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Some wise perspective from historian Thomas Kidd:

-Reformed Christians, of all people, will understand that we are all sinners, and that sin imparts a disappointingly narrow vision about our own failings. It is very difficult for people morally to think “outside the box,” even with regard to barbarous practices such as the Atlantic slave trade and slave owning. We should all humbly realize, when criticizing slave owners, that if we were born into a white slave owning family in colonial or antebellum America, we almost certainly would have died as a slaveholder, too. There were exceptional slave holders who “saw the light,” sometimes via Christian conversion (a la John Newton), but not as many as we would like, especially in the American South.

-We do no service to forefathers such as Edwards or Whitefield — or, in a different strain, George Washington or Patrick Henry — by downplaying their complicity in this ugly, brutal institution. History that hides or explains away issues such as slavery can be misleading and dishonest. It can open fresh wounds for those whose ancestors were enslaved.

-We should recognize our very human need for heroes, exemplars of virtue and piety whom we can seek to imitate. The Puritans, and the leading preachers of the Great Awakening, can help put the riches of the Reformed and evangelical tradition in stark relief against the shallowness that all too often marks today’s pop Christian culture.  Yet we should never expect perfection from those heroes: we find phenomenal strengths in some areas, and disturbing blind spots in others. Realistic, flawed heroes are, in a sense, more edifying anyway: if God used “crooked sticks” in the past, then perhaps he can use me, too.

-American Christians should broaden their list of heroes, not only for historical breadth, but in this case to celebrate those Christians who resisted and spoke out against slavery. For evangelicals, two obvious choices are Lemuel Haynes and David George.

Even the Bible tells of no mere human perfect heroes. David, Peter, and Paul are excellent examples of godly men who committed terrible sins. The Christian faith has only one perfect hero. He is our proper object, not just of emulation, but of worship. We all fall far, far short of his example.

You can read the whole thing here, along with other links to the discussion of Propaganda’s “Precious Puritans” song.

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7 thoughts on “Historical Heroes and Slavery”

  1. Gavin White says:

    Given that you cannot change the past I wonder why there seems to be so much angst and hand-wringing about the (so-called) sins of the Puritans. They had a world view and system of belief that sustained them in their own times. Some thought slavery was allowable, others worked to abolish it. I note on the Pure Church blog that Abraham Lincoln is the latest target.

    Just as you can’t change the past, equally you cannot apologise for the perceived sins of others. We will each answer for our own sins and “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. (Hint: be salt and light in your own setting)

  2. Susan says:

    What about Granville Sharp?? He greatly influenced William Wilberforce in the fight against slavery in England. Read here, starting at page 31, on the Amazon site (“A short life of Granville Sharp”):

  3. It is easy for us to see the speck in their eyes while ignoring the log in our own.
    I don’t say that to minimize their sin. It was a great sin. But so are ours. We can’t repent of theirs, but can repent of ours.
    I don’t say that to cover up their sin. I say it because we act self-righteously toward them, as if we didn’t have serious skeletons in our closets too.

  4. Brad Moore says:

    Does this issue bring up this question: Can a Christian be unrepentant of sin and still be a true Christian? And if so, what does this say of self-described Christians who condone homosexuality?

    I think this deserves serious thought. It’s a question I have. And I certainly do NOT condone homosexuality.

    Grace and Peace.

  5. Roberto G says:

    Can someone tell me what Puritans were chaplains on slave ships?

  6. There is a difference between a cultural blindspot, which you don’t see and therefore do not repent, and a controversial practice (at that time) over which there is great debate. At least I see one.
    Sadly, there was not much debate on the subject until the 1800’s. Too few were those crying out against it.

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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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