Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Irv Brendlinger, "John Wesley's theological challenge to slavery"

In the first chapter of Social justice through the eyes of Wesley: John Wesley's theological challenge to slavery, Dr Irv A Brendlinger, Professor of Church History and Theology at George Fox University, notes two major areas of disagreement between John Wesley (Arminian) and George Whitefield (Calvinist):
  1. “A major disagreement was over Whitefield's staunch position on predestination"; and  
  2. "The other disagreement between Wesley and Whitefield was over slavery. Both men spent time in Georgia and observed slavery first-hand. While Wesley's attitude towards slavery was consistent--unequivocally opposed--Whitefield's view changed from opposition to support” (p 5).
To me, the second disagreement makes sense in light of the first: why would Whitefield fight against evil if he believed that God had ordained that evil for His greater glory?

A few years ago, Thabiti Anyabwile of The Gospel Coalition looked at the famous Calvinist theologian and slave owner Jonathan Edwards and asked "Can the Theology of a Slave Owner Be Trusted by Descendants of Slaves?". In his manuscript, "Jonathan Edwards and American Racism", Anyabwile broke the question down into a further five questions, two of which (as a former Calvinist) I’d like to turn your mind to consider as you read the excerpts from Dr Brendlinger's book throughout the rest of this post:
  1. “Is there a defect in Edwards’ [and Whitefield's/Calvin's] understanding of the nature and work of God in the world? Did Edwards get the Bible’s teaching about God wrong?”; and
  2. “We might be concerned—as some claim—that the theological system leads inexorably to ethical blindness, comprise, duplicity, and evil. Or we may put it this way: Does Edwards’ view of God lead him to live falsely in the world?”
Like, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield was a fellow Calvinist and slaveowner.  Dr Brendlinger writes:

While Whitefield was a friend of Benezet and opposed the abuses of slavery, he was not against slavery itself. In fact, he lobbied for the introduction of slavery in the colony of Georgia and when it was legalized he became the owner of some fifty slaves on the land that housed his orphanage, Bethesda. His sentiments are seen clearly in a letter he wrote to Wesley in 1751.
Whitefield's position had changed from his earlier opposition to slavery so that now he saw it as necessary for the financial survival of his orphanage and a possible means to the conversion of Africans. He was deeply opposed to the slave trade and abuses within slavery, but felt it could be a workable and beneficial system if handled justly. (p 57-58)

In chapter 2, "John Wesley's antislavery journey", Dr Brendlinger recounts what slavery was really like through an excerpt from Charles Wesley's (John Wesley’s brother) journal. Here is how Charles Wesley described the slavery he and John Wesley saw with their own eyes in America -- note well that this is the slavery Whitefield saw and still lobbied in support of -- (if you have a weak stomach, you might want to skip this excerpt; if you are a Calvinist, read it at least 3 times and wonder how the good God of the Bible could ordain this... then re-think your theology):

I had observed much, and heard more, of the cruelty of masters towards their negroes; but now I received an authentic account of some horrid instances thereof. The giving a child a slave of its own age to tyrannize over, to beat and abuse out of sport, was, I myself saw, a common practice. Nor is it strange, being thus trained up in cruelty, they should afterwards arrive at so great perfection in it; that Mr. Star, a gentleman I often met at Mr. Lasserre's, should, as he himself informed L., first nail up a negro by the ears, then order him to be whipped in the severest manner, and then to have scalding water thrown over him, so that the poor creature could not stir for four months after. Another much-applauded punishment is, drawing their slaves' teeth. One Colonel Lynch is universally known to have cut off a poor negro's legs; and to kill several of them every year by his barbarities.

It were endless to recount all the shocking instances of diabolical cruelty which these men (as they call themselves) daily practise upon their fellow-creatures; and that on the most trivial occasions. I shall only mention one more, related to me by a Swiss gentleman, Mr. Zouberbuhler, an eye-witness, of Mr. Hill, a dancing-master in Charlestown. He whipped a she-slave so long, that she fell down at his feet for dead. When, by the help of a physician, she was so far recovered as to show signs of life, he repeated the whipping with equal rigour, and concluded with dropping hot sealing-wax upon her flesh. Her crime was overfilling a tea-cup.

