Edwards’ Personality and Beliefs about Slavery and the Millennium

I have two items for my write-up today on George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life.

1.  On page 255, Marsden says the following about people’s reactions to Jonathan Edwards’ personality:

“”While opponents found [Edwards’] scrupulousness cold and lacking in charity, those in Edwards’ own party saw it as admirable integrity.  The arguments that Edwards used in his attempts to demolish opponents’ positions might be seen as arrogant sophistry or as brilliant clarity.  The passion in his sermonic rhetoric might be seen as ruthless manipulation or as warm, loving spirituality.  His reserve in conversation about personalities might be seen as cold disregard of others or as self-renouncing discipline.  His single-minded dedication to his work could be seen as self-centered lack of sociability or as selfless dedication to serve God and neighbor with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind.”

The lesson here, for me, is that there will be people who will put a negative spin on anything you do, however well-intentioned you are.  But there may also be people who will put a positive spin on anything you do!  I try to disregard the former.  Regarding the latter, sometimes I scream on the inside that I’m not perfect, and so not everything I do deserves a positive spin.  But I do appreciate it when people give me a pat on the back for trying my best.

2.  Marsden discusses Edwards’ stance on slavery.  Essentially, Edwards had slaves and thought that slavery was biblically permissible.  But Edwards also regarded the African slave trade as wrong, for he did not believe that Europeans had a right “to steal from the Africans” (Marsden’s words on page 257), since all were neighbors.  And yet, Edwards spoke against criticisms of a certain clergyman for his ownership of slaves, arguing that New England itself benefited from slavery on account of its trade with “the slave economies of the Caribbean” (Marsden’s words on page 258).  Edwards was asking the critics of the clergyman: So it’s wrong to own slaves, but it’s all right to benefit from slavery?  But did Edwards believe that the logical moral step was to stop benefiting from slavery?  No.  In effect, according to Marsden, Edwards was saying that we live in a sinful world and thus it’s impossible not to benefit from other people’s evil, and so, “until the millennial conversions got to the heart of the problem, one should simply make the best of imperfect social arrangements” (Marsden on page 258).  I should note, though, that Jonathan Edwards, Jr. was a vocal critic of slavery.

I’d like to mention something that Edwards says about the millennial reign of Christ, which pertains to Edwards view of Africans and Native Americans.  Edwards thought that African and Native American cultures were inferior to the culture of Christendom, and he held that they had lived for years under the rule of Satan; yet, he did not believe that Africans and Native Americans were inherently inferior to whites, for God made everyone with the same nature.  Edwards even envisioned that Africans and Native Americans would contribute to civilization during the millennial rule of Jesus Christ.  Edwards said: “It may be hoped that then many of the Negroes and Indians will be divines, and that excellent books will be published in Africa, in Ethiopia, in Turkey—-and not only very learned men, but others that are more ordinary men, shall then be very knowing in religion.”  Here is the sermon where Edwards said this.

The millennium is a topic of interest to me, since one of my relatives believes that the millennium will be a time when people who did not have a real chance to know Christ in this life will have that chance to be saved.  He associates this with the second resurrection in Revelation 20.  Charles Taze Russell, whose movement led to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, wrote a book in which he argued that the millennium would be a time when people who died without knowing Christ would get a chance to know him.  But does not Revelation 20 say that the second resurrection will occur after the millennium, which precludes the millennium from being a time when people from the second resurrection will learn about God and God’s ways?  I don’t have a clear idea about how my relative would answer that question, but Russell addressed it by essentially arguing that Revelation 20 should not be interpreted literally on this point.  After all, Russell points out, John 5:29 appears to present the resurrection of the good and the bad as occurring simultaneously, rather than being separated by a thousand years.

But there are prophetic texts that treat the earthly reign of the Davidic king as a time when people would learn about God.  One way that Christians have handled those texts is to say that they are fulfilled through the church—-as Gentiles become a part of the people of God.  And, in my opinion, that view has validity, for there are times when the New Testament appears to apply texts in the prophets that concern the future inclusion of the Gentiles in the worship of God to the work that God is doing through the church (Acts  15:16-17; Romans 15:12).  But another way that Christians handle these texts has been to apply them to the earthly reign of Christ during the millennium.  My relative has this view.  So did Charles Taze Russell.  And so, apparently, did Jonathan Edwards.

But my question is this: If these texts apply to the millennial reign of Christ, where exactly did the people who are learning about God during the millennium come from?  In the Book of Revelation, there appear to be two groups of people: those who are saved, and those who have the Mark of the Beast (Revelation 13:8).  Will the people who are learning about Christ during the millennial reign include people who had the Mark of the Beast, or people who were saved but did not have the time before Christ’s Second Coming to grow in that salvation?  My relative and Russell would say that the people learning about Christ during the millennium are people who have been resurrected—-they died without knowing Christ.  But I doubt that Edwards believed that.  Where did he believe that the people learning about God during the millennium would come from?  Did he hold that not everyone who would take the Mark of the Beast would be thrown into hell but would receive a second chance?  And, come to think of it, did he even think that the Africans and Native Americans had the Mark of the Beast?  Edwards believed that the Beast was the pope, and most Africans and Native Americans were not Catholic.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Church, Family, George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards, Race, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.