Why Did Jonathan Edwards Think That Slavery Was Morally Right?

Why Did Jonathan Edwards Think That Slavery Was Morally Right? September 26, 2023

John Piper, the Minnesota-based Baptist pastor who has popularized Jonathan Edwards’s Calvinist theology for a new generation of the “young, restless, and reformed,” said that he read Edwards diligently for twenty years before realizing that the eighteenth-century New England theologian had ever owned slaves. When he found out that the man he venerated more than any other Christian theologian had treated human beings as property, he was “surprised.” He had read all of Edwards’s major works, many of his sermons, and some of his private writings, in addition to three Edwards’s biographies, he said. And in all of that reading, Edwards’s slaveholding never came up.

Piper’s surprise encounter with Edwards’s slaveholding came in the late twentieth century, when it was still possible for people who had spent many hours poring over Edwards’s writings to be completely unfamiliar with his involvement in the practice of enslaving. Today it’s difficult to imagine that anyone well versed in Edwards would be caught off guard by this revelation. Even those who have barely read anything of Edwards beyond “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” are probably aware from social media and other sources that Edwards held a few enslaved people in bondage. Every recently published book about Edwards has had to grapple with this issue.

File:Jonathan Edwards.jpg
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

Some have been embarrassed by Edwards’s slaveholding, but have said that he was merely a “man of his time” on this issue and that there is still much that we can learn from his writings. Others have gone further and have said that we should not excuse Edwards’s slaveholding because he could have and should have known better if he had only listened to the enslaved people living in his own house.

But despite all of this discussion, the sense of shock over Edwards’s views on slavery has not gone away. Whether writers react with outrage, embarrassment, sadness, or defensiveness when confronted with Edwards’s attitudes toward slavery, there is still a sense of shock that a man of such brilliant theological insight and a reputation for godliness could have held other people in bondage.

But I think that in the rush to either judge or defend Edwards, perhaps we haven’t spent enough time seeking to understand the larger theological and cultural context that shaped his views. Edwards’s views on slavery were not an anomaly in his life, but rather part of a larger worldview – and if we understand that worldview, we’ll be better equipped to understand how we should grapple with Edwards’s legacy today.

There are at least seven historical realities that too many discussions of Jonathan Edwards’s views on slavery don’t say enough about:

  1. Jonathan Edwards lived at the peak of the transatlantic slave trade, in an empire that was dependent on slavery and where slavery was legal everywhere.

When we think today about American slavery in the eighteenth century, we may erroneously imagine it as a southern phenomenon, as it mostly was in the mid-nineteenth century, on the eve of the Civil War. But a century before the Civil War, when Jonathan Edwards lived, slavery was legal everywhere in the British empire, and prominent white men in Massachusetts – like their counterparts in Virginia and South Carolina – owned enslaved people. Benjamin Franklin owned some slaves, as did Massachusetts governor John Hancock. And though some of these people, including Franklin, eventually became abolitionists, they did so only after the Revolutionary War, which Edwards did not live to see.

In the early-to-mid eighteenth century, when Edwards lived, there were no prominent white voices in New England calling for the end of slavery. There were a few Quakers in Pennsylvania who were abolitionists, but even among Pennsylvania Quakers, there were some who held enslaved people in bondage, as William Penn himself had.

The slave trade was rapidly expanding throughout Edwards’s lifetime, because it was the foundation for the colonial economy. In 1703, when Edwards was born, there were nearly 28,000 enslaved Africans in the American colonies. They represented slightly more than 10 percent of the population. By 1740, when Edwards was in the midst of his writing and pastoral career, there were 150,000 enslaved Africans in the colonies. By 1750, there were 236,000, and they comprised 20 percent of the total population. And by the time of the Revolution (which Edwards did not live to see), there would be more than 450,000. Most of the enslaved people during Jonathan Edwards’s lifetime had been born in Africa – though many of them did not come directly from Africa to North Africa, but instead were sold in the Caribbean before being eventually transported further north.

In the Caribbean, enslaved Africans planted and harvested sugar – which was such brutal work that they often failed to last even a decade before succumbing to disease and death. In South Carolina, they grew rice and indigo. In Virginia, they supplied the labor for the tobacco industry. And in New England, where the climate was not well suited to large-scale plantation agriculture, the economy was still heavily dependent on slavery because of the rum distilleries.

New England’s eighteenth-century commercial economy depended on making and supplying rum for the Atlantic world, which in turn required massive amounts of sugar, all of which was produced with enslaved labor. By 1770, Rhode Island was importing 1 million gallons of molasses from the Caribbean every year. Some of that rum was then shipped to Africa, where New England colonists traded it for human cargo, which they then transported to the Caribbean in slave ships, trading human beings for more sugar that could be sent back to New England. Harvard historian Jill Lepore estimates that 40 percent of New England economic activity in the eighteenth century was connected with sugar production in the West Indies – which, of course, was directly tied to slavery.

An eighteenth-century English colonist could not therefore participate in the commercial economy without in some way being connected with slavery. But most of them did not seem to be morally troubled by that fact, at least not until the second half of the eighteenth century.

Three years before Edwards was born, Samuel Sewall, a Massachusetts judge who had participated in the Salem witch trials, wrote the first antislavery tract in New England titled The Selling of Joseph. But Sewall’s tract was an outlier, and it did not lead to any mass movement of other New Englanders toward antislavery activism. In fact, I am not aware of any New England Congregationalists who published tracts, books, or articles against slavery during Edwards’s own lifetime. In the generation after Edwards’s death, many New England clergy – including Edwards’s own son, Jonathan Edwards Jr., and some of his greatest admirers, such as the minister and theologian Samuel Hopkins – spoke out against slavery, but during his own lifetime, dissents against slavery were extremely rare in New England. Even the transatlantic slave trade, with all of its brutality and death, attracted relatively little disapproval – perhaps because it brought so much wealth to New England.


2. Jonathan Edwards lived among Christians who defended slavery as a means to evangelize Africans, and he accepted that argument.  

During the years leading up to Edwards’s birth, New England Puritans derived the two justifications for enslaving Africans that continued to remain most common in Edwards’s day. First, they said, the Old Testament authorized the enslavement of war captives, and both the Native Americans that they briefly tried enslaving in the seventeenth century and the Africans that they purchased from transatlantic slave traders for years afterwards had been captured in war, they claimed. Second, the transatlantic slave trade offered a way to convert heathen Africans.

Samuel Sewall, the lone New England white Christian voice against slavery at the beginning of the eighteenth century, tried to make short shrift of this second argument by saying that one must not do evil in order to accomplish good. God’s providential use of Joseph’s enslavement to save many lives in Egypt did not excuse his brothers’ decision to sell him.

But Sewall’s arguments were drowned out by the much larger number of New England ministers who followed Cotton Mather in defending slavery on the grounds that many of the Africans might be among the elect and could be converted by being brought into Christian homes in the Americas. The argument certainly accorded well with upper-class New Englanders’ financial self-interest. But at a time when no European or American Christian missionary had any thought of going to Africa – since whites considered the malaria in Africa a certain death sentence in the century before the discovery of quinine – it also had a certain irresistible appeal for people who really did want to see people of every nation come to know Christ. It was easy for some New England slaveholders to see their enslavement of Africans as a fulfillment of the Great Commission, since without the institution of slavery, they argued, people of African descent would never come to know Christ.

