George Whitefield, a well-known preacher in the 18th century, had a life-changing experience while at Oxford, Christ Church, while attending the so-called Holy Club prayer meetings run by John and Charles Wesley. While there he became convinced that mere identification with the church was insufficient, that one needed to have a personal experience with the risen Christ.
Whitefield took this gospel of personal conversion to the Colonies, where he became a well-regarded preacher. He had a stunning oratory voice. During one in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin found that Whitefield's voice carried effortlessly for 500 feet. From this he estimated that at a single one of his open-air oratories, Whitefield could be heard by about 30,000 people at a time.
Whitefield carried the gospel of personal redemption and personal relationship with Christ up and down the Colonies, making him one of the leading architects of a movement that historians of religion refer to as the Great Awakening. His preaching, it has been said, engaged not just the head, but the heart as well. In many ways, he is one of the founders of the evangelical movement. His is an interesting and compelling story for what a man can do when he is committed to the cause of Christ.
For all that, Whitefield had an interesting track record when it came to blacks and race relations.
On the one hand, he was one of the first evangelists to preach to the enslaved. He also took to task slave owners in Maryland. Virginia and South Carolina for how they treated their slaves. In one letter addressed to such slave owners, he wrote, "Your dogs are caressed and fondled at your tables; but your slaves who are frequently styled dogs or beasts, have not an equal privilege."
Good so far, right?
How about this, then: Although Whitefield considered black people to be as deserving of the gospel and as fully human as white people like himself; he had no objection to slavery itself. In fact, from 1748 to 1750 he campaigned to see the Georgia colony re-establish slavery, which it had outlawed in 1735. Whitefield argued that the colony would never be economically successful without slavery, and he further lamented that an orphanage he had founded was struggling financially because it couldn't rely on unpaid slave labor. When Georgia finally reinstated slavery in 1751, Whitefield saw the legalization not only as a personal vindication of his efforts but also as a reflection of the divine will. When he died, he owned some 50 slaves. He didn't set them free, but left them to someone else.
Let's sum it up this way. Whitefield saw blacks as human, but he was willing to see them suffer the indignities of slavery, as long as they weren't treated too badly, because their suffering made it possible to accomplish other, good things.
Now it's a common defense of flawed heroes that they were a product of their times. That's really a poor excuse, though; we're called to transcend our times, and while Whitefield did this in some respects, he failed horribly at the crucial moral test of opposing slavery. This wasn't an impossible test. Groups like the Society of Friends (Quakers) had begun to oppose the enslavement of Africans in the latter half of the 17th century, not long after the practice had begun.
I'll put it blunty: Whitefield was wrong, horribly wrong. Much as all of us who engage in hagiography would lke to suggest it otherwise, there is no excuse for what he did. He sinned, and in his sin, he helped to persuade others to excuse the treatment of human beings as chattel, consigning hundreds of thousands of other humans to the chains of slavery until the Civil War, and beyond, through jim crow-era injustices like sharecropping and labor camps like Parchan Farm. If his legacy includes the spread of Christianity across the Colonies and even into the durability of the Union after the Revolution, then it also includes the brutal exploitation and oppression of black women, men and children for more than the next century. If his labors for the gospel brought glory to God, then his labors for slavery also added to the defamation of Christ.
Please hear me out on this.
What the church just did about a month ago in throwing its support behind Trump is the same thing that Whitefield did. More than four in five white evangelicals voted for Trump, despite the racist rhetoric he spewed about blacks and Hispanics. He described black neighborhoods in our cities as war zones, shared white supremacist lies about black-on-white crime, attacked the legitimacy of our first black president, got sued (twice!) by the Justice Department in the 1970s for refusing to rent to black people, condoned the day after the beating of a black protester at one of his rallies and called the protestor's First Amendent actions "disgusting," and on and on. I'm sure I don't need to detail the racism he has directed at Hispanics, or the horrible things he has said about women.
Since the election, in New York alone, bias incidents have spiked 400 percent since the election. Let me repeat that: Just in New York there have been four times *more* incidents aimed at ethnic or religious minorities since Trump was elected, over the number of incidents before. Many of these have included direct references to Trump as seeming justification for the incidents and the behavior. Look around the news and you'll see stories of bullying in kindergartens, in high school, in public by adults. A Muslim cop yesterday was called a terrorist and told to go back to Saudi Arabia. Children are being told by their classmates that they're going to be deported. Bigotry has been given license.
We need to own this, because it's ours. The support Trump enjoyed from white evangelicals more than put him over the top to win, not the popular vote, but the electoral vote. When the church voted for Trump, the church said it was OK with his attitudes and these actions. Why did evangelicals vote for him in such numbers? Among the reasons I've heard given: he's going to be a friend to Christianity, and he's going to appoint conservative (or) pro-life judges to the Supreme Court, while a President Clinton presumably would not have.
In other words, like George Whitefield 260 years ago, the evangelical church that he helped to found has continued to carry his legacy, both good and bad. We'll bear with and even justify the continued oppression of an entire group of people (or more) if it helps us to further other goals that we consider righteous.
Whitefield was wrong, horribly wrong, to support slavery. The evangelical church was wrong, horribly wrong to support Trump. It put its faith in a man who has broken his word in hundreds of business contracts, and to each of his wives. Trump is not going to do God's work. Already he has an attorney general nominee whose history suggests he would dismantle what is left of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts; a chief counsel who is known for white supremacy and anti-Semitism, a secretary of education nominee with no support for public education; and on and on. He has continued his shakedown style of "negotiations" with Boeing that he used to destroy small businesses all over New Jersey and New York. In supporting Trump, a man with no values, the evangelical church has supported a man who opposes everything Christ stands for. The church is often quick to point out its legacy of hospitals, famine relief and other such projects. Trump is also part of our legacy.
Today's theme for Advent is "repent." Repentance is not easy, but it is necessary. It involves turning around and changing direction from where we are going. In order for repentance to happen, it requires awakening. We need to awaken not only to what Trump represents, but what the church's support of him has done to the authority and respectability of the church.
If what I'm saying here resonates with you at all, please take a look around your church. If it's a church that is on board with a Trump presidency, and sees it as a good thing, do yourself a favor. Don't try to change it. Just leave. Find a black church, join it, and discover the gospel from a different point of view. Find a church that celebrates racial diversity and actually looks like what we see in the book of Revelation, a community drawn from every tribe, nation and language. Dr. King famously described Sunday morning as the most segregated hour in America. Not much has changed in the past 50 years.
If your church has its reservations about Trump, now is the time to talk with your church leaders and elders about how to respond. Can your church offer physical sanctuary to families fearful of being deported, as the Reformed Church of Highland Park did 16 years ago? Can your church begin buying debt with the express purpose of canceling it, and setting people free? Can your church adopt a local pocket of immigrants, or start partnering with a church of a different ethnicity? If you're in the middle of a pastoral search, can you make it a priority to hire a pastor who comes from an ethnic minority?
Whitefield screwed this up because he was content to be a product of his times. Let's do better.
Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.