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    Wesley, Whitefield, and a Gospel That Disrupts

    Two preachers who shaped American Christianity diverged sharply on whether to protest or exploit slavery, with consequences that persist today.

    By Ian Olson

    August 22, 2022
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    • Seth Farley

      Hello Mr. Olson, Thank you for writing this article; I read every word of it and believe that your emphasis on the idea that belief in Christ should have practical implications for the way a person relates to larger social systems is well founded. Like you, I am disturbed by the propensity of many people to use Christianity as a form of propaganda for the state, aligning themselves so closely with political parties in a bid for power that they pervert the Gospel and use it to justify sin. It was with good reason that Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness by promising Him all the kingdoms of the world (cf. Luke 4:5-6), as it has proved to be one of the most alluring, perennial pitfalls for mankind throughout history. There can be no perfect society in a fallen world, and religious zeal has too often been a blindfold to the perpetuation of monstrous systems and the mistreatment of others out of a warped sense that "God ordained life to be this way" or that "these things are unimportant so long as we show holiness in X other way (i.e. sexual purity, frequent public prayer and attendance of church services, being pro-life, etc.)" I find that this is the primary problem with many conservative Christians today: They are so preoccupied with creating a "shining city on a hill" that they neglect the inner sanctification to which they have been called. They strive to build a "Christian nation" while ignoring the suffering of drug addicts, prostitutes, homosexuals, and other "reprobate" individuals that the social systems they support help to perpetuate. However, unless I am misunderstanding you (please correct me if I am), I fear that your desire for social justice may have caused you to drift too far to the other extreme that plagues most liberal Christians today: the tendency to think of the Gospel of Christ chiefly as a humanitarian political movement that has divine sanction. You argue that, "There is not, and never has been, preaching that bypasses the time and place in which it is situated; there is only preaching that is aware of its contemporary motivations and implications, and preaching that is not," but it is precisely the transcendent nature of Christ's teaching that makes it unique. While it is true that Jesus did many miracles to alleviate human suffering around Him and warned that all people would be judged in large part based on their charity toward others (cf. Matthew 25:31-46), He was also careful to insist in numerous passages of the Gospels that His purpose transcended the temporal societal structures of His time. Instead of seeking to overturn the political system after feeding 5,000 people in the wilderness, John 6:15 states that, "When Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone" so as to prevent them from doing so. He later emphasized the spiritual focus of His ministry to that same crowd when he told them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.” (John 6:26-27)." That Christ was not a political revolutionary is most poignantly demonstrated in John chapter 18 as He stood before Pilate. When asked why He was delivered up for crucifixion by the Jews, Jesus replied, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” Pilate then asked him explicitly, "Are you a King, then?" Jesus asserted His dominion, but once again emphasized the spiritual nature of His purpose: "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice." (John 18:35-37). This truth of Christ - who He is as the Son of God, His role in the redemption and transformation of human souls as He enables them to become more like Himself (cf. 2 Peter 1:4) - is His transcendent message, words which will persist even as "heaven and earth pass away." (Matthew 24:35). You later argue that, "Christ saves us from subjection to the powers of sin and death in whatever form they appear: spiritual, psychological, political, or economic. God’s deliverance of Israel did not bring them to some disembodied Elysium or Nirvana removed from political conditions; neither did the redemption accomplished by the incarnate Son of God." If the goal of Christ's work was to save us from oppression in this life, why did He promise His disciples the opposite? Shortly before His Crucifixion, He told them, "If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me...These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble. They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me. But these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them. (John 15:19-21, 16:1-4). However, Christ was not content to leave them without consolation: "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). As author James Finley phrased it most succinctly, "God's love protects us from nothing; but God's love sustains us in all things." Jesus commands us to "take up our cross and follow Him" (cf. Matthew 16:24) but also gives us the strength to carry it. Any program that subordinates the inner transformation of the individual (with the attendant personal works of charity) to some larger program of political, economic, or social transformation should be regarded with suspicion. Reformation of societal systems can be a good thing, but it is not the Gospel, and should not be conflated with it.

    • Jason Thompson

      Hi Ian, where in Southern Wisconsin do you live? Would love to meet sometime. Insightful article. Thanks for sharing!

    The history of the world is propelled by attempts to subjugate, supplant, and dominate. American Christianity, to its shame, has often been determined more by this history and these motives than by the person whom Christians confess as Lord. If Christians genuinely wish to commend the gospel to the world, they must be honest regarding the history of their participation in these injustices, or else the gospel will be understood as nothing more than the sanctioning of injustice and privilege.

