Working Through Racism: What can we learn from Church History part 1

For those who are struggling to respond in the wake of George Floyd’s murder consider this example from Church History. For the next few weeks God’s Heart will explore responses to racism and dehumanization in Church History to answer some of your questions about how work through our current days. 

Jonathan David Faulkner

Editor’s Note: God’s heart does not recognize a binary between liberal and conservative issues on the topic of life. As a publication that claims to be “Pro-Life” we recognize this as a life issue and will address it as such. We ask that those who wish to comment do so respectfully and with grace. God’s Heart remains committed to ending dehumanization until all life is honored by the Church.

This last month has seen the unjust, unnecessary, and preventable deaths of 3 persons of coler. Ahmaud Albery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. These are just the latest in what seem to be an increased number of incidents and murders in a nation that claims to be at the height of enlightenment. Unfortunately, many of us are starting to wake up for the first time, to realize how deeply rooted this problem is. Just as I have argued with the Great Awakenings and Slavery, I believe God is giving us another chance to excise the demon of our historical racism. As James Baldwin once wrote: “We celebrated 100 years of freedom, 100 years too early, we will never be free, until they are free.” Racism binds us all up, it imprisons us in a cell of sin, fear and anger that only Christ can ultimately free us from. Nor is this a “liberal” or “Conservative issue” (though if you follow the logic of Edmund Burke’s conservatism, it is a deeply conservative issue because we are talking about conserving life), it is a human issue. I am encouraged to see more people speaking up from the church, people who have too long been silent. Please keep speaking out.

Before I go on I want to recognize that Jonathan Edwards who is a central figure to this article was not a saint on race relationships. He was a slave holder, engaged in buying and selling human beings which is morally reprehensible. It may be true that he treated his slaves better than most and freed a majority of them, he still participated in a dehumanizing and evil institution and even bequeathed the last slave he owned to his family after he died. This is what historians call a blind spot during an overall sound life theologically. Edwards lived at a time before the revolution, at a time of major upheaval in the colonies and warfare in the Northeast in general. While we condemn his upholding of slavery, we can also commend much of his concerns for the Native Americans which formed much of his interactions outside of his fellow colonists both in Northampton and primarily in Stockbridge where he served as a missionary to the Native Americans. Though his participation in assimilation at Stockbridge should be condemned, the reasons for his feud with Abigail Williams can teach us some things about how we can live in the midst of our own conflicts.

Many of us are familiar with the fact that Jonathan Edwards was forced out of his pulpit at Northampton Massachusetts in 1750, a move which sparked his journey north into what is now New Hampshire to the little mission town of Stockbridge. “The Stockbridge Experiment”[i] as it is called centered around what remained of the Mahican confederacy which had come under protection by the crown in the early 1700’s. In the 1730’s Massachusetts Governor Belcher proposed that they establish a missionary town for the Mahicans. This led to the call of Edwards Brother-in-Law Samuel Hopkins being called to the village as its first missionary. He was followed by John Sergeant and Timothy Woodbridge and it was these three who established the village in 1736. The goal was to “Civilize” the Mahicans as a means by which they might better understand the Gospel. Unfortunately, Church History teaches us this approach rarely, if ever, works and it only created tension and problems in Stockbridge. Edwards involvement at this time up until he moved there in 1751 was to purchase land, but the “Williams-Stoddard Calvinist-Evangelical clan”[ii] which Edwards had married into was essential in founding and building the settlement. When John Sergeant married Abigail Williams in 1739, Abigail’s taste for the New England high society life she was accustomed to would quickly become a source of tension for the little town. It was said that “the Stockbridge experiment became more appealing to those who heard of it in direct proportion to their distance from the scene.”[iii] That is to say, that it looked good on paper, but up close and in person it was a mess. Unfortunately John Sergeant did not help the situation in any way shape or form by insisting on the method of “civilizing” that the town propagated. By the time of Sergeants death in 1749 more English settlers had moved into the area who looked to their own prospects instead of the care and education of the Mahican people. The Mahican’s, a strong group, communal group, were unaccustomed to the individualistic ways of the English but there was little to no attempt to understand the differences between the two groups and accordingly tensions rose.

