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Should I Still Read Jonathan Edwards?

The natural world fascinated Jonathan Edwards. Beginning at an early age, he routinely analyzed the world around him, believing that the “Book of Nature and Common Providence” revealed much about the Creator he worshiped (Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 11, 50). Edwards’s focus on typology and the “shadows of divine things” is part of the Northampton minister’s lasting legacy (51). With such a heritage in mind, scholars began work on a critical edition of his works nearly 70 years ago. Based at Yale University, the Jonathan Edwards Center eventually published 26 physical volumes before turning their attention toward a comprehensive electronic version.

Alongside these academic efforts, parachurch organizations, such as The Banner of Truth Trust and Desiring God Ministries, labored to keep Edwards’s writings before the church. Together they paved the way for a new generation of admirers of arguably America’s greatest theologian and philosopher. These “young, restless, Reformed” evangelicals found in Edwards if not a homeboy, then at least a hero.

The problem with heroes is that their capes wrinkle. In short, they let us down. We must then decide how to handle them in light of their shortcomings.

The problem with heroes is that their capes wrinkle.

Edwards is no exception. His particular failures, in fact, became obvious because of the effort to use the critical edition of his works to gain a clearer picture of his life and thought. Perhaps the most problematic of Edwards’s failures is his full-throated participation in race-based slavery. Regardless of efforts to defend him, Edwards the enslaver is far from heroic. The historical Edwards, however, prompts us not only to reject the alternate reality of heritage and heroes, but also to allow some other influential American thinkers, James Baldwin and Wendell Berry, to help us recognize the power of history to promote meaningful reflection and change.

Go Tell It on the Mountain: History and Heritage

A little more than a decade after he burst on the literary scene with the semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, which focused on the life of Harlemite John Grimes and his tenuous relationship with his family, his church, and his faith, James Baldwin continued to treat the subject of history in a special issue of Ebony. In “The White Man’s Guilt,” Baldwin addressed the practice of history, illustrating not only the prospects of meaningful interpretation and reflection but also the dangers of reducing the discipline to retelling simplified stories of heritage and heroes. As a historian of race in America, I find Baldwin’s handling of the perils and privileges of the work of history instructive and challenging.

Leaving off any nonsense about history repeating, Baldwin’s perceptive analysis convicts:

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. (Ebony, 47)

History, so considered, aids in the struggle toward liberty and justice for all. History helps us ascertain what liberty and justice are, are not, and ought to be. “It is to history,” Baldwin asserts, “that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations” (47). Seen as more than simply “the past,” history continues to shape our lives in the present and future, separating it from heritage.

Though not always explicitly, cries about heritage have resounded in recent months and years. When white Americans protest the erasing of history, they more often than not don’t really mean history. Rather, they substitute the notion of heritage—little more than a warped sense of history. An alternative reality, if you will. Heritage, unlike the history Baldwin addresses, isn’t present in the same way. Heritage can be separated from our actions when convenient. Intentionally mislabeling heritage as history seems common these days. Such conflation grieves me.

History helps us ascertain what liberty and justice are, are not, and ought to be.

My grief flows from our willingness to build upon such falsehood, profiting when we can and hiding when we cannot. Then, even though we are “dimly, or vividly, aware that the history [we] have fed [ourselves] is mainly a lie,” as Baldwin laments, we not only hold onto it, but we aim to excuse it as we stammer about our place within society’s shared story. Baldwin prophesies:

The nature of this stammering can be reduced to a plea: Do not blame me, I was not there. I did not do it. My history has nothing to do with Europe or the slave trade. Anyway, it was your chief who sold you to me. I was not present on the middle passage, I am not responsible for the textile mills of Manchester, of the cotton fields of Mississippi. Besides, consider how the English, too, suffered in those mills and in those awful cities! I also despise the governors of southern states and the sheriffs of southern counties, and I also want your child to have a decent education and rise as high as his capabilities permit. I have nothing against you, nothing! What have you against me? What do you want? (47–48)

With such stammering efforts to safeguard heritage—not history—we readily signal toward defending ourselves, our heritages, and our heroes.

If King Street Could Talk: Jonathan Edwards and Race

With Baldwin’s understanding of the distinction between history and heritage in mind, we can return to Edwards. We often tend to defend our heritages and heroes even more than ourselves. It’s almost as if we believe they won’t survive unless we flatter them. Instead, we end up flattening those heroes and the past we profess to love.

