Amos Doolittle, Jonathan Edwards, President, 1793. Etching. Yale University Art Gallery
While there were earlier and contemporary graduates of Yale College who were slave-owners, Jonathan Edwards, revival preacher, philosopher, missionary, and educator, is arguably the most recognized from before the Revolution. He matriculated into a branch of the “Connecticut Collegiate School” in 1716, before it received its permanent name, finished his final undergraduate years in the newly built facility in New Haven, and was the valedictorian of the class of 1720. After completing a master’s degree three years later, he served as a college tutor for two years.
For all of the originality of Edwards’ reflections about God, humanity, and creation, he was very much a person of his time in regarding slavery as a practice sanctioned by God’s Word. He defended the institution of slavery and considered it as a means by which to “civilize” and evangelize those in bondage, which in eighteenth-century North America increasingly meant Africans. While viewing all humanity as being of “one blood,” he nonetheless placed people of color and adherents of other religions lower than European Protestant Christians. However, his experience as a missionary to Native Americans at the end of his life was apparently prompting him to reappraise at least some of his paternalistic assumptions.
Edwards purchased a succession of slaves during his career in Northampton and Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The first, a teenaged girl named Venus, he acquired in Newport in 1731; the last, a child named Titus, in 1756. Other slaves that we know of that he owned were named Leah, and Rose, and a married couple, Joseph and Sue. Leah became a full member of the Northampton church during the mid-century revivals known as the “Great Awakening.” Rose, long after Edwards died and apparently manumitted, joined the Stockbridge church. Jonathan’s wife, Sarah Pierpont Edwards, daughter of New Haven’s leading clerical family, actively sought to procure slaves from family members and from her husband’s ministerial colleagues.
Yet, as Edwards aged, he came to oppose the slave trade, by which Africans were forcibly taken from their homes and sold into bondage. In the only known document in which he is known to discuss slavery, he claimed that it was unjust to “disfranchise” people who had been born free, and that some biblical arguments used to defend slavery and the slave trade were wrongly applied. Where apologists for the slave trade argued that individuals owed equal consideration only to those who were their “neighbors,” Edwards criticized this as too narrow a definition of the biblical concept, and affirmed that everyone was one’s neighbor and entitled to just treatment.
Although Edwards did not live long enough to complete what may have been a journey towards antislavery, he was an important transitional figure in the development of abolitionism. It would be up to his disciples, known as the “New Divinity,” to take his thought to their logical ends. In particular, Edwards’ son, Jonathan Jr. (1745-1801), and a protégé, Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803), applied his ethical formulations and his opposition to the slave trade to issue a ringing call for the immediate and entire abolition of slavery in any form in the new United States.
— Kenneth Minkema, Executive Editor, Jonathan Edwards Center, Yale Divinity School