These horrid cruelties are the less to be wondered at, because the government itself, in effect, countenances and allows them to kill their slaves, by the ridiculous penalty appointed for it, of about seven pounds sterling, half of which is usually saved by the criminal's informing against himself. This I can look upon as no other than a public act to indemnify murder. [1]

In chapter 4, "The relationship between Wesley's theology and his position on slavery", Dr Brendlinger explores the theological underpinnings of John Wesley's unequivocal opposition to slavery. For example, under the subheading "Prevenient grace and slavery" he includes:

Wesley's understanding of prevenient grace touches slavery from several vantage points. It relates to the nature of the slave and the slave owner. Regarding the slave, all persons are of infinite worth because all receive prevenient grace through the universal atonement. This Wesleyan assumption brings one of the greatest indictments against slavery. How can that which is of infinite worth be treated with such distain so that it is used, abused and discarded as if it were not even human? Wesley asks rhetorically, "Did the Creator intend that the noblest creatures in the visible world should live such a life as this? Are these thy glorious work, Parent of Good?" The enslaving of human beings, especially when it is permanent, is based on the assumption of inequality of worth.
Throughout Thoughts Upon Slavery Wesley appealed mostly to the benevolent in his reader.  By contrast, some of his contemporaries appealed more to fear of retribution. In Wesley's thinking human benevolence and the ability to empathize were rooted in prevenient grace.

Another implication for slavery which grows out of prevenient grace relates to the universality of the atonement. This implication would apply to Christians who were involved with slavery. Because he believed the atonement is universal, it follows that all persons are potentially recipients of God's saving grace. Wesley was convinced that the most effective way of communicating God's love was through doing good works for ones neighbour. This is clearly seen in his sermon, "Free Grace," in which he stated that the doctrine of predestination (and limited atonement) destroys a major motivation for doing good to others.
The focal point for Wesley was that every slave was a potential believer and doing good for them as neighbours, acting in love, would be the most effective means of persuading them of God's love.  This clearly flies in the face of the evangelizing approach of others, such as Whitefield and the SPG, who believed that slavery, in spite of its brutality and cruelty, facilitated evangelism by exposing Africans to Christianity. There was no question that this aspect of Wesley's theology influenced his position. From his own actions on behalf of the slave, it is clear that the good works he envisioned as a means of evangelizing the slave included: helping the destitute slave, and especially removing the chains of slavery.

Wesley's doctrine of prevenient grace helped lay a foundation for antislavery thought, his own and that of his followers, by addressing the nature of the slave (capable of experiencing a relationship with God), the nature of the slave owner and slave trader (they knew right from wrong and had a capacity for benevolence), and the nature of Christianity, which seeks to bring all to awareness of God's love and grace by doing good to others. (p 87-90)

In chapter 6, “The significance of John Wesley’s antislavery influence”, under the subheading "The 'climate' of England", Dr Brendlinger also explains (underline mine):

The Calvinism of the eighteenth century had been used to maintain a social and economic status quo. The tenants of predestination and election had often been used to infer a divinely ordered world, where every creature, including people, had a particular "station." Thus, whether servant, freeholder, noble or king, one's position was the result of divine ordination, and not to be tampered with.  The authority of religion was a powerful means of justifying those in positions of privilege and wealth, or reconciling to injustice and want those less fortunate.

One result of Wesley's teaching was a general softening of the harsh Calvinism of the time. [...] His rejection of predestination began to destroy the walls which separated the classes.  In a view that was very novel, he believed that poverty was not unilaterally the result of inability and certainly not the result of God's plan.  It was the result of improper, unjust and unloving distribution of resources. He taught people to take responsibility for their situation, rather than acquiescing to theological fatalism. [...] Wesley's Arminianism encouraged people to share in the responsibility for their position, both temporal and eternal. His teachings were observed by his followers and many did break out of the bonds of poverty and become a strong working class. 

