Whitefield brought a message of unification to the world at a time in history where dissenting and secession was the norm. Even while the “democratization of Christianity” was being birthed, Whitefield reminded people of their genuine commonalities. These efforts are still needed as we live in a world where hatred and racism appear to gain ground.
Last week, (Oct. 21-22), Southern Baptist Theological Seminary held the 8th Annual Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies Conference on Whitefield and the Great Awakening. This year celebrates the 300th anniversary of Whitefield's birth. Like many Evangelicals, Whitefield (1714-1770) has been a hero of mine as a leader of the First Great Awakening in the 1700s. In my seminary days at Golden Gate, I studied him for an independent study class on evangelism and compared/contrasted the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment and have been familiar with his life, ministry, and influence ever since.
October 1, on The Southern Blog, Jerome Mahaffey said that Whitefield was a model for today's preachers. He spoke specifically about his work to bring Christians together so that they could work across traditional lines of division.
I agree that Whitefield's life was influential, but parts of his legacy led to greater division than he could have ever imagined. I also agree that he affected a great deal of people with the gospel and was influential in creating the environment needed for the colonies to come together and stand for independence against King George. His call for an individual response to the gospel could be seen as laying the groundwork for the idea of individual freedom and the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness (mixed with the influence of Enlightenment philosophy, of course). However, while he called for the “good” treatment of African slaves and while he worked to evangelize them and called upon others to do the same, he also advocated for the legalization of slavery in Georgia in the 1740s-50s when slavery was not allowed there. Whitefield did not just passively accept a horrid practice that was thrust upon him against his will. He actually advocated for it because it would have helped him with the orphanage that he built in Georgia and with economic development of the plantations around the orphanage. No one was more influential than Whitefield at the time. What if he had crusaded against slavery instead of advocating for it? Would the United States have begun differently 30-40 years later? Would we have seen race-based slavery as a sin against God instead of as God's ordained plan? One wonders.
Much of this kind of history has been ignored by white Evangelicals in the past when it comes to the heroes of the faith. We study Southern Evangelical preachers and theologians of the 1800s and 1900s, we look at the formation of the SBC and say erroneously and simplistically that it was about missions (that is like saying that the Civil War was about state's rights), and we harken back to the glory days of growth/baptisms of the SBC in the 1950s and 60s without considering the issues of the day and asking real “what if?” type questions.
For example, what if Baptists in the South had maintained their previous abolitionist perspective of the late 1700s and early 1800s and had not subverted themselves to the larger racist, slave-owning culture of the South by the 1840's? Would they have risen to prominence or would they have died out? Would their influence have served as a prophetic barrier to the break up of the nation over slavery and the carnage of the Civil War? John C. Calhoun, the senator from South Carolina, declared in the 1850 Senate debate on the Missouri Compromise that the breakup of the denominations by 1845 (Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian) over slavery predicted the eventual possible breakup of the nation. The Church could not solve the problem so the nation dissolved in a bloody death spiral with over 600,000 fatalities.
If Baptists in the South had been chastened by the defeat in the Civil War instead of baptizing it through “Lost Cause” theology that they interpreted as God's way of purifying them and making them more righteous, would we have had the resulting Jim Crow racism that gripped the South after Reconstruction? Could repentance and reconciliation have happened? Could black and white Christians have come together to build a new society?
If Southern Baptists in the 1950s and 60s, at the height of their cultural influence in the South, had led the way in dismantling segregation laws and in bringing racial healing to our nation, would the Cultural and Sexual Revolutions of the late 1960s and 1970s have happened? Could we have won the Culture Wars before they started by engaging in sacrificial love on racial issues during the Civil Rights Movement while the largest generation in American history (the Baby Boomers) were coming of age? Could we have torn down the entire racist edifice? It could be said that Roe vs. Wade in 1973 was a result of the Sexual Revolution. We were unable to change minds on that issue, perhaps because we were too busy seeking to protect our “way of life” on the race issue. We must also wonder if our massive growth of the 1950s and 60s would have happened if we would have been counter-cultural and prophetic on the Race issue. Would white Southerners have still flocked to our churches en masse (64% of all church members in Alabama were Southern Baptists by 1971 in a state that claimed to be majority Christian) if we would have collectively been telling them that their racial views were wrong and sinful and that they needed to change? We could not do that because we embraced those same views and because it is difficult to get people to take positions when their “way of life” depends upon them not taking those positions (to paraphrase Upton Sinclair).
