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On February 1, 2012, Thabiti Anyabwile spoke at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for an event co-sponsored by the Henry Center and the Jonathan Edwards Center.

Respondents to the lecture were Pastor Louis Love of New Life Fellowship Church, Vernon Hills, and Pastor Charlie Dates of Progressive Baptist Church of Chicago responded to the lecture.

You can download or stream the audio, or stream the video.

You can also download Thabiti’s manuscript as a PDF.

The talk parses the question into five variants:

1. Questioning Edwards the Man

2. Questioning Edwards’ Theology Proper

3. Questioning Edwards’ Theology of Slavery

4. Questioning Edwards’ Ethics

5. Questioning Edwards’ Hermeneutics

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31 thoughts on “Jonathan Edwards and American Racism: Can the Theology of a Slave Owner Be Trusted by Descendants of Slaves?”

  1. Phillip Holmes says:

    Streaming the video isn’t working for some reason. Thanks for posting this Justin.

    1. James says:

      I frankly don’t see a problem with Edwards owning slaves. The Bible does not prohibit slavery, but rather condemns the mistreatment of people. If the slave owner were to treat their slave with charity and kindness and protect them as the bible commands the slave owner to do, then there is nothing wrong with it. It is only when slave owners mistreat, act unkindly and fail to protect the person that slavery becomes wrong. If we are to be biblical in regards to such issues we must look at the scriptures in order to form our opinions. Certainly, we must keep in mind that slavery has been out lawed, but that is not a biblical mandate, it is a human one. I know my opinion won’t be popular, but in my mind Edwards was not going against scripture by having a slave or slaves in his household, providing he acted biblically toward them.

      1. Richard A. Bailey says:

        While I certainly have several issues with the attached talk, I am glad to see people struggling with these issues as they played out in the lives and theologies of New Enlanders. That said, though, slavery based on racial constructions, which was the type in which Edwards participated, was based inherently on the mistreatment of persons, classifying them as essentially and permanently inferior (something Edwards Jr. and Samuel Hopkins belatedly realized in the generations following Edwards). Furthermore, Edwards, as I show in my recent book, wondered specifically whether he personally abused the Africans he enslaved. And more than a few his New England clergy colleagues very clearly abused their slaves physically and psychologically—practices Edwards (especially the latter) was nearly certainly was complicit in.

    2. Steve Murray says:

      I had the same experience as Phillip, the video seems to stop playing after about thirty minutes

  2. Jemar says:

    “Moreover, we must not limit ourselves to the possibility of contextualizing or approaching the biblical text with a hermeneutic approach cognizant of various social, cultural and ethnic presuppositions and needs. We must, in fact, do the contextualizing and give far more generous attention to the various questions and needs begging investigation from the biblical text.”

    This is a brilliant and incisive summary of why we have created the Reformed African American Network (RAAN). Through this organization, we hope to create an online community where we have “space” to contextualize Reformed theology in light of the African American experience. We are excited to have Rev. Reddit Andrews, III (the first full-time African American professor in the Reformed Theological Seminary network) as well as others on board as a regular contributor to the upcoming blog. A full website is coming soon. In the meantime we maintain a Facebook page ( and a Twitter account ( We’ll surely post a link to this article. Thank you Pastor Anyabwile!

  3. CR says:

    Interesting, I did not know Edwards was a slave owner.

  4. This Race Based-Special Interest Theology schism grows abhorrently in the body of Christ, especially in the Reformed community. Frankly, regardless of the earnestness it is a theological/practical approach Scripture does not support.

    So next we need the Reformed Anglo American Network then the Reformed Asian American Network, then the Reformed Latino American Network, then the Reformed Italian American Network…ad nauseum. And if my words seem difficult or lacking charity, the schisms this represents is far more lacking in charity.

