Jonathan Edwards owned slaves.

I didn’t know that, and I am grateful for a blogger who pointed that out to me. While researching the story, I came upon a Q and A by a modern Jonathan Edwards (in the sense of being an influential theologian), John Piper. What follows is the unedited dialogue between pastor John and his sincere questioner:

Pastor John, it appears that 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards and his wife owned household and farming slaves, perhaps as many as 6 total, and seem to have owned at least one slave at all times, even up until Jonathan’s death (Marsden, 255). How does his slaveholding factor into your evaluation Jonathan Edwards’ theological legacy?

“Instead of trying to explain how it could be, I think the most helpful thing to do at this point would be to just to answer the question: ‘Ok, what effect does this have on you, you lover of Edwards. What difference does that make to you? Does that effect you at all?’ And here are four or five responses or effects that it has on me.

Number one, it warns me not to idolize or idealize any man except Jesus. Something is going to show up and disillusion me if I pick out a dead man or a living man as somebody that I am going to idealize. There is no ideal man, except Jesus. So that is the first thing. It is a warning to measure my admiration carefully.

Number two, it cautions me that if he had blind spots on that issue, he may well have had blind spots on other issues, which means that I am going to now read with some more care. I think our vigilance in reading is heightened when we know that a man has blown it in one area. We say, ‘Well, we have got a fallible man on our hands here. Therefore, we will now read with some special vigilance lest we be sucked in to approving everything that he says on any issue at all.’ So let it have a salutary and cautioning effect on how we read an author, including Edwards.

Third, it makes me marvel that God uses any of us. I have documented numerous of my besetting sins. I came back to Bethlehem and I can go listen to this sermon after my eight-month leave in which I had done a lot of soul searching. And I think in the sermon I gave to the BCS chapel, in Act the Miracle, and one in the church, I tried to describe the most recurrent sins of John Piper. It was a very sobering season for me and I simply have to marvel that, number one, I survived 33 years in pastorate as an imperfect man and that God gives me. I didn’t just survive. I loved it. And the people by and large, I think, loved me. And God did some good and I know those sins better than anybody except maybe Noel. So I am not quick to point my finger at Edwards, but I am quick to marvel that he was used, and I have been used, and I am amazed.

“Number four, Edwards’ failure in that regard teaches me that sanctification has blank spots like knowledge has blind spots. Here is what I mean. We can be making good progress in five areas of our lives and doing badly in a sixth area—a blank area where the Holy Spirit for some reason isn’t exerting all the power that he could and we are resistant and still holding on to some sin. And we can be knowing rightly in five areas, and be mistaken in a sixth area. So what I see in Edwards’ failure here is a reminder that not only does knowledge have blind spots, sanctification has blank spots, and all of us should, there-fore, search our lives, instead of just congratulating ourselves on the four areas of progress. Look at that fifth or sixth area that is still such a mess in our lives and pray and appropriate the gospel and the grace of God to fight it.

And here is one more. Edwards’ failure here makes me pray for light on my life and on my day. What are my blind spots? What are my days, my church’s, blind spots? What is the church blind to today that in 200 years the godly will look back and say, ‘How could they possibly have done that or believed that or let that happen or go that way?’ And so, given how amazingly godly Edwards was, I do not presume that any level of sanctification I attain in this life means there is not something else to be ferreted out. ‘Keep your servant back from presumptuous sins and cleanse me of hidden faults,’ Psalm 19 prays.

“So I hope that the flaws of my greatest teachers—and Jonathan Edwards is about the greatest—will do me good in the end, and I hope we don’t have to hide them in order to realize they can serve us.

My own final thought here was reached quite independently of what pastor John has written: The more perfect someone seems on the outside–their persona–oftentimes the more blind they are to their own flaws. In blinding others, they blind themselves.

Author: iamcurmudgeon

When I began this blog, I was a 70 year old man, with a young mind and a body trying to recover from a stroke, and my purpose for this whole blog thing is to provoke thinking, to ridicule reflex reaction, and provide a legacy to my children.

2 thoughts on “Jonathan Edwards owned slaves.”

  1. Love Piper’s weakness and openness about his own failures. He went up in my estimation as a source of life and truth. Would have gone up more if there had been a specific acknowledgement of individual, specific sins!


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