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.

Thomas Kidd: Ted Cruz's Traveling Companions Make Him a Non-Option

Today Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd opines on the plight of Republicans as the November election approaches. After reviewing the options on the GOP side (Trump, Cruz, Kasich), Kidd comes down about where I do: Kasich is (for him reluctantly, for me enthusiastically) the best choice. However, he echoes the worry of many Kasich supporters that a contested convention might not go to the Ohio governor.
Faced with a Cruz-Clinton match up, Kidd also shares my conviction on Cruz.

Sorry, folks. If it is Cruz vs. Clinton, I’m afraid that I’ll have to vote for a third party candidate, or not vote for president. In a way, it doesn’t matter what I do – Cruz would win Texas, for sure, with or without my vote. And I “get it” if many of my evangelical friends do support Cruz, and don’t share my alarm about the Barton-Beck connection. But for me, those traveling companions make Cruz a non-option.

Kidd didn’t mention Cruz’s father Rafael. Recently, Rafael Cruz told a Grove City College audience that the USA was the only nation on earth founded on the Word of God. Cruz has also said that the Constitution was divinely inspired.
Cruz and his supporters like to say that Cruz is a constitutional conservative. Given what Cruz’s advisors say about the Constitution (e.g., Barton says that the Constitution contains Bible verses quote verbatim), I have to ask what does it mean to be a constitutional conservative in the Cruzian sense. Given his advisors, I am not inspired to think he has a view which supports true freedom of conscience for all.
On the matter of religious liberty, Kidd has some reservations about Kasich. The answers I have heard from Kasich lead me to believe he has a balanced and reasonable view. Kasich has urged various groups to work together and has said that legislation may be needed to protect religious liberty. However, he is also sensitive to minority groups who understandably fear a loss of their rights in public accommodations.

Glenn Beck Says God Divinely Anointed Ted Cruz to be President

Glenn Beck counters Baylor history professor Thomas Kidd for saying Cruz hasn’t been divinely anointed. With the #wifewars2016 and National Enquirer and all, this has to be one of the strangest presidential races ever.
[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYb-S_KNelM[/youtube]
John Kasich, anyone?
 

Thomas Kidd on Why the Southern Baptists Canceled Ben Carson's Speech

Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention canceled Ben Carson’s appearance at a SBC pastor’s conference. A group within the convention, Baptist21, had objected and won the day. Baylor history professor Thomas Kidd had this to say in Monday’s edition (4/27/15) of the Washington Post:

This was a welcome outcome to what had the potential to be a serious snafu for the SBC. Whatever the organizers’ intentions, Baptist21 has this exactly right – hosting any political candidate carries a tacit implication of endorsement. Baptists and other evangelical denominations would do better to stop platforming political candidates at all. This includes handing out political pamphlets and “voter guides” at church.

Kidd has this exactly right. Perhaps churches have a right to speak politically but, in my opinion, they shouldn’t be arms of political parties whether on the right or left. Of course, this view of the church’s mission flies in the face of the Christian nationalist position. Fueled by a belief that their brand of Christianity should dominate the culture (dominionism), Christian nationalists view politics as a kind of evangelism where God is proclaimed as a political answer to political problems. Most conflate the Christian church with Old Testament Israel and mistake the promises made to Israel as promises to the church.
 

Historian Thomas Kidd on Deism During the Founding Era

This brief primer by Thomas Kidd in how deism was understood during the founding era is well worth reading.
Kidd cuts through the fog often generated by Christian nationalists (e.g., David Barton) and the new atheists regarding the religious beliefs of the founders. A brief sample:

So what was deism? In spite of all its diversity, deism was a strain of rationalist religion – many of its advocates, like Jefferson, would have called themselves Christians – which focused on the ethical, rational requirements of true faith and criticized the authority of ministers and institutional churches. Many of them, especially in England and America, believed that there was a true core of Christianity that one could recover through attention to Jesus’s teachings alone. One important aspect of deism that we often miss is that its adherents could hardly imagine a world not organized on theistic moral categories, such as the inherent goodness of charity. Most deists really did consider themselves serious theists, and many considered themselves devotees of Jesus and his teachings. Their deism was not just a convenient cloak for atheism.

I have read more by Jefferson than the other founders and believe Kidd to be on target.
 

