Slavery, Historical Heroes, and “Precious Puritans”

Slavery, Historical Heroes, and “Precious Puritans” October 9, 2012

A fascinating controversy has erupted between the worlds of modern rap music and the early American Puritans, because of a song, “Precious Puritans,” by Christian rapper Propaganda.

For brevity’s sake, I won’t explore all the commentaries on the controversy, but to catch the flow of it, pastor and blogger Joe Thorn discusses the song here with Propaganda, and Boyce College professor (and rapper) Owen Strachan takes exception to the song’s lack of nuance here. (More links below.)

The song laments the Puritans’ popularity among Reformed pastors. Among its lyrics are

You know they were the chaplains on slaves ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious puritans.

As Propaganda reminded Joe Thorn, the song ends by criticizing the elevation of any fallen human to pristine heroic status — even Propaganda himself.

And, it bothers me when you quote puritans, if I’m honest, for the same reason it bothers me when people quote me–they precious propaganda.
So, I guess it’s true.
God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.
Just like your precious puritans.

Leaders such as John Piper, and others whom Collin Hansen has called the “Young, Restless, and Reformed,” have brought renewed attention to the Puritans, and to Reformed evangelical luminaries such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield (who is the subject of my latest book project). The sermons and writings of these historic ministers reveal to us an age of extraordinary theological depth and gospel-driven preaching.

But, as Propaganda pointedly notes, and as books such as Richard Bailey’s Race and Redemption in Puritan New England remind us [my review of Bailey is here], many of these Puritans and evangelicals were at least indirectly complicit in slave owning and the slave trade. Edwards and Whitefield both owned slaves, and Whitefield pushed for slavery’s introduction into early colonial Georgia, which had initially banned the institution.

What should Christians do with these heroes of the faith, whose indulgence of slavery seems like such a staggering moral failure? (I asked a similar question about the Founding Fathers in “Slavery: America’s Original Sin?”)

Here’s a few guidelines to think about our historic heroes and slavery:

-Reformed Christians, of all people, will understand that we are all sinners, and that sin imparts a disappointingly narrow vision about our own failings. It is very difficult for people morally to think “outside the box,” even with regard to barbarous practices 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 a slaveholder, too. There were exceptional slave holders who “saw the light,” sometimes via Christian conversion (a la John Newton), but not as many as we would like, especially in the American South.

-We do no service to forefathers such as Edwards or Whitefield — or, in a different strain, George Washington or Patrick Henry — by downplaying their complicity in this ugly, brutal institution. History that hides or explains away issues such as slavery can be misleading and dishonest. It can open fresh wounds for those whose ancestors were enslaved.

-We should recognize our very human need for heroes, exemplars of virtue and piety whom we can seek to imitate. The Puritans, and the leading preachers of the Great Awakening, can help 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 disturbing blind spots in others. Realistic, flawed heroes are, in a sense, more edifying anyway: if God used “crooked sticks” in the past, then perhaps he can use me, too.

-American Christians should 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. For evangelicals, two obvious choices are Lemuel Haynes and David George.

Even the Bible tells of no mere human perfect heroes. David, Peter, and Paul are excellent examples of godly men who committed terrible sins. The Christian faith has only one perfect hero. He is our proper object, not just of emulation, but of worship. We all fall far, far short of his example.

Other links on the debate over ‘Precious Puritans’:

Thabiti Anyabwile, “The Puritans are Not that Precious”

Anthony Bradley, “Puritans and Propaganda”

Nathan Finn, “Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy, and Puritan Slavery”

Mike Leake, “One Thing that Disturbs Me about Propaganda’s Song ‘Precious Puritans'”

Steve McCoy, “Missing the Point of ‘Precious Puritans'”

Tony Reinke’s response to Owen Strachan’s post

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  • Your comments succinctly offer sound advice regarding a healthy spiritual and moral response to the uglier facts of the Christian past. However, I suggest one other fact must be mentioned: The record amply demonstrates that many slaveowners and supporters of the institution of slavery (not always one in the same) fervently regarded the institution as a form of blessing to “heathen Africans” who lived outside of the light of Christ. This attitude was so common in the 19th century that Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote literary refutations that are powerful rejections of the argument that slavery can bring the fallen to Christ — “Narrative of the Life” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” simply would not have the power that the works possess if there was no need to argue that slavery was moral poison to Christians and hypocrisy when used as a de facto tool of evangelism. Most of the colonies and then the states required that slaves receive “righteous instruction” and some Protestant sects even recognized full church membership when slaves converted to Christianity. Even individuals like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards who were “torn” over the question of the rectitude of slavery argued that the institution brought many a slave to salvation.