    What is the kingdom of God and eternal life without justice? According to Paul, “The kingdom of God is … righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). Biblical righteousness refers not merely to individualistic morality, as it is commonly understood in our time, but also to larger, public notions of justice. Justice is thus not peripheral to the gospel. The gospel is the enactment of God’s justice within the wreckage of history. Without the promise of justice, whatever is preached may approximate the gospel but will not be it.

    Among gospel preachers, present and past, are those who claim to spurn contemporary attitudes and faddish attention to social issues in favor of undiluted proclamation, proclamation with no stake in any matter extraneous to the gospel. But this is a claim without substance. We need only examine the wrongs, from slavery to segregation, that have been defended with “Christian” reasoning to appreciate how erroneous it is. There is not, and never has been, preaching that bypasses the time and place in which it is situated; there is only preaching that is aware of its contemporary motivations and implications, and preaching that is not. Preaching that is not so aware is likely to accommodate the prevailing ideology, all the while insisting its sole interest is the gospel. Such preaching tends to be preoccupied with interiority and with the cultivation of personal peace, too often untroubled by the human oppression God has consecrated us to defeat. It’s an emaciated substitute for the announcement that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has overcome the dominion of sin and death in all of its forms.

    Two historical figures, George Whitefield and John Wesley (both ordained in the Church of England), illustrate how gospel proclamation can be diluted through accommodation to ideology or can challenge prevailing ideology by faithfully communicating the emancipation accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Together these men shaped the future of American religion through the evangelical revival ignited by their preaching throughout the American colonies. Both emphasized the need for conversion and for holiness, though they famously came to disagreement over the particulars of divine election.

    portrait of George Whitefield

    Portrait of George Whitefield by Joseph Badger, ca. 1745

    But the differences between George Whitefield and John Wesley extended beyond election and free will into concrete matters of justice. In spite of his inveterate belief that God alone is responsible for a person’s believing response to the gospel, Whitefield viewed power and wealth as instruments for evangelistic persuasion. Wesley, meanwhile, denounced such means and frequently criticized the injustices perpetrated by the empire of which he and Whitefield were both citizens.

    Whitefield is one of the most revered preachers in the American Calvinist tradition. He was also a slave owner. Until recently, church historians tended to gloss over this fact as unfortunate but not significant and instead emphasize his evangelistic campaigns and portray him as a paragon of holiness. But what sort of holiness can overlook the misery of fellow image bearers and not recognize the humanity of the enslaved? And what sort of preaching preserves and, worse, proliferates such a practice?

    The problem is not only that Whitefield himself owned slaves but that he advocated for the protection and expansion of slavery. In his biography of Whitefield, Peter Choi hints at an underlying reason when he notes the difference between Whitefield and Wesley as illustrated by the goods each brought with him to the colonies:

    The cargo Whitefield brought with him provides a glimpse into the work he intended to accomplish in America. In contrast to Wesley, who packed little besides books and treatises, Whitefield came to Georgia bearing gifts from the bounty of a rich imperial metropolis. … Aware that he lived and worked in an “empire of goods,” the young preacher began his ministry in America by tapping into this world and deploying worldly means to religious advantage. He believed in the power of commercial goods to attract the people of Georgia to the message he preached. Aware of destitute conditions in Georgia, he sought to inject the hope of imperial bounty into this colonial hinterland.footnote

    Biblical righteousness refers not merely to individualistic morality, but also to larger, public notions of justice. Justice is not peripheral to the gospel.

    Whitefield quipped in a letter to a friend, “What a flourishing country might Georgia have been, had the use of [slaves] been permitted years ago?”footnote In the same letter he complained, “How many white people have been destroyed for want of them [that is, slaves], and how many thousands of pounds spent to no purpose at all?”footnote In his book The Color of Compromise, Jemar Tisby has further documented how Whitefield’s advocacy of slavery to colonial leaders contributed to Georgia reversing its original decision to be a slave-free region.footnote The evangelist directly advanced interests which degraded human life. The suffering of Black slaves accounted for little, and the presumed priority of White people went unchallenged.

    Upon recognizing the benefits of slavery, Whitefield determined the practice was legitimate and found verification for this in the Bible, on the basis of Abraham’s owning of slaves and two other passages that referenced slave-owning. Following a pattern prevalent throughout history concerning matters of power and privilege, Whitefield allowed motivated reasoning to bypass exegesis, settling instead for endorsement by concordance. Besides, to deduce that because individuals in salvation history owned slaves the practice must therefore still be licit now is to bypass the disruptive force of the coming of Jesus Christ.

