I am conflicted myself about what to do about these problems. Christian responses to figures such as Whitefield run the gamut from admiring defensiveness to utter condemnation. Let me illustrate by citing an eclectic assortment of reactions to Whitefield and his historic contemporaries.
Probably the lowest moment for me as I researched my 2014 biography of George Whitefield came at the Evangelical Library in the northern suburbs of London. That library owns dozens of letters to and from Whitefield, and I had arrived to read their collection.
A little background: Whitefield, the most influential evangelist of the First Great Awakening in Britain and America, was a slaveowner. Colonial Georgia had originally banned slavery, a ban that Whitefield sought to overturn. He wanted to fund his Bethesda orphanage in Georgia partly through setting up plantations in the colony. He was likely the most influential advocate pushing the Georgia trustees to legalize the institution of slavery.
Then comes the low point: Whitefield earlier had said he would wait to introduce slaves in Georgia until they became legal. But I found a letter at the Evangelical Library from 1749, in which a white Bethesda resident reported to Whitefield that there were already at least five “negros” (presumably slaves) working at Bethesda. The black workers were clearing land for a plantation.
Slavery only became legal in Georgia in 1751; apparently, Whitefield permitted its illegal introduction in Georgia after all. By the mid-1740s, many slaves had already been smuggled into the colony, and by 1749, Whitefield and many Georgia property owners were certain the trustees would legalize the slaves’ presence soon anyway. So, capping off the biggest moral problem in Whitefield’s biography, he seems to have been willing to break the law, so much did he want slaves brought into Georgia.
For someone who specializes in 18th-century history, the question of slavery is an ever-present problem. As an evangelical, I deeply admire the work of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, but I can’t get around the fact that they both owned slaves.
What do we do about flawed historical heroes like these? Christians are hardly unique in having to deal with the issue; it’s also an American problem and a human problem. It’s American in the sense that America was founded on the fundamental tension between liberty and slavery. Thus, we have a panoply of historical heroes in America (George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Robert E. Lee, and many more) who were also slaveowners.
But this is also a human problem in the sense that every historical hero has his or her imperfections, if not grotesque sins. Protestant celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation were tempered, for example, by the acknowledgment that Martin Luther made a host of vile anti-Jewish remarks, especially late in his life. Admirers of Martin Luther King Jr. likewise have to face evidence of serial adultery.