Throughout Edwards’s lifetime, the vast majority of enslaved Africans in America were African-born; the domestic slave trade would not replace the transatlantic slave trade as the main source of enslaved people until the beginning of the nineteenth century. As far as we can tell, the handful of people that Edwards held in bondage as household servants were probably young people who had been born in Africa, taken to the Caribbean, and then shipped to New England. Edwards purchased them directly from the ships that docked in Rhode Island with fresh cargoes of enslaved human beings. When he bought them, they likely had only limited knowledge of English and no knowledge of the form of Reformed Protestant Christianity that was common in New England. For Edwards and for other New England ministers of the time, this was an ideal opportunity to evangelize those who would otherwise come to know Christ.

The argument that the transatlantic slave trade was a way to evangelize Africans was so widespread that it appears to have influenced the way that even the enslaved people of New England thought about their experiences. In 1773, Phillis Wheatley, a brilliant young poet who had been captured as a 7-year-old girl in West Africa and sold to a family in Boston in 1761, published a poem that reflected on her forced journey to America through the lens of the Christian theology she had come to accept.

“’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”

By the time Wheatley penned those lines, she was free, and she gave no hint that she wanted to return to slavery. Still, in her public reflection on her forced journey through the Middle Passage and subsequent enslavement, she employed an argument that was very similar to the one that Edwards and other New England Congregationalists had employed for decades: slavery was the means that God used to give the elect Africans the knowledge of Christ.

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

In Wheatley’s view, this elevated the Africans to spiritual equality. Their souls were worth just as much as the souls of whites, and they, too, would join the “angelic train” as spiritual equals. They could look forward to an eternity with their Savior in a heavenly realm where their skin color – which so often provoked scornful looks among whites in this world – would not separate them from anyone else.

Edwards took that view as well. He defended African Americans’ spiritual equality from the pulpit. But he also believed that the Bible gave Christians the right to own slaves. Slavery was widely prevalent in the ancient world, yet the Bible said nothing against it – which would have been inconceivable if slavery were inherently wrong, he claimed. And slavery could be a way to spread the gospel to enslaved Africans.

To an even greater extent than many of his contemporaries – and to a greater extent than many Puritans of preceding generations – Edwards had an earnest desire to see the whole world reached with the gospel. He developed a strong interest in missions as a young man, and when he was middle-aged, he spent seven years preaching to the Mahicans in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. His first sermon to them was on Peter’s visit to Cornelius, a passage that includes the statement that God is “no respecter of persons.”

At a time when some Massachusetts churches refused to accept Blacks as members, Edwards became the first minister in Northampton to baptize Blacks and admit them to full church membership. One of those church members was his own slave Leah.

Eventually, his Northampton church included nine Blacks and two Native Americans as full communicant members. Edwards expected that people of other races, including those who were presently enslaved, would experience the full delights of heaven in the presence of God for eternity.

But as Jemar Tisby insightfully notes in The Color of Compromise, Edwards – like many later white evangelicals – used a strong advocacy of spiritual equality to ignore demands for social equality. The eighteenth century was a time of great inequality, with the labor of enslaved people increasingly used to generate wealth for a prosperous elite.

Edwards was part of the New England version of that elite, and he appears to have been comfortable with this inequality. That Edwards would use spiritual equality – the need for Africans to hear the gospel and be received into the church – as a way to justify the deep social inequality involved in slavery was thus perfectly in keeping with his social and theological views.


3. Jonathan Edwards’s theological options for opposing slavery were limited by the assumptions of his eighteenth-century Reformed theology.

Edwards, like the Puritans, believed that modern Christians were the “new Israel” and that the laws on slavery that applied to ancient Israel applied to Christians of his own day. Given that, it seemed inconceivable to him that the same God who allowed the ancient Israelites to keep slaves would prohibit modern Christians from doing so. If slavery were really intrinsically evil, he argued, the Bible would have directly prohibited it – and since it did not, enslaving others was therefore not a sin.

Later anti-slavery advocates commonly used Jesus’s formulation of the “golden rule” (“All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them,” as the King James Bible phrased it) to argue that since wealthy whites presumably did not want to be enslaved themselves, they had no right to hold others in slavery. Edwards believed in the golden rule, of course, and he included it in his list of seventy principles for living. He may even have been aware that the golden rule had been cited in opposition to slavery, since Samuel Sewall had included a reference to the golden rule in the arguments he marshaled against slavery in his 1700 tract The Selling of Joseph.