    One might counter that Whitefield was simply a product of his time. But his attitude and commitments were not universal even in that era. By contrast, Wesley identified slavery not only as a moral defect in individuals but as a structural sin infecting society as a whole. He didn’t attempt to justify it morally or economically, as Whitefield had done. Instead, he denounced it in his preaching, in pamphlets, in speeches, to anyone and everyone. He refused to baptize slave owners and appealed to the image of God reflected in all the ethnicities of Adam’s race to discourage the denigration of nonwhites. He called them “brethren”footnote and deplored the hypocrisy of colonial revolutionaries who called taxation without representation “slavery” while nevertheless owning slaves themselves.footnote “Where is the justice of inflicting the severest evils on those that have done us no wrong?” he wrote in his tract Thoughts upon Slavery. That English law authorized this practice was immaterial, for how could a law overturn a thing’s injustice? To appeal to legislative protocol was only to obscure the fact that the empire was “depriving them of liberty itself, to which an Angolan has the same natural right as an Englishman, and on which he sets a high value.”footnote

    portrait of John Wesley

    Portrait of John Wesley by George Romney, 1789

    Wesley had no patience for colonists who claimed they did not hate Africans as such or who thought economic necessity justified the practice. He castigated exactly the type of reasoning his friend Whitefield used, exemplified by members of Parliament he quotes as claiming, “But the furnishing us with slaves is necessary, for the trade, and wealth, and glory of our nation.”footnote Wesley responds:

    Wealth is not necessary to the glory of any nation; but wisdom, virtue, justice, mercy, generosity, public spirit, love of our country. These are necessary to the real glory of a nation; but abundance of wealth is not. … Better is honest poverty than all the riches bought by the tears, and sweat, and blood, of our fellow-creatures.footnote

    Wesley did not view slavery as discrete wrongs perpetrated by individuals. For Wesley, it could never be sufficient to leave the mitigation of such wrongdoing to the consciences of individual believers, when they are indoctrinated and formed by unjust systems. He did not promote solutions based only on a program of individual conversions, such as is still commonly heard to this day: “Society will only change one converted heart at a time.” Preaching which concerns itself only with individual conversion fails to reckon with the depth and pervasiveness of sin. As American history so readily shows, a nation of pious believers can fund and defend entire economies of wickedness without once recognizing the perversity of what they are sanctioning.

    Whitefield is not the villain of this history. He is simply an exemplar of a sort of Christianity that is prevalent to this day, one that has looked to him as a gauge of successful gospel proclamation. While it now distances itself from the particular evil in which he participated, it also tends to minimize the import of his participation in it. Unsurprisingly, evangelists working within Whitefield’s paradigm today still often fail to criticize injustice or to proclaim the deliverance and disruption that characterize the reign of Jesus Christ. They’ll promise life in the age to come but constrain its manifestation in the present, for instance by ignoring or minimizing the ongoing repercussions of slavery and segregation, or even by asserting that attention to such matters compromises the gospel. By accommodating unjust norms that are beneficial to them, they leave many trapped in despondency. They tend to confront only certain types of sin in their teaching and preaching, focusing on individual sin and particularly sexual transgression, while neglecting societal wrongs that are also condemned in scripture.

    Whitefield’s approach deodorizes those systemic sins with appeals to “providence.” To give a crass example from another extolled figure in the American Calvinist past, in A Defense of Virginia Robert Louis Dabney rhetorically asks, “Was it nothing, that this race, morally inferior, should be brought into close relations to a nobler race?” Dabney claimed that “for the African race, such as Providence has made it, and where he has placed it in America, slavery was the righteous, the best, yea, the only tolerable relation.”footnote Christians cannot excuse or overlook such a perverse claim from one of their own: it must be censured as the sleight of hand it is.

    The gospel announces God’s judgment on all that distorts and degrades his people, and promises to save them from it. Christ saves us from subjection to the powers of sin and death in whatever form they appear: spiritual, psychological, political, or economic. God’s deliverance of Israel did not bring them to some disembodied Elysium or Nirvana removed from political conditions; neither did the redemption accomplished by the incarnate Son of God. Christians who profess adherence to scriptural authority betray their own commitments if salvation and renewal are treated as belonging solely to the domain of the individual, or the spiritual, or a circumscribed list of sins. There is not one domain with which salvation is concerned and another in which salvation has no claim.