With responsibility came inspiration and the desire to bring change. The shifting from an outlook of fatalism to one of productive change had implications far beyond the individual. It meant that the larger, collective problems of injustice and inhumanity need not go unprotected or be accepted as inevitable--or worse, God's will. Such a view would have far reaching consequences on social change. Rather than helpless victims, people could work to alter their own conditions and, even more relevant to social reform, they could work to alter the conditions of their fellows. Roger Anstey states that "it was mainly religious convictions, insight and zeal that made it possible for antislavery feelings to be subsumed in a crusade against the slave trade and slavery." Of course, this is true, but an important specific aspect is that it was Wesley's Arminian perspective that provided the necessary sense of empowerment for the crusade to emerge. 

What Wesley taught in this regard was powerful not because it was new, although it was for many, but because he successfully proliferated such ideas. People believed them and acted on them. The number of people who so responded continued to multiply. The emotional and theological climate of the country began to change. In the early part of the eighteenth century, people tended to accept slavery as a reality of a fallen world and to challenge it theologically would be to doubt God's sovereign purposes. But by the latter part of the century, the views were very different; people viewed slavery as something that needed to be challenged theologically and abolished. Two facts make it reasonable to attribute the change in large part to Wesley: his interpretation (and application) of Arminius is completely consistent with this different way of thinking, and Methodism grew so extensively that his influence was felt throughout Britain and America. At the very least Wesley's work functioned as a kind of "leven" in society.

The effect was experienced by key individuals who took on causes and by the masses. Persons such as Wilberforce and Clarkson acted in ways that demonstrated their belief that circumstances could be changed. The masses of individuals who would never become known began to live in response to such belief and formed the supporting groundswell for reform. Wesley's Arminianism fostered a fresh understanding of humanity and human ability. (p 160-161)

The Implications

For evangelism

Notice the difference in perspectives on evangelism. It blows me away that an evangelist like George Whitefield could suggest that slavery might be used to advance evangelism. It is so antithetical to the Gospel; the message the Apostle Paul called, "the Gospel of Peace" (Ephesian 6:15) and "the message of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:19), and which our Lord said included, "to set the oppressed free" (Luke 4:18 NIVUK, and notice Jesus demonstrated spiritual realities with physical acts, for examples see John 6 & 9[2]).

But, of course, Whitefield's position makes sense if you believe in irresistible grace (the "I" in the Calvinist acronym "T.U.L.I.P."): as Dr Brendlinger puts it, "The form of predestination Wesley opposed could take a softer position on slavery because, in the context of theological determinism, a system [in which a slave owner could deprive a slave of all spiritual exposure] ...was irrelevant; God would work salvation in the elect regardless of circumstances" (p 99). On the other hand, if the grace of God is resistible, then it matters whether we share our hope "with gentleness and respect" (2 Peter 3:15), and demonstrate love for our neighbour to persuade them of God's love, as Wesley said.

Among whom is Calvinism growing today?

It is interesting to compare these insights to where, and among whom, different Christian perspectives are growing today.  In May, 2009 an article appeared in The Guardian which discussed the growth of Calvinism in China.  The article noted (link):

Although Calvinism is shrinking in western Europe and North America, it is experiencing an extraordinary success in China. [...] but it's absolutely unlike the pattern in Africa and Latin America. There, the fastest growing forms of Christianity are pentecostal, and they are spreading among the poor.

But in China neither of those things are to be true.
[...] in China, the place where Calvinism is spreading fastest is the elite universities, fuelled by prodigies of learning and translation.

Another writer, Fredrik Fällman of Stockholm University, explains:

The phenomenon of "New Calvinists" in contemporary China is primarily a development in the big cities of Eastern and Central china, and most people involved are relatively well educated. The most outspoken persons are often well-known cultural figures and elite intellectuals, and some also trained theologians with important pastoral functions. It is a multi-faceted phenomenon, but very much oriented to the elites in society, in that way, resembling the Cultural Christians of the 1980-90's. There is another similarity with the forerunners on the notion of influence. These groups cannot easily gain influence over the majority of Pentecostal and charismatic movements or the CCC/TSPM, but the important thing is to be right, to break the new and correct path. [3]

In another place, Fällman adds, "Reformed Christianity may also appeal to the subconscious Confucian thought patterns and beliefs that linger among Chinese elite intellectuals in general." (link)

Is anyone surprised that Calvinism is embraced by the elite, while globally the poor are drawn to the more Arminian Pentecostal denominations?  Could it be that (unlike those drawn to the early church, see 1 Corinthians 1:25-31) those most drawn to deterministic theology will always be those who are comfortable – who have an easy time believing, even if they are reluctant to say it out loud, that “the world is just as God intended it to be”[4] ?

Is there really any difference between eighteenth century Calvinism as Dr Brendlinger described it, where “one's position was the result of divine ordination, and not to be tampered with...[whether] positions of privilege and wealth, or ...injustice and want...”, and the view held in New Calvinism, as one Acts 29 church espoused it in their official “Confession of Faith”:

From before the foundation of the world, in order to display His glory, God freely and unchangeably ordained all things that would come to pass. From the casting of the lot, to the bird falling from the sky, to the activities of the nations, to the plans of politicians, to the secret acts of individuals, to what will happen to us tomorrow, to scheduling the very day that we will die, God has written our stories and the stories of the entire universe. (link, and link at page 25)

A closing word from Jesus:

Notice that, to Jesus, Christian character matters:

15 ‘Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thorn-bushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.  (The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7, NIVUK; and compare Matthew 5:21-22, 38-39, 43-48, and especially John 8:30-32, 13:34-35, and 15:8-14)

And finally, how fitting are the words of the Lord to the church of Laodicea:

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”   (Revelation 3:17 NIVUK, and compare James 5:1-6)


[1] You can read this excerpt from Charles Wesley's journal, August 2, 1736 online here; in Brendlinger it is at p 14-15.

[2] I borrowed these two examples from JB Nicholson, Jr who used them at a Q&A in The Church: Masterpiece of the Ages.

[3] Fredrik Fällman, "Calvin, Culture and Christ? Developments of faith among Chinese intellectuals," in Francis Lim Khek Gee ed., Christianity in Contemporary China: Socio-cultural Perspectives, (London: Routledge 2012).  Whether these Calvinists should be considered "New Calvinists" or not is disputed, see: Alexander Chow, “Calvinist Public Theology in Urban China Today”, International Journal of Public Theology (2014, Vol 8:2) 158-175, esp. pages 170-71.

[4] For quotes from Calvinists who haven't been so reluctant, see: A Theology in Tension, "Calvinist Quotes on God Determining All Evil", Greg Boyd, "Yes, Calvinism Really Teaches That", and Desiring God, "What does Piper mean when he says he's a seven-point Calvinist?".

Further Reading:
  • Robert Tuttle's review, which appeared in the Wesleyan Theological Journal, (2008, Vol 43:1) 220-221 is available online here.
Recent posts from other bloggers regarding Calvinism and "ethical blindness, comprise, duplicity, and evil":
Also see the recent Christianity Today article, Michael Wear, "Stop Explaining Away Black Christian Forgiveness", where Wear notes:
American slaveowners first withheld and then limited the gospel from their slaves. In their book, Defending Black Faith, Craig Keener and Glenn Usry describe the lengths slaveowners would go to prevent slaves from hearing the full gospel. According to Usry and Keener, the first slaveowners “did not want their slaves to hear about the Bible, because they feared that the slaves would understand that Christianity made them their masters’ equals before God.” Later, slaveholders “allowed some preachers access to the slaves, once they developed ways to leave out parts of the Bible that sounded as if they made slaves equal.” Yet, this was nothing more than a “distortion of Christianity,” Usry and Keener declare. Slaves discovered for themselves the true message of the gospel, a “secret their masters did not want them to know.”

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