I’ve seen many people on the internet create memes of the sayings of Jonathan Edwards, but haven’t yet run across the quote above in a meme. Before we get on with this project, perhaps I should give a little more information about my worldview. In spiritual matters, a good shorthand for my beliefs would be Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. In political matters, I’m a fan of neither the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 nor the treadmills inspired by the English Poor Laws. As I said before, I’ve got a thumb drive with about 200 books of sermons from pastors, or diaries of famous missionaries. It’s quite possible in this collection, there’s someone who disagreed with Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (I actually intentionally put some Pope Leo X sermons on the drive!). In perusing the material, I already know that I’ve seen a few things I strongly disagree with on matters of charity — I found a paragraph in favor of eugenics laws from one famous theologian. But this project is not a collection of resumes, it is not a celebration of the lifestyles of the rich and holy. This is a blog about ways we can pray for those suffering. We’ll use quotes from revered, famous, and even ordinary Christian leaders from history that remind us to act justly.
It is well-known that Jonathan Edwards, an 18th century revivalist, owned slaves. This is why books celebrating the lives of the saints drive me crazy. There is no way slavery was in any way “kind to the needy”. There were assaults to one’s dignity, body, virtue, mind, etc. If you keep reading this blog, you’ll run across many more of these assaults, detailed here with one vocabulary word at a time! There is a conflict here between Edwards’ “Be kind to the needy” (a profession of a humanitarian element of God’s law) and slaveholding. He neglected “one of the greater and most essential duties of religion.” How do we deal with this conflict?
One way is to minimize the outrage (“He taught his slaves to read, what a guy!”), or to say it’s fine to commit rapine or advocate genocide as long as you were “a man of your time”. If that’s the Christian message, let me off right here. It gets crazier if one also holds to a theology of required basic holiness. You either have to consign Edwards to hell for violating the holiness, or make slaveholding some sort of godly vocation, perhaps an (involuntary) literacy program.
There is another way. One can hold Edwards feet to the fire as a raving hypocrite, as one in open, rebellious, unrepentant sin, as one who also taught others to do likewise. What can we do? Perhaps there is some hope in the 25th and 26th theses of Luther’s Disputation.
He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
The law says, ‘do this’, and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this’, and everything is already done.
The law surely wasn’t done by Edwards. It would be an insult to his slaves to say his works of preaching made up for the slavery, and so we’re all good. Judging by the internet memes of Edwards’ contemporary fans, he didn’t even inspire any focus on being “kind to the needy” today. Anything he did standing up in front of people was at best a filthy, blood-stained rag. He has no hope outside the gospel. I have no hope outside the gospel. This blog itself may do more to offend more than help the suffering masses.
Under this light of the gospel, we sinners can gather together to thank the Lord for a wondrous salvation, not focus on either the polished chrome or the skeletons in each others’ resumes, but focus on a “3rd use of the Law” in how we might serve this risen Saviour together. Edwards reminds us to be kind to the needy.
PRAYER: Help us find ways to be kind to the needy. Help us look out especially for those whose status in life has “waxen”, and thus may be surprised by a new, low state. Forgive us when we fail, and keep us from either pride in our sufficient goodness nor despair in our inevitable and continued wallowing in sin. We thank you for witnesses like Jonathan Edwards for the times he pointed to You and helped us consider Your will. Forgive us for slavery and any complacency we have with situations where people are abused or treated unfairly. Forgive us for our “tone-deafness” when we tout not just the sermons but also the lifestyles or “faithfulness” of historical Christians who were involved in great evils. AMEN.