A question arose a few days back from a reading of Chapter 8 of The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, regarding a mention of the famous evangelist George Whitefield. It says,
Even the famous George Whitefield was originally against slavery. He changed his mind, however, when he moved to Savannah: after tending his own garden in the Georgia heat, he quickly agreed with the typical southern argument that blacks were more suited for such work in such climate. He purchased a black slave for himself, and later bought a plantation and several slaves in South Carolina to finance his orphanage.1
The general reaction was “say it isn’t so!” and at least one person asked for me to support this from the sources. A couple sources are in the book already, but here are a couple more. Just so you can see this is not made up or exaggerated, I’ll let the sources speak well for themselves. You can go from there if you see the need.
The basic outline of Whitefield’s evolution on slavery is told in H. Shelton Smith’s great book, In His Image, But . . . He writes,
In his triumphal tours of the colonies, George Whitefield, the most influential evangelist of his time, was instrumental in in converting droves of blacks. At the close of a preaching mission in and around Philadelphia, in May, 1740, almost fifty Negro converts trailed him to his lodging house to thank him “for what God has done in their souls.” “I believe,” he wrote in his journal, “masters and mistresses will shortly see that Christianity will not make their negroes worse slaves.”
This phenomenon had been a great problem. Planters and masters feared that if blacks heard the Bible, or got converted, they would desire freedom, develop confidence, and/or become uppity or saucy. Thus it was believed that evangelizing the slaves would lead them to be less docile and productive slaves.2
Whitefield was among the more zealous of the Christian evangelists who could not in conscience allow these souls to go unevangelized. So he pushed to assure masters otherwise. In his zeal, he for a time even grew powerfully prophetic against the mistreatment of the slaves.
During his travels through the South, Whitefield became so distressed at the cruel treatment of the slaves that in 1740 he published a caustic letter against slavemasters. The “generality” of masters, he feared, drove their Negroes as hard as horses and often punished like beasts. “Your Dogs,” he observed, “are caress’d and fondled at your Tables: But your Slaves, who are frequently stiled Dogs and Beasts, have not equal privilege. They are scarce permitted to pick up the Crumbs which fall from their Masters Tables.” The evangelist particularly condemned those masters who were deliberately depriving their slaves of the benefit of Christianity on the pretext that it “would make them proud” and “unwilling to submit to Slavery.” Only a false or superficial religion would produce any such result. “I challenge the whole World,” said Whitefield, “to produce a single Instance of a Negroe’s being made a thorough Christian, and thereby made a worse Servant.”
Even though Whitefield held that blacks, if born and brought up in America, were naturally as capable of improvement as whites, he did not advocate their freedom; indeed, by 1747 he himself owned eight slaves whom he used to cultivate his South Carolina plantation for the benefit of his orphanage at Bethesda, Georgia. Naturally, then, he opposed the original antislavery policy of Georgia, contending that the province never would be prosperous until Negro slavery was permitted there. In 1750 the trustees repealed the antislavery law of that colony, and the famed evangelist lost little time in buying blacks for his Bethesda plantation. Writing to a Mr. B. in 1751, he defended the lawfulness of slavery on biblical grounds, noting especially that Abraham bought bondsmen. He conceded that the slave trade was wrong, but then went on to say that since it would be carried on anyhow, he would consider himself “highly favoured” if he “could purchase a good number” of Negroes and bring up their offspring “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” The proslavery evangelist further rationalized his position by remarking that while liberty was “a sweet thing” to those who were born free, slavery might not be so irksome to those who “never knew the sweets” of liberty.3
That is the general outline of Whitefield’s views. Not only does it show that he, too, capitulated and exploited blacks, suppressing his earlier fire, but it also incidentally reveals that the general slave culture—a “generality” of it—was abusive toward blacks. This is something that pro-southern apologists today, among a few others, deny. Whitefield’s more candid and less compromised moments speak otherwise.
Other sources reveal and support this same narrative.