But to my knowledge, no New England Reformed Protestant of Edwards’s own lifetime interpreted the golden rule to argue against social inequality or severe treatment of a class that they believed merited that severe treatment. This was, after all, an age when public hangings were usually accompanied by a sermon directing the audience to think about the justice being meted out to the accused, and when infractions at school were punished with whippings. The eighteenth-century version of the New England Primer, which is likely the way that both Edwards and his children learned to read, included such lines as “The Idle Fool / Is whipt at School” and “Job Feels the Rod / Yet Blesses God.” And all of these lines were preceded by the very first line all New England children were taught to read: “In Adam’s Fall / We Sinned All.” The message was clear: All people merited death in Adam. If they escaped their sentence of eternal death, it would be only because of grace. Life in this world would be filled with chastisement for both individuals and groups, but no one could legitimately complain about such suffering. Complaints from enslaved people about their unjust treatment would not have resonated with most New England Reformed Protestants. There was no right to equality – except for equality in sin and death.

Photo of an open pocket-sized children’s textbook in a brown leather cover; the pages are of off-white paper, illustrations and text about the alphabet in black ink
The New England Primer (1727 edition)

Just as children needed to be taught to accept punishment, so did enslaved people. Though Edwards did not directly express views of African racial inferiority in his limited writings on slavery, it is near-certain that he shared these views, because those views were so common that even the one anti-slavery tract that we have from an early eighteenth-century New England Congregationalist minister – Samuel Sewall’s The Selling of Joseph – reproduces some of these racial tropes.

Edwards probably viewed enslaved Africans as analogous to children. They had eternal souls that needed to be saved. They needed to learn about the Lord and about biblical truths. But they also needed to be punished when disobedient, and they needed to accept their station in life.

Colonial New England arguments in favor of slavery usually assumed that the Africans deserved to be enslaved, either because they had been captives taken in just wars or because they as a race were still under the curse of Ham. Edwards, notably, never resorted to an appeal to the curse of Ham, as far as we know. But he did use the Israelite analogy of the enslavement of the nations around them to justify New England Christians’ enslavement of the Africans – and he believed that in a world of suffering and inequality, such enslavement could ultimately lead the enslaved Africans to hear the gospel and receive the gift of regeneration and salvation.

In Edwards’s own day, calls for the end of slavery did come from a few Quakers who, unlike Reformed Protestants, rejected the idea of social hierarchy and emphasized the radical equality of all people and the direct influence of the Holy Spirit to guide people into moral truth apart from the scriptures. But it is highly unlikely that Edwards, who was born less than fifty years after his Puritan ancestors in Massachusetts had executed Quakers as heretics, would have paid any attention to these Quaker arguments against slavery.

Edwards and his Reformed counterparts in New England rejected the Quaker idea of progressive morality or the idea that the Holy Spirit’s direct influence could supersede any dictate of scripture. Unlike the Quakers, Edwards and other Reformed Protestants of the early eighteenth century did not interpret scripture and morality through the lens of the golden rule; instead, they interpreted the application of the golden rule through the lens of the dictates of scripture – which included the explicit permission to hold people in slavery, they believed. Unlike the Quakers, they believed in a hierarchically arranged society, which they thought reflected a divinely created order, with God as absolute sovereign.

If any argument against slavery might have appealed to Edwards, it is likely that it would have been Samuel Sewall’s argument that slavery corrupted the sexual morals of people who held enslaved people in bondage. Edwards cared a great deal about personal sexual morality, so one can imagine that the prevalence of sexual relationships between male slaveholders and the enslaved women might have given him pause – just as it did for many later abolitionists.

