Bad Reputation: The right subject, the wrong question

Bad Reputation: The right subject, the wrong question February 4, 2019

Philip Jenkins’ recent posts on “Slavery, History, and Relativism” and “Should the Fact of Slave-holding Ruin Historical Reputations?” are thoughtful and helpful in many ways. But I think Jenkins is asking the wrong question.

It’s that word “reputation” that marks where Jenkins misses the turn that would have led him to the point at which all of this matters — where it matters urgently and essentially and pervasively for all of us. And it leads us away to a place that distracts us from that pressing concern.

Here is where Jenkins sets the table in the first post, discussing the great early American theologian Jonathan Edwards:

By any measure, Jonathan Edwards was one of the greatest figures in early American history, a brilliant religious leader, and a daunting polymath. We also know that in 1731 he traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, in order to buy a slave, a “Negro girl named Venus,” and that at various time he might have owned as many as six slaves. Those facts are not in dispute. But how should they affect his reputation, or how we commemorate him?

I’ve written quite a bit here about Edwards’ slave-owning and of his ill-conceived theological defense of slavery. See, for example:

None of that involves pondering how we ought to “commemorate” Edwards. Because that is not at all the point. Jonathan Edwards was the most influential American theologian of his day and he remains one of the most influential American theologians of our day. He was also completely and spectacularly wrong about the single most important and biggest ethical, moral, and theological question of his life. Hugely, magnificently wrong. (Spinal Tap voice: How more wrong could he have been? None. None more wrong.)

Consider what that means for us. It means we have learned and are still — at this very moment — learning something that is very, very, very wrong. This isn’t about Edwards’ “reputation” or about whether or not he’s somehow worthy or unworthy of our buying and wearing Jonathan Edwards T-shirts. It’s not about his legacy, but about our legacy — the legacy we received from him.

Think of it this way: You’ve just spent several hours in a small room with someone who you later learn is carrying a particularly nasty and contagious strain of the flu. I suppose one reaction you might have would be to ponder how this influences your perception of that person’s “reputation,” or to muse about how you might therefore recalibrate your sense of how best to commemorate that person.

Oh no no no no no, not me me me me me me me

A more urgent, wiser and far more constructive response would be to think about when you had your last flu shot and whether or not you’ve just contracted the disease or if you’ve since passed it on to others.

Framing our thinking about slavery through the category of “reputation” is a dangerous distraction, and potentially even worse than that. This was something we discussed here five years ago (!) in response to Thomas Kidd’s attempt to grapple with the “reputation” of the slave-owning, slave-trading, slavery advocate George Whitefield:

The focus here is entirely on reputation. Kidd is concerned with how we ought to assess the reputation of theologians like Whitefield and Edwards, and thus also with how to maintain our own reputation in properly remembering them.

And thus Kidd winds up distracting himself from what began as a hard look at a crucially important question, ultimately settling on a flaccidly platitudinous moral to the story: “God uses deeply flawed people.”

Well, first of all, no duh. “Deeply flawed people” is redundant. (As Edwards himself taught. Thus, Calvinism.)

But more importantly, we see here how a focus on reputation — whether Whitefield’s or our own — leads inevitably to the very “extreme” that Kidd was hoping to avoid. It takes us back to merely shrugging off Whitefield’s defense of slavery as a mere “flaw” that ought not to distract us from admiring his “powerful passion and integrity” and his “incredible significance and service to God.”

Just look at the unintentional self-refuting absurdity of that sentence about how Whitefield had, “in most other areas … integrity.” That’s not what “integrity” means. So Whitefield was uniformly consistent in all areas except for in those in which he wasn’t? Thanks.

Whitefield’s slave-owning and his lobbying for the legalization of slavery in Georgia were, in fact, an integral part of his identity. They were an integral part of his theology — his piety, his revivalism, his hermeneutic, his doctrine.

And thus they have become an integral part of our theology, piety, revivalism, hermeneutic and doctrine. Whitefield’s theology shaped the American church. Whitefield’s theology was grossly and essentially misshapen by slavery.

American theology and the American church are grossly and essentially misshapen by slavery.


That’s hugely important. Who gives a withered fig about reputation? Whitefield’s reputation doesn’t matter. Our “stance” regarding Whitefield’s reputation doesn’t matter. Whether or not Whitefield and Edwards should be “forgiven” and whether or not we personally should “forgive” them is a sleight-of-hand distraction from what really matters here.

What matters is that the theology of Whitefield and Edwards is pervaded by toxic lies that rationalized injustice. We — that is, white evangelical Protestants here in America — are their theological heirs. Our theology is thus pervaded by toxic lies that rationalize injustice.

Our job is not to assess the reputations of our ancestors. Our job is to unlearn the lies we learned from them.

Our job is to test everything and to hold fast only to what is good.

For our closing hymn, this traditional prayer of St. Joan seems appropriate:

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