Ministers such as Whitefield did initially fight to overcome the masters’ aversion to evangelizing the slaves. At first, this even included proving that blacks were of the same race, not beasts, and actually had souls that had to be saved. Next was the idea that conversion would inspire self-confidence, growth, and thoughts of independence and freedom. Thus preachers, aided by laws to this effect, labored to ensure that conversion did not change the status of physical bondage, only the spiritual. Further, it would not engender aspirations of freedom, but rather make slaves more docile and fit for slavery. Thus, during one of the Georgia trustees’ anniversary sermons, the minister made sure to impress that “the better Christian a Negro becomes, the more honest, the more contented, the more submissive, the more industrious he will prove; and go cheerfully through all the labors of his hard condition through Christ, who will strengthen him.”4
Whitefield’s prophetic fire did arise, even in the wake of slave rebellions. So, after the great Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in 1739,5 Whitefield wrote, “And tho’ I heartily pray God they may never be permitted to get the upper hand; yet should such a Thing be permitted by Providence, all good Men must acknowledge the Judgment would be just.”6
This was a very risky stance to take at the time, as it would have been seen as justifying and encouraging further rebellions. It would have been met with the same resistance as the rebellions themselves. (A century later, Whitefield would have been risking his life in saying such things, and many abolitionists and sympathizers were either attacked or threatened and run out of the slave states for saying such things.)
But this stance had appeared only about a year after he first moved to Savannah, Georgia. In a few years, it was gone and a whole new approach appeared: capitulation and compromise.
In 1743, Whitefield wrote a letter praising the conversion of a group of slaves. He showed a strong insensitivity fueled by an oblivious pietism, generally ignoring their physical condition and praising their spiritual. Professor Stephen J. Stein relates:
The greatest benefit for the new Christians, says Whitefield, is the fellowship with all other sheep in the “One Fold”. Gentiles and Jews and “even you despised Negroes” are united in the church. How gracious is Christ to lift such beggars from the dunghill, from vile slavery, from the grasp of sin and Satan. No distinctions remain in Christ; all “partake of his Life and Glory, of his Sap and Fatness!” As members of one body, Whitefield writes, we embrace you.
Come in you Blessed of the LORD! Come in by Faith, into our Jesus, our House of Defence, our House of Store: Come, you are welcome to all his Grace; there’s Room in CHRIST for you; there’s Provision made for you; there’s enough in our JESUS for us, for you, for thousands more; even for all that have, or shall have a Desire to come in to him: Here’s no Want of Safety, no Want of Supply; but a full and everlasting Security; a Variety and Immensity of Bliss, and an Eternity of Life and Glory.
These are words from one who recognized the abuses slaves suffered, who was aware of the degradation they experienced. For those slaves who have been weary, hungry, dirty and frightened, Whitefield invites: “Come in then you hungry, thirsty Souls, that want Abundance of Grace; there’s all in CHRIST ready prepar’d, to satisfy your longing Appetites, and infinitely exceed your largest Desires.” The house of the master is open, “and all its rich Provisions, its Royal Danities, are dispens’d Freely!” All, “even the poorest Souls”, are welcome.7
Stein comments further:
Whitefield moved from a description of the earthly blessings to a suggestion of the celestial glories to be awarded the saints. His word pictures were chosen well, drawing upon the flesh and blood world of the slaves for a sense of reality. Few images evoked more deepseated desires among the blacks than visions of food, wealth and security taken from the life of the master. Yet few passages in Christian discourse are more cruel and ironical than these. Whitefield held before the eyes of the slaves pictures of the good life, bait for the animal, to be snatched away when they clutched at the prize. The good life for the blacks, according to the Grand Itinerant, was a spiritual reality.8
Giving Whitefield the greatest benefit of the doubt possible in this instance, it is hard to imagine an empathy more dull and forsaken. Yet it got worse. After these slights, Whitefield went on to implore the slaves that their great obligation to their heavenly master now was an even more conscientious and happy obedience to their earthly master. Their great liberation was not only to remain slaves, but to endure it with a smile:
Wherefore be valiant for the Cause of your Royal MASTER, and endure Hardness, as good Soldiers of JESUS CHRIST. . . .
