This past weekend a couple of folks called my attention to tweets from Joash Thomas. According to his Twitter bio, he is the National Director of Mobilization & Advocacy for the International Justice Mission (IJM) of Canada. I have great respect for IJM, have directed my students to this ministry, and have a very close family member who interned with IJM while in college. I support IJM and pray for their work in ending slavery around the world.
Over the course of the last few days, Thomas published a few tweets about 18th-century evangelical theologian Jonathan Edwards. The tweets came a couple of weeks after I took some of my students to Princeton, where Edwards served as the third president of the College of New Jersey. While we were there we visited Edwards’s gravesite. Several of the students in the group were part of my Fall 2021 Colonial America course where we studied Edwards’s critique of the Enlightenment, his role in the First Great Awakening, and his views on the “nature of true virtue.”
Thomas’s tweets caught my attention as a historian of early America, an American religious historian, a teacher of some students who find inspiration in Edwards’s work, and an evangelical Christian.
Here is Thomas:
That’s a pretty outrageous thing to say. It’s also pretty offensive. Maybe Thomas thinks he is a prophet of some type. He seems to “know” things. After all, it takes a lot of hutzpah to go on Twitter and suggest that he “knows” that “most Christian pastors and theologians” would support slavery.
I am not a big Jonathan Edwards fan. As a historian, I think he was an important figure. As mentioned above, I spend time covering his ideas in my colonial America course. As a Christian, I occasionally find something from Edwards that helps me think more deeply about my faith. Though I am not an Edwards evangelist, I know some pastors and theologians who are. They find his theology useful to their faith and ministry today. None of these pastors, as far as I know, support slavery or defend Edwards for owning slaves.
Let me say a few words about Thomas’s tweets from my training as a historian.
Thomas’s Twitter-“shaming” is built on a very sloppy use of the relationship between the past and the present. It reminds me of the time I was giving a public lecture about Thomas Jefferson and slavery at the David Library of the American Revolution. We were discussing Jefferson’s view of race, particularly his comments in his Notes on the State of Virginia about the inherent cultural and intellectual inferiority of Africans. During the question-and-answer session following the lecture, a woman asked me what Jefferson would have thought about having a United States president of African descent. Her question implied that Jefferson would have strongly opposed Barack Obama because as an African American Obama was not civilized enough to run the country effectively. When I suggested that we would never know how Jefferson might have responded to the prospect of an Obama presidency, the woman seemed surprised. What she failed to understand was that the early American world had a profoundly different understanding of race-relations from what we have today. She wanted to take Jefferson’s world and apply it to the twentieth-first-century world in which she lived. Such a move implies a continuity between past and present that we have no way of knowing exists. To put it another way, it is a failure to apply the historical thinking skill of “change over time.” We have seen similar failures in this area from conservative pundits like Dinesh D’Souza when they talk about the “racist” Democratic Party. Thomas is doing the same thing. Would Edwards be a slaveholder today? Who knows? It’s a not a good historical question. The students in my 100-level history courses know not to make this mistake. I commend Thomas’s hatred of slavery. But he may want to think more deeply before connecting the past and the present in this way before he shames “most Western pastors.”
Later Thomas tweeted again. This time with the phrase “To whom it may concern.” His views concerned me, and since Twitter is a public site, I responded. Why? Because I have spent much of my career trying to get activists to bring better, more complex thinking to their activism, especially when they invoke the past. I also have an averse reaction to bad arguments broadcast over social media platforms.
Here are his tweets:
At this point Thomas is flying high. He is feeling the moral wind at his feet as he soars through the twittersphere.
No one in the ensuing Twitter storm commented on my reference here to Eugene Genovese. Genovese, a Marxist, and his wife Elizabeth Fox Genovese, a Marxist feminist, spent much of their careers critiquing capitalism. When they converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1990s and became champions of conservative causes, they continued to critique capitalism. As unwashed Marxists and as Roman Catholics, the Genovese’s argued that 19th-century southern theologians who defended the institution of slavery provided a compelling critique of northern capitalist society and the injustice that stemmed from it. As someone who is sympathetic to some Marxist critiques of capitalist society, and who finds democratic socialism attractive, I find the work of the Genoveses useful. So with all this in mind, when I read Thomas’s words about Edwards, I thought about the Genoveses and their work.
The second point in my response to Thomas comes from a recent comedy routine from Bill Maher. The quote speaks for itself. I regret Maher’s use of the word “woke” here. As I told someone who tweeted me privately, I could have made the point I was making without using Maher’s use of that word. Thomas could not get past my use of this word and I understand this. My goal was never to offend anyone and it was a poor quote to use in this context. Nevertheless, the spirit of Maher’s criticism is worth considering and here is why:
Thomas clearly believes he is on the right side of history. But in order to make sure he is not accused of superimposing present-day beliefs on the past, he and another commentator suggest that even in Edwards’s day people criticized slavery and slave-ownership in general. Someone else in this Twitter conversation suggested that there was a “robust abolitionist voice in public theology” at the time of Jonathan Edwards. I’d encourage those who believe this to read Manisha Sinha’s award-winning history of the abolitionist movement or listen to my conversation with her at The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast. In her book The Slave’s Cause, Sinha writes, “Early modern Europe lacked a systemic antislavery tradition. With few exceptions, Western thinkers had justified rather than challenged slavery.” This doesn’t sound like a “robust abolitionist public voice in public theology” to me. In fact, most Quakers owned slaves, including William Penn. In fact, one could argue that when Edwards published a stinging critique of the transatlantic slave trade he was well ahead of his time. Thomas and his crew are pretty much left with Anthony Benezet, John Woolman, and the cave-dwelling dwarf Benjamin Lay, the man historian Marcus Rediker has called “the first revolutionary abolitionist.” These were contemporaries of Edwards who spoke mostly to their fellow Quakers.
This historical information, of course, does not suggest I am giving Edwards a pass for owning slaves, although I imagine some of Thomas’s Twitter crew will make this claim. Christians, especially Reformed evangelical Christians, should lament the fact that Edwards was a slaveholder. But if one is going to speak with such a bold prophetic voice on Twitter, or make dramatic claims about dying on “theological hills,” he should at least make sure he has his history straight.
And speaking of history, let’s explore exactly what Jonathan Edwards believed about slavery. A nice intro to this topic comes from the Princeton & Slavery Project. (We traced some of the historical markers placed on Princeton campus during my recent visit with students. It is very well-done). Edwards was the third president at Princeton. Richard Anderson’s summary draws heavily from George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life and Kenneth P. Minkema’s seminal William & Mary Quarterly article, “Jonathan Edwards on Slavery and the Slave Trade.” If you want to dig deeper into this subject, these are the places to start. Here is a taste:
While Edwards saved souls, he also established a household of his own: he and his wife Sarah had eleven children. Like his birth family, Edwards maintained the large household in part through the labor of enslaved people. In 1731, Edwards visited Newport, Rhode Island, where he purchased Venus, a “Negro girl” estimated to be 14 years old Records also indicate that Edwards owned a “Negro boy,” Titus, and a second female slave named Leah—although historians are uncertain as to whether the family simply gave Venus a biblical name. In 1740, Edwards and his wife co-signed a legal guarantee of financial support for two slaves freed in the will of Sarah Edwards’ stepmother. For New Englanders of their elite status, the Edwardses’ participation in the slave trade and slave ownership was unexceptional. One scholar notes that British colonists like Edwards often justified slavery as “an extension of long-accepted practices of servitude and dependency”—such as the dependant status of wives, children, and indentured servants. Such rationalizations for slave ownership were convenient, considering that the economy of New England depended heavily on its links to the Atlantic slave trade.
Edwards preached and wrote little on the subject of slavery, but traces of his views remain. In 1741, a conflict over slavery in a congregation near Northampton came before a local council of ministers. The clerical body tasked Edwards with drafting a response to the arguments of church members who denounced their minister for owning a slave. In his response, Edwards defended the authority of his fellow cleric and accused his congregants of hypocrisy. The critics were not “immediate partakers” of the fruits of slavery, Edwards argued, but like most New Englanders “they may have their slaves at next step”—meaning the critics indirectly benefited from the institution.
Yet Edwards also condemned the cruelty of the slave trade, invoking scripture to do so. He acknowledged that God had permitted the Israelites to capture and enslave the Canaanites but argued that this represented only one specific instance. Christians could not, Edwards contended, transform a “special” dispensation into an “Established Rule.” The document more generally reveals Edwards’ belief in the spiritual—but not earthly—equality of Europeans and Africans, an attitude reflected in his efforts to convert slaves to Christianity. Christ, Edwards argued, “[c]ondescends to take notice of serv[a]nts & people of all nations” and “Condescends to poor negroes.” In his ministerial role, Edwards acted on that principle by admitting nine Africans to the Northampton congregation as full communicants, including the enslaved woman Leah. The church also admitted Native American members.
Again, my goal here is not to justify Edwards as a slaveholder, but to offer some historical context.