The death of John Sergeant itself only escalated things as it meant there was no buffer between the greed of the already wealth Williams clan of which Abigail was a part, and the Mahican’s. Again, tensions escalated. The Pastor had served as the voice for the Native Americans and had actively protected them and advocated on their behalf. When he passed away, the buffer went away.[iv] Of course, all these tensions were only made worse by the infighting brought on by the first Great Awakening that had split the New England Puritans into Old Light and New Light Calvinists. John Sergeant had been a staunch Old Light, preferring Charles Chauncy to the New Light Edwards. When Ezra Stiles turned down the offer to fill John Sergeants position (and his marriage bed until a later date) Abigail Williams was none to pleased to learn that Edwards was now the leading candidate who would of course, accept the call and become a missionary to the Native Americans. Marsden notes that Abigail’s acceptance of his appointment was: “pure disingenuousness, arising only when they knew they did not have the votes to defeat him.”[v]

Edwards struggle with the Williams clan was that though they were genuinely committed to the mission, they were also strongly working the village to their own advantage. He had also long apposed the way Europeans Settlers treated the Native Americans of any tribe they came across. He had long apposed the cruel and inhumane treatment of the various tribes by the English and the dehumanizing way the settlers and military leaders looked down on them. Though he was complicit in Civilizing he also spoke against it. He understood that one needed to meet them on their terms to learn about them and their language to minister to them. The opposite approach taken at Stockbridge. He saw the way one treated the Native Americans as one means of reaching them with the Gospel. If one approached them as ignorant, uncivilized and savage then one would have a hard time reaching them with the Gospel. Edwards was hardly one to underestimate his listeners. It was in Stockbridge, after all, that the famous incident occurred while he preached “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” where men and women were crying out “Who can be saved?”

Edwards main issue though was Abigail and the rest of the Williams clan’s attitudes towards the Mahican and other tribes that moved into the area, attracted by the village. Edwards instructed David Brainard not to look down on the Mohawk’s he was ministering too and to work for their benefit.[vi] And he appeared to take his own advice to heart in Stockbridge as evidenced by the Mohawks willingness to be integrated into Stockbridge after a forced relocation by the Massachusetts colony (forced relocations were and are a sin by the way). Edwards does carry some sinful and typically English attitudes towards the Native Americans, but he did do his best to view the Native Tribes through the lens of scripture. And his New Light tendencies towards viewing his own people as equally morally degenerate and in fact, even more morally degenerate for having rejected the Gospel which they had heard a thousand times.[vii] In Edwards mind, a thoroughly evangelical mind, God had placed all the people in equal standing before him. This of course Edwards took from the Epistles of St. Paul. It was for this reason the New Lights also rejected tribal supremacy, laying the groundwork for Abolition in the decades before the Civil War. Edwards believed that the Europeans had failed the Native Americans, a assertion he was right to make. Edwards condemned “Civilizing” by equating it with keeping the people in the dark so that they were easier to cheat. An attitude that was still perpetuated 100 years later in the Southern Slave States. Edwards, gaining influence for his treatment of the Native Americans among the Native Americans was able to eventually oppose the Williams control over the Mission with the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

