The following is an expansion of a lecture delivered to Midwestern Seminary students on the recent New England Study Tour at the Old South Church, Newburyport, Massachusetts, which stands today, in part, as an historical monument to George Whitefield and where he is buried “beneath the pulpit.”
What are we to make of evangelicalism’s historical “heroes” who carry with them still a tainted legacy of sin? Such is the question constantly facing the American Church as we contemplate the theological and evangelistic impact of men like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, both of whom owned and, at points, defended the sinful institution of chattel slavery.
Who Was George Whitefield? Was He A Christian?
Both of these men leave behind an incredible record of gospel-rich theology and preaching. There is a reason we still study their work today and why many of us find much in it that edifies and stirs our affections for Christ. Many are reluctant to admit the great sin of these figures, believing that doing so may eradicate their contributions to church history. Many of course readily admit the great sin of these figures for the very purpose of indicting their contributions to church history. Still others assert we must accept all of their contributions, good and bad, as the consequence of honest historical appraisal. We must admit the good and the bad, because both the good and the bad we do leave their own legacies. Certainly the historical evil of slavery continues to impact American society today.
It is common sometimes to hear the defense that these were “men of their times,” as if to apply a kind of ignorance born of their cultural milieu, an unenlightened naiveté, in hopes of seeing their good “outweigh” their bad. But this kind of defense doesn’t work.
In the case of George Whitefield, English evangelist to the American colonies, whose ministry attracted tens of thousands, occasionally in one visit, to hear his extraordinary preaching gift and passionate and dramatic articulation of the grace of God, we find no remedy in “man of his times” ignorance. Early in his ministry, Whitefield spoke out against slavery and against slave-holding. Unlike many of his contemporaries at the time, he expressed concern for the souls of slaves, urging that they not just be treated kindly, but also evangelized, and their children catechized and raised in the church. Which is to say, Whitefield’s earliest expressed positions stand in prophetic witness against his later and longer-held expressed positions. The man knew better.
Something happened or changed in his disposition toward slavery, and it puts him beyond the excuse of simply being a “man of his times.” Perhaps it’s as simple as the growth of his platform. As his popularity grew, so did his prestige and power. Some of his admirers—perhaps in a way to court favor, perhaps out of genuine admiration, perhaps out of a strategy to sway his position—actually gifted him slaves.
Whitefield also began to see the economic advantage in implementing slave labor at his burgeoning orphanage in the Georgia colony. This may be difficult to believe, but Georgia originally did not allow slavery. Whitefield actually advocated for it there. There’s even good evidence that he brought slaves there two years before slavery was legalized! Therfore, Whitefield was not merely a slave-holder or a slavery-advocate—he was instrumental in the institution of slavery in the Georgia colony. He was complicit in this great evil.
How can someone who apparently knew the gospel so well not see his own duplicity? Or, perhaps seeing it, not care? We cannot rightly say this was a “blind spot” in the man’s life because of his contrary views previously. How might we wrestle with the tainted legacy of George Whitefield? Perhaps you’ll allow me a few reflections: