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The most challenging issue for a biographer of George Whitefield (as with Patrick Henry) is his identity as a slave owner. I admire Whitefield and Henry, as well as similar figures of their time such as Jonathan Edwards or George Washington, but their owning people as slaves remains an unavoidable moral problem. 

How does one admire a historical figure who kept slaves? How does an author fully convey his disapproval of American slavery, while not condemning an individual altogether? I am not sure that I have gotten the balance exactly right, but we want to avoid two extremes.

One extreme might suggest that Whitefield was a great man of God, and that harping on his owning of slaves denigrates his memory as a Christian hero.

The other extreme might say that whatever Whitefield accomplished for God was fatally tainted by his owning slaves, so he is better forgotten or just used as a cautionary tale.

I think the better approach is to humbly acknowledge that we all have moral blind spots. We can justify all manner of habits and practices that, in three centuries' retrospect, may seem appalling. But this does not excuse Whitefield's complicity in what was a fundamentally immoral system, from the terrible wars and slave catching trade in Africa, to the horrible passage of the forced Atlantic voyage, to the dreadful working conditions for slaves, to the physical and sexual abuse that many slaves endured in the Americas.

Jonathan Edwards seems an easier case to forgive, as he only kept a few household slaves and just occasionally spoke in public about the rectitude of slave owning. Whitefield, by contrast, was arguably the key figure in having slavery introduced in the colony of Georgia, where it was originally banned. I was dismayed to find archival evidence that Whitefield may have even allowed slaves to work at the property of his Bethesda before Georgia made slave owning legal.

And yet Whitefield was, in most other areas, a man of powerful passion and integrity, living a life of incredible significance and service to God. This is a good reminder that God uses deeply flawed people (one thinks of David, Peter, and Paul) in the work of His Kingdom.

Do you have a comment, question, or suggestion for a blog/newsletter topic? Send me an e-mail by replying to this address. 
From around the web this week:

My post "
Phillis Wheatley and the Evangelical Anti-Slavery Movement," at the Anxious Bench blog.

A downloadable bulletin insert for Religious Freedom and Citizenship Sunday (June 29) that you can use with your church, from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Copyright © 2014 Thomas S. Kidd, All rights reserved.

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