I finished Mark Noll’s fabulous The Rise of Evangelicalism about a week ago. For a book that deals in “boring” historical details like facts, figures and dates, it was quite an enjoyable read. Anyone hoping to learn about the early days of evangelicalism should begin with it.
In a couple of earlier posts I quoted Noll on the subject of the revivalist George Whitefield and his purchase of slaves to work in his Georgian orphanage. I compared Whitefield with the Southern theologian R. L. Dabney and noted that Whitefield’s foray into slavery was pragmatic and not based on a view of ethnic superiority as Dabney’s was. As Noll explains, “First generation evangelicals either held slaves themselves (Edwards, Whitefield, Samuel Davies) or simply accepted the slave system as a given in the British empire” (p. 247). Noll points out that Whitefield was an “effective preacher to slaves” and early-on attacked the slave-system (though Noll does not reference any primary sources). John Wesley, one of the c0-founders of Methodism with Whitefield, wrote scathingly against the trade and dutifully evangelized slaves. Noll says of John and his brother Charles: “The Wesleys’ eagerness to preach to blacks, their disregard for questions of social standing and their open welcome for fellowship in Christ to all who believed also marked the Methodism that emerged strongly in Antigua” (174). By the end of the book, Noll rounds out the picture of early evangelicals and slavery by highlighting the strong reaction against it by Samuel Hopkins (mentored by Edwards) and of course William Wilberforce.
Upon finishing Noll’s book, I have turned to Arnold Dallimore’s “mini-Whitefield”; the single-volume condensing of his magnum opus double-volume biography of the great preacher. Dallimore gives more detail, even in this shorter work, to Whitefield’s view of African slaves that I think is helpful:
Whitefield’s inherent kindness is manifest also in an action he now undertook to assist the black men and women in America. Having witnessed the cruelty practiced on many slaves, he now wrote and published A Letter to the Inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina Concerning Their Negroes. It read, in part,
“Your dogs are caressed and fondled at your tables, but your slaves, who are frequently styled dogs or beasts, have not an equal privilege. They are scarce permitted to pick up the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables. Nay, some…have been, upon the most trifling provocation, cut with knives, and have had forks thrown into their flesh; not to mention what numbers have been given up to the inhuman usage of cruel task-masters, who, by their unrelenting scourges, have ploughed upon their backs, and made long furrows, and at length brought them even to death itself. I hope there are few such monsters of barbarity suffered to subsist among you.
Is it not the highest ingratitude as well as cruelty, not to let your poor slaves enjoy some fruits of their labour? Whilst I have viewed your plantations cleared and cultivated, and have seen many spacious houses, and the owners of them faring sumptuously every day, my blood has almost run cold within me, when I have considered how many of your slaves have neither convenient food to eat, nor proper raiment to put on, notwithstanding most of the comforts you enjoy were solely owing to their indefatigable labours…’Go to, ye rich men, weep and how, for your miseries shall come upon you!’ Behold the provision of the poor negroes, which have reaped your fields, which is by you denied them, crieth, and the cries of them which have reaped have come into the ears of the Lord of Saboth!”
This letter, which sounded as though it were a declaration by an Old Testament prophet, received a speedy circulation. Whitefield gave it to [Benjamin] Franklin to be published in pamphlet form, but it was also reprinted in newspapers in almost all the Colonies (Dallimore, George Whitefield, 78-79).