    1. Jemar says:

      @Alex–One preliminary question: Are you an ethnic minority in the U.S.? I ask because if you are, then you understand the need for something like the Reformed African American Network (RAAN). If not, then it will be difficult to understand why RAAN and other such groups are necessary. But here are a few reasons why organizations such as this are needed, useful, and not necessarily divisive:

      1) Gathering based on some demographic characteristic is certainly not without precedent. Have you ever been part of a youth group? Has a woman you know participated in a women’s retreat? Have you ever supported missionaries or mission trips to certain parts of the world? Whether it’s age, gender, or nationality Christians have long gathered around similarities. And as with the above examples, they have inherent risks in over-doing it (like all other ideas) but they bring great benefits as well.

      2) Sociologists have a term called the “weathering effect” that is useful here. In geology, when a rock is constantly buffeted by wind, water, and other elemental forces of nature it will slowly wear away. Similarly, ethnic minorities under the constant stress of being a minority get worn down psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. To be the only one of your kind, or one of a few, at work, at school, at the store, and wherever else you may find yourself is exhausting. You ask yourself, “is there ever a time when I can just ‘be me’ without constantly thinking about my race or ethnicity?” The answer is ‘no’ unless you intentionally seek it or create it.

      3) Lastly, folks in the majority culture often think that by being “color-blind” they are eliminating or moving past racism, but we mustn’t do this (see John Piper’s video”Should We be Colorblind About Race?”––2). When Acts 17:26 says “And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place”, ethnicity was certainly included in God’s providential pattern (ethnos [Greek] = ethnicity). To say that ethnic minorities gathering together around ethnicity is “Race Based-Special Interest Theology” is to deny the beautiful diversity that God created and fall into the trap of thinking that unity means uniformity. In addition, as civil rights leader and co-founder of SNCC, Julian Bond, has noted [to be colorblind], is to be blind to the consequences of color, “and especially the consequences of being the wrong color in America.” Christians in the ethnic majority are doing no favors to the body of Christ or advancing justice and mercy in the U.S. when they malign efforts by ethnic minorities to affirm their unique identity as Christians of a certain ethnicity.

      While there is a risk of becoming unnecessarily divisive if folks aren’t careful, the benefits of gathering together as a community to discuss the unique history and experience of that community are great. And on the day when Christ returns, He won’t eliminate ethnicity, He will redeem it. Until then, the Church is the best community to demonstrate how men and women can gather as individual ethnic groups but come together–affirmed and joyful–because of the unity that all Christians share in Christ.

      1. Brian says:

        Excellent and thoughtful comments, Jemar, thanks for this.

      2. No one is denying ethnicity but that is an anthropological property not a spiritual one. You will never over come this problem with the construct of Race Based-Special Interest Theology or its practice. We are a spiritual race, our DNA is Christ and it knows of no such special anthropological interests with respect to spiritual camaraderie.

        But I am going to show you where the greatest flaw in your thinking is. You state:

        “Christians in the ethnic majority are doing no favors to the body of Christ or advancing justice and mercy in the U.S. when they malign efforts by ethnic minorities to affirm their unique identity as Christians of a certain ethnicity.”

        Your unique identity is being “in Christ” and has NOTHING to do with your ethnicity. You are, in fact, rejecting what has been clearly taught, that in Christ there is no more Jew or Greek.

        But more so, there is no such thing as an “Christians in the ethnic majority” as it pertains to the body of Christ. There is not anthropological distinctions, one way or the other. We are all of Christ and of Christ alone. You have assumed an anthropological construct which is not permitted as a valid construct with respect to the spiritual body of Christ. There are only Christians and other Christians.

        1. laura grace says:

          Really? So my unique identity as the descendant of Scots-Irish immigrants to Appalachia shouldn’t be celebrated? I should quit being moved by dulcimer music and mountain tunes because I’m assuming an “anthropological construct which is not permitted”? I should stop identifying myself as Scots-Irish or learning more about my ancestry?

          What about my Cajun friends? Are they no longer allowed to celebrate their unique ethnic background? No more red beans and rice, no more unique Bayou vernacular, no more contextualization to the unique socio-cultural milieu of the coastal South?

          And if I’m allowed to talk about the influence of Scots-Irish immigrants on the religious experience of people from Appalachia, why are African-American believers not allowed to talk about the influence of things like slavery and Jim Crow and the prosperity “gospel” on the religious experience of African Americans?