And, this brings us back to Whitefield. His motivation for calling for the legalization of slavery in Georgia was that it would help him with his orphanage and bring economic development to the surrounding area. He thought that slavery could be done humanely and christianly care for the slaves under consideration. Obviously, he was wrong on every point. But, when we look at his motivation, we see that he took two good things (caring for orphans and economic development) and proposed a very bad thing (enslavement of other people) to enable them to happen. The ends justified the means in the pursuit of a better way of life. Slaveowners would take up this rationale and declare that they could not imagine life in the South without slaves. It just wasn't possible. And, look at the blessings! God would not be blessing us so much if we were wrong! So, therefore it must be ordained by God and it is the Christian duty of the slave to obey his Master. We now look at that thinking as absolute error and heresy. It is the forerunner of the “prosperity gospel.” But, they could not see this at the time because it benefitted them not to see it.
Southern Baptists, fortunately, have recognized these errors, but we have recently begun talking about them in new ways. Thomas Kidd, history professor at Baylor, has a new book out where he explores Whitefield's legacy in both the good and the bad. I have not read it yet, but I have interacted with Dr. Kidd over these issues and am happy that he is looking at the whole picture. The book is George Whitefield: America's Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014). Kidd told me that the advocacy of slavery was discussed at the aforementioned Whitefield conference at Southern Seminary last week by multiple speakers. That would not necessarily have happened in the more recent past, not because we would have agreed with Whitefield on the issue, but because we were blinded to the affect that his advocacy ultimately had.
In addition, Dr. Kidd has authored a 3 week study published by the Gospel Coalition as curriculum in recognition of Whitefield's birth. The topics are 1) Whitefield's Passion for the Gospel, 2) Whitefield's Theology and Break with John and Charles Wesley, and 3) How Could Whitefield Have Owned Slaves? Having looked over the study briefly, it addresses interesting and relevant topics of Whitefield's life and influence and seems to be very balanced.
I recently wrote a book about this overall topic myself: When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus (NewSouth Books, 2014), where I explore the aforementioned “What If?” questions and seek to discover where racism in the church came from and how it has morphed into other expressions that still affect us today in our mission and discipleship (such as consumerism/individualism and its offspring) as we often attempt to use God to enhance our own “way of life.” I contrast this with the “Better Way of Jesus,” which is the Way of the Cross and of Sacrificial Love and give many historical examples of how Jesus's way is better.
Southern Baptists have been shaped by our past history and theological positions far more than we often admit. We need our theologians and pastors to better understand and articulate where we have come from so we can reposition ourselves for gospel life and witness in a post-Christian age. I am glad that Southern and the Gospel Coalition are sponsoring events and curriculum that looks more closely at the whole picture so we can unravel what is good from our past and discard what is evil.
Part of engaging in a 21st Century apologetic is being able to answer the skeptic/critic who says, “If Baptists were wrong on slavery/racism in the past and used the Bible to justify their oppression, then why should we listen to you today when you make truth claims on other issues?” That question comes up constantly and we need to know how to answer it. We need to know WHY our Baptist forefathers capitulated to advocating for slavery and racism (basic answer: to beneift themselves instead of dying to self and trusting God), renounce our continued part in the subversion of Christianity in other ways, and we need to heed the warnings of the past so that we do not make the same mistakes on other/related issues in the present-future. This takes thought and humility and an on-going repentance and constant faith in God. It is the fact that we DO take the Bible seriously that makes this repositioning/repentance possible, however, and that also enables us to say to a culture that no longer sees us as an influence that we, too, recognize the price of a 150 year embrace of relational heresy and a lack of trust in God as our Source of life and provision.
I pray that as we consider the legacy of Whitefield's life over the past 300 years that we will thank God for his proclamation of the Gospel while also recognizing that his blindness to the evil growing in America also had a lasting legacy that was deadly. The Church in America owns these scars of division now, both white and black. May we go forward with humility and faith in the God who restores, reconciles, and makes all things new when we turn to Him.
EDIT: I originally attributed Thomas Kidd's 3 week study on Whitefield to The Gospel Project. It was published by The Gospel Coalition. My error.