Let him who is without sin be the first…
A Christian historiography precludes us from hero worship as well as playing the role of a hangman.
From John Witherspoon to the faces on Mt. Rushmore, our society has become more prone to canceling historical titans within the American historical tradition. Their sins are too grievous—their lives too stained to deserve commendation and honor. The moves against Witherspoon and Mt. Rushmore join a growing list of canceled figures from our history who have been weighed, measured, and been found wanting by some within our culture.
In recent days, Jonathan Edwards has come under similar crosshairs for his seemingly harsh theology and his views on slavery. Considering whether to cancel Edwards provides an important lesson for Christians on the issue of historical thinking. As I tell my students on the first day of class, developing a biblical lens of how to view the past will aid Christians wherever the Lord calls them. We need to know how to deal with the past and the myriad of historical actors whose stories perennially surface in our public discourse.
Edwards and Slavery
A critic of Jonathan Edwards recently posted that because of Edwards’s views on slavery, the Great Awakening preacher and herald of the gospel is “most likely in hell.” The reason given for this serious pronouncement of judgment stems from Edwards’s lack of repentance on the issue of slavery. As such, Edwards’s conversion, lifetime of gospel ministry, and the fruit of his reliance upon God’s saving grace in Christ stood as mere facades of a man clearly lost and now under the full weight of God’s eternal wrath and condemnation.
I, for one, am glad that this critic is not God and that the “gospel” he espouses is not the true gospel of redemption and salvation in Christ.
According to the critic, evangelicals who appreciate Edwards and his theology must necessarily “defend the wickedness of slavery and treat it as if it was just some standard sinful practice.” To look upon Edwards’s life and teachings with favor is to think that “slavery wasn’t that big of a deal.” I’m not aware of a single admirer of Edwards who has said anything even remotely close to this.
But herein lay the historical lessons for Christians as we contemplate the life of someone like Jonathan Edwards. First, Edwards’s writings do not shed much light on his views of slavery—he did not record much about the institution, making it difficult to preemptively condemn him to hell. This is a lesson in looking to historical evidence; even under conditions where plentiful evidence may exist, historians (and especially Christians) must progress with epistemological humility. We are, after all, telling a story and reconstructing a narrative that happened hundreds of years ago. We sometimes have difficulty recalling something that happened directly to us yesterday, let alone a story that occurred centuries ago. We weren’t there; and, as the British novelist L.P. Hartley argued, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
Second, while his expressed views on the institution are scant, Edwards did indeed own slaves throughout his life. He defended the institution, to a degree, if “they were treated humanely.” He exhorted anyone who owned slaves to abide by the ethics outlined in biblical passages from the Old and New Testaments and reminded his readers of the God-given equality that existed between the owner and the slave—the equality of the image of God. Yet, as he progressed through life, he opposed the slave trade, condemning it and anyone who used the Bible to support it. Historians have noted that Edwards stood as an “important transitional figure in the development of abolitionism.” Several of his students, including his son and Samuel Hopkins, who became vocal and leading figures in the abolitionist movement, leaned into Edwards’s ethics, which planted the “seeds of a unique antislavery ideology.”
From these observations come at least two historical lessons for Christians: the importance of context and the reality of change over time. First, we must give attention to context, which presses us towards the virtues of grace, patience, and humility. This does not mean that we excuse or whitewash glaring sins and wickedness. Indeed, a Christian view of history cannot adhere hero worship. A hagiographic historiography is a degrading and sickening approach to the past because it veils the truth. By obfuscating the facts—in this case, that Edwards owned slaves and, to an extent, defended its existence—Christians miss perhaps one of the most important lessons that history teaches us: it humanizes us, reminding us of the continued effects of the Fall that ought to press us towards a heightened reliance upon God’s grace and mercy.
While attending to context does not condone the whitewashing of history, it also prevents us from playing the role of hangmen—of fancying ourselves capable of being a divine judge, condemning people to eternal torment and wrath. Edwards lived during a time of widespread acceptance of slavery. Despite this, he articulated clear ethics regarding treatment while calling for the end of the slave trade. Again, none of this excuses his views or makes light of slavery. Context ought, however, to inculcate within us grace and humility. It ought to dissuade us against an unreasoned and uncharitable denunciation that usually arises out of chronological chauvinism.
The second lesson I mentioned was change over time—an important principle for a proper Christian historical hermeneutic. Change over time requires hard work, which makes ignoring it a particular temptation amongst would be historians. A cherry-picked quote, or reliance upon one document to draw a host of historical conclusions is, after all, a much easier path than the hard work of deep historical study and inquiry. This kind of chronological laziness has less to do with presenting a truthful historical narrative than it does with trying to score cheap political points. Observing Edwards’s views as they changed over time—or any historical subject for that matter—is a laborious endeavor that tries to trace the development of an idea over decades.