    To be true to its subject, the crucified and resurrected Lord, gospel proclamation must address the faults of its individual listeners but also any faults in the assumptions and structures that bind a community together. No society is simply the sum of its members, a mere aggregate of atomic individuals. Therefore it is not enough for preaching to focus upon individual guilt. It must lay bare how individuals are implicated in larger, systemic wrongs, since the individual and the communal are inextricably entangled.

    Any preaching that leaves unchallenged a community’s presumption of its own righteousness does not announce deliverance but simply surrenders itself to the community’s existing story.

    Moreover, the communal identity of any people carries with it assumptions of that people’s role in history and their responsibilities toward that role. Communal identity therefore offers justification for activities sanctioned by that historical role, as in the case of Whitefield, who championed slavery and empire.

    The gospel must expose the wrongs such identities would presume to justify. Israel’s election did not excuse its sins: how much less can any modern nation claim its historical destiny warrants its atrocities? Gospel proclamation which bypasses the social dimension leaves unchallenged the stories the community  –the tribe, the nation, the empire  –tells itself to justify and extenuate its sins. Gospel proclamation must contend against such narratives explicitly, or else the gospel will announce not the kingdom of God but generic platitudes.

    The test of all gospel proclamation is Augustine’s test of scriptural interpretation: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” Any interpretation engenders love of God only insofar as it provokes concrete love of neighbor  – a love that the sick, suffering, impoverished, or oppressed neighbor can recognize as love. Short of this, the gospel will not be heard or heeded as the justice of God.

    Healthy, fruitful interpretation of scripture gives rise to disruption. The deliverance accomplished by Jesus Christ does not bypass the social setting of the convert. Any preaching that leaves unchallenged a community’s presumption of its own righteousness does not announce deliverance but simply surrenders itself to the community’s existing story.

    The gospel is a prisoner of culture to the extent that it is understood to substantiate and support the norms of a given majority culture or when it is used to minimize the importance of confronting social ills. Whenever Christian faith is commended as beneficial to the project of the state, the faith is demoted to the status of a means toward that end. Christian faith can endorse the state’s ends when they are just, but cannot be equated with its interests without functionally aligning the two. Idolatry of nation or political party is one consequence.

    Christians cannot act as apologists for any nation when its actions violate the values of the kingdom of God. They must reject and denounce privileges that depend on the exploitation of others. Christians owe allegiance to a Lord who is the ruler of all, relativizing all other allegiances. No empire, no commonwealth, no nation is in complete alignment with the good will of God, and so the deliverance accomplished in Christ and proclaimed in preaching will always disrupt the norms that shape our world as it is. The good that any state would aim to accomplish, even when its purposes are sufficiently just, is always diluted by powered interests.

    The church’s witness to God’s judgment must include testifying against injustice but also contributing to efforts to relieve suffering and to instill the hope of the kingdom of God. Calling for repentance must coincide with materially assisting with repair and recovery, as this is what concrete justice looks like. These efforts may not bring the kingdom, but they prepare the way for the One who will. The church cannot defer this responsibility, and must continually point to the basis for these things in the gospel. All human beings desperately need to encounter this righteousness that judges ungodliness and injustice in order to salvage its perpetrators and turn them to helping to rectify the world.

    Even Wesley never formulated a systematic denunciation of slavery, and we in the present could judge the adequacy of his actions. But we should remember the list that may one day be written of our own shortcomings. We can be grateful for the witness Wesley bore and ask God for the grace to make our own blind spots visible to us, that we may repent of participating in and enabling systems of injustice. We can be grateful that the gospel which condemns all injustice offers plentiful forgiveness for all who repent. The beginning and end of the gospel is love: the love with which God loves us all, and the love for all people that this engenders within his rescued and renewed people.

    Footnotes

    1. Peter Y. Choi, George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 49.
    2. Ibid., 161.
    3. Ibid., 162.
    4. Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 47-48.
    5. “A Serious Address to the People of England with Regard to the State of the Nation,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume XI: Thoughts, Addresses, Prayers, Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), 145. “A Calm Address to Our American Colonies,” Works, 81.
    6. “A Calm Address to Our American Colonies,” Works, 81.
    7. Works, 70.
    8. Works, 73.
    9. Works, 73-74.
    10. Robert Lewis Dabney, A Defense of Virginia (and Through Her, of the South) in Recent and Pending Contests against the Sectional Party (New York: E.J. Hale, 1867), 281.
    Contributed By portrait of Ian Olsen

    Ian Olson has written for Mockingbird, Covenant, Mere Orthodoxy, Christ and Pop Culture, and Earth & Altar. He lives with his wife and four children in southern Wisconsin.

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