Historian Thomas Kidd: On Slavery and George Whitefield

Thomas Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University and a prolific writer. In 2012, World Magazine published Kidd’s reporting on Thomas Nelson’s decision to remove David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies from publication.

In October 2014, Yale University Press will publish Kidd’s book on George Whitefield. In his most recent newsletter, Kidd addresses the uncomfortable fact that many otherwise admirable figures in our history owned slaves. In the case of Whitefield, he not only owned slaves but worked to advance slavery.  Kidd gave me permission to use this material from his Thursday newsletter:

The most challenging issue for a biographer of George Whitefield (as with Patrick Henry) is his identity as a slave owner. I admire Whitefield and Henry, as well as similar figures of their time such as Jonathan Edwards or George Washington, but their owning people as slaves remains an unavoidable moral problem.

How does one admire a historical figure who kept slaves? How does an author fully convey his disapproval of American slavery, while not condemning an individual altogether? I am not sure that I have gotten the balance exactly right, but we want to avoid two extremes.

One extreme might suggest that Whitefield was a great man of God, and that harping on his owning of slaves denigrates his memory as a Christian hero.

The other extreme might say that whatever Whitefield accomplished for God was fatally tainted by his owning slaves, so he is better forgotten or just used as a cautionary tale.

I think the better approach is to humbly acknowledge that we all have moral blind spots. We can justify all manner of habits and practices that, in three centuries’ retrospect, may seem appalling. But this does not excuse Whitefield’s complicity in what was a fundamentally immoral system, from the terrible wars and slave catching trade in Africa, to the horrible passage of the forced Atlantic voyage, to the dreadful working conditions for slaves, to the physical and sexual abuse that many slaves endured in the Americas.

Jonathan Edwards seems an easier case to forgive, as he only kept a few household slaves and just occasionally spoke in public about the rectitude of slave owning. Whitefield, by contrast, was arguably the key figure in having slavery introduced in the colony of Georgia, where it was originally banned. I was dismayed to find archival evidence that Whitefield may have even allowed slaves to work at the property of his Bethesda before Georgia made slave owning legal.

Although I personally lean a little more toward the “fatally tainted” extreme, I like the way Kidd articulates the situation. What I also like about Kidd’s work is that he does not hold anything back. While he confesses his personal admiration for the good the man did, Kidd presents a complete picture of his evil deeds (e.g., Whitefield working to advance slavery in Georgia). This seems to me to be the proper role of the historian.

 

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