How Could Jonathan Edwards Own Slaves?

Wrestling with the History of a Hero

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Founder & Teacher,

When I gave the inaugural biographical message of the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors in 1988 on the life of Jonathan Edwards, I had never heard that Edwards owned slaves,1 nor that he pushed back against those who opposed slaveownership while themselves benefiting from slavery.2 I had read Edwards diligently for twenty years — all of his major works and many sermons and smaller treatises and letters, plus at least three biographies — but had never noticed anything suggesting he owned a slave. I was surprised.

Some have argued that his slaveholding is not surprising, but rather fits with his view of hierarchy in society — that is, that some people properly have more authoritative roles, while others have more servant roles. George Marsden says, in fact, that “we can consider Edwards’ attitudes toward slavery in the context of his hierarchical assumptions. Nothing separates the early eighteenth-century world from the twenty-first century more than this issue.”3 So in this sense, one could say that his slaveholding was not surprising. Clergy were still among the highest classes, and they took for granted a well-to-do lifestyle. Edwards was no exception, and I doubt that he was sinless in it (any more than I think our own American lifestyles are sinless).

Humble Slaveholder?

But I was still surprised when I learned that Edwards owned slaves. The reason I was surprised is that my immersion in his writings for twenty years had had an effect on me exactly in the opposite direction from class consciousness, or a sense of racial superiority, or a grasping after power, or a craving for esteem, or the expectation of deference, or the need to be served, or the sense that I was owed more than others. It was Edwards, more than any other writer outside the Bible, that God had used to crucify those sinful attitudes in me.

For example, I recall reading Religious Affections in graduate school in Germany and coming under serious conviction of sin. His section titled “Gracious Affections Are Attended with Evangelical Humiliation” peeled away the layers of self-serving in my heart more than anything else I had ever read. It came to a climax with these beautiful lines that filled me with longing to be a humble, loving person:

A truly Christian love, either to God or men, is a humble brokenhearted love. The desires of the saints, however earnest, are humble desires: their hope is an humble hope; and their joy, even when it is unspeakable, and full of glory, is a humble, brokenhearted joy, and leaves the Christian more poor in spirit, and more like a little child, and more disposed to an universal lowliness of behavior.4

“We have almost no direct evidence of Edwards’s attitude and action toward his slaves.”

In my experience of reading Edwards, this demeanor of brokenhearted joy was the effect of his radical God-centeredness. No one had lifted my view of God as high as Edwards had. And as far as I could see, this vision of God served to crush my own bent toward self-exaltation. It was unfathomable to me that anyone should think I was being set up by Edwards to have the mind of a slaveholder.

Masters and Slaves in Christ

I believe that the New Testament ordered human relationships in Christ in such a way as to transform the master-slave relationship into something so different from “owner” and “property” that what remained was no longer recognizable as slavery in the traditional sense. To say it another way, when the New Testament instructions to masters and slaves were obeyed, what was left of the master-slave relationship was not a relationship of owner and property.

For example, these New Testament instructions included the following:

  • Manstealing is condemned (“enslavers” in the ESV, 1 Timothy 1:10), calling into question the source of much slavery.
  • All human beings are created “in the likeness of God” (James 3:9) with implications of respect (1 Peter 2:17).
  • Christians are to do to others as we would have them do to us (Matthew 7:12).
  • Christians are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Mark 12:31).
  • “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10).
  • All Christians “have put on Christ,” so “there is neither slave nor free, . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27–28).
  • As one body in Christ (slave and free), “we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25).
  • “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29).
  • “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:26).
  • “From the Lord [slaves] will receive the inheritance as [their] reward” (Colossians 3:24).
  • In the church, each believer is a “new self,” so there is neither “slave [nor] free” (Colossians 3:9–11).
  • Christ is “in all” believers, slave and free (Colossians 3:11).
  • “He who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:22).5
  • “Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ” (1 Corinthians 7:22).
  • “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Corinthians 7:23).
  • “If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Corinthians 7:21).
  • “Slaves, obey . . . with a sincere heart, as you would Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).
  • “Slaves, obey your earthly masters . . . as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6:5–6).
  • Slaves, keep in mind “that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or is free” (Ephesians 6:8).
  • “Masters, . . . stop your threatening” (Ephesians 6:9).
  • Masters, know “that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (Ephesians 6:9).
  • “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly” (Colossians 4:1).
  • Philemon is to welcome back his runaway slave Onesimus, now a Christian, “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:15–16; Colossians 4:9).

When a Christian slaveowner and a Christian slave obeyed all these teachings, the relationship was radically transformed. The master was transformed from owner to one who was owned by Christ along with his slave. The slave was transformed from property to coheir of Christ with the master.

“For Christians, slavery was only a shell — a social structure whose inner reality was radically new.”

But in spite of all this transformation, the New Testament does not say in so many words, “There are no more master-slave relations in the church.” The roles are so transformed by Christian reality that what they once were is no more. But the social shell seems to remain. Paul addresses masters as “masters” and slaves as “slaves.” Paul does not say to masters directly, “Cease to be in the social position of masters.” Nor does he say to slaves directly, “Cease to be in the social position of slaves,” though he does say, “If you can gain your freedom, do it” (see 1 Corinthians 7:21).

What we might call the social structure (or shell) of this institution is left in place in the New Testament. But for Christians, it was only a shell — a social structure whose inner reality was radically new. So much so that within this community, even if labels persisted, the structure was not what it once was. It was no longer property-owner slavery.

Warranted Wishful Thinking

I do not know how many of the implications of this viewpoint Edwards embraced. We have almost no direct evidence of his attitude and action toward his slaves. In his church, blacks were admitted to full membership.6 He wrote in a note on Job 31:15 in the early 1730s, “In these two things, are contained the most forceable reasons against the master’s abuse of his servant, viz. That both have one Maker, and that their Maker made ’em alike with the same nature.”7 He condemned the African slave trade.8 And according to Kenneth Minkema and Harry Stout, “It was in the logic of Edwards’s ethics and epistemology, rather than in his personal views, that seeds of a unique antislavery ideology would be planted” — most notably through Edwards’s own son, Jonathan Edwards Jr. (1745–1801), “and his most renowned intellectual heir, Samuel Hopkins.”9

I do not know whether Edwards purchased the 14-year-old Venus to rescue her from abuse. I do not know whether she was given care in the Edwards home far above what she could have hoped for under many other circumstances at age 14. I do not know if the boy Titus was similarly bought to rescue him from distress and was then given hope. I do not know if the Edwardses used their upper-class privileges (including the power to purchase slaves) for beneficent purposes toward at-risk black children. The scope of what we do not know is very great.10

If someone says, “Piper, this is just wishful thinking,” my answer is that indeed it is wishful thinking. I do not wish for one of my heroes to be more tarnished than he already is. But perhaps it is not just wishful thinking. My wishes are not baseless, however unlikely they may seem against the backdrop of mid-eighteenth-century attitudes. All I know of the godliness that Edwards taught, and in so many ways modeled, inclines me to wish in just this way. It is the sort of dream that, if it came true, would not surprise me.

Whatever explanation I might give for why Edwards did not see his way clear to the renunciation of slaveowning at his moment in history, one thing I cannot deny: fifty years of reading and pondering Edwards has been for me more heart-humbling, more Christ-exalting, more God-revering, more Bible-illuminating, more righteousness-beckoning, more prayer-sweetening, more missions-advancing, and more love-deepening than any other author outside the Bible. Whether this ought to be the case, I leave for others to judge. That it is the case is undeniable. And for this mercy I give thanks.

  1. The “Receipt for Slave Venus (1731)” can be read in A Jonathan Edwards Reader, ed. John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven: Yale University Press), 296. A reference to “a Negro boy named Titus,” listed as part of Edwards’s estate, can be read in “Jonathan Edwards’s Will and Inventory of His Estate,” Bibliotheca Sacra 33, no. 131 (1876), 446. 

  2. The only writing where Jonathan Edwards expresses his attitude toward contemporary slavery is a series of notes he prepared for a defense of a clergyman against those who criticized him for slaveholding. It can be read in Jonathan Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn and Harry S. Stout, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 16 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 71–76. It is very difficult to follow his thought. Kenneth Minkema gives an interpretation of the document in “Jonathan Edwards on Slavery and the Slave Trade,” in The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 4 (October 1997), 823–34. 

  3. George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 255. 

  4. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith and Harry S. Stout, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 339–40. 

  5. In this verse, and in the remainder of the list, I have translated the Greek word doulos as “slave” rather than the ESV’s “bondservant.” 

  6. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 258. 

  7. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 258. 

  8. Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, 72. 

  9. Kenneth Minkema and Harry Stout, “The Edwardsean Tradition and the Antislavery Debate, 1740–1865,” in The Journal of American History 92, no. 1 (June 2005), 49–51. 

  10. This ignorance would apply to most circumstances surrounding the other slaves (as many as five) who may have passed through Edwards’s home. For the most detailed accounting, see Minkema, “Jonathan Edwards on Slavery and the Slave Trade.”