The Great Confrontation of 2012: David Barton and the Evangelical Historians

In August 2012, Thomas Nelson (now part of Harper Collins Christian) pulled David Barton‘s book The Jefferson Lies from publication. This rare move by Thomas Nelson took place in the midst of efforts by several people to confront Barton with his errors. While I cannot tell the whole story (in part because I don’t know it and in part because the main players are not willing to discuss it completely), I can provide a little more insight into the situation. The door was opened to this by a footnote on David Barton’s website and other vague references to a series of meetings that took place in 2012. The footnote is on the page where Barton claims to explain false quotes from his first book. Barton says this:

Although many people, including several respected academics, have told David that they admire his honesty and transparency, others have attempted to use this practice against him. For instance, in a recent critique of David’s work, Professor Gregg Frazer of The Master’s College writes:

“Having been confronted over the use of false quotes, Barton was forced to acknowledge their illegitimacy in some way on his website. There, he describes them as “unconfirmed” – as if there is some doubt about their legitimacy. In a computer age with search capabilities, we know that these quotes are false – the fact that they are listed as “unconfirmed” reflects a stubborn attempt to hold onto them and to suggest to followers that they might be true. That is made worse by the fact that under these “unconfirmed” quotes are paragraphs maintaining that the bogus quote is something that the person might have said.” 2

What an interesting reward for trying to be honest and transparent.

Barton’s claim to be “honest and transparent” requires much more attention, but for the purpose of this post, let me move on to Barton’s description of the source of Gregg Frazer’s words. In the footnote, Barton explains the source of Frazer’s quote:

From a hostile written review of David Barton and WallBuilders written by Gregg Frazer at the request of Jay Richards. That written critique was subsequently passed on to David Barton on August 13, 2012, by the Rev. James Robison, to whom Jay Richards had distributed it. 

After Jay Richards read my book with Michael Coulter, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third Presidenthe asked ten Christian historians to read both The Jefferson Lies, and then our book. Richards wanted to get expert opinions on the facts in each book. He also asked Gregg Frazer to review Barton’s DVD, America’s Godly Heritage (which is still for sale on Barton’s website).

With Frazer’s permission, the complete review of America’s Godly Heritage is now available here.

As is clear from an examination of the paper, Frazer did not look at each one of the quotes in Barton’s first book. He specifically examined the DVD series America’s Godly Heritage. Even though the DVD is still for sale, Frazer found faulty quotes in it.

As Barton says in his footnote, this paper was presented to Barton by James Robison surrounding the time when his book was pulled by Thomas Nelson (August 2012). Robison is an apostolic elder at Gateway Church and host of the television show Life Today. As this footnote reveals, Robison was in on the confrontation as was Richards and the Christian historians. While I don’t know specifics, some met with Barton at his ranch where he rejected their advice and counsel. Furthermore, Barton met with at least one leader at the Family Research Council in August 2o12. In that meeting, Barton’s errors were confronted with promises from Barton to provide corrected material. However, nothing happened on Barton’s end until the Family Research Council was confronted by numerous Christian historians in the Spring of 2013.

Despite numerous clear factual errors, FRC continues to have Barton involved in their presentations to pastors. As Politico documented in 2013 (Sen. Ted Cruz defends Barton in this article), Barton has been accepted back into the good graces of the political arm of the Christian right (e.g., this apologetics conference).

The awareness of Barton’s systematic distortion of the nation’s founding is well known at the highest levels of the Christian political right and yet many such groups continue to promote Barton as an exemplary historian.  Because the Christian right is aware of the problems but continues to feature Barton as an historian, the “great confrontation of 2012” has turned into the “great cover-up of the present.”

Gregg Frazer’s review of America’s Godly Heritage is a devastating critique of this popular DVD program. It has been read by high level decision makers on the Christian right and ignored. I urge readers to read it and pass it around. I intend to give it more attention by focusing on various highlights in upcoming posts. Here is a follow up post on Frazer’s review.

