Precious Puritans (Pt 1)

I've been reading the puritans to great benefit since 1994. I can say that outside of Scripture no authors have nourished my soul like the writings of men like Manton, Baxter, Sibbes, Owen, Watson, Bolton, Boston, Burroughs, and others of their conviction. As much as I warn people to not be "fanboys" of leaders, these are the men I am tempted to put on a pedestal.

This is why, as I listened to Propaganda's new album, the track "Precious Puritans" caught me like a sucker punch to the gut. The tracks begins with a word to pastors.

Hey, Pastor. You know it's hard for me when you quote Puritans. Oh, the precious Puritans. Have you not noticed our facial expressions? One of bewilderment and heartbreak. Like, "Not you too, pastor."

You know they were chaplains on slave ships, right?

This is just a taste of the beginning of a very hard, powerful, and wonderful track. But if I'm honest, I have to admit I was defensive at first. Yet, the more I listened the more I realized I needed to listen. I was missing something on my end. I had read Baxter on slavery, and remembered a pretty solid perspective (here's an example). But that was it. I realized in all of the years of reading puritan sermons and treatises I had come across almost nothing on the issue of slavery.

And let me say that Propaganda is saying much more in this track than, "The puritans were messed up on this issue." His message(s) is spot on. More on that tomorrow.

I want to address "Precious Puritans" because I imagine that some in the Reformed community may react against it without really listening, or may be tempted to defend men where there is no just defense. So here's what we're doing: today, we will hear from Dr. Richard Bailey on some historical matters, and tomorrow, when Propaganda's album drops, we will hear from him on his message.

An Interview with Dr. Richard Bailey

Richard is an Alabama native transplanted to Buffalo, New York, where he teaches early American history at Canisius College. He is the author of Race and Redemption in Puritan New England (OUP, 2011). He is also a good friend of mine, and was more than happy to talk with me about this powerful track.

What do you think of Propaganda's song, "Precious Puritans"?

As I listened to this track, Joe, I was flooded with a whole series of vivid emotions that I experienced time and again while researching and writing my book, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England. Anger. Grief. Shame. Despair. Grief. Anger.

Those are the sorts of things I felt the first time I listened to "Precious Puritans." And the twelfth time, as well. It reminded me of sitting in a town library in western Massachusetts and reading of how the community's longtime puritan minister, Stephen Williams, on two separate occasions drove enslaved Africans he owned to take their respective lives within days of his brutally and inhumanely beating them. Williams, a cousin of Jonathan Edwards who actually recorded the famous description of Edwards's Enfield preaching of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," felt he punished them out of a duty to these men. "He got it, but he didn't get it." Or, again, it took me back into a different archives flipping through the diary of the minister Roger Newton only to see him record the death of Patience, a two-year-old child born to Lucy Billing and her family's slave Caesar. When the baby's impending birth became public knowledge, both Lucy and Caesar were tried in the civil court, publicly whipped for their crime, and Caesar had to be sold out of the area—a punishment that would not have been routine among puritans had they both been white. Again, "they got it, but they didn't get it."

In both of those instances (and more than a few others), I sat in the archives and wept. Angry and grieved that these puritan leaders in this puritan English colony (the first one in North America to codify slavery, mind you) had acted in such ways while believing all along that what they we doing was not only best for their societies, but also that it was in complete accord with the scriptures they held so dear.

"Precious Puritans" made me feel exactly like that again. It beat me around. Several lines have haunted me the last few days. For example: "How come the things the Holy Spirit showed them in the Valley of Vision didn't compel them to knock on they neighbors' door and say, 'You can't own people'?" Wow. That's hard. Propaganda, it seemed to me, was speaking for enslaved Africans, like Cato or Patience. But, of course, he was also speaking both to and for contemporary believers who continue to struggle with the effects of racial thinking, racial prejudices, and racism. And, in my estimation, we should thank him for doing so even as we wrestle with the implications of such effects in our own lives.

Can you explain how the puritans generally thought of the African slave trade?

Well, the scholarship on puritans makes one thing really clear, namely, that "Puritan" meant lots of different things and that they held many different views—politically, socially, and even theologically. So it's of course hard to speak for all puritans at all times in all places. But, with that caveat out of the way, puritans in general all supported and participated in the African slave trade. Some in more direct and material ways than others. But nearly all of them deemed slavery (and race-based slavery in particular) as part of the way that God had ordered the world.

Certainly slaves fit into their hierarchical understanding of the world. When Samuel Willard lectured through the Westminster Shorter Catechism, he spent several sermons on the fifth commandment. One of these lectures described how servants fit within a "family" view of puritan society. Stephen Williams remarked on preaching a series of sermons on the duties of masters and slaves. Jonathan Ashley of Deerfield, Massachusetts, preached a sermon to African slaves insisting that they, as Propaganda put it, "should be content in this stage."

Of course, it was more than simply teaching. Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic secured slaves, though I think it was more common for English puritans in the Americas to do so simply because slaves were so prevalent there. Puritan ministers and leaders were often the people in a given community who had the necessary capital to purchase other humans. And puritans, it seems, were little to no different in how they treated their slaves. The accounts of how puritan ministers abused their "human property" are there and such accounts are mindboggling.

So, yes, in general puritans supported the enslavement of other humans in finances, in theory, and in practice. Often without any apparent thought about it. And as my book argues, when they did think about it, it was only to fit it into what they were already doing.

