How to Evaluate the Sins of Jonathan Edwards, the Slave Trader

I submitted my first paper proposal to the Evangelical Theological Society this past year. My paper was not accepted which, I am told, is not uncommon. I intended to write on the problem of Jonathan Edwards as a participant in the North Atlantic slave trade. How does the Christian historian evaluate such a complex problem?

Here was my proposal:

“Do we need to mention that Jonathan Edwards was a slave owner anytime we discuss him today?” The question, asked to me at a church men’s gathering convened around the topic of “Why the Church Needs History,” arose from honest struggling with a weighty problem. In a context where statues are being toppled, buildings are being renamed, and careers are being ruined over past transgressions, it is natural to wonder whether certain historical wrongs deserve “scarlet letter” status. Of course, the scarlet letter sin in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel was adultery. Hawthorne’s fictional New England Puritans would not tolerate the presence of sexual deviance in their midst and chose the course of perpetual public humiliation for the story’s protagonist, Hester Prynne. The dignified adulteress of Hawthorne’s fictional world would forever be identified with her moral lapse. While the premise of Hawthorne’s masterpiece seems comical today, the reason for present-day incredulity has nothing to do with the method of punishment and everything to do with the particular sin. Sexual immorality no longer offends, but the appetite to perpetually punish past wrongs endures. A metaphorical scarlet letter must still be worn, even by the dead, provided that it is a scarlet letter approved by contemporary society.

Such compulsions give the question of how to evaluate the moral failures of the dead particular relevancy. One approach whitewashes the moral wrongs of historical figures, mistakenly believing that moral innocence must accompany celebration of accomplishment. Recently, for example, President Trump commissioned the “1776 Report,” which minimizes the role of America’s founders in perpetuating slavery. However, also problematic is the practice of minimizing historical nuance by flattening every era under the evaluative moral rubric of the current moment. Consider, for example, the recent debate at Princeton University over buildings named in honor of President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson maintained a policy of racial segregation within his administration, and several historians invited by the university to offer opinions on the issue level its complexity by interpreting Wilson’s accomplishments through the single lens of his racism. In contrast, the Christian historian is called to the complex task of compassionately telling the truth about the past to the contemporary neighbor while simultaneously, in the words of Beth Barton Schweiger, extending the call of neighbor love to the dead. This call has been modelled by evangelical historian Thomas S. Kidd, to name just one example, in his treatment of George Whitefield. This paper will follow such an approach by applying what Alan Jacobs has called a “hermeneutics of love” to the case of Jonathan Edwards, the slave owner. While Jacobs encourages loving engagement with literary texts, the call for charity, humility, and justice applies no less to subjects of historical research.

I never wrote the paper, but I was thrilled to see Carl Trueman take up the same theme this past week in First Things. Trueman is a first-rate scholar and writer, and this article is no exception. He turns the tables on modern-day readers and asks us to consider why our injustices are more palatable than those of dead historical figures. It is definitely worth reading.

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