Dealing with the Tainted Legacy of American History’s Greatest Preacher
"Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death."
— Exodus 21:16
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.
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! Thefore, 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:
With Greater Power Comes Greater Temptation
Yes, with great power comes great responsibility. Also, with great power comes great opportunity to abuse it. There is something about bigness — and everything that comes with it (money, fame, accolades, access) — that can seduce anyone. Not a single one of us is immune to this great temptation. And if you give the devil a foothold, he will take more.
With power also comes the temptation to more pragmatic thinking, where we will justify our own decisions in service of "the greater good." How did Whitefield justify his sin? Perhaps the same way many try to justify it today — his good outweighed his bad. His sin is put in the context of his success, effectively reducing it to an incidental blip on the massive radar screen of his exemplary evangelism.
We must all be on guard against this seduction to pragmatism in our own lives. Power-hunger can lead us to functionally deny what we intellectually affirm.
There Is No Hero But Christ
All Christians admire different figures from church history, for a variety of reasons. There is nothing inherently wrong with admiring the gifts and accomplishments of those who affirm Christian orthodoxy and who have contributed to advancing the cause of the kingdom of God. But we must beware of whitewashing our heroes, sanding off their rough edges, excusing their unrepentant sins, dismissing the things in their lives that might bring their profession into question. The kinds of things we routinely discipline church members for today often get waved away with a swat of the hand when it comes to our "heroes of the faith."
As Christians, we believe in the truth. This means looking at history with wide open eyes, being honest about the past and the sins therein. We gain nothing from lionizing our historical heroes and we lose nothing by being transparent about their besetting sins. Why? Because the Christian faith and the Church it has birthed are not built on the foundation of any man but Jesus Christ. The gates of hell can prevail against any of our legacies. But nothing prevails against Christ.
This doesn't mean we have to condemn figures from church history whose sins are obvious and glaring and heinous and hellish. But it does mean we have nothing to fear in condemning their sins. Unless you've asked George Whitefield into your heart as your personal lord and savior, you lose nothing in admitting his terrible sin.
Christians Can Nevertheless Have a Hermeneutic of Grace Regarding History
One of the million benefits of having the entirety of the Spirit-breathed Scriptures in the Christian Bible is that we are able to see how the Lord himself regards the great sinners of historical faith. The vantage point of the Old Testament shows us the heinous sins of so many of the patriarchs, many we often consider "heroes" of the faith. And the New Testament perspective on the Old shows us a reading of them in the language of grace. Think of how many of the sinful patriarchs — whose collective sins include adultery and sexual exploitation, abuse of power and drunkeness, even murder — are lauded for their faith. Very few heroes of the Old Testament would not be able to find their sins listed in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.
Please hear what I'm saying (and not what I'm not). This is not a whitewashing of sin or justifying of sin. If that were the case, we would not have clearly before our eyes the honest depictions found in the Old Testament. But with both Testaments testifying to both the reality of grievous sin and the reality of a great Savior, we see the grounds for reading history with a "hermeneutic of grace." Again, this doesn't mean acting like men like George Whitefield weren't horrific sinners. But it does mean believing, at the very least, that no sin is outside the scope of Christ's redemption. We can affirm both that sin kills and is deserving of condemnation from a vengeful God who has, among other things, said man-stealing is wrath-deserving (Ex. 21:16) and that enslavers will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Tim. 1:10), and also that the blood of Christ "speaks a better word" (Heb. 12:24) for those who will, in faith, claim it for themselves.
Christians affirm the bad news as well as the good. Because we are people of the truth, we should be the most honest about sin and its effects, past and present. And we should be the most optimistic about those who profess faith in Christ. We may have our doubts about this sinner and that, often times for very good reasons. But if we believe in the gospel, we should agree that nobody's worst sins define them in the eyes of God — even if they do taint or corrupt them in the eyes of man. Sin can tarnish our legacy. But in Christ, it cannot solidify our identity.
On that note, as we are radically honest about the figures from church history who have brought their entire legacies into question with the enduring black mark of their own sin, we should be as equally ruthlessly honest about ourselves. Thus:
Let Us All Take Heed Lest We Fall
As I said, I don't think it will do to call Whitefield's advocacy of slavery a "blind spot." He was complicit. He was duplicitous. He bears his own responsibility for tarnishing his own legacy at the expense and abuse of people made in God's image. He brings his own profession into question. Nevertheless, I want to be circumspect. I want to ask myself the question, "What, in the future, might people look back on and wonder about in the light of my public profession of faith? Is there anything in my life and teaching now that brings my salvation validly into question in the public eye? Or will?"
We should all ask the same. Not because any of our sins are as great as slavery, but because any of our sins are still great. Let us ask ourselves, "What is it I'm being duplicitous about?"
Maybe it's simply that we are fond of pointing out the disrepute of the heroes of others but never our own. Maybe it's because we think the worst sinners are found outside our own circles. "Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12).
Let us be as clear-eyed about any of the ways we ourselves may bring into disrepute what we intellectually affirm.
Was George Whitefield a Christian?
To the million dollar question at hand: How can anyone believe George Whitefield was a genuine believer?
First, I have no complaints with those who cannot believe he was. Because my faith does not rest on George Whitefield's eternal state, I can honestly and sincerly see how so many simply cannot answer this question favorably. I especially understand not just how my African-American brothers and sisters cannot answer in the affirmative, but also how they cannot abide white evangelical "whitewashing" his legacy. I cannot feel what they feel, but I can understand why they feel it. I have no interest in diminishing that or chastizing that.
A good tree does not produce bad fruit, after all. As far as we can tell, Whitefield never repudiated his sin, never repented of it. That alone brings the genuineness of his faith into question in many of our churches today. Why should Whitefield get a pass from the same scrutiny? If he held his same views as a member of your church, would he not face discipline? I affirm the rationale of those who answer the question of Whitefield's salvation "no," and I affirm their freedom to do so. I see how you get there. I respect the conclusion. I will not argue it.
For my part, however, I want to "believe all things, hope all things." Why? Because George Whitefield was a great preacher and left many contributions that stir my heart toward Jesus above all? No. Because I do not presume to know the eternal fate of anyone who professed Christ crucified as their only hope for salvation. I have my doubts and questions and concerns. If I were Whitefield's pastor today, I would plead with him to repent as I would any professing Christian living a life that brings their profession into question. And if he were unwilling, I would recommend my congregation to remove him. This is what the church has been tasked to do.
But I am not the Judge. I have no power to condemn. And I have no way of knowing what may have occurred in Whitefield's final moments, what anguish the Spirit may have produced in his heart as he contemplated finishing his race.
In the end, I hope and trust Whitefield was saved, not because I have benefited from his work (though I have), but because I am sure I will die with sin unrepented of myself, and as the worst sinner I know, my only hope is found not on the grand scale weighing my good against my bad, but on the grand cross of Christ, where even the vilest of sinners may find atonement.
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lordrequire of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
— Micah 6:8