Why did men so often revered for their biblical insight miss this issue so badly even while other voices were crying out against it?

This is a question I've asked over and over again, Joe. In my book, I argue that the most pressing issue facing puritans was not, as the historian Edmund Morgan wrote years ago, the problem of doing right in a world that was doing wrong; rather, the real "puritan dilemma" was making a world that does wrong appear to be doing right. And these men were intimately involved in doing wrong (unspeakable and unfathomable wrong) to enslaved men, women, and children. And in trying to make this wrong appear right, I see them creating meaning for the term "race" in their historical moment. Despite their repeated prophetic statements against sin, puritans sinned grievously against enslaved persons.

And usually they participated in slavery and the slave trade with little attempt at justification. When a justification was deemed necessary, the primary rationale many puritans gave for supporting slavery was that enslaving Africans was good for the Africans because it made their conversion more likely. It introduced Christianity to groups of people who knew little to nothing of Christ. So, they genuinely believed that slavery was a positive evil. The Puritan divine Cotton Mather made this exact argument in his fascinating (and fascinatingly racist) pamphlet, The Negro Christianized (1706). Mather wasn't alone in believing the arguments in this and similar puritan pamphlets and sermons.

Of course, believing something doesn't make it true.

Who were the few voices among the puritans who saw this kind of slavery as an evil to be abolished?

Honestly, there were very few puritans who ever reached that point. The religious group leading the way were the Quakers. In this respect, puritans certainly could have learned much here from the Quakers.

But very few doesn't mean none. Perhaps the most prominent was a judge from Boston, Samuel Sewall. A few years after being involved in the Salem witch controversy and trials, Sewall published The Selling of Joseph (1700), in which he decried the crime of man-stealing. Sewall’s progressive stance on subject of slavery was crystal clear in this and the ensuing controversy with a prominent slave owner, arguing that every man was a son of Adam and a co-heir of the right of liberty. Voices like Sewall's, though, we're few among puritans on either side of the Atlantic.

This changed in a post-puritan era. Among the heirs to the puritans were quite a few people who began to speak out against the sin of race-based slavery. The hymn writer John Newton is one amazing example of this. After being captured and sold into slavery in Africa, Newton became a Christian and lived with the contradictions of slavery as he captained several slave vessels. Some thirty years after his retirement, Newton spoke out against the African slave trade in Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade (1788). For the last twenty years of his life, he lobbied alongside William Wilberforce to see the end of the slave trade in the British Empire with the passage of "The Slave Trade Act of 1807."

In North America, several of the disciples of the last American puritan, Jonathan Edwards took the ideas of their mentor to places he was not willing to take them and argued for the end of the African slavery. Samuel Hopkins and Jonathan Edwards Jr. both contended that slavey was a sin for which believers needed to repent and lead the way in a struggle to secure liberty for all. They were joined in this by another heir of puritanism, Lemuel Haynes, a mixed-race man from Vermont who fought in the American Revolution and pastored a white congregation for a number of years.

So, there were a few puritans and "sons of puritans" speaking out against slavery. But woefully few. But I appreciate these few. They make it clear that our typical response to such things (that is, saying something like, "We must understand these puritans were simply men of their times") simply doesn't cut it. In fact, channeling Propaganda here, I hate such a copout. Mainly because it fails to recognize that some men and women of their times saw the evil and sinfulness of race-based slavery and of what they were doing to men, women, and children created of God and they argued against it. So, if we want to say that on this issue the puritans were often among the "worst men of their times," then ok. But "men of their times" doesn't cut it—not even close in my opinion. I also think it even better to say they were sinners. Sinners that needed a Savior to redeem them and every aspect of their lives.

What should we do with the puritans today?

Well, I think my advice would be nearly the same as it was before I ever found myself wrestling with the ways puritans viewed "race" and slavery.

Read them. Read about them. Learn from them.

It's rather simple advice, but I think the puritans have much to teach us. We should read their own words. Like you, Joe, I have found much solace and encouragement in many of the writings of the puritans. The ways in which they wrestled through complex theological issues in efforts to safeguard the orthodoxy of the church is often fascinating. Many of the theological issues of our day were answered several hundred years ago in succinct (and not so succinct) ways by puritan divines. We should read those words.

But I say nearly the same because I realize better now that we can learn from the puritans both positively and negatively. Seeing the puritans as precious doesn't mean we have to see them as inerrant. In order to do that I firmly believe that not only should we read words written by the puritans, but we also should read about them—and not only the all-too-often hagiographic biographies written by church and denomination historians. Read works that place these men and women in their contexts. Read works that aren't afraid to ask uncomfortable questions and give uncomfortable answers. Now, of course, this advice trusts that we have developed the skill of reading critically—likely an ill-founded assumption. But it is a skill that we ought to cultivate. And it is a skill that is different than reading such things cynically, which seems to be the way believers all too often read "academic" works (maybe that's the subject for another exchange somewhere down the road). As Propaganda's track makes clear, reading critically becomes easier when we realize that our "precious Puritans" were humans and sinful and prone to error and in need of redemption. Like me. Like you.

- Richard

Excellent by Propaganda drops tomorrow. You will be able to download it for free, or you can support him buy purchasing it via iTunes or Amazon.