This week I posted a meme about Puritans and slavery on social media. That sort of thing tends to ruffle the scruffles. I’m in print on the grim topic here, here, and here, but I wanted to offer a word or two to those who have not had the pleasure (or pain).
Puritan Man Good
I began studying this issue over a decade ago. I was reading Puritans and being blown away by what they wrote about God. But I was haunted by troubling uncertainties. Did these guys own black slaves? Lots of people just assume that they were racist slave owners. It was honestly too much for me; I was going to stop reading altogether any man who could, in good conscience, own my future wife and children because of the skin God gave them. But over the years I’ve been pleased to discover the integrity and holiness that, on the whole, existed among these men.
Let me speak for myself by quoting myself.
Let’s begin with a bit of historical orientation. When we talk about John Owen, we’re talking about the Puritans. That terrible word stirs up many a thought in the foul bosoms of men. But who were these slave-holding, witch-burning pilgrims anyway?
The Puritans had neither pilgrim ships nor slave-holding itches, and, needless to say, they burned no witches. The Puritans lived in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The infamous intolerance of the so-called “New England Puritans,” (upon whose account this group of men is often maligned) was “an embarrassment to [Owen] and his English colleagues.” Amid never-ending chants of puritan man bad we have been pleased to find, not only their prince standing firmly against such oppressions, but their father as well, in the absolutest terms. For that towering progenitor, William Perkins, was what we would now call an abolitionist.
Wrong century, wrong continent
The Puritans were a particular set of Englishmen of the late-16th and 17th centuries. Church historians agree.
Puritanism I define as that movement in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century England which sought further reformation and renewal in the Church of England than the Elizabethan settlement allowed.
— J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 35.
Much ink has been spilt over the meaning of the term [Puritan], but, to cut a long story short, I shall use the word to denote that tendency to push for a more thoroughly Reformed theology and ecclesiology within sections of the Anglican Church between the early 1530s and 1662, the date of the most important Act of Uniformity. The definition is far from perfect; but it is probably as good as it gets...”
— Carl R. Trueman, “PURITANISM AS ECUMENICAL THEOLOGY.” Nederlands ArchiefVoor Kerkgeschiedenis / Dutch Review of Church History, vol. 81, no. 3, 2001, pp. 326–336. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24011335.
Although Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a Puritan in theology and piety and is sometimes regarded as the last of the Puritans, he was not a Puritan in the strict historical sense. This book therefore does not include chapters on Edwards’s theology, however fascinating they would have been.
— Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 4.
So what about Jonathan Edwards anyway? I still read my brother, not-Puritan Jonathan Edwards with great profit, but also with a grain of salt. Call me the weaker brother. And don’t cite Abraham to me. That there is a large difference—a difference of life and death, in fact—between lawful slavery and kidnap-based slavery is evident from Moses: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16). If we must cite the deep magic, let us cite it correctly. Was it lawful and proper for an Israelite—let’s call him Jonathan Edwards—to buy a kidnapped person for a slave? If he wanted to be canceled, Mosaic style, then sure.
I’ll mainly stick to the real Puritans for now. Those dudes were bad after another fashion.