Theology and the Slave Trade

, posted by Kevin Jackson

I was recently reading the blog Ancient Christian Defender. The author Jnorm888 had a provocative post entitled Was Jonathan Edwards a racist?

It is a well known fact that Edwards was a proponent of slavery, and owned slaves himself. Unlike many contemporary slave owners, Edwards did not will freedom to his slaves upon his death. Due to Edward’s position on slavery, there is some division in the African American community today on whether or not he is a person worthy of being honored.

Jnorm’s post triggered some questions in my mind: Did the Calvinistic assumptions of Edward’s theology contribute to his support of slavery? How did prominent Calvinists of the era approach the issue slavery, and how did prominent Arminians address the issue? Was there a difference in their approaches?

I think a difference can be demonstrated. In short, Calvinists of the era were more likely to support the institution slavery, and Arminians of the era were more likely to support abolitionism. For example (Calvinists) Edwards and Whitefield both supported slavery, while (non-Calvinists) Wesley, Asbury, Wilberforce, and Finney all advocated abolishing slavery.

There were some notable exceptions to the examples above – John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”) was a Calvinist and also an abolitionist. And over time many Calvinists joined the abolitionist movement. In fact Jonathan Edwards Jr. fought against slavery. However, it is noteworthy that many of the “trail blazing” abolitionists were from Non-Calvinist backgrounds, and argued against slavery using Arminian theological concepts.

When one looks at the two theological systems, this makes sense. Calvinists focus on the sovereignty of God. Part of that focus is a belief that the world is the way it is because God wants it that way. Thus on the issue of slavery a Calvinist might reasonably argue that slavery is ordained by God and gives Him glory.

Arminians focus on the love of God for all. God cares about each and every person. Each person is of great value, because he is created in the image of God. Thus on the issue of slavery one would expect an Arminian to advocate for the freedom of all, because every person is valuable, and every person is loved by God.

We see this Arminian heart in the abolitionist writings of John Wesley. Notice how he used Arminian concepts of God to advocate on behalf of the slave:

O thou God of love, thou who art loving to every man, and whose mercy is over all thy works; thou who art the Father of the spirits of all flesh, and who art rich in mercy unto all; thou who hast mingled of one blood all the nations upon earth; have compassion upon these outcasts of men, who are trodden down as dung upon the earth! Arise, and help these that have no helper, whose blood is spilt upon the ground like water! Are not these also the work of thine own hands, the purchase of thy Son’s blood? Stir them up to cry unto thee in the land of their captivity; and let their complaint come up before thee; let it enter into thy ears! Make even those that lead them away captive to pity them, and turn their captivity as the rivers in the south. O burst thou all their chains in sunder; more especially the chains of their sins! Thou Saviour of all, make them free, that they may be free indeed!
(Thoughts upon slavery, 1774)

Wesley’s arguments against slavery flow directly from his Arminian understanding of God:

  • God is love
  • God has mercy on all
  • Jesus “purchased” slaves with his blood
  • Jesus is Savior of all
  • Jesus wants us to be free

Arminian Theology is more friendly to the cause of the downtrodden, and Wesley demonstrates why here. God loves us. We all have value because we are made in the image of God. Jesus died for all. We ought to be free.

Our assumptions about the nature of God impact how we treat others.

This Arminian friendliness to the downtrodden seems to apply to other issues as well. We can see differing approaches in Calvinist/Arminian theology regarding:

  • the value of women
  • compassion for the poor
  • love for the homosexual
  • the death penalty
  • prison reform
  • reasons for going to war
  • the treatment of “heretics”
  • race issues

There is even a recent example on the issue of race: Apartheid. Apartheid in South Africa is a clear example where Calvinist theology was used as a method to promote racial division. Between 1652 to 1835 a large number of European Calvinists settled in South Africa. They became known as “Afrikaners” or “Boers”. They imposed Apartheid upon South Africa, and used their Calvinist theology as a crutch to justify it. Apartheid was not dismantled until 1994, and then only after great pressure from the international community.

May God continue to give us compassion for all. Let us be the salt of the earth. May the world see in our lives the light of Jesus, and praise our Father in heaven. May our understanding of God be a help and hope to the world, instead of a hindrance.

Links of interest: