Is Whitefield damned?

George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist in pre-revolutionary America, a man who preached a gospel of repentance and held fast to high standards of biblical morality, celebrated the opportunity to set up a slave plantation to generate revenue to fund an orphan house in Georgia.

In 1740, he warned slave owners about the judgment of God if they abused their slaves and refused to provide adequate Christian nurture for them. He never condemned the institution of slavery itself. In less than a decade, however, he was praising God for the offer by wealthy Charleston converts to support the establishment of a slave plantation in Georgia that would fund an orphanage in Savannah. Georgia at the time prohibited slavery. In his zeal for his great charitable work, Whitefield became a leading figure in the campaign to introduce slavery to the colony.

I am not aware whether John Wesley and Whitefield ever exchanged correspondence on the topic or spoke with each other about it. Our evidence is that Wesley abhorred 18th century slavery and found it incompatible not just with the Bible but with basic human morality. But although Wesley had his differences with Whitefield over Calvinism, I’m not sure if there is any written record of their disagreements over slavery. They may exist. I’m just not aware of them.

As one looking back on Whitefield’s ministry, I wonder how to weigh all of this. I wonder whether his support of slavery has called his salvation into question. Of course, we cannot know. He must stand before his Lord as we all must. But as slavery has had such a profound impact on American history and society, I do find myself wondering whether Christian slave owners or advocates for slavery are bound for hell at the final judgment.

Is it possible that a person could be a racist and owner of chattel slaves and find favor with God? Or are all those men and women like Whitefield damned?

This is not merely a historical question, of course.

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20 thoughts on “Is Whitefield damned?

  1. Do you really want to open this line of speculation about who is or is not hell bound? The answer calls for us to pass some sort of judgment on people. Makes me a little uncomfortable. Why restrict it to slave owners? George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, modern day human traffickers. Let’s add in serial murders and genocidal killers. Unabomber, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot. Moving on to pornographers Larry Flint, Hugh Hefner. Or perhaps the owner of a perfectly legal Nevada whorehouse and the prostitutes who willingly work for him. Adulterers- too many to count but pretty much any Hollywood A-lister for a start. How about liars? Brian Williams. Thieves- Bernie Madoff. Or perhaps the person who sits next to me every Sunday in the pews who is sinning in some way unknown to me.

    1. I don’t pretend to pass judgment, but as one who confesses a creed that says Jesus will judge, I do find the question of who he will judge important to my own salvation.

  2. I think it is an interesting, but also good, question to consider. As you said it is not merely a historical question. The first thought that appears to my mind is the many who appear to promote the expansion of sophisticated and public methods of gambling to support other sopposedly good causes. I’m not equating the evil, but I think the question is fair: is any good cause, well “good,” if it can’t succeed without taking advantage of addicts. :/

  3. A large number of the Methodist leaders in early America owned slaves. It was not uncommon below the Mason-Dixon Line.

    Francis Asbury may have owned a slave or two. This has been glossed over, in much the same way Asbury’s gun ownership, and use have been glossed over.

    It wouldn’t be too hard to name the early bishops, circuit riders, ministers, and notable layman who owned slaves. The information is available.

    If you go back and read the various ante-bellum Methodist publications aimed at the States below the Mason-Dixon Line you will find numerous articles on how to explain things to your servants.

    The Black slaves would have been slaves in Africa or America, and there can be no doubt that American slavery would have been preferable to African slavery—then or now. Because slavery still exists in Africa.

    1. Source that started me looking into this was a book review of me biography of Whitefield. Scholarly article I found later gave me the dates and more details.

  4. So are we saying that slave-ownership in a time when slavery was legal is the unpardonable sin? I think, contrary to that, that we can safely say that God will judge a man or woman ‘according to the light he (or she) has.’

      1. If Whitefield (or any American slaveholder in the ante-bellum US) was a spiritually-reborn Christian, then why else would we even consider whether he was damned? Why would we think that someone’s position on slavery or their participation in the slavery system could counteract the work that God had started in them in regeneration? We’re either saying that their participation in the institution of slavery was apostasy, or we’re saying that it was evidence that they weren’t regenerate to begin with.

        1. Sure, but to me such sins could be forgiven. That is why I was confused by the term “unpardonable.”

          In his Thoughts on Slavery, Wesley warned slave owners and traders about damnation even though slavery was legal. And he clearly believed and taught that we could sin away our salvation by backsliding. But we could also be forgiven by repentance.

          So the question is: At what point did slavery become sinful?