  • That’s right, Paul. Even some slaves and former slaves, such as Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, argued that slavery, cruel as it may have been, opened the door for their conversion. I discuss at length in my book on the Great Awakening.

  • Bobby B.

    Sounds like your book on the Great Awakening will be a worthwhile read.

  • Benjamin P. Glaser

    The lack of nuance is what really bothers me about the whole “controversy”. As has been noted by others there were many actual Puritans, like Richard Baxter in his “Christian Directory” that openly attacked slaveholding. Another burr is whether or not historically we should even call men like Edwards and Whitfield “Puritans” at all since the Puritan project, as it is specifically known, ended arguably in 1662 and certainly by 1688.

  • Regarding Edwards and Whitefield, you’re right, there’s no useful sense in which we can call them ‘Puritans.’ The religious context had changed too much by the 1740s. I call them ‘Reformed evangelicals’ here.

  • Wolfgang Musculus

    I agree with the lack of wisdom in esteeming specific Puritans to the degree that current Reformed circles do. Their views on slavery are not nearly as damaging as what they did to the doctrine of assurance, the irony being that they rebelled against the Reformation, specifically Calvin. Calvin’s doctrine of double assurance while returning to an understanding that antinomianism and hyper-calvinism are the only grounds for legitimate doubt of one’s salvation (and so is essentially a moot point) is much needed in today’s Reformed/Calvinistic circles that have adopted some lesser version of hyper-calvinism and legalism in their holiness doctrine. The irony is that, today, we suffer from a hypo-calvinism by borrowing too much from the Puritans. Calvin wasn’t perfect, but he got this one right.

  • James

    There is no mandate in scripture against slavery. Slavery is not necessarily wrong, however, the mistreatment of people is. The mandate in scripture is to love God and love people. If we are to be biblical on the subject then we need to get past the word slave and look at how these men treated their slaves and servants. The way we treat people is at the heart of what scripture says on this subject. It is unthinkable that a master would beat his animal much less his slave. I would venture to say that most of these men treated their slaves well, they were men of God, men who studied the scripture and knew it extremely well, while not perfect men, they’d have taken the idea of loving God and loving people to include the way they treated their slaves. We need to be biblical here rather than emotional, we can’t allow the term slave to always be derogatory, because not every slave owner abused his slaves. Many were treated well.

  • I agree with what you say re: Edwards and Whitefield. However there were not “many” puritans openly attacking slavery. There were only a few voices. Baxter was obviously a great one.

  • Sadly, though, when documents are extant from this period they all too often belie such assumptions about how colonial ministers (from the southern colonies to the New England colonies) treated enslaved Africans and Native Americans. Notwithstanding the inherent problems with race-based slavery as a system of power and control, such hoped-for kindnesses generally seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Thankfully, though, exceptions did occur.

  • rvs

    Thanks for the excellent post. I’ll use it in my philosophy class. Phillis Wheatley writes a great poem on George Whitefield, for those interested in Whitefield and the power of Arminian sentimentality. I also point to that wonderful passage involving the young black woman in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Vol. 9.

  • Michael

    Thomas Kidd, you have GOT to be kidding me? Is that the level of stupidity that Christians have descended to? “Slavery was cruel, but hey, at least some of them got saved!” Hey, let’s use that line of reasoning to endorse all kinds of evil! Human trafficking? Why not? That just get saved if they come to ‘spiritually enlightened’ America. Sometimes Christians make me sick.

  • Michael, so you are saying that African American Christians Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley were stupid and endorsed evil? It’s their argument, and not one that I would accept.

  • Eagle

    The Wartburg Watch blog had a real good discussion on this issue.

  • rvs

    Slavery is wrong. Also, it is impossible to be biblical in the Christian sense without also being emotional, since we are on the topic of the Bible. The lover reads the love letter differently than the nonlover (with passion, anticipation, etc.).