In His New Book, Eric Metaxas Whitewashes George Whitefield on Slavery

In his new book If You Can Keep It, Eric Metaxas provides an overview of early American history in order to remind us what is special about America. In the process, he provides a pithy formula for national success, but he makes significant historical errors and glosses over important facts. One such fact is the involvement of evangelist George Whitefield in introducing slavery to Georgia.
In his chapter on Whitefield (which appears to be summarized without attribution from Thomas Kidd’s excellent book on Whitefield), Metaxas asserts that Whitefield’s preaching was a great equalizer among American social classes. On page 111, he adds:

The egalitarian strains of the Gospel extended to women and blacks as well. Many female preachers were spawned by the revival of the Great Awakening and many African American preachers too. Unlike most of the mainline ministers of his day, Whitefield often spoke to “Negroes” and once remarked that he was especially touched when one of them came to faith. One of them even asked Whitefield, “Have I a soul?” That Whitefield believed he did meant that the Negro was in this most important respect perfectly equal to whites.
Metaxas, Eric (2016-06-14). If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (p. 111). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is a disturbing whitewash of Whitefield’s views and actions relating to African slaves. As Kidd documents in his book (see also this post), Whitefield was “convinced that introducing slavery into Georgia was essential to the colony’s economic prospects…” Prior to Whitefield’s advocacy for slavery, Georgia had banned it. Whitefield himself owned slaves. On March 22, 1751, Whitefield wrote about the need for slavery in Georgia:

As for the lawfulness of keeping slaves, I have no doubt, since I hear of some that were bought with Abraham’s money, and some that were born in his house.—And I cannot help thinking, that some of those servants mentioned by the Apostles in their epistles, were or had been slaves. It is plain, that the Gibeonites were doomed to perpetual slavery, and though liberty is a sweet thing to such as are born free, yet to those who never knew the sweets of it, slavery perhaps may not be so irksome. However this be, it is plain to a demonstration, that hot countries cannot be cultivated without negroes. What a flourishing country might Georgia have been, had the use of them been permitted years ago? How many white people have been destroyed for want of them, and how many thousands of pounds spent to no purpose at all?

Africans are expendable and whites are not.
Yes, Whitefield preached to slaves and expressed pleasure when they converted. However, he also resisted the urging of at least one of this colleagues to reject slavery.  Not only did he own slaves, but he used his considerable influence to change the attitudes of Georgia decision makers to allow slavery in the colony.
Whitefield biographer James Gledstone commented in 1871 on Whitefield’s efforts to bring slavery to Georgia:

How complete and miserable a failure was the attempt to unite slavery and Christianity will be seen by and by. Meanwhile we think of the orphans being habituated to look upon Negroes as a servile race, of their growing to manhood and womanhood educated in the ideas of slaveholders, and of their being able to throw over all the abominations of the system, the reputation of a philanthropist so humane and a saint so sincere and so holy as was George Whitefield; neither can we forget that every man who owned a slave would be able to justify it by Whitefield’s example.

This reminds me of David Barton’s whitewash of Thomas Jefferson on slavery.
It is beyond absurd for Metaxas to write, “The egalitarian strains of the Gospel extended to women and blacks as well.” In what universe can Whitefield’s approach to Africans be construed as regarding them as “perfectly equal to whites?”
Apparently, Whitefield worship is a matter of great importance to Metaxas. He needs Whitefield to fill the role of the great Christian reason we had the revolution. About Whitefield, Metaxas says:

We might also say that providence brought them [unity and self-government] into existence through the life and work of a single man, very little known to us today. We are talking about the life and work of the man named George Whitefield, without whom the United States simply could not have come into being.
Metaxas, Eric (2016-06-14). If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (p. 77). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Did providence also bring about slavery in Georgia?
Apparently, Metaxas needs Whitefield to be larger than life in order to bring God into the founding. At the close of the chapter on Whitefield, Metaxas says:

When we take the full measure of Whitefield’s role in creating what would become the United States, who can help but wonder whether our history is one in which God himself— and if not God, then at least those who are motivated by the idea of God and all it portends— has played a central role?
Metaxas, Eric (2016-06-14). If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (p. 114). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

If you want a book to delight you with pleasantries and clever phrasing, this one could work. However, if you want accurate and honest history throughout, this is not the book for you.
*In my Kindle copy, there are only 7 end notes. I could be wrong but it seems like Metaxas owes a large debt to Kidd’s book on Whitefield.

Historian Thomas Kidd: On Slavery and George Whitefield

Thomas Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University and a prolific writer. In 2012, World Magazine published Kidd’s reporting on Thomas Nelson’s decision to remove David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies from publication.
In October 2014, Yale University Press will publish Kidd’s book on George Whitefield. In his most recent newsletter, Kidd addresses the uncomfortable fact that many otherwise admirable figures in our history owned slaves. In the case of Whitefield, he not only owned slaves but worked to advance slavery.  Kidd gave me permission to use this material from his Thursday newsletter:

The most challenging issue for a biographer of George Whitefield (as with Patrick Henry) is his identity as a slave owner. I admire Whitefield and Henry, as well as similar figures of their time such as Jonathan Edwards or George Washington, but their owning people as slaves remains an unavoidable moral problem.
How does one admire a historical figure who kept slaves? How does an author fully convey his disapproval of American slavery, while not condemning an individual altogether? I am not sure that I have gotten the balance exactly right, but we want to avoid two extremes.
One extreme might suggest that Whitefield was a great man of God, and that harping on his owning of slaves denigrates his memory as a Christian hero.
The other extreme might say that whatever Whitefield accomplished for God was fatally tainted by his owning slaves, so he is better forgotten or just used as a cautionary tale.
I think the better approach is to humbly acknowledge that we all have moral blind spots. We can justify all manner of habits and practices that, in three centuries’ retrospect, may seem appalling. But this does not excuse Whitefield’s complicity in what was a fundamentally immoral system, from the terrible wars and slave catching trade in Africa, to the horrible passage of the forced Atlantic voyage, to the dreadful working conditions for slaves, to the physical and sexual abuse that many slaves endured in the Americas.
Jonathan Edwards seems an easier case to forgive, as he only kept a few household slaves and just occasionally spoke in public about the rectitude of slave owning. Whitefield, by contrast, was arguably the key figure in having slavery introduced in the colony of Georgia, where it was originally banned. I was dismayed to find archival evidence that Whitefield may have even allowed slaves to work at the property of his Bethesda before Georgia made slave owning legal.

Although I personally lean a little more toward the “fatally tainted” extreme, I like the way Kidd articulates the situation. What I also like about Kidd’s work is that he does not hold anything back. While he confesses his personal admiration for the good the man did, Kidd presents a complete picture of his evil deeds (e.g., Whitefield working to advance slavery in Georgia). This seems to me to be the proper role of the historian.