Anthony Bradley on Criticizing the Puritans: The Reformed Tradition and Racism.
At Urban Faith (HT: Aquila Report) Anthony Bradley has an excellent article defending Rapper Propaganda’s harsh critique of the Puritans. Bradley puts the article in the context of Christians’ tendency to insist that our own favorite people and movements be treated with the grace that preserves them from criticism, even as we are willing to criticize those outside of our group according to a much stricter standard.
“Precious Puritans” simply raises a caution about loving the Puritans too much because, although they had sound doctrine on issues like personal piety, that tradition was complicit in perpetrating injustice against Africans and African Americans during the slavery. The song opens with these words:
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 the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious Puritans.
They looked my onyx and bronze skinned forefathers in they face,
Their polytheistic, god-hating face.
Shackled, diseased, imprisoned face.
And taught a gospel that says God had multiple images in mind when he created us in it.
Their fore-destined salvation contains a contentment in the stage for which they were given which is to be owned by your forefathers’ superior image-bearing face. Says your precious Puritans.
Bradley points out that many Reformed Christians look to the Puritans as their inspiration for Christian piety. Yet he wonders why some of these people seem to think that criticizing the Puritans for their failings will lead people not to read them anymore. Can we not recognize the sins of our forbears while still appreciating what we can learn from them?
Is this a slippery slope? Does testing and critiquing leads to this? Did Martin Luther’s comments about Jews incline people to hate him and reject him? Or John Calvin’s execution of Michael Servetus? Or Abraham Kuyper’s racism? Or Jonathan Edwards slave owning? I could go on.
The answer, of course, is “yes” and “no.” Those who would reject the Puritans because of their white supremacy will themselves struggle to find much of anyone in Western Christianity to embrace. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in some way (Rom. 3:23), including all of those we hold in high esteem. There is an obvious “no” because this is not how the Bible teaches Christians to engage in cultural and historical analysis. We are to eat the meat and spit out the bones. This includes those who are both inside and outside the tribe. There is much meat in the Puritans but there are also massive bones.
I am with Bradley all the way on this, and I encourage you to read his whole article, as well as to watch the video of the song.
But on one point I’d like to press even harder than Bradley. It is not just that we need to eat the meat and spit out the bones. We need to ask ourselves whether the meat could have been prepared differently so as to make the bones less dangerous, or easier to spit out. To get away from the analogy, we need to ask what it was about Puritan piety that made them so vulnerable to the vices and injustice of racism and exploitation. Of course, the Puritans were not unique in this. The Southern Presbyterians were deeply implicated in the South’s racial slavery and segregation and the Dutch Reformed were quite complicit in the evils of South African apartheid.
In an excellent interview with Joe Thorn (HT: Scott Clark) Richard Bailey, author of the recently published Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, illustrates some of the things we are talking about:
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.”
Asked how the Puritans, known for their biblical teaching, so missed the boat on this issue, Bailey comments,
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.
The question must be asked, what is it about Reformed theology that makes us vulnerable to these evils? Or to put the question less provocatively, why does Reformed theology not provide us with a better defense against these crimes? We expel people who teach against the Five Points of Calvinism and we (usually) excommunicate unrepentant murderers or adulterers. Why have racists and oppressors often had an easier time of it? We should at least ask the question, is our theology missing something?