All of this led to tension and feuding between the Williams clan and the Edwards family by the summer of 1752.  Abigail was fiercely opposed to most of Edwards methods and teachings. Likely because it was cutting into the family’s profits and making it harder for them to engage in defrauding the Native Americans. He was also no fan of the Williams continued expansion of power, including within Isaac Hollis’s London Society which Elisha Williams joined giving the Williams a controlling stake in the company funding the Mission. He was also likely suspicious of Abigail Williams Antinomianism (a heresy that rejects the authority of Christ) and liberal theology which he has thoroughly apposed in his debates with Chauncy in the 1730’s and 40’s. To make matters worse for both Edwards and the Williams Clan the Native Americans were increasingly angry with the Williams Clan and asked Edwards to advocate on their behalf. The Williams were also taking the money sent by Isaac Hollis and the London Society to bank role their lavish lifestyle instead of going to the education, support and evangelism of the people they were there to serve. This of course infuriated Edwards, as it should have. It seems the Williams were willing to make every mistake ever made in Missions in foreign lands just to enrich themselves. Edwards, meanwhile had to keep the tensions from boiling over as he tried to pastor a multi-ethnic church and care for his large family. It is little wonder he came to resent his own family (William Williams was his uncle and he was a member of the Williams clan). By 1753 Stockbridge had descended into chaos which led to the final Williams power grab and the expulsion of Edwards.

So what do we learn from all this for our own time? One thing that would have made it possible for Edwards to be the middleman was to listen to the Native Americans whom he was ministering to. His outlook was not that he was superior to the Native Americans, or that He and His English Culture were superior, in fact, as we saw, the opposite was true. English culture was in worse shape because they had hear the Gospel for 100 years and had rejected it. For us as White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASP) we have to approach our brothers and sisters not as superiors, but as brothers and sisters. We have to be willing to listen and speak truth to power, even if it means being thrown out of our communities. We have great examples to follow on this in our modern day such as Timothy Keller and John Piper and others. We also need to remember that Justice is not a liberal issue, but a biblical one. That God has called us not to mere religious devotion, but to do Justice, love mercy and walk humbly with Him (Micah 6:5) and that God demands Justice (Isaiah 1) over religious piety. The Doctrine of the Imago Dei requires that we address these issues both as humans and theologically. Our Black brothers and sisters have historically faced oppression and dehumanization and though we have made progress in the past 100 years, we cannot get complacent. This is primarily a humanitarian and a life issue, not a political one. We who profess to be “Pro-Life” should be the first and most vocal protestors when life is taken or dehumanized. If we want to get outraged about something, we should allow God’s righteous Anger to burn within us towards Racism.

We solve these issues not by more fighting but by sitting down and listening at the table God has set for us. As Tony Evan’s and John Perkins have famously said, we are one race down to the molecular level.[viii] As Christians we are also reminded to “Mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15) and that “consider others better than yourselves, seeking to have the same mind as Christ” (Philippians 2:5). As Bryan Lorrits has reminded us that “Love does” meaning if we claim to be a people who Loves God then we must act on behalf of those who are downtrodden by following the example of the Good Samaritan and inconveniencing ourselves for the sake of others. I want to live in a world where we honor police officers by getting them the proper mental health care they need to ensure that they can do their jobs confidently while avoiding over reaching their authority. Proper education so that we all understand, and not deny, our countries deeply rooted sin problem and depravity which manifests itself in one way as Racism. I also want to live in a world where my brothers and sisters of color do not have to worry about being profiled or yelled at or having the police called on them for birdwatching (see the latest incident in central park). I do not want to wake up and find one of my close friends of color or family members of color are next on that list.

Edwards was not perfect, I am not perfect, but maybe, just maybe, we can learn something from history and grow towards healing this wound that keeps getting ripped back open.

May God have mercy on us all.

[i] Marsden, George, Jonathan Edwards, A Life. 2003, Yale University Press, New Haven, USA.

[ii] Marsden, A Life,

[iii] Edmund S. Morgan, The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727-1785, 1961, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

[iv] Marsden, A Life

[v] Marsden, A Life

[vi] Jonathan Edwards, the Life of David Brainard, Public Domain

[vii] Marsden, A Life

[viii] Tony Evans, Oneness Embraced, 2011, Moody Publishers, Chicago USA, John Perkins, Karen Waddles, Rick Warren, Jon Foreman, One Blood, 2011, Moody Publishers

12973040_10154269785339245_3845786340930956602_oJonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.

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