Historical Heroes and Slavery
Some wise perspective from historian Thomas Kidd:
-Reformed Christians, of all people, will understand that we are all sinners, and that sin imparts a disappointingly narrow vision about our own failings. It is very difficult for people morally to think “outside the box,” even with regard to barbarous practices such as the Atlantic slave trade and slave owning. We should all humbly realize, when criticizing slave owners, that if we were born into a white slave owning family in colonial or antebellum America, we almost certainly would have died as a slaveholder, too. There were exceptional slave holders who “saw the light,” sometimes via Christian conversion (a la John Newton), but not as many as we would like, especially in the American South.
-We do no service to forefathers such as Edwards or Whitefield — or, in a different strain, George Washington or Patrick Henry — by downplaying their complicity in this ugly, brutal institution. History that hides or explains away issues such as slavery can be misleading and dishonest. It can open fresh wounds for those whose ancestors were enslaved.
-We should recognize our very human need for heroes, exemplars of virtue and piety whom we can seek to imitate. The Puritans, and the leading preachers of the Great Awakening, can help put the riches of the Reformed and evangelical tradition in stark relief against the shallowness that all too often marks today’s pop Christian culture. Yet we should never expect perfection from those heroes: we find phenomenal strengths in some areas, and disturbing blind spots in others. Realistic, flawed heroes are, in a sense, more edifying anyway: if God used “crooked sticks” in the past, then perhaps he can use me, too.
-American Christians should broaden their list of heroes, not only for historical breadth, but in this case to celebrate those Christians who resisted and spoke out against slavery. For evangelicals, two obvious choices are Lemuel Haynes and David George.
Even the Bible tells of no mere human perfect heroes. David, Peter, and Paul are excellent examples of godly men who committed terrible sins. The Christian faith has only one perfect hero. He is our proper object, not just of emulation, but of worship. We all fall far, far short of his example.
You can read the whole thing here, along with other links to the discussion of Propaganda’s “Precious Puritans” song.