It’s not easy, but paying close attention to context and change over time is the way Christians ought to approach the past. I for one wouldn’t want the sum of my life, or a judgment about my eternal state, reduced to a brief snapshot of a moment during my time on earth. God does not deal with us this way. Perhaps, then, we should exercise a bit more caution when dealing with figures from the past, especially those who professed Christ, clearly articulated the gospel, understood his own wretched state, and continually relied upon Jesus Christ as the only fount of righteousness and hope.
Spiders, Fire, and Wrath
The second attempt to cancel Edwards came from Beth Moore. Her issue, however, had nothing to do with slavery or Edwards’s ethics, but his theology. “For the life of me,” she opined, “I don’t get the appeal of Jonathan Edwards.” As she continued, the object of her ire was Edwards’s (in)famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
In that sermon, Edwards went into horrifying detail about the wrath of God against sin and sinners. Edwards preached, “The black clouds of God’s wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm, and big with thunder; and were it not for the restraining hand of God, it would immediately burst forth upon you.” The particular passage that Moore chided was when Edwards proclaimed to his audience, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as the one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire.”
Moore went on to detail how Edwards’s message, by her estimation, contradicted the sentimentalized gospel that she knows and proclaims. In contradistinction to Edwards, Moore stated, “But I have Jesus. . . . I’ve got nothing if I don’t have strong feelings. I’ve got nothing if I don’t have Jesus.”
As of writing this article, Moore’s twitter thread against Edwards has been viewed over 1,000,000 times. It also abounds with erroneous ways that Christians ought to deal with the past, especially those that belong to the household of faith. We should reconsider Edwards’s sermon for the following reasons.
First, context is key. Edwards preached this message in a particular historical moment. New England had experienced a spiritual decay over several decades before Edwards came to the scene. The invention of the Half-Way Covenant, and the innovation of Stoddardism, created religious conditions in New England that stifled authentic conversion, repentance, and faith. It lulled folks in New England into a false sense of security—that they enjoyed Christ’s atoning work on the cross simply because of their birth and baptism as infants.
Edwards loathed this spiritually cold context and preached an appropriate message in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” calling his audience to wake up from their slumber. This context is vital in understanding why this message was needed; it was a pastoral determination from a man who knew his time and place far better than I, or any of us. Before passing judgment, understand his context.
Secondly, read the whole sermon. Towards the end, Edwards’s message rang with the promise and hope of the gospel: “And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling, and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners.” His sermon called people to the eternal rest, joy, and life that belong to those who placed their faith in Christ. The language of his text abounds with the cry of a man who knew his own wretched state apart from Christ, beckoning his neighbors to come into the same eternal security of salvation that he himself had received by grace.
Third, place this sermon within the context of his life and ministry. This is a historical lesson in nuance. The one passage cited by Moore is a few lines from one sermon. This ought not define the man nor stand as the corpus of his theology. Indeed, in his sermon, “The Excellency of Christ,” we find Edwards declaring the supreme glory and beauty of King Jesust:
What are you afraid of, that you dare not venture your soul upon Christ? Are you afraid that he cannot save you; that he is not strong enough to conquer the enemies of your soul? What is there that you can desire should be in a Savior, that is not in Christ . . . What excellency is there wanting? What is there that is great or good; what is there that is venerable or winning; what is there that is adorable or endearing; or, what can you think of that would be encouraging, which is not to be found in the person of Christ?
Edwards preached the truth about God’s wrath and his fury against sin. Numerous and specific passages of the Bible populated “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards did not contrive this message, nor base the standard of his preaching on feeling. He drew his message upon the authority of the Bible. Yet, the message of God’s wrath coalesced with Edwards’s clear proclamation of the good news of the gospel. He called men and women to delight in Jesus Christ and mediate upon his infinite, inexhaustible excellency.
Dealing with the past and its complex figures is an important task. The attempts to cancel Edwards should be refuted by Christians. A proper, biblical historiography prohibits us from playing the role of a harsh divine judge. It also allows us, in the case of Edwards, to his theology and his preaching within its context, giving attention to all he had to say about the gospel and salvation.
This will not be the last time Christians face historical questions—quandaries that force us to reconsider our heroes and contemplate the decisions of those who have gone before us. Historical thinking guided by the Bible is a stewardship and an act in Christian discipleship. We had better be guided by sound historical principles lest we find ourselves joining the throng of indignant, self-righteous agitators who have lost sight of the fruit of the Spirit.We all are sinners, and the full burden of our sins has been placed on Jesus Christ. On the Day of judgment, we will plead, as Edwards did throughout his life, for the mercy of God and the satisfaction of his wrath in Christ’s death. That will be our cry and that will be what we crave. This gospel-centered disposition must constrain us as we confront history.
*Image Credit: Wikipedia