It is also likely that Sewall’s argument that, contrary to the common claim, most of the enslaved Africans were not taken from Africa in just wars might have also resonated Edwards; indeed, it was this argument that led him to oppose the transatlantic slave trade.

But, like many other Christian defenders of slavery, Edwards got around these arguments by differentiating between the transatlantic slave trade (which he opposed) and the practice of slavery itself (which he accepted). Like many subsequent Christian enslavers, he would presumably have seen a fundamental difference between the sexual abuse of enslaved people and the enslavement itself. One was an abuse that needed to be corrected; the other was a Christian practice that did not need to be condemned.

But all of this moral and theological reasoning depended on a view of social inequality as divinely permitted and ordained.


4. Jonathan Edwards was part of the educated and wealthy New England elite, and his views on slavery accorded with his view of socioeconomic inequality as part of the natural order.

Perhaps it’s easy to forget today, but ministers in colonial New England were the most educated and some of the wealthiest, highest-status people in a deeply hierarchical society. The New England Congregationalists were more republican in their mindset than some people in the British world, but they still believed in a social hierarchy – and for much of New England, that hierarchy reflected religious values and revolved around the church, with ministers and magistrates at the top of the social pyramid. They were the only ones who attended college in this era, and when they graduated, they enjoyed state-supported salaries and statuses that are probably closer to those of contemporary medical doctors than to a typical modern small-town pastor.

When Edwards was in his late 20s, his annual salary of 200 pounds a year as a minister at Northampton was 35 times the salary of the average skilled artisan of the time. It’s probably fair to say, therefore, that Edwards earned more money as a minister over the course of two years than the vast majority of his congregants would see in their entire lifetimes. Indeed, at one point, his congregants in Northampton complained that he was “lavish” in his spending, and they demanded an account of his expenditures, because they resented the fact that his children enjoyed chocolate, commercially purchased toys, and Boston-made clothing, while their own children had to make do with homespun and homemade ragdolls. The same was true of education: Edwards received more formal education and probably owned more books than any of his congregants ever could in an era when college education was closed to women and people of color entirely and not an expected path for most white men who were not pursuing a career in ministry or government.

In this world of privilege, many of Edwards’s ministerial associates bought a slave or two as a mark of their wealth and status. Only a tiny fraction of the New England population had enough wealth to purchase slaves, but ministers were one of the few groups who did. Edwards’s father, an influential minister, enslaved at least one person – a man named Andars. So did the minister who served as the president of Yale College at the time when Edwards was a student. So did some of Edwards’s other family members in the ministry. For Edwards and his social circle, a slave would have been considered a mark of success, just as the purchase of an expensive tailor-made suit was.

As Kenneth Minkema recounts in his article, “Jonathan Edwards on Slavery and the Slave Trade,” when Edwards was 28, he purchased his first enslaved individual: a 14-year-old girl named Venus, whom he bought from the captain of a slave ship who, incidentally, would be killed the following year during a revolt of the people he was forcibly transporting on his slave ship. But that revolt occurred too late to save Venus from a life in slavery; she instead was given to Edwards for the sum of 80 pounds – about 5 months wages even for him and, of course, a price far too high for any of the artisans or small-scale farmers in his church to afford.

Financially, the investment may have been a failure. Venus completely disappeared from the Edwards family record shortly after her purchase, and by 1736, the documentary evidence indicates that she was not part of the Edwards household, since the only enslaved person listed among Edwards’s holdings for that year was a woman named Leah. Perhaps Leah was the same person as Venus – which is possible, since one can imagine a minister like Edwards wanting to give her a biblical name to replace her pagan one. Or perhaps Edwards sold Venus – and, if so, presumably he decided that she was not compatible with the family. But more likely, she died, which was a very common fate for enslaved people taken from Africa or the Caribbean and sent to the unfamiliar climate of New England, with diseases to which their bodies had limited resistance. And if that’s the case, Edwards had lost his financial gamble – or acted foolishly – in purchasing Venus, because he could have hired a female servant for only 7 pounds a year, less than one-tenth of what he paid for an enslaved 14-year-old. But Edwards continued to buy slaves and depend on their labor, using one or two at a time to help his wife and daughters in their household work.

