Idolatry is subtle. It’s kind of like rotting wood in the foundation of your house. It slowly grows and spreads, unbeknownst to you. Before too long, at a crisis point like putting your house on the market, you realize not only the extent of the damage, but the fact that the damage has even been done in the first place. You can’t pass the inspection because, shockingly to all, your house could fall in on itself at any moment. Even more shockingly, though, the problem has been right under your feet the entire time.
I’m sure Reformed folks aren't the only ones who suffer from the ideological and spiritual wood rot of idolatry, but it’s certainly something I’ve noticed in myself as a Reformed person, so that’s really all I can speak to. On an even broader level, it doesn’t take many conversations to hear the laud with which folks from my own denominational clan talk about theologians like Whitefield, Hodge, Edwards, and the like, splendid as they are, with nary a mention of their involvement in the slave trade. I think it's important for us to at least ask, "When our brothers and sisters of color look upon these figures and their work, do they see stalwarts or shibboleths?" Perhaps the answer is some of both.
I think this is important to come to grips with, especially for white Reformed folks. Thabiti Anyabwile’s comments on Jonathan Edwards are instructive: "When we ask, 'Can the theology of a slave owner be trusted?' we’re not simply proffering opinions about historical curiosities from the safe distance of our social location. When we ask that question, we’re asking a question about ourselves, about the Church’s understanding of her mission in the world, and about the path to reconciliation.” The seriousness of the dialogue isn’t in doubt, or at least it shouldn’t be. When it comes to conversations about slavery and some of the Reformed greats, we shouldn’t just shrug them off or dismiss these conversations with a wave of the hand. If and when the choice comes to us between our Whitefield, Hodge, or Edwards-shaped golden calves on the one hand, and reconciliation on the other, the choice shouldn’t be all that hard.
With all that in mind, I want to submit this for consideration: Reformed believers should be among the most zealous in regard to racial reconciliation efforts within the church today. On a very general, “small-r” Reformed level, we should recognize that our depravity extends so deeply that it transcends racial lines. No matter the racial category, we’ve all died the same death in Adam, and require the same breath of Life to be breathed into us in Christ.
On a more confessionally Reformed level, we would do well to consider the Heidelberg Catechism. Answer 107 tells us that in the Sixth Commandment, not only is murder forbidden, but, “God requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to show patience, peace, meekness, mercy, and kindness toward him, and to prevent his hurt as much as possible…” Answer 111, dealing with the Eighth Commandment, goes on to say that this Commandment requires “That I further my neighbor’s good where I can and may…” Surely these answers don’t merely refer to neighbors of the same racial or ethnic background, but rather of each and every one of our neighbors, no matter their skin color, over against the moral failings of some of the biggest names in colonial Reformed theology.
There's a remarkably unfortunate tension here. Men who were so biblically and theologically faithful in many areas were terribly mistaken on the issue of slavery. One of the most powerful preachers since the Reformation, George Whitefield, decided that owning slaves in order to finance a Christian school was permissible in a horribly ironic case of the ends not justifying the means. Jonathan Edwards, often mentioned in the same breath as Charles Hodge as a contender for the title of "America's Greatest Theologian," owned slaves himself. Charles Hodge, the prince of American theology, and his colleagues at Princeton, "sought to occupy a shrinking middle ground on the issue of slavery that few were ultimately pleased with but themselves," seeming to kick the proverbial can down the road.
Ultimately, we must find a way to be candid about the heinous sins of those who came before us while also avoiding the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Surely these men were cornerstones of biblical truth in many ways, but they were also cornerstones of a sinful industry. We as Reformed folks probably need to ask ourselves, in view of these catechetical answers, if our oft-approving quotations of these men without a single caveat is “preventing our neighbor’s hurt as much as possible” or “furthering our neighbor’s good,” or if it is simply whitewashing the sin of our forbears.
I say all that essentially to say this: as far as charting a way forward goes, especially within the church, I really don’t have a good answer. I know the conversation probably starts with an acknowledgement that Edwards owned slaves, as did Whitefield, and that Hodge punted on the subject, and that all of these actions (or lack thereof) were sinful. I know the conversation should probably start with the smelting of our golden calves and the knowing confession that these men were just that: Men.