The Evangelical Legacy of Slavery in Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield

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Pub Date 18 Jun 2024 | Archive Date 18 Jul 2024

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Men of their time?

Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield were the three most prominent early evangelicals—and all three were deeply compromised on the issue of slavery. Edwards and Whitefield both kept slaves themselves, and Wesley failed to speak out against slavery until near the end of his life.

In Ownership, Sean McGever tells the true story of these men's relationships to slavery: a story that has too often been passed over or buried in scholarly literature. Laying out the dominant attitudes among Christians toward slavery at the time, McGever sets these "men of their times" in their own context, inviting us to learn how these shapers of American evangelicalism contributed to the tragic history of racism in America. He also explores how Christians finally began to recognize that slavery, which they'd excused for most of Christian history, is actually wrong. It's a story that white evangelicals must wrestle with today.

Ownership is more than a book of history. It's an invitation to examine our own legacies and to understand—and take ownership of—both our heritage and our own part in the story.

Men of their time?

Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield were the three most prominent early evangelicals—and all three were deeply compromised on the issue of slavery. Edwards and...

Advance Praise

"This book is a gem! Sean McGever addresses an issue of continuing vital importance based on broad-ranging research and engaged in an evenhanded manner with pastoral sensitivity. He models the all-too-uncommon stance in our times of humbly 'owning' the traditions within which each of us is shaped—while calling our communities toward ever-greater faithfulness to the God whose mercy is over all God's works."

-Randy L. Maddox, William Kellon Quick Emeritus Professor of Wesley and Methodist Studies at Duke Divinity School

"Among the tragic inheritances of the English Dissenters in America are the oppressive inequities they built and perpetuated around race and ethnicity, the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, and the condoning and expansion of enslavement. If Whitefield, Wesley, and Edwards were not 'founding fathers' of the United States, they were spiritual founders of America's evangelical tradition. These figures' involvement in, support for, or silence about the sin of slavery need to be confronted and owned without attempts to make excuses for them. McGever's work is part of the critical work of reassessing claims about our origins as a 'Christian nation.'"

-Kenneth P. Minkema, Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University

"This book is unusually well researched (showing that Wesley, Edwards, and Whitefield actively or passively supported slavery even after Quaker Bible believers had published solid arguments showing the system's evil). It is patiently argued (bending over backward to explain charitably why these landmark evangelicals acted as they did). It is also painstakingly self-reflective (asking, If we condemn earlier Christians for unthinking support of their society's evil, what evils might we be supporting unthinkingly today?). The result is unusual clarity about the past and, even more, a compelling imperative for examining our own lives today."

-Mark Noll, author of America's Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794–1911

"This carefully researched book invites evangelicals as well as all Protestants to consider the tragic positions that Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley held on slavery. While Wesley eventually condemned slavery, it was due to the influence of the Quakers and after both Edwards and Whitefield had died. Sean McGever is to be commended for his convicting treatment that not only challenges readers that all heroes of the church are redeemed sinners but also shows how we have perception gaps and may be missing issues that will look obvious to future Christians. This book deserves a wide circulation to foster the needed conversations for our current day."

-Tom Schwanda, author of The Emergence of Evangelical Spirituality: The Age of Edwards, Newton, and Whitefield

"In this revealing book, Sean McGever sensitively delves into the complicated history of the relationship between evangelical Christianity and slavery by examining the lives and words of its three renowned founders: John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards Sr. A trumpet call for American Christians to honestly examine history, it is a must-read for all evangelicals who wish to confront the legacy of slavery and racism in our society today."

-Manisha Sinha, Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut and author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition

"Sean McGever offers a comprehensive account of the extent to which these celebrated religious figures practiced or accepted the enslavement of Africans. While not excusing them as 'men of their time,' McGever reminds us that, instead of feeling self-righteous, we should consider the moral perception gaps that we may have today."

-George Marsden, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of An Infinite Fountain of Light: Jonathan Edwards for the Twenty-First Century

"Sean McGever's Ownership offers a timely discussion of a most perplexing issue: early evangelicals' involvement with slavery. McGever's thought-provoking analysis is thoroughly historical, and yet it also considers how Christians today can apply such difficult lessons from the past."

-Thomas S. Kidd, research professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

"This book is a gem! Sean McGever addresses an issue of continuing vital importance based on broad-ranging research and engaged in an evenhanded manner with pastoral sensitivity. He models the...

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Featured Reviews

I am not a Christian, but I am someone who is very interested in the moral "blind spots" we may have. History shows us that many otherwise decent people do things that would horrify us today and, as McGever points out, it's silly for us to think that future generations won't be astonished by some of the things that we condone today. His specific interest is in how three prominent early evangelicals approached chattel slavery. Edwards and Whitefield both owned other humans. Wesley's opposed slavery, but only towards the end of his life.

Without ever excusing their profound failures, McGever explores the world into which these men were born. The end result is that we may be prompted to think about how the world we were born into may be leading us to faulty moral conclusions (and in fact, this prompting is made explicit in the final chapter, which is designed for Christian reflection, but also gave me a great deal to think about).

I think the target audience -- white evangelical Christians -- will find this book both interesting and useful, especially if their spiritual or intellectual life hasn't included much reflection on slavery, race, or discrimination. But even if you fall outside this group, you may find this book worthwhile. McGever is a good writer, has an excellent understanding of the lives of these fascinating men, and the topic is something I think we all could benefit from thinking about.

I received a copy of this book from Net Galley.

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