fact personally became bitter for me.

Awareness without abhorrence breeds apathy.

When I was a young seminary student I learned that Jonathan Edwards would sometimes study for 13 hours a day. I almost idolized that piece of information. We then learned that sometimes when he was in a good frame for study, he would skip supper with his family and keep studying. That idea was dangerous for a newly married egghead. I wasn’t sure what to think, so some students and I asked John Piper whether or not we should imitate Edwards. Pastor John told us we shouldn’t simplistically copy this pattern, because we don’t necessarily have Sarah Edwards for a wife. Her gifts as a mom enabled him to be less present in the home, since she could pick up the slack.

I learned later that Edwards owned slaves, but I still never made the connection between owning slaves and enjoying extra study time until I attended a play in Natchez, Mississippi. The play depicted the glory days of Natchez, when it had the highest per-capita income in America and people lived a life of leisure with parties and picnics. But no mention was made of the fact that their wealth and leisure were carried on the scarred backs of slaves. I remember feeling angry. It was like I could feel the heat of injustice starting in my toes and rising to my heart.

Then something clicked that brought a truly bitter taste to my mouth: The people of Natchez had a lot of leisure time because of their slaves. Jonathan Edwards enjoyed a lot of study time, in large part, because of his slave or slaves (Venus and/or Leah). Suddenly, all that study time seemed sickening to the degree that it depended on slavery. I had idolized something I should have lamented. It was a powerful moment of prayer and lament and confession to God.

Complicated Legacy and Cautionary Tale

What should we say about Edwards’s legacy? Was slavery just a blind spot? Or was it a more active matter of turning a blind eye to something sinful? One piece of evidence appears to point to the latter. Scholars have recently discovered a document Edwards wrote to support a fellow minister’s right to own slaves. His overall defense of slavery hinges on the observation that the Bible explicitly allowed slavery, the New Testament doesn’t repeal slavery, and the Bible isn’t self-contradictory. Edwards’s support of slavery even includes the concession that the African slave trade couldn’t be justified because “European nations had no right to steal from the Africans” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 257). One should read the entire discussion in George Marsden’s biography to appreciate all the nuances of Edwards’s support of slavery, but at the end of the day it still amounts to support (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 255–58).

So we shouldn’t underreact and ignore the impact of slavery on Edwards’s legacy. We also shouldn’t overreact and throw his theological legacy to the scrapheap of history. The fact that Edwards owned slaves severely complicates his legacy, but I don’t believe it completely cancels that legacy. We must practice wise and skillful discernment that abhors what is evil and holds fast to what is good.

We can’t engage in this exercise as armchair theologians interested only in antiquity. Edwards’s complicated legacy is a cautionary tale for us. Jonathan Edwards had more intellectual firepower than any person reading this article, and he was a systematic thinker. He could connect theological dots like no one else. If he could succumb to such obvious, woeful oppression and injustice and theological hypocrisy, then we should be spurred on to greater levels of self-examination. Where are our blind spots? Or where do we willfully turn a blind eye to things we’re simply afraid to address?

My closing plea is that we wouldn’t pretend such hypocrisy isn’t possible for us. Redeemed sinners never reach the point in this life where they’ve moved beyond the possibility of hypocrisy. Galatians 2 reveals that the apostles Peter and Barnabas were led astray and guilty of hypocrisy—and needed to be confronted and corrected (Gal. 2:11–14). If Peter, Barnabas, and Jonathan Edwards needed to be corrected, we should humbly welcome the warning of history and the warning of Scripture. We should eagerly pray for grace to see where our conduct isn’t in step with the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:14). We should plead for grace to grow in our ability to abhor what is evil and hold fast to what is good (Rom. 12:9) as we navigate the intersection of lessons from the past and life in the present.

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