One popular way to flatten historical figures is to treat them abstractly. When and how do we do this? We often treat our heroes as abstractions when forced to deal with those less-than-admirable parts of their lives. And “abstraction,” as Wendell Berry reminds us, “is the enemy wherever it is found.” Berry’s claim is never truer than when we describe a hero as a “man (mind you, nearly always a man) of his times.” Such an abstraction acts as an enemy, flattening both the person and the history.

Another way we flatten our heroes is by consciously overlooking or at times ignoring their failings because of what we supposedly don’t know, refusing to address things we do know. For two decades now, I have analyzed the intersections of religious convictions and constructions of race in colonial New England. I have attempted to focus on things we can know about some of the leading figures of that time and space.

From the outset, no person has occupied my attention more than Jonathan Edwards. He appears in every chapter of my Race and Redemption in Puritan New England. Since I can’t adequately explore all of those appearances here, I will use this opportunity to encourage you to explore my book more fully. I do, however, want to point out several facts we know about Edwards and his involvement both in the practice of enslaving other humans and in the process of racializing his black and indigenous neighbors from his house on Northampton’s King Street.

First, Jonathan Edwards consistently envisioned African men, women, and children as chattel. Such thinking is seen in his efforts to purchase humans and to hire out enslaved persons for himself and to others. In a bill of sale from 1731, for example, the young minister purchased a young girl named Venus—the first of at least seven people he considered his property. He followed this routine legal exchange with another rather routine practice of enslavers, renaming Venus as Leah. In an instant, then, this 14-year-old girl was transformed from the Greek goddess of love to the biblical unloved wife—reimagining her identity as inferior.

Jonathan Edwards consistently envisioned African men, women, and children as chattel.

Another fact about Edwards the enslaver is that he (like his father, Timothy Edwards) participated in the act of hiring out. Hiring out human property to others in the community afforded enslavers a way to insure a return on their investment. As a letter from Sarah, Edwards’s wife, to the town constable shows, Edwards apparently hired out Leah, likely to supplement his often-neglected salary. Leah’s hiring out also demonstrates that Edwards joined most New Englanders in considering the enslaved woman a part of his household. In her letter to the constable, Sarah asked him to pass along her and her children’s “love to Leah.” Such an expression of affection illustrates another fact about Edwards’s involvement in the slave trade. He and his family developed affectional bonds toward enslaved people, even while constructing raced identities for them.

Despite the creation of such an identity for Leah, the young girl formerly known as Venus joined the Northampton church in 1736. So, another thing we know about Edwards’s thinking on race: he welcomed New Englanders of color into the local spiritual community. He allowed African converts to become full-communion members. Such a status, which became more common for people of color during the revival period known later as the First Great Awakening, permitted these men, women, and children to participate in the life of their local church. For example, Edwards’s catechesis records include specific questions he asked of African catechumens.

Black church members also were allowed to testify against white parishioners in disciplinary cases. During what George Marsden called the young folks’ Bible controversy of 1744, such testimony occurred. After the discovery that some young white men were using midwifery manuals to harass women in the community, Bathsheba, an African enslaved by Major Seth Pomeroy, testified against Timothy Root and his co-conspirators (Marsden, 292). Thus, a black voice aided the congregation’s call for confession and repentance.

We also know that Edwards defended other enslavers and, by implication, himself. In the early 1740s, he drafted a letter on behalf of an Old Light clergyman, Benjamin Doolittle, who found himself embroiled in controversy. As the Northfield, Massachusetts, congregation sought (for the third time) to remove Doolittle, they claimed him unfit to be their moral and spiritual leader. The charge? Doolittle was an enslaver. Edwards, upon request, defended Doolittle and slavery. In doing so, though, he made it clear that while he supported the institution and benefited from enslavement (as did most white New Englanders either directly or indirectly) he thought the external slave trade and its practice of man-stealing was morally repugnant. While at ease apologizing for a theological rival (who ultimately manumitted Abijah Prince, the enslaved man in question), Jonathan Edwards illustrated some sense of dis-ease with elements of race-based slavery.