He never seems to have questioned the inequality that pervaded his social world. College education, a ministerial career, and political participation were unavailable to all of the women in his family and to most of the men that he knew – but Edwards did not question this social order. Nor, unlike New Englanders of his son’s generation, did he question why it was right for the colonies to be governed by a monarch and to be taxed by a Parliament in which the colonists had no representation. Some of those questions – like the question of slavery’s morality – would be asked repeatedly in the quarter-century after Edwards’s death, but in his own day, neither he nor his fellow colonists seemed to be disturbed by the social and political order into which they were born.


5. Jonathan Edwards had moral objections to the transatlantic slave trade, but could not imagine a world without slavery.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Edwards opposed the transatlantic slave trade. It was not clear to him that the vast numbers of Africans that slave ships were bringing to American shores had really been captured in war, and the grotesque conditions on the ships – with people chained to headboards only a few inches apart, with no sanitation facilities – were difficult to justify. A century earlier, when the transatlantic slave trade was much smaller, it might have been possible for Puritans to sincerely make the argument that the enslaved people who arrived in the Americas were war captives, but the sheer volume of the trade in Edwards’s day suggested that the trade had expanded considerably beyond the human beings who were captured in a just war. And if that was the case, it was wrong to steal these people from their homes, Edwards thought.

But he thought that once the slave ships arrived with their cargoes, white Christians with the means to do so could legitimately purchase the enslaved people who were offered for sale and use that as an opportunity to evangelize.

Edwards made this argument partly because he could not imagine an American economy without slavery. In his one surviving writing on slavery – which was never published and was discovered only in the late twentieth century – Edwards argued that everyone in the British colonial world was in some way implicated in the business of slavery. Even those who never owned slaves might enjoy sugar, smoke tobacco, drink rum, bake with molasses, eat rice, or wear clothes made of cotton or dyed with indigo. Reaping the benefits of goods produced with slavery was almost unavoidable in the British colonial world of the eighteenth century, Edwards noted, and if that was the case, it was hypocritical for someone to vocally oppose slavery while depending on its profits.

Few whites did oppose slavery in the New England of Edwards’s day, and it’s somewhat unclear whether the critics to whom he was referring opposed slavery on humanitarian grounds or merely out of a sense of class resentment. But in any case, Edwards reminded them that until they quit using the products of slavery – something he considered impossible – they had no consistent moral grounds on which to object to the institution.


6. Unlike a later generation of pro-slavery apologists, Jonathan Edwards justified slavery on the basis of social stratification, not race.

The eighteenth-century transatlantic world was a world of deep socioeconomic inequality, and for privileged people like Edwards, such inequality required some justification. Benjamin Franklin and a few younger liberals emphasized the idea of merit: Hardworking people could get ahead.

For those who took this view, the temptation to resort to scientific racism or analysis of the biological differences between men and women in order to explain the disparity in opportunities offered to Blacks and whites or to men and women was strong. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, included several pages of analysis of the alleged biological differences between Blacks and whites in his Notes on the State of Virginia, and in his other writings, he freely speculated on the innate biological unsuitability of women for political life. For a man who believed in equality of opportunity for those who merited it, such scientific speculation was the only way to justify the exclusion of African Americans and women from the political, social, and economic opportunities that he believed were a natural right for white men.

But Edwards probably did not believe in equality of opportunity based on merit, and he therefore seemed untroubled by the privileges that he enjoyed and that others did not. He seemed to accept without question the longstanding British custom of social inequality. People were born into certain ranks and certain stations in life, and while those ranks and stations carried with them obligations to help the less fortunate, there was nothing wrong with those ranks and stations per se. Great social inequality was perfectly compatible with spiritual equality, he believed. His sermons about social obligations were therefore a call for the rich and privileged to use their privileges to help other people – but they were not a condemnation of the riches and privileges that they enjoyed. In his view, slaveholding, like the great wealth and education he enjoyed as a minister, could be a means to bless others through the social inequality of which he was a part.