    2. Justin Taylor says:


      if my words seem . . . lacking charity

      Yes. I think virtually every comment you have offered on this blog is critically oriented. I admire your zeal, but it’s frequently lacking in wisdom, discretion, and charity. You are able to articulate your own words well, but I’m not so confident you spend an equal amount of time trying to understand before you critique. It’s hard for me to imagine that you actually read this article before offering a broad-based accusation of “abhorrent schism.” You comment is long on assertion but with no argument—which will only persuade the gullible or the already-persuaded.

      At the end of the day, I wonder if this is the best blog for you to read (since so much of it seems to frustrate you), or the best place for you to comment (since no one is edifying by drive-by assertions and sweeping accusations of sin).


      1. Yes, dear brother Martin should have just kept his mouth shut and let the Catholic Church be, eh?

        Drive-by? I participate often with my comments. To drive-by means to comment and not return. I accept your apology Justin.

        Frustrated? No, but disappointed sometimes? Yes.

        But am I to read your words as an example of charity seeing you have erringly accused me of drive-by’s and not reading articles when I am not guilty of either. Are you unable to endure challenges Justin? Is this your theology? Really? Are you reduced to merely echoes of your own thoughts?

        But this is your blog, if you want me not to participate say so and I will not. I will happily abide so but do not complain that I speak my mind if I remain invited.

        P.S. Schisms of race are self-evident. The body of Christ forming commencements on racial grounds is rejected by the Word of God and is an elementary bit of doctrine. Need I really argue what is obviously wrong?

        1. mel says:

          It is kind of like saying “I’m over you being black, why aren’t you?” To insist on it doesn’t seem like Christ like love.

        2. Justin Taylor says:

          I accept your apology Justin. This is the kind of immature rhetoric I find frustrating. By “drive-by” I was referring to the nature of leaving an assertion rather than making an argument.

          Are you unable to endure challenges Justin? Anybody can challenge me about anything they want—they do every day, and I rarely say a thing.

          I would just like to see a little more actual argumentation, restraint, wisdom, humility, ability to appreciate what is good even in disagreement, etc.

          1. 3rd Century Prof says:


            Thank you so much for putting the time into keeping the blog up. While I don’t always agree with your positions I greatly appreciate your willingness to enter into dialogue with opposing views. May the Lord pour out continued grace upon you and any family that you may have.

            1. (AsianAmerican) Christian says:

              JT: *Nod*

        3. Marcus Ivy says:

          I’m regrettably late to this discussion, but Alex, let me make sure I understand your argument. You seem to be suggesting that the Word of God and anthropology are mutually exclusive realities.

          But when you say this you are willfully ignoring one of the elementary teachings of Christianity: that God is a Father and Jesus is His Son. Which means there is a gender-based anthropological construct built into the Word of God.

          I’ll back off here because I’m no theologian — I’m wading into water that far exceeds my neckline. But I think you’ve seriously underestimated the intersection between flesh and spirit, and consequently, all of the unique challenges a person can face when they venture to follow the one true faith.

          That’s just my humble opinion.

          1. “You seem to be suggesting that the Word of God and anthropology are mutually exclusive realities.”

            No, you have misunderstood. I have stated, clearly in my 5 part series, “An Examination of Protestant/Evangelical Race Based-Special Interest Theology” that the construct of the body of Christ is spiritual while the other divine institutions are anthropological and these carry explications and implications which must be observed. Their protocols are not the same.

            As far as God the Father and Christ the Son being a gender based construct, it is still not anthropological. It is still spiritual. Just as our relationship to God as his children and he our Father is spiritual, not anthropological.

        4. laura grace says:

          Yes, repeatedly posting the bare assertion fallacy on a blog is exactly like Luther’s stance against the heresies and corruptions of the Medieval church. :\

  5. K says:

    Thanks for highlighting this group (and explaining its necessity), Jemar! I am looking forward to what will come from it!

