Elliot Murphy

Theology of Jonathan Edwards


Short of Perfect


            Writing on Jonathan Edwards, Perry Miller noted that “no one more than Edwards ever insisted that the individual is immersed in a context of time and place.”[1] Historians and students must follow Edward’s own advice whenever studying his life. Context certainly influenced Edwards, especially in regards to slavery in colonial America. The best approach to this question is through Edwards’ own view and limited treatment as seen in a History of Redemption and elsewhere. Edwards understanding of history led him to foresee the end of slavery as an imperfection unfit for the Kingdom of God; however, he failed to take immediate action to implement or ease the condition of slaves around him. Thus, to understand the paradox in Edwards thought on slavery, one must examine contextual evidence on the state of slavery in colonial America, Edwards’ historical view of the characteristics of the coming Kingdom, and his own immediate actions toward slaves.

            Edwards recognized the power context and place holds over the individual in a given time in history, and so one must understand the context of slavery in Colonial America. Slavery came on the heels of the first settlers to New England. Still, the northern colonies never experienced the widespread exposure of slavery that dominated and plagued the southern colonies. By 1680, just over twenty years before Edwards’ birth, only a few hundred slaves lived in New England.[2] The reason for such a small population was a lack of need. Major plantations, staple crops, or lack of workers did not exist in the northern colonies, and labor remained plenty, unlike their counterparts in the south. As an institution, however, northern slavery carried similar elements to that of the south.

            The Puritans possessed indentured servants with white, black and red skin. Only the blacks, and occasionally the red, served for life.[3] From the beginning, race had played a role in the conditions of slavery. Puritans dealt with the issue through laws and treatises, but many of their explanations were ambiguous at best. For example, in 1641 the Puritans of Massachusetts codified slavery. The document stated the following:

            “There shall never be any bond-slavery, villenage or captivitie amongst us; unlesse it be    lawfull captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are      solde to us: and such shalle have the libertyes and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israel concerning such persons doth morally require, provided, this             exempts none from servitude who shall be judged thereto by Authoritie.”[4]

Puritans presented a paradox. Slavery was forbidden for those already in the colonies, but it might be extended toward any outsiders or strangers. In practice this meant Africans or Indians. The way in which Puritans evolved their use of the word “stranger” and “captives” to eventually mean blacks must be understood before examining Jonathan Edwards’ treatment of the issue.

            By the end of the 17th century, slavery had morphed into a practice based largely on race, and justified by religious comparisons. The heathen condition of the blacks seems to have played a significant role in how Puritans treated Africans. For example, as Jordan Winthrop revealed, “in the early years, the English settlers most frequently contrasted themselves with Negroes by the term Christian,” but Winthrop goes on to argue that religious elements were not the sole factor in determining whether one might be enslaved, “…to be Christian was to be civilized rather than barbarous, English rather than African, white rather than black.”[5] In each case, the Puritans saw themselves as physically, spiritually and socially superior. Yet, many of these comparisons presented problems. Spiritual superiority did not justify enslavement, for conversion of blacks and Indians occurred frequently, and was even sought after by those possessing slaves. Thus, Puritan justification and treatment of slavery rested on shaky, uncertain ground in the time leading up to Edwards’ birth. Perhaps the reason for these paradoxes is the scarcity of slaves in New England, where the black population never reached beyond 3%.[6] In Connecticut, the only slaves to be found were in the home of ministers.[7]Amidst these ambiguities, Jonathan Edwards entered the world.

            In an age where slavery remained a minor issue largely ignored, Jonathan Edwards formed his household as most other New England ministers did. This meant everyone under his care must respect the God-ordained hierarchy.[8] Edwards presided over his wife, children, and his slaves. This Bible-derived form of hierarchy served as the cornerstone for all Puritan homes. George Marsden argued that Edwards adopted slavery as a natural off shoot of Puritan views of servitude and dependency.[9]  Scripture provided guidelines for how masters ought to treat their slaves, and masters were expected to follow these rules, but that also meant possessing slaves was not an evil act. Massachusetts law even required slave owners to instruct their slaves in Christian doctrines.[10]  Jonathan Edwards grew up witnessing how a minister ought to treat slaves, for Timothy Edwards, minister and father to Jonathan, owned at least one slave who worked the fields as the patriarch prepared his sermons and studies.[11] Thus, for Timothy and also for Jonathan, owning a salve reinforced their ability to act as ministers and leaders in the Puritan social class, by providing the necessary labor needed to sustain a large family. Available records reveal Jonathan purchased what appears to be his first slave in 1731, while he was serving at Northampton.[12] A decade later, Edwards’ only specific address on slavery emerged.