Who Are the Real Evangelicals? A Q&A with Historian Thomas Kidd

Historian and author Thomas Kidd caught my attention again with his column at Anxious Bench about evangelicals who are not evangelicals. He contends there that there are four groups of Christians who are often confused for historic evangelicals but should not be considered evangelicals. Theological liberals make up the first group, and orthodox Presbyterians (I would add Christian reconstructionists) the second group. The next two groups, advocates of the prosperity gospel, and Christian nation proponents (think David Barton), will probably flinch about not being included. I have clearly lumped most of those people under the evangelical umbrella at one time or another so Kidd’s precision interests me.
I asked him if I could ask him a couple of questions for the sake of discussion here. He agreed and here is the exchange:
Me: Can a person be in two groups? Can a Presbyterian in your group 2 also be an evangelical? I suspect many believers in a Christian America would also see themselves as evangelical. Can they hold every other tenet of evangelicalism and work for a political solution to the nation’s problem?
Kidd: Yes, I would assume that virtually all evangelicals would also have some other denominational/congregational identity. Plenty of Presbyterians, especially in the PCA and the EPC, would fully accept the evangelical label. My point regarding Hart’s type of confessional Reformed folks is that there are conservative Protestants who explicitly reject the label evangelical, even though much of the media would automatically regard them as evangelical.
I agree that most in the Christian America (as well as prosperity gospel) camp would embrace the evangelical label, but if the core of their Christian message is American patriotism and politics – if there is, for them, an indispensable connection between the American Founding and Christianity – then I don’t see how that fits with historic evangelicalism.

Me: In the case of group 2, the Presbyterians, they have a name for their group. However, how about groups 3 and 4. How would you label them?
Kidd: Group 3 are the advocates of the “Prosperity Gospel,” Group 4 are advocates of “Christian America.” These are not how they
would necessarily label themselves, of course.
Me: As a follow up to question 2, I suspect the Christian America advocates would view the belief in America’s Godly Heritage as a hallmark of evangelicalism since they believe many of the founders were evangelicals. By excluding this group from the historic evangelicalism, are we not engaging in a debate over what historic evangelicalism is? It seems to me that historic evangelicals and Christian nationalists are in a dispute over the definition of evangelicalism with the Christian nation group believing your definition of evangelicalism is missing the important political element. What is your reaction to that formulation? If you think I am right, can you say briefly what you point to historically to suggest they are off?
Kidd: Yes, the whole debate is a question of what historic evangelicalism is. Christian America folks are often eager to cast the non-evangelical Founders as evangelicals, because doing so helps to justify their close connection between the Christian faith and the American Founding. Thus their desire to find quotes that might suggest that Jefferson or Franklin, or other non-evangelicals were actually devout, traditional believers.Historic evangelicals, conversely, say that while they would be delighted if it turned out that Franklin or Jefferson were actually evangelicals, there’s no good evidence to suggest that they were. This is no big deal for historic evangelicals, because our faith is not fundamentally connected to the American Founding. We’re thankful for the many good things about the Founding, especially the traditions of religious liberty and God-given equality. But we don’t need any of the Founders to have been Christians or evangelicals. Some were, some weren’t – they were a mixed lot, even if they pretty much all held to some basic Christian/theistic ideas, like the notion that God is the author of our liberties.
Thomas Kidd is the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution and the upcoming George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.

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.
 

From Barton to Scherr: Thomas Kidd on Various Visions of Thomas Jefferson

Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture seeks “to advance knowledge of the role Christianity has played in mediating larger social and intellectual forces.”  The Spring issue

includes an article by Arthur Sherr (sic), entitled “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife.” When the article appeared, we asked for comment from other historians who have studied the role of religion in Jefferson’s thought. (Last week’s response by John Ragosta is here.)

Thomas Kidd weighs in, finds some problems in Scherr’s analysis and then recalls his work on David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies for World Magazine.

I covered many conservative and Christian historians’ rejection of Barton for the evangelical periodical WORLD Magazine in 2012. For one of those articles, I interviewed Dreisbach, who told me that he had a “‘very hard time’ accepting the notion,” advanced by Barton, “that Jefferson was ever an orthodox Christian, or that Jefferson ever embraced Christianity’s ‘transcendent claims.’” According to Scherr, Dreisbach is “closer to Barton than Barton’s opponents.” But in fact, across the ideological and faith spectrum Barton found virtually no scholarly supporters for The Jefferson Lies.

Let the last sentence sink in. While I think Dreisbach could be more vocal in response to Barton, I agree with Kidd that Barton has found no scholarly support for The Jefferson Lies.
 
By the way, a belated happy birthday (April 13) to Thomas Jefferson wherever you are.