I recently learned from a John Piper podcast that Jonathan Edwards owned slaves.

Edwards lived in the early and mid 18th century, long before the American Civil War, and passed away decades before Wilberforce would begin his abolitionist work in England.* Nevertheless, many believe that ownership of slaves seemed uncharacteristic of a man like Edwards who, in his preaching and writing, placed such an emphasis on piety and holiness.

What did Edwards have to say about his ownership of slaves? Did he ever address the issue of slavery in any of his published works?

* Of course, that's simply context, and not an excuse.

  • 2
    More context: Edwards was roughly contemporary with John Woolman, a Quaker preacher and staunch advocate of the abolition of slavery. Jul 27, 2013 at 18:58
  • It seems like we could have hundreds of questions like this. "Did [someone] do this? Did they know it was wrong?" Better to have one question address the issue for all rather than having a target on one person.
    – Narnian
    Jul 29, 2013 at 12:10
  • 5
    @Narnian no, specificity is a good thing. If we start getting a bunch of them then we can introduce something akin to a notability requirement. But until such time as that becomes and issue lets just handle them as they come.
    – wax eagle
    Jul 29, 2013 at 13:00
  • 1
    According to this Yale University post. Edwards DID indeed argue for the continuation of slavery. yaleslavery.org/WhoYaleHonors/je.html
    – user24862
    Dec 10, 2015 at 16:40

3 Answers 3


No, he did not address the issue of slavery in any published works.

We know this because of a recently published paper revealing an unpublished draft letter by Edwards that does deal with slavery. It is described by the paper author thus:

It is the only known instance of Edwards writing, however abstrusely, about slavery. Also it discloses differing views on slavery at the local level, divided along lay-clerical lines.

Because of Edwards' letter writing process it is very difficult to determine his meaning from his drafts - for example lines through some passage might be deletions, or might indicate that they have been used in the final version. No copy of the sent letter exists.


Although he never published his view on the subject, according to a book called "Slavery and Sin: The Fight Against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism" By Molly Oshatz, Edwards was just slightly opposed to slavery in that he questioned the slave trade as it was existing and practiced, while not opposing the concept of having a slave if recognizing them as equal humans and if they had fallen into the state of slavery through some legal means. We know his view only from his arguments for and against slavery in his defense of Benjamin Doolittle, a pastor who was criticized by his own congregation for owning slaves.

Slavery was only beginning to become a moral issue in Puritan New England at the time of Edwards. This was not really America but England and Edwards as good hearted as he might seem from his sermons was still part of a ruling British mentality that did not seem aware of the concepts of full economic opportunity that we understand under the word equality today and as promoted by modern democracies in many parts of the world.

It might seem contradictory but although he did have a slave/s he was also somewhat opposed to slavery even back then. He did not take a stance against slavery as 'always' wrong, for he saw that the Bible itself does not even mandate, even in the New Testament, that Christian slave owners in the church must free their slaves, but he did personally begin to oppose the 'racial' slave trade and its philosophy of 'human inequality'. His opposition to slavery was only starting to dawn, even while he had his own slave, based on what he thought was an unjust practice of enslavement. In other words, he questioned the means that people were brought into slavery. It would seem if he lived just a little later in history common sense would have extended this soft opposition to a more aggressive form, but I guess we will never know for sure.

A fuller description can be found here Slavery and Sin: The Fight Against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism and here Jonathan Edwards, Slavery, and the Theology of African Americans.


Jonathan Edwards the lesser (1745-1801) wrote The injustice and impolicy of the slave trade, and of the slavery of the Africans.

Perhaps, though this truth be clearly demonstrable both from reason and revelation, you scarcely dare receive it, because it seems to bear hardly on the characters of our pious fathers, who held slaves. But they did it ignorantly and in unbelief of the truth as Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon were ignorant, that polygamy or concubinage was wrong. As to domestic slavery, our fathers lived in a time of ignorance which God winked at ; but now he commandeth all men every where to repent of this wickedness, and to break off this sin by righteousness, and this iniquity by showing mercy to the poor, if it may be a lengthening out of their tranquility. You therefore to whom the present blaze of light, as to this subject, has reached, cannot sin at so cheap a rate as our fathers.

I understand it's not a direct answer to your question, but important to share.

  • Apparently Edwards the Younger was the ninth of Edwards' twelve children. I didn't know that. Thanks. Jul 29, 2013 at 12:05

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