And whereas your Station in the World, is mean and servile: Care not much for it; for he that is called in the Lord, being a Servant, is the Lord’s Free-Man. . . .
though he [God] hath now called you into his own Family, to be his own Children and Servants; he doth not call you hereby from the Service of your Masters according to the Flesh; but to serve him in serving them, in obeying all their lawful Commands, and submitting to the Yoke his Providence has placed you under. . . . and by your chearful and constant Obedience, put to Silence the Ignorance of foolish Men, of your nominal Christian Masters; who having never felt the constraining Power of Christ’s Love in their own Souls, have thought, and said, ‘That if you, their poor Slaves, were brought to Christianity, you would be no more Servants to them.’ Oh never let this Calumny be cast upon Christ’s Holy Religion, by the disagreeable Behaviour of any of you believing Negroes!9
The insensitivity soon turned worse yet again, this time into open advocacy of the expansion of slavery. Georgia had originally been founded as a colony specifically, and prominently, without slavery. Growing forces however were pushing for its legalization in the colony. Whitefield joined the public discussion in favor of expanding slavery into Georgia. Implicated in this was Whitefield’s personal benefit, though some deny it. In fact, Whitefield was already practicing slavery in his plantation in neighboring South Carolina, where it was legal. Stein relates:
Under the threat of economic disaster he offered a somewhat different perspective upon human bondage; by 1747 he was contriving a scheme to bail his orphan house out of financial difficulty. In March he sketched the dilemma and reported on efforts to deal with it. His solution for Bethesda’s mismanagement and lack of productivity was inauguration of a colony plantation in South Carolina where slave labor could be utilized legally. Whitefield’s evangelical success among wealthy Charlestonians had made such an enterprise possible.
The constitution of that colony [Georgia] is very bad, and it is impossible for the inhabitants to subsist without the use of slaves. But God has put it into the hearts of my South Carolina friends, to contribute liberally towards purchasing, in this province, a plantation and slaves, which I purpose to devote to the support of Bethesda. Blessed be God! the purchase is made. Last week, I bought, at a very cheap rate, a plantation of six hundred and forty acres of excellent ground ready cleared, fenced, and fit for rice, corn, and everything that will be necessary for provisions. One negro has been given me. Some more I purpose to purchase this week.
In less than a decade the evangelist had moved from among the critics into the ranks of the slaveholders.
Soon Whitefield was agitating openly for the legalization of slavery in Georgia. In December, 1748 he corresponded with the trustees of the colony assuring them that he did not stand to gain personally from the change; rather the young commonwealth, beset by problems of its own, would profit considerably. For the sake of the orphanage and the entire colony, he urged revision of the statutes. “Georgia has been declining, and at what great disadvantages I have maintained a large family in that wilderness.” After spending more than five thousand pounds on the enterprise, he complained that “very little proficiency has been made in the cultivation of my tract of land; and that entirely owing to the necessity I lay under of making use of white hands.” To him the economics were clear: “Had negroes been allowed, I should now have had a sufficiency to support a great many orphans without expending above half the sum that has been laid out.”
Whitefield cited the success of his subsidiary plantation in South Carolina as an argument in favor of the change. “This confirms me in the opinion, I have long entertained, that, Georgia never can be a flourishing province, unless negroes are employed.”10
It is amazing how low even the best and most prophetic of ministers may fall when their economic interest is at stake. We can even justify our compromises from the Bible, then make ourselves slave masters and call ourselves their benefactors in the process.
But slavery was necessary for Whitefield, see, because he had so far done so poorly using “white hands.”
But I am preaching. I am content to let the facts speak for themselves. People asked me for the sources. Here are a few. I am sure there are more, but these suffice to show that whatever else we may say of the man, in regard to the issue of slavery, George Whitefield’s hands are no longer white.
- Joel McDurmon, The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2017), 305. [↩]
- See McDurmon, The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, 236–241. [↩]
- H. Shelton Smith, In His Image, But . . . : Racism in Southern Religion, 1780–1910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1972), 12–13. [↩]
- Philip Bearcroft, quoted in Julie Anne Stewart, “‘The Excellency and Advantage of doing Good’: Thoughts on the Anniversary Sermons Preached before the Trustees of Georgia, 1731–1750,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 90, No. 1 (Spring, 2006): 18–19. [↩]
- See The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, 47 ff. [↩]
- Quoted in Stephen J. Stein, “George Whitefield on Slavery: Some New Evidence,” Church History 42, No. 2 (June 1973): 247. [↩]
- Stein, 253. [↩]
- Stein, 253. [↩]
- Quoted in Stein, 254. [↩]
- Stein, 245. [↩]