Thomas also railed on the “legacy” of Edwards the slaveowner:
So what is Edwards’s legacy on slavery? What are those “downstream effects of Edwards’ slaveholding legacy? I am unaware of 19th-century slaveholders who drew upon Edwards’s view of slavery to justify slavery in the South, but I could be wrong about that. So, to give Thomas the benefit of the doubt, let’s say that some pro-slavery advocates drew on Edwards. However most of the examples I am familiar with are those of Edwards’s disciples who used their mentor’s theology and applied it to the anti-slavery movement. The most prominent are Samuel Hopkins, Ebenezer Baldwin, Jonathan Edwards, Nathaniel Niles and Levi Hart (the last two names were students of Edwards’s disciple Joseph Bellamy). Recently, Berkeley historian Christopher Tomlins has argued that Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia was influenced by Edwards’s theology. So if Thomas is going to talk about the “downstream effects of Edwards’s slaveholding legacy” we need to remember that such a legacy was complex. If Tomlins is right, Nat Turner responded to Edwards very differently than Joash Thomas.
But the real issue in this Twitter debate is whether or not Christians today can find anything of value in Edwards’s theology/ Here is Thomas again:
So if I am reading Thomas correctly here, he is saying that we should read Edwards, but predominantly for the purpose of showing how his theology is corrupted by slavery. I take the phrase “find better teachers” to mean that there is nothing he can teach us. We should look to others for our theology. Edwards is permanently stained.
I argued during the course of the Twitter debate that one can learn a great deal from slaveholders and still openly reject their slaveholding. I have known Edwards owned slaves since graduate school in the 1990s. I have also found his views on revivalism, religious affections, true virtue, and other doctrines occasionally helpful. I do not really subscribe to Edwards’s entire system of theology nor do I even consider myself “Reformed,” but God has used some of his writing to help me be a better Christian. I find Edwards’s theological ideas useful in the same way that I find the southern slaveholding theologian’s critique of capitalism useful. I also find some of Edwards’s theological ideas useful in the same way I find some of the political ideas of slaveholding Thomas Jefferson useful. I would not endorse tearing down any monuments of Edwards just like I would not endorse tearing down any monuments of Jefferson. They were known for things other than slavery. (I would, however, support contextualizing monuments to point out their slaveholding).
But apparently this view does not meet the purity test for the fundamentalist Christian left.
By the way, if you want a far more thoughtful perspective on this debate, check out Thabiti Anyabwile’s essay, “Jonathan Edwards, Slavery, and the Theology of African Americans. Here is a taste:
Our final question goes something like this: Is it possible to hold Edwards’ theology and ask questions pertinent to the African American and their experience? Or, does holding to Reformed theology—often thought to be a “white” theology—necessarily prevent one from raising “Black” questions? Can a person be “Reformed” and simultaneously interested in cares and concerns particular to ethnic peoples? I won’t belabor these questions, since their answers should be evident by this point. Not only is it possible to hold Edwards’ theology and raise questions pertinent to the African American (or any ethnic group’s) experience, we have ample historical evidence of Black and Whites doing just that.
Here are a few other comments.
Since a few of my fellow historians jumped into this debate, let me reiterate something I have written about dozens of times here at this blog and in my book Why Study History? I do not teach ethics or moral philosophy or theology. I teach history. My job as a historian is to teach my students and readers that Edwards was a slaveholder. I have enough confidence in my students to know that slavery is bad and Edwards participated in this immoral institution. Of course we might still discuss the moral problems with this, but that is not my primary job in the history classroom and I would never assess students on such a discussion. I am not a preacher, but I do hope that my students will take-up this debate in their theology or ethics classes because it is a good one.
I think that a proper understanding of pre-revolutionary British colonial history is important to this debate. Much of what I saw I happening on Twitter over the weekend were a bunch of people who know nothing about the history of slavery, the ideas of Jonathan Edwards, or the eighteenth-century world making moral judgements and pronouncements as if they had PhDs in these fields. One person was even comparing slavery in British colonial America to Hinduism in India. Such comparisons get us nowhere in trying to understand Edwards fully so that we can make an accurate assessment as to whether his slaveholding corrupts all of his theology.
The bottom line for me is this: I am not going to condemn someone who reads, enjoys, learn from and grows spiritual from Edwards. I would recommend some of his writings. I am sure Thomas disagrees, and he has that right. He blasts his content all over Twitter as a “public theologians.” Perhaps that is his calling. I respond to him as a Christian public historian. That is my calling.
But there is more. Thomas suggests that my position represents the white moderates that Martin Luther King wrote to in the Letter to the Birmingham Jail, a document I have taught to Messiah University students for two decades. I’d encourage Thomas to read the last chapter of my Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump; my review of Gary Dorrien’s Breaking White Supremacy; and my reflection in the wake of race-related shootings in the summer of 2016. Or since he and another of his Twitter buddies told me I should read the 1619 Project, I encourage him to read this piece or this interview.
In the end, Thomas and his supporters in this debate are the mirror image of the Christian Right. Both have simplistic and shallow view of history. Both fail to understand the complexity of human life and thought. Both have a fundamentalist sense of certainty that seems to see through a glass clearly instead of darkly.
The good news is that people like Thomas are fighting injustice around the world. The Christian Right seems to be only interested in power.