            Jonathan Edwards defended slavery in only one known instance. Kenneth Minkema offers a full analysis of Edwards’ treatment of the subject. In 1741, during the height of the Great Awakening, Jonathan addressed a topic that was likely a distraction compared to the more important topics of revival and rebirth. Fellow minister Benjamin Doolittle was experiencing a conflict with his congregation in Northfield, Connecticut. Presumably, Doolittle leaned towards the old light faction of Puritan ministers, who were cautious and even critical about the wave of revivals taking places in the 1730’s.[13]  This would put him at odds with Edwards, one of the leading causes for the revivals. The conflict took an unexpected turn, however, when the congregation began accosting Doolittle of owning slaves. Scholars and historians struggle to explain how the issue became such a central role in the problems at Northfield. Minkema suggests that a slave revolt in New York that took place in 1741 may have influenced the response against slavery.[14] After the revolt, mobs in New York seized several blacks and burned them, all the while spreading fears of slave revolt throughout New England.[15] Minkema also suggests that the first anti-slavery writings beginning to emerge in New England influenced the attacks on Doolittle. Whatever the cause, a group of ministers known as the Hampshire Association asked Edwards to provide a defense.

            In his defense of Doolittle, Edwards attacks the hypocrisy of the dissenters and sets the foundation for his beliefs regarding slavery. Edwards’ defended slavery by making similar claims to those outlined in the 1641 Massachusetts law mentioned above. Slavery was justified when limited to war captives, debtors and children of slaves, Edwards argued. Looking to Scripture, Edwards argued that the New Testament did not condemn slavery, and he argued that there was “no other sin generally prevalent that is not expressly mentioned and strictly forbidden.”[16]  This belief allowed Edwards to separate domestic treatment of slaves from the evils he saw taking place in Africa. After justifying domestic slavery, Edwards turned his focus to the African slave trade, condemning it as an actual evil that must be stopped.[17]  Ultimately, Edwards brushed aside the slavery arguments of the Northfield dissenters as actions “only to make disturbances and raise uneasiness among people against their minister to the great wounding of religion.”[18] Perhaps the most telling and informative argument found in his letter for Doolittle, was his allusion to the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth.

            Although his defense for Doolittle suggested an ambivalence towards slavery, Edwards believed slavery would one day vanish. Even in his defense of Doolittle, Edwards looked ahead to a “glorious time” where the Church would enjoy peace before judgment.[19]  Edward’s tendency to look forward played a significant role in how he viewed slavery and the world around him. His massive treatise A History of the Work of Redemption addressed that theme. Before diving into Edwards’ treatment of slavery in his treatise, his view of history must be understood.

            Edwards saw history as a process leading to the culmination of Christ’s kingdom on earth. Perry Miller noted that Edwards treated A History… as his summa for explaining all events leading up to the coming of Christ.[20] The work began at creation and ran through “all parts of the grand scheme, in their historical order.”[21]  It would present an orderly narrative of God’s work and purpose on earth. The work would show “the admirable contexture and harmony of the whole” of Scripture and divine doctrine. History was not random or merely sequential, Edwards argued. Instead, every event was connected and meant to bring about the end for which God sought. This avoided a simplistic view of history relying on causation and effect, where one event determined the next. He does allow for causation, but only under a “grand conception” of history, where all events fall under “a scheme of causation.” In this scheme all phases “are parts of one scheme.”[22] Miller explains,

            “Edwards found the determination of this order…outside the sequence and yet presiding over it, not accruing step by step as though each event chose its own effect…The order is       an instantaneous concept; translated into time it becomes the historical record, and in this        temporalized fragmentation of the eternal men may read through their senses, for they         can learn by no other means, the idea of the perfect beginning and end.”[23]

Understanding the present was a crucial task that Edwards believed the Church must seek. His philosophy taught that the Church was “capable of actively falling in with the design, and promoting it.”[24] Men could, Edwards argued, understand the significance of events during their time and actively participate in the narrative unfolding around them. Eventually, the efforts of man might be the means by which God ushers in His kingdom. In the culmination of the kingdom, all nations and peoples would exist as equals.

            “It is promised that heathenism shall thus be destroyed in many places.”[25] Edwards began his twenty- seventh sermon in his series A History of the Work of Redemption with that phrase as the subject. He addresses the future fall of Satan, and the glorious triumph of the Gospel, arguing that “the Work of Redemption is a work that God carries on from the fall of man to the end of the world.” Following with Jordan Winthrop’s conclusions on the relation between heathenism and races, such as blacks and Indians, Edwards continued, “Then shall the many nations of Africa, the nations of Negroes and others—heathens that chiefly fill that quarter of the world…be enlightened with glorious light, and delivered from all their darkness, and shall become a civil, Christian and an understanding and holy people.”[26] At present, Edwards believed the savage condition in Africa evidenced Satan’s sway over them, manifested by ignorance, backwardness, darkness and a lack of civilization. Edwards, however, saw an immediate and universal end coming for that darkened state of existence, for the kingdom of Christ would “extend to all nations and the whole earth.”[27] Hence, one of the characteristics of the kingdom would be a universal acceptance of the Gospel by all nations. At this point, one might rightly ask whether Edwards believed slavery might disappear in the kingdom of God.  It does not seem so, for Edwards’ actions toward slavery suggest that he saw slavery as compatible with the coming kingdom.