Because Edwards was comfortable with social hierarchies, he did not need to resort to scientific racism to justify slavery. Unlike Jefferson, he did not have to engage in mental contortions to reconcile the difference between slavery and the declaration that “all men are created equal,” because he died sixteen years before those words were penned and he didn’t share the sentiment. On a spiritual level, he strongly believed that all people were equally created in God’s image, equally fallen, and equally in need of divine grace, but when it came to social, political, and economic relations, he accepted inequality.


7. The Revolutionary War, which Jonathan Edwards did not live to see, produced the social changes that led substantial numbers of white New England Reformed Christians to acknowledge the evils of slavery for the first time.

In the generation after Edwards’s death, New England experienced a revolution in social relationships that made Edwards’s views obsolete. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts adopted a constitution that declared that “all men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.” Immediately thereafter, an enslaved woman named Mum Bett (who later changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman), used this line in the new state constitution to sue for her freedom – which she won. Massachusetts became the first state in the new republic to completely abolish slavery, but it was soon followed by several other northern states that either granted immediate – or, more commonly, gradual, emancipation. At the same time, the great disparities in social rank among whites that had characterized the colonial period at least partially disappeared.

After Edwards’s death, some of his children, including Jonathan Edwards Jr., joined the antislavery cause. At the same time, large numbers of New Englanders and other Americans also distanced themselves from Edwards’s Calvinist theology, which seemed to them to give too much authority to a sovereign God whose divine decrees seemed incompatible with the republican ideas they embraced.

It’s difficult to imagine how Edwards would have responded to these social changes if he had lived as long as Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, who had once been a slaveholder, embraced republican patriotism and antislavery activism. So did Jonathan Edwards Jr. But the senior Edwards’s theology and social views were the product of an earlier era – an era that was in some ways far removed from the New England that emerged after the Revolutionary War.


How should we respond today to Jonathan Edwards’s views on slavery?

Jonathan Edwards Sr. was far ahead of many of his contemporaries when it came to recognizing the spiritual equality of all people, regardless of race – and he imparted this insight to the evangelical Protestant movement, which continued to champion Edwards’s vision of a kingdom of God made up of people from “every tribe and nation,” as the Bible promised. He was ahead of many of his contemporaries in recognizing the evils of the slave trade. But when it came to slavery itself, he lacked the moral categories to see it as an intrinsic evil, and he failed to imagine an economy that was no longer dependent on slavery.

Edwards’s failures in these areas were not unique; it is doubtful if any New England white man of his generation and social class was any more progressive in his views on these questions. But Edwards’s failures in these areas left later generations of white American evangelicals with the belief that spiritual equality could be substituted for social equality – and that belief would have devastating consequences that went far beyond the issue of slavery.

I personally admire Edwards’s theological insights and his spiritual perceptiveness. For a man of his time and place, his genuine concern for the spiritual salvation of people across the color line was noteworthy. I think that some of the condemnations of Edwards’s views on slavery have failed to sufficiently engage with his historical context.

But once we have examined Edwards’s views in the context of his time and place, we’re still left with the question of how we should respond to those views today. In doing so, we need to examine not only the original views, but also their legacy. Edwards’s theology laid the groundwork for New England antislavery activism a generation after his death, as John T. Lowe noted in his Anxious Bench blog post earlier this year. But it also laid the foundation for white evangelical inattention to social justice, as Jemar Tisby argues.

