Probably the lowest moment for me as I researched my 2014 biography of George Whitefield came at the Evangelical Library in the northern suburbs of London. That library owns dozens of letters to and from Whitefield, and I had arrived to read their collection.

A little background: Whitefield, the most influential evangelist of the First Great Awakening in Britain and America, was a slaveowner. Colonial Georgia had originally banned slavery, a ban that Whitefield sought to overturn. He wanted to fund his Bethesda orphanage in Georgia partly through setting up plantations in the colony. He was likely the most influential advocate pushing the Georgia trustees to legalize the institution of slavery.

Then comes the low point: Whitefield earlier had said he would wait to introduce slaves in Georgia until they became legal. But I found a letter at the Evangelical Library from 1749, in which a white Bethesda resident reported to Whitefield that there were already at least five “negros” (presumably slaves) working at Bethesda. The black workers were clearing land for a plantation.

Slavery only became legal in Georgia in 1751; apparently, Whitefield permitted its illegal introduction in Georgia after all. By the mid-1740s, many slaves had already been smuggled into the colony, and by 1749, Whitefield and many Georgia property owners were certain the trustees would legalize the slaves’ presence soon anyway. So, capping off the biggest moral problem in Whitefield’s biography, he seems to have been willing to break the law, so much did he want slaves brought into Georgia.

Flawed Heroes

For someone who specializes in 18th-century history, the question of slavery is an ever-present problem. As an evangelical, I deeply admire the work of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, but I can’t get around the fact that they both owned slaves.

What do we do about flawed historical heroes like these? Christians are hardly unique in having to deal with the issue; it’s also an American problem and a human problem. It’s American in the sense that America was founded on the fundamental tension between liberty and slavery. Thus, we have a panoply of historical heroes in America (George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Robert E. Lee, and many more) who were also slaveowners.

But this is also a human problem in the sense that every historical hero has his or her imperfections, if not grotesque sins. Protestant celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation were tempered, for example, by the acknowledgment that Martin Luther made a host of vile anti-Jewish remarks, especially late in his life. Admirers of Martin Luther King Jr. likewise have to face evidence of serial adultery.

I am conflicted myself about what to do about these problems. Christian responses to figures such as Whitefield run the gamut from admiring defensiveness to utter condemnation. Let me illustrate by citing an eclectic assortment of reactions to Whitefield and his historic contemporaries.

How to Respond?

Some would advocate a don’t harp on it approach to dealing with Whitefield, evangelicals, and slavery. For example, an anonymous “Amazon customer,” in his three-star review of my Whitefield book, wrote, “I have a problem with the . . . overly critical tone Kidd used when addressing the slavery issue. Slavery is evil and it should have been recognized and dealt with before it was, but in the milieu of all that was going on in Whitefield’s ministry, I doubt Whitefield had the time to ponder or address some very important issues.” If you read my book, you’ll find that he actually did ponder “some very important issues,” including slavery.

Some Christian history writers, especially those outside of academia, find it inappropriate to focus on the failings of someone like Whitefield when his ministry did so much manifest good. You just write about the good and don’t mention the bad.

More understandable, to my mind, is the your fawning admiration is unseemly reaction: Christian rapper Propaganda caused a firestorm in the Christian blogosphere in 2012 because of his song “Precious Puritans.” Though not explicitly about Whitefield, he sharply criticized the Puritans for their racism, and their modern admirers for overlooking it. He rapped:

They looked my onyx and bronze-skinned forefathers in they face
Their polytheistic, God-hating face
Their shackled, diseased, imprisoned face
And taught a gospel that says God had multiple images in mind when he created us in it

Finally, there’s the face the quandary approach. This is, to my mind, the best historical model, especially when considering people God used in spite of their sins and blind spots. The African-American parachurch leader B. J. Thompson perfectly illustrated this approach when he tweeted, “Let this sink in . . . George Whitefield was leading one the largest spiritual revivals America has ever seen, while expanding slavery.”

Christians understand that we are all sinners, and that sin imparts a narrow vision about our own failings. It’s difficult for people morally to think “outside the box,” even with regard to barbarous aspects of society such as the Atlantic slave trade and slave owning. We should all humbly realize, when criticizing slave owners, that if we were born into a white slave-owning family in colonial or antebellum America, we almost certainly would have died as slaveholders, too. There were exceptional slaveholders who “saw the light,” sometimes via Christian conversion (a la John Newton), but not as many as we would like.

Don’t Mask Their Warts

We do no service to forefathers such as Edwards or Whitefield by downplaying their complicity in this ugly, brutal institution. History that hides or explains away issues such as slavery can be misleading and dishonest, and Christian versions of that history damage our public witness.

History that hides or explains away issues such as slavery can be misleading and dishonest, and Christian versions of that history damage our public witness.

Conversely, we should recognize our human need for heroes, exemplars of virtue and piety we can seek to imitate. The leading preachers of the Great Awakening put the riches of the Reformed and evangelical tradition in stark relief against the shallowness that all too often marks today’s pop Christian culture. Yet we should never expect perfection from those heroes: we find phenomenal strengths in some areas, and appalling deficiencies in others. Realistic, flawed heroes may be more edifying anyway: If God used “crooked sticks” in the past, then perhaps he can use me, too.

Broaden Your List

American Christians should also broaden their list of heroes, not only for historical breadth, but in this case to celebrate those Christians who resisted and spoke out against slavery. Choices on this theme might include people like Lemuel Haynes and Phillis Wheatley, the former an African-American Revolutionary War soldier, ordained Congregationalist pastor, and critic of American slavery; the latter a former slave, and the first published female African-American poet. We should do what we can to highlight the life and ministry of such figures.

In any case, even the Bible tells of no perfect heroes, at least among those who were merely human. David, Peter, and Paul are examples of godly people who committed terrible sins. So hopefully we can be honest about our historical heroes’ failings, and yet maintain appreciation for the good that God did through them, by his grace.