In one of his more private writings, composed shortly after his purchase of Venus, Edwards made clear he was ill at ease with how enslavers regularly mistreated men, women, and children they counted as chattel. An entry in his “Blank Bible” hints at his wrestling with how he treated such people. Initially, Edwards wrote that Job 31:13–14 “clearly shews the Reason why I should not despise and abuse him.” Perhaps uncomfortable with the overly personal nature of his commentary, Edwards edited his note to remark on “why Job should not despise and abuse his servant.” Such an emendation by the ever careful and meticulous architect of phrases reveals he at times struggled with what being an enslaver entailed.

Edwards wasn’t alone here. His cousin (and sometimes itinerant partner) Stephen Williams, for example, also recorded his own struggles over his treatment of enslaved people. While the minister of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, Williams kept a diary for more than 60 years. In its pages, he regularly remarked on his actions as an enslaver, including several explicit passages where he mentally and physically abused enslaved African men, driving at least two of them to suicide.

Did Jonathan Edwards act similarly? Possibly. What we do know, though, from the manuscript of his “Blank Bible” is that he wrestled with the consequences of potentially abusing and wounding the enslaved people in his household—not to mention the ways these interactions likely wounded Edwards himself, which Wendell Berry described as hidden wounds.

Hidden Wound: Lessons from the Past

We don’t have to abstract Edwards as “a man of his times” or retreat to what we don’t know. We should instead critique him when he clearly gets things wrong. His lifelong commitment to race-based slavery is clearly one such instance. Edwards, even if unintentionally, contributed to some of the racist foundations in our nation and her churches: a nation built on slavery for economic stability and churches composed of members who worshipped side by side but considered one another fundamentally unequal. We also ought to remain willing to learn from him when he speaks and stands correctly.

We should instead critique him when he clearly gets things wrong. . . . [and] remain willing to learn from him when he speaks and stands correctly.

Such an insistence hopefully makes it clear I don’t think we should stop reading Edwards or studying his life and works. That said, though, after two decades of learning how some of Edwards’s ideas and actions led to disasters, racism, abuses, and the deaths of enslaved persons, I understand and respect people who opt for a different approach. Nonetheless I don’t see such a route to Jonathan Edwards (and many other historical figures) as the best one. On the contrary, I think we can and ought to learn from him. To do so, though, we must be willing to say when he got things wrong and to condemn them unequivocally.

In so doing, we follow Edwards’s example. When he thought his heroes got things wrong, he said so. Even if that hero was his maternal grandfather and pastoral mentor Solomon Stoddard, often called “the pope of western Massachusetts.” And even if such a stand ultimately ended in his 1750 dismissal from the church in Northampton. In such moments, Edwards anticipates James Baldwin and suggests how to approach history and its imperfect actors. But even as he disagreed with Stoddard on important matters related to the church, Edwards didn’t attempt to cancel everything his mentor had taught because he believed the work of God was about more than Stoddard. He revealed such thinking in 1739 as he preached a series of 30 sermons focused on history, pointing out time and again how the God he worshiped used imperfect men and women of faith to accomplish a work beyond themselves. In his estimation, those people were not the heroes of the story. Instead, Edwards argued the only hero was the God who redeemed people.

Jonathan Edwards led a life of faith. An imperfect one, but a life of faith nonetheless. And, as Scott Hafemann argues, a life of faith teaches much about the God of promise. Or, to invoke Edwards’s concepts from that 1739 series published after his death as A History of the Work of Redemption, the study of history reveals much about redemption. Edwards wasn’t concerned with flattering his Northampton congregation or his predecessor as he analyzed the past to point them toward the possibility of a changed future. He would likely track with Baldwin’s claim that “people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world” (Ebony, 47). With his interest in typology, Edwards probably would have interpreted the impaled butterfly as a shadow of the ways the God he worshiped redeemed the elect through the work of the cross, contending that by removing the pin the God of history effected real and meaningful change in the world.

It is important that we see Jonathan Edwards as more than simply a hero. He lived in history. Sometimes he succeeded in fulfilling the law of God expressed in Matthew 22:34–40. At other times, he failed. His stances on race and slavery are undeniably failures of the commandments to love both God and neighbor. We can still learn from his failures, though.

Recognizing the power of good, specific history and rejecting the flattering alternate reality of heritages and abstract heroes better prepares us to deal not only with the past and what we do know, but also with the present and the future. In the face of racial prejudices and white supremacy, such an approach to the study of history on the specific issue of race allows us not only to deal with the real personal and systemic wounds of racism, but also to promote actual change and racial justice.

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