            Edwards seemed to allow room for slavery in the coming kingdom of Christ. One must not forget Edwards’ treatment of slavery in the Doolittle case, for in that argument Edwards’ view of coming redemption is evident in his condemnation of the slave trade as something unfit for the “glorious time” when Christ would reign. Such an evil had no part in the kingdom, Edwards believed, and yet, slavery itself did not seem in need of abolishment. Edwards seemed to reflect the Puritan acceptance of slavery as under God’s providential design. Edwards revealed this sentiment when discussing the Cain and Able story: “the difference which God’s grace makes doth no alter the distinctions which God’s providence makes, but preserves them, and obliges us to do the duty which results from them…believing servants must be obedient to unbelieving masters.”[28]  Providence granted every man his station in life. Grace was available to all, but grace did not undo the man’s political or social position. Undoing a man’s position might mean taking a stand against the providence of God. This seems one of few available explanations of why Jonathan Edwards owned slaves. Although he remains responsible for his actions, Edwards revolutionized the treatment of the slave by the Church.

            Edwards allowed African slaves to become full communicant members at Northampton. Reflecting on Job 31:15, Edwards observed the equality in nature of slave and master, “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.”[29] As beings with similar natures formed in the likeness of their Maker, Edwards forbade any cruelty from master to slave. Although modern readers wonder why Edwards did not proceed in his thinking to ask why two beings with similar natures might own one or the other, it is a remarkable step forward given the philosophy of slavery prevalent at the time. Edwards acted on his belief by allowing slaves to join his Church as full members. He was the first minister at Northampton to ever baptize blacks into the Church as full members.[30] In this instance, Edwards demonstrated his conviction that salvation might be freely given to man no matter the race or social standing. Such an occurrence was a small taste or picture of the coming kingdom of Christ that would eventually initiate all nations and people unto Christ.

            Edwards knew that as long as man lived on earth, he could not completely remove himself from the sin around him. No doubt that belief contributed to his longing for the complete redemption of the world to come with Christ’s return. Yet, under his roof he allowed fellow humans he saw as spiritually equal to be completely subservient to his wishes. It is no question that Edwards would have immediately freed his slaves had he seen it as a sin to own them, and indeed, his son, Jonathan Edwards Jr., did raise the banner against slavery in the years following his father’s death.[31] Perhaps it is best to look at the question in terms of Edwards’ view of history. Perry Miller explained: “The systole and diastole of time is like that within the person: it ‘has its ups and downs,’ but all the while, ‘in general, grace is growing…’ A declension, thus, should be interpreted as a preparation for the next and greater exertion.”[32] Jonathan Edwards lived in a time where Negroes were in the trough, the downs of history. Soon, however, and from Edwards’ own loins, came voices that would declare political, social and spiritual equality of all men, a growth of grace, a greater exertion.





[1] Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1949), xv

[2] Jordan Winthrop, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 66

[3] Winthrop, White Over Black, 66-67

[4] Max Farrand, ed., The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts (Cambridge, Mass., 1929), 4

[5] Winthrop, White Over Black, 96

[6] Winthrop, White Over Black 103

[7] Winthrop, White Over Black, 103

[8] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 19

[9] Marsden, 256

[10] Minkema, Kenneth P. "Jonathan Edward's Defense of Slavery." The Massachusetts Historical Review 4 (2009): 1-            2. Print.

[11] Minkema, 7

[12] Marsden, 255

[13] Minkema, 8

[14] Minkema, 9

[15] Marsden, 257

[16] Marsden 257

[17] Minkema, 12

[18] Marsden, 256

[19] Minkema, 11

[20] Miller Perry,  Jonathan Edwards (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1949), 307

[21] Miller, 308

[22] Miller, 313-314

[23] Miller, 314

[24] Miller, 312

[25] Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption ed. John F. Wilson, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 471

[26] Edwards, 472

[27] Edwards, 473

[28] Jonathan Edwards, Notes on Scripture ed. Stephen Stein (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 327

[29] Jonathan Edwards, Miscellaneous Observations on the Holy Scriptures (Interleaved Bible), Beincke, as seen in     Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 258

[30] Minkema, 19

[31] Minkema, 21

[32] Miller, 315