  5. It seems to me that if we are saying that Whitefield was damned then we are saying that at least that sin was not forgiven. If we’re saying that they were not forgiven, we’re assuming that sin is only forgiven if it’s repented of explicitly.

    In the years leading up to his own conversion, Martin Luther actually had been going to confession as frequently as possible. He did so because he believed that the sacrament of penance brought forgiveness, but he never felt peace from that–in fact, according to Justo Gonzalez’ The Story of Christianity (volume II), it only made him feel more sinful. In addition to feeling more sinful, he started to obsessively catalog his thoughts and deeds in order that he not forget any sin he needed to confess. After all, if sin has to be confessed in order to be forgiven, there’s also the possibility that one might forget to confess a sin. It was in light of this struggle that Luther found the answer to his spiritual difficulties in Romans 1:17.

    To answer your question–are we asking when slavery became sinful, or are we asking at what point the guilt of the sin attaches to a person? For Wesley, sin’s most common definition was “any willful violation of any known law”–the guilt of participation in slavery would thus have to follow the Holy Spirit’s conviction that the institution was sinful.

    But I think the real question isn’t ‘when did it become sinful?’ I think the real question is, ‘does sin in believers have to be explicitly repented of, or else a believer forfeits their salvation?’ I don’t think it does.

    1. Thanks for keeping with this conversation, James. I’ve never thought about what it would mean to explicitly repent for each and every instance of sinful action. For me the tough issue is whether people who advocated something that we now consider to be obviously and clearly sinful are culpable for their support of those things.

      The risk of a negative answer appears to me to be a slide toward antinomianism. The risk of not allowing a negative answer is declaring people who lived under previous theological systems damned despite their devotion to Jesus.

      1. I don’t think that allowing that Whitefield is not damned risks slipping into antinomianism, in and of itself. If I am not mistaken, you believe that it would be such a risk because then we could say that what was in fact a sin was left unpunished (we are saying they are not ‘culpable’ for this sin). Is this a fair summary?

        But we will all be judged on the Day of Judgment for every thing we ever thought, did and said–both righteous and unrighteous. Just because we are forgiven does not mean that our sins are declared not-sin. Wesley’s sermon “The Great Assize” (II.6-10) says of this judgment,

        It may be answered, it is apparently and absolutely necessary, for the full display of the glory of God, for the clear and perfect manifestation of his wisdom, justice, power, and mercy toward the heirs of salvation, that all the circumstances of [the righteous’] life should be placed in open view, together with all their tempers, and all the desires, thoughts, and intents of their hearts. Otherwise how would it appear out of what a depth of sin and misery the grace of God had delivered them?

        So even while Whitefield may have sinned in his support of slavery (which is and was a sinful institution), that does not mean that he is unforgiven for it. Nor can we say that the sin was left unpunished, because the punishment for it was born by Christ on the cross.

        1. I am quite ready to say that I can’t say whether Whitefield is damned or not. I can’t possibly know the answer to that, so don’t interpret any of this as a campaign on my part against him.

          My concern over antinomianism comes from what happens if we say Whitefield was not culpable for his sin because he did not understand it as sinful. That seems to me to open a huge door to all kinds of sin.

          This gets even more complicated when the things we consider sins change over time. Slavery is a case study in this. By the 18th century, slavery was controversial. It was much less controversial in the first century AD or 10th century BC. Part of my question in this post is how do we understand and deal with such things.

        2. I think that culpability for sins (whether we did or didn’t know they were sins) is a separate issue from being forgiven for those sins.

          Wesley’s most common definition of sin was “Any intentional violation of any known law.” If your concern is that assuming someone is not culpable for a sin they did not know to be a sin leads to antinomianism, it seems that Wesley’s definition of sin would likewise concern you as lending itself toward antinomianism.

  6. Both Jesus and Paul say that we are judged by deeds we have done in the body, and Jesus stresses we will be held accountable in the details, even influences. But we are also told that Jesus died to save sinners. Hebrews warns we should not spurn this offer: Revelation 6:15 pictures all the ranks of earth running for cover when the wrath of the Lamb is revealed: “…the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free” calling out for rocks and mountains to cover them. A warning should be regarded as an act of mercy.

    1. Many people do not think it was–even some Methodists. W.E. Sangster of London’s Westminster Central Hall did his doctoral dissertation on the Methodist doctrine of Christian perfection and eventually published it as the book The Path To Perfection (1942). He actually includes a whole chapter dedicated to Wesley’s definition and various problems with it. It might be worth a read, if you can find a copy on alibris or amazon.

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