Ownership: The Evangelical Legacy of Slavery in Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield, By Sean McGever


The Evangelical Legacy of Slavery in Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield

by Sean McGever
Foreword by Vincent E. Bacote

  • Length: 240 pages
  • Dimensions: 5.5 × 8.5 in
  • Published: June 18, 2024
  • Imprint: IVP
  • Item Code: A0415
  • ISBN: 9781514004159

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Men of their time?

Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield were the three most prominent early evangelicals—and all three were deeply compromised on the issue of slavery. Edwards and Whitefield both kept slaves themselves, and Wesley failed to speak out against slavery until near the end of his life.

In Ownership, Sean McGever tells the true story of these men's relationships to slavery: a story that has too often been passed over or buried in scholarly literature. Laying out the dominant attitudes among Christians toward slavery at the time, McGever sets these "men of their times" in their own context, inviting us to learn how these shapers of American evangelicalism contributed to the tragic history of racism in America. He also explores how Christians finally began to recognize that slavery, which they'd excused for most of Christian history, is actually wrong. It's a story that white evangelicals must wrestle with today.

Ownership is more than a book of history. It's an invitation to examine our own legacies and to understand—and take ownership of—both our heritage and our own part in the story.

"This book is a gem! Sean McGever addresses an issue of continuing vital importance based on broad-ranging research and engaged in an evenhanded manner with pastoral sensitivity. He models the all-too-uncommon stance in our times of humbly 'owning' the traditions within which each of us is shaped—while calling our communities toward ever-greater faithfulness to the God whose mercy is over all God's works."

Randy L. Maddox, William Kellon Quick Emeritus Professor of Wesley and Methodist Studies at Duke Divinity School

"Among the tragic inheritances of the English Dissenters in America are the oppressive inequities they built and perpetuated around race and ethnicity, the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, and the condoning and expansion of enslavement. If Whitefield, Wesley, and Edwards were not 'founding fathers' of the United States, they were spiritual founders of America's evangelical tradition. These figures' involvement in, support for, or silence about the sin of slavery need to be confronted and owned without attempts to make excuses for them. McGever's work is part of the critical work of reassessing claims about our origins as a 'Christian nation.'"

Kenneth P. Minkema, Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University

"This book is unusually well researched (showing that Wesley, Edwards, and Whitefield actively or passively supported slavery even after Quaker Bible believers had published solid arguments showing the system's evil). It is patiently argued (bending over backward to explain charitably why these landmark evangelicals acted as they did). It is also painstakingly self-reflective (asking, If we condemn earlier Christians for unthinking support of their society's evil, what evils might we be supporting unthinkingly today?). The result is unusual clarity about the past and, even more, a compelling imperative for examining our own lives today."

Mark Noll, author of America's Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794–1911

"This carefully researched book invites evangelicals as well as all Protestants to consider the tragic positions that Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley held on slavery. While Wesley eventually condemned slavery, it was due to the influence of the Quakers and after both Edwards and Whitefield had died. Sean McGever is to be commended for his convicting treatment that not only challenges readers that all heroes of the church are redeemed sinners but also shows how we have perception gaps and may be missing issues that will look obvious to future Christians. This book deserves a wide circulation to foster the needed conversations for our current day."

Tom Schwanda, author of The Emergence of Evangelical Spirituality: The Age of Edwards, Newton, and Whitefield

"In this revealing book, Sean McGever sensitively delves into the complicated history of the relationship between evangelical Christianity and slavery by examining the lives and words of its three renowned founders: John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards Sr. A trumpet call for American Christians to honestly examine history, it is a must-read for all evangelicals who wish to confront the legacy of slavery and racism in our society today."

Manisha Sinha, Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut and author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition

"Sean McGever offers a comprehensive account of the extent to which these celebrated religious figures practiced or accepted the enslavement of Africans. While not excusing them as 'men of their time,' McGever reminds us that, instead of feeling self-righteous, we should consider the moral perception gaps that we may have today."

George Marsden, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of An Infinite Fountain of Light: Jonathan Edwards for the Twenty-First Century

"Sean McGever's Ownership offers a timely discussion of a most perplexing issue: early evangelicals' involvement with slavery. McGever's thought-provoking analysis is thoroughly historical, and yet it also considers how Christians today can apply such difficult lessons from the past."

Thomas S. Kidd, research professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

"The lessons of McGever’s book should aid the church as it pursues the Reformation emphasis of semper reformanda, 'always reforming' according to the Word of God."

Robert W. Caldwell III, Christianity Today

Read an Excerpt


Foreword by Vincent E. Bacote

1. Why Slavery? Slavery Has Nothing to Do with Me

Part 1. Influences: Born into Slave Societies
2. Three Men Who Would Change the World
3. What Proceeded Them: A Brief History of Slavery
4. What They Assumed: English Christian Beliefs About Slavery

Part 2. Participation: Participating in Society
5. Wesley in Georgia: Encounters Slavery
6. Whitefield in Georgia: Encounters Slavery and Enslaves Others
7. Edwards in Massachusetts: Enslaves Others
8. Wesley’s Thirty-Seven Year Silence

Part 3. Action: Action Against Slavery
9. Unlikely Voices: Quakers
10. Wesley Speaks About Slavery

Part 4. Legacy
11. Three Legacies
12. Ownership Today



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Sean McGever

Sean McGever (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is an area director for Young Life in Phoenix, Arizona, and adjunct faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is the author of several books, including Born Again: The Evangelical Theology of Conversion in John Wesley and George Whitefield and Evangelism: For the Care of Souls.