A (mostly) friendly brouhaha has broken out in the blogosphere over the puritans and slavery. Propaganda, a Christian hip hop artist, released a song titled “Precious Puritans.” The song points out that the puritans ought not to be uncritically adored by white believers because many puritans were slaveholders. Some thoughtful folks resonated with that argument, other insightful brothers pushed back a bit. (Several of them on both sides are friends of mine.) Thabiti Anyabwile and Anthony Bradley have each written summaries of the debate.
As a church historian, I resonate very much with this controversy. Every semester, I teach about some of the most well-known figures in the history of Christianity. Historical integrity, as well as a strong sense of human depravity, compels me to mention not only the good things these men and women said and did, but also their shortcomings. Origen castrated himself. Cyril of Alexandria was a thug. Martin Luther was antisemitic in his later years. A group of Anabaptist anarchists took over the city of Münster. Calvin approved of Servetus being burned at the stake. Puritans persecuted religious dissenters, including Baptists. Antebellum evangelicals owned slaves. Karl Barth probably had a long-term affair with his secretary. W.A. Criswell was a segregationist in his early ministry. Martin Luther King Jr. plagiarized portions of his dissertation. The list could go on.
Different students respond in different ways upon acquiring this sort of knowledge. Some are thankful that their heroes have been humanized, since there is always a temptation to idolize Christian leaders from bygone eras. Others really struggle with this. I can remember one student asking me in front of the entire class if I believed Martin Luther was “really” saved, seeing as he encouraged the nobles to kill anarchic peasants, gave approval to a Lutheran prince’s bigamy, and didn’t care much for Jewish people who didn’t convert to Christianity. Others students have questioned whether nineteenth-century Southern Baptists were “really” regenerate since many owned slaves and most approved of chattel slavery.
I think Thabiti nails part of what’s really going on in these discussions. Note the extended quote from his aforementioned post:
Fifth, good theology does not mechanically lead to good living. We need to understand this. It’s a commonplace Christian assertion that if we believe the right things we ought to do the right things. Then we’re perplexed when either people who believe the right things actually do vile things, or people with supposedly faulty theology actually live better than the orthodox. We’re left groping for explanations and defenses. How did the Puritans “miss it”? Why did “liberals” seem to “get it”? Well, “it” doesn’t follow mechanically, ipso facto, ex opere operato from some set of solid beliefs. There’s a whole lot of effort, application, resistance to the world, self-examination, and mortification that’s gotta accompany the doctrine in order for the duty to follow. As Flav put it, “They’re blind, baby, because they can’t see.” That’s why they missed it; they couldn’t see it. Their theology wasn’t a corrective lense; it didn’t fix the cataracts. It didn’t fix the degenerative sight of Southern Presbyterians who also missed it, or the Dutch Reformed of South Africa who not only missed it but supported Apartheid, or some of the German Reformed who missed it in Nazi Germany, and so on. And this is why I’m made slightly nervous by the tendency of some Reformed types to advocate “pure” doctrine and demur at “pure” social action. The Puritan movement was a movement in church reform and revival, and some of their heirs (I count myself one) can be too purely concerned about the purity of the church without a commensurate concern about the purity of social witness. We can stack our chips on theology, as though theology inexorably produces the social results we want with little to no attending effort. Mistake, I think. The Puritans prove that.
Exactly. We’re tempted to believe that orthopraxy naturally follows orthodoxy. After all, ideas have consequences. The problem is that we each live in the reality of Romans 7 every day of our lives. We often willfully choose to say and do things that are contrary to our professed beliefs. Every Christian (and sometimes whole “tribes” or generations of believers) also has blind spots when ti comes to certain sins in our own lives and times. Often, believers in other tribes or later generations wonder how in the world it can be that some Christians reconciled a particular sinful behavior or priority with the Scriptures. Many of my mostly white, southern students feel that way about their often segregationist parents and grandparents.
Puritanism really was a movement of sincere and mature believers. (At least this is true of the puritans whose books Reformed publishers choose to reprint for modern consumption.) But as with all groups, they had sinful blind spots where they fell short of God’s best–sometimes seriously so. Slavery is a great example of that. Persecuting Quakers and Baptists is another. I bet they were even guilty of pride, lust, deceitfulness, and gluttony–because they were sinners.
Instead of criticizing Propaganda or criticizing those who raised concerns with “Precious Puritans,” I’d urge us all to do a “speck and log” type of examination on ourselves. What are some areas where we know our orthopraxy doesn’t match up with our orthodoxy? What are some of our own cultural or generational or tribal blinders that are preventing us from honoring God as well as we might? Let’s pray that the Lord would show us these things and grant us the grace, through the power of the Spirit, to daily mortify these sins.