In addition, I think that we have to acknowledge that Edwards had a blind spot not only in regard to slavery but also in regard to wealth stratification. Although most of the things that Edwards purchased with his wealth were things that most of take for granted today – toys for his children, clothes, and books – these were not luxuries that most of his congregants could afford, and some of them complained about his opulent living. Edwards ignored these complaints even as he preached about the duties of the wealthy to help the poor. He believed that he had obligations to help others, but he was comfortable with social stratification and inequality to a degree that many of us might find shocking today.

But in that world of social stratification, slavery made sense to Edwards and his social circle – which is why I have not found evidence that a single New England Reformed minister during Edwards’s lifetime expressed any objection to slavery. Edwards lived in a world of privilege and inequality, and he was comfortable with that privilege and inequality in the material and social realm.

And it was precisely that privilege and inequality that enabled him to become the theologian he was, both because of the education and the luxury of time to think and write that he was afforded – privileges that were available to almost none of his congregants – and because of the role that inequality played in shaping his views of God. In Edwards’s view, God was not a democratic liberator; God was absolutely sovereign. His greatest theological insights were about how we relate to this sovereign God. If Edwards’s social context had been different, I suspect that his theological insights might have been different as well – and we would probably be the poorer for it, because some of Edwards’s insights about God are among the greatest that the English-speaking Protestant world has produced.

We are not the first generation that has had to wrestle with the question of how to account for the discrepancy between Edwards’s high view of God and his enslavement of others. One of the first to address this was Edwards’s own son, the pastor and college professor Jonathan Edwards Jr., who first began writing against slavery in 1773, fifteen years after his father’s death. Slavery was a violation of the golden rule, he argued. It was contrary to the principle that all men were created equal. Because he was part of the Revolutionary generation, principles of equality that his father never accepted seemed clear to him – and as a result, he now interpreted the scripture through the lens of those principles and concluded that slavery was sinful.

Jonathan Edwards Jr. (1745-1801)

The younger Edwards continued speaking out against slavery for the next two decades. In one 1791 sermon, he used the golden rule to argue against slavery in a way that his father never had. “Should we be willing, that the Africans or any other nation should purchase us, our wives and children, transport us into Africa and there sell us into perpetual and absolute slavery?” he asked his congregation. “Why is it not as right for them to treat us in this manner, as it is for us to treat them in the same manner?”

The younger Edwards had been shaped by experiences his father never had, and those experiences influenced his views of both scripture and slavery. As a young boy, he had grown up among the Mahicans that his father preached to, and unlike his father, he had become fluent in the Mahican language – and, to a certain extent, in Mahican thought as well. His father might have had racially progressive views for his own generation, but the younger Edwards’s attitudes on race were far more progressive. Unlike his father, he could say without qualification that whatever was wrong for a Black person to do to a white person was equally wrong for a white person to do to someone who was Black.

But beyond that, he, unlike his father, believed in the egalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Massachusetts state constitution. Liberty and equality meant something to him that they never had to white men of his father’s generation. And because of that, he concluded that his father was wrong about slavery and that his enslavement of others was a sin.

But how could his father, a great theological visionary, have been such a sinful man when it came to slavery? Perhaps, the younger Edwards concluded, he and others of his generation had done so “ignorantly and in unbelief of the truth.” But regardless of what the elder Edwards could or could not have known, there was no excuse for people of a younger generation to continue keeping people enslaved, now that they knew it was evil. “You therefore to whom the present blaze of light as to this subject has reached cannot sin at so cheap a rate as your fathers,” the younger Edwards told his congregation.

But if Jonathan Edwards Sr. was a sinner when it came to slavery, he was still a reliable guide when it came to God’s grace, the younger Edwards believed. Jonathan Edwards Jr. continued to believe in the principles of Calvinism, and he continued to preach a gospel that would have been recognizable to his father. And because of that gospel, he could see the beauty of his father’s teaching even when he took issue with some of his father’s practices.

Daniel K. Williams is a historian working at Ashland University and the author of The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship. The views presented here are his own, not those of his employer. You can read more about the author here.
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