  6. Tyler says:

    Thank God for RAAN! May your days be long upon the earth.
    –Tyler, a white, southern Presbyterian!

  7. steve hays says:

    Two or quick points:

    i) We shouldn’t “trust” theologians. Rather, we should assess theologians by the quality of their arguments.

    ii) It’s best to treat theologians as a source of spare parts. You don’t have to buy the whole car.

    iii) This illustrates the fact that Edwards was a sinner. He had moral blind spots.

    1. Jesse Gnann says:

      Excellent thoughts, Steve.

    2. Ted Bigelow says:

      Problem is that the theologians don’t present themselves as purveyors of spare parts and would likely scream to be considered as such.

      It would be like saying I love you, but not your theology of Christ. I doubt you would gladly suffer such faint praise. You likely connect your “self” and your morality to your theology, and rightly so. So too must we of Edwards.

      There has been too long an uncritical embrace of Jonathan Edwards in the sense of swallowing him wholesale, and I say that having been enormously influenced by his writings which I have studied for almost 30 years. I also minister the gospel only a few bare miles from where he preached “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God.” It really is OK to not swoon over Edwards :) – no matter what your ethnicity.

      Having said all that, Steve Hays is probably one of the men most like Jonathan Edwards today – brilliant, erudite, theologically nuanced, evangelistic, and passionate. I bet he is also striving with all his heart to put to death his own moral blind spots, as would have Edwards.

    3. Kyle says:

      I don’t wish to restart a closed thread here. I want to just tell Steve that I’m sorry for the way a previous interaction ended and my part in it. I don’t agree with you, I think we both made good points along the way, but I did get tired of certain rhetorical devices you used a lot. I want to clarify one thing I said at the end–that Arminianism LFW does NOT mean people do whatever they want– because I left out the “not” which was pretty important and didn’t have time to clarify before the thread was closed. I would not have posted this here except I had no other way to contact Steve. I’m not asking comment from anyone including Steve. Just wanted to clarify the one thing.

      Thank you to J Edwards. I think he contributed well to our theological heritage although I don’t line up with him on several points. However, I’ve benefited from him on several things. It’s good to take everyone at a critical angle with a great measure of grace.

  8. 3rd Century Prof says:

    I remember hearing Sherard Burns teach on this at a Desiring God Conference on year. He did an excellent job reflecting on Edwards as well. Sure wish I could hear more from men like Thabiti and Sherard. J

  9. Dan. S says:

    Thanks so much for posting this! I watched the video online and it worked really well. I appreciate the Henry Center and the Jonathan Edwards center for hosting this event.

  10. chuck shanks says:

    I am no history professor,but i know that i have heard George Washington was left slaves from his parents.and also the state of virginia where he lived outlawed releasing slaves,a law he was against and saw changed i believe, but i do not know all the facts but do know many use presupposed ideas like a gun.

  11. Michael Snow says:

    The prime issue and warning for us from the Edwards theologian/slave owner issue, imho, is that of our blindness to the spirit of the times. There are just too many sins of Christians that ought never to have been. We can think of Boston Puritans hanging five Quakers, etc.
    Yet, Edwards contemporary, John Wesley, [both born in 1703], spoke out against slavery, his last letter being an encouragement to Wilberforce. And John Woolman was pricked in conscience the first time his employer required him to write a bill-of-sale for a Negro and spent much of his life exhorting Quaker meetings that slave holding was wrong.

    In our own day, we see the zeitgeist deluding Christians to support women pastors, homosexsual ‘marriages,’ abortion, and war.

  12. Jack Brooks says:

    The nature of the question is an error of composition — taking a part as if it were the whole. Trust Edwards’ theology? Which part of his theology? I don’t follow anyone’s theology to the letter. There are large portions of R.L. Dabney’s theology that you can trust, and in fact be saved by. But Dabney’s specific views on slavery were foolish and abhorrent, prime examples of Civil War-era Scripture-twisting. Theology isn’t like a plate full of food –the hot water leaking from the mixed vegetables does not spread over to the chicken croquettes.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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