Jonathan Edwards, Spider Webs and You, Part III

Jonathan Edwards, Spider Webs and You, Part III May 8, 2018

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Have you ever come across a spider web still under construction? So it was with Jonathan Edwards’s theological and ethical system at the time of his death. It was still under construction.

Edwards tragically died at the height of his intellectual powers. He had recently left the Indian mission in Stockbridge, MA and was installed as the new president of the College of New Jersey (known today as Princeton University). The cause of his death was complications resulting from a smallpox inoculation.

In what follows, I will reflect on the non-yet completed web of Edwards’s thought. One is left to wonder how Edwards would have spun his theological and ethical web had he lived longer. While this could be extended in a variety of directions no doubt, the area that interests me the most concerns his views of Africans, Native Americans, and slavery. It is a subject that I pondered at length during and after OMSC’s Jonathan Edwards tour that I experienced this past winter.[1]

In case you did not know, Edwards owned slaves, was prepared to defend a Christian minister who was severely criticized as a slave owner, and believed the Bible permitted slavery. However, it is also important to mention that Edwards evolved in his stance on slavery, speaking out against the African slave trade. His reasoning for eventually coming out against the African slave trade was that it kidnapped Africans and deprived African countries of their people. George Marsden puts it this way: “At the same time that he defended slavery as not wrong in itself, Edwards made a point of condemning the African slave trade. Do ‘other nations’ Edwards asked, ‘have any power or business to disfranchise all the nations of Africa?’”[2] On this evolution in Edwards’s thought, Kenneth Minkema writes, “The shift in Edwards’s thinking on slavery and the slave trade came as a residual effect of his consuming interest in furthering the international work of redemption.” Edwards went from supporting the purchase of “newly imported slaves” to opposing importation. “Nonetheless, he remained an unapologetic defender of slavery as an institution and continued owning slaves himself.”[3]

It is also significant to highlight that Edwards believed the institution of slavery would be terminated during the impending Millennium.[4] Furthermore, in Marsden’s estimation at least, Edwards did not perceive Indians and Africans as spiritually or racially inferior.[5] From Marsden’s perspective, the real problem for Edwards was that Native American and African civilizations fell far short of Christendom’s standing. Why? In large part, the problem was due to Satan’s tyrannical reign over them. Regardless, in Marsden’s interpretation of Edwards, the Native American and African peoples had the same “rights” and “potentialities” as their Western counterparts and would make extraordinary advances in religion and in learning during the millennial period.[6]

On the Edwards tour, I picked up a copy of Edwards’s treatise, The Nature of True Virtue, in North Hampton, MA (where he had pastored for a time). That volume published posthumously had import for anti-slavery argumentation, though Edwards did not go there himself. Edwards’ hierarchical instincts stood in the way of him making that move during his lifetime. However, followers like Edwards’s disciple Samuel Hopkins reconfigured certain aspects of the treatise in service to the fight with slavery. Here’s Minkema and Stout on the treatise and how certain emphases were refined in service to a distinctive antislavery position and movement:

In that work Edwards defined “true virtue” as “that consent, propensity and union of heart to Being in general, that is immediately exercised in a general good will.” Edwards used another key term, “Being in general,” to identify God. Sometimes Edwards defined true virtue as “benevolence to Being in general,” with “benevolence” meaning that “general good will” or love extended to God and fellow humans. Those terms are crucial, for Edwards’s disciples would refine his concept of benevolence even more into “disinterested benevolence,” or “disinterestedness,” with distinct implications for antislavery.[7]

What this treatise attacks is tribal or private loves and favors love for God and all humanity. It is a profound and powerful treatise that has significant import for our contemporary society that is  enslaved to tribalism in so many ways.

While I wish Edwards had come clean on the issue of slavery and renounced it in all its forms, he was in process, just like we all are. The point here is not to excuse him. But like all of us, Edwards was a product of his time. It is quite likely that Edwards would have come to the point of rejecting slavery as an institution in the colonies, if he had lived longer. As I reflect upon his life, his creative genius and his conflicted positions, it leads me to wonder how much hope there is for us in our day to come clean and move beyond conflicted ethical stances in service to the common good. As we continue to spin our theological, philosophical and ethical webs, consideration of Edwards should help us become a bit more humble and a little more aware of our proclivities to spin truth.


[1]This is the final post in a mini-series of reflections focusing on my impressions from that tour; refer here and here to the first and second parts of this mini-series by the same title.

[2]George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), page 257.

[3]Kenneth P. Minkema, “Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” Massachusetts Historical Review, vol. 4 (2002): 42.

[4]See Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, page 258. Edwards was the equivalent of a post-millennialist who held that the glorious age was not far off.

[5]Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, pages 257-258. There appears to be a difference of view between Marsden’s stance and Kenneth Minkema and Harry Stout’s position: “To be true to their mentor’s philosophical and theological legacy, Edwards’s heirs had to repudiate his racist indifference to antislavery.” Kenneth P. Minkema and Harry S. Stout, “The Edwardsean Tradition and the Antislavery Debate, 1740—1865,” The Journal of American History, vol. 92 (June 2005): 49 (italics added).

[6]Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, pages 257-258. Edits were made to clarify the referents in the discussion of Marsden at this juncture. Thanks to Salvatore Anthony Luiso for highlighting the need for greater clarity at this point. Now, according to Minkema, Edwards was paternalistic in his opinion of Native Americans and African slaves. Spiritual liberty was one thing, but it would be impossible to attain to “a social and political liberty on a par with whites.” Minkema, “Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” pages 34-35.

[7]Minkema and Stout, “The Edwardsean Tradition and Antislavery,” page 48.


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