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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards, Race, and Redemption

Richard A. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, Religion in America Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

This fascinating monograph began as a dissertation at the University of Kentucky. In it, Bailey, an alumnus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary currently teaching history at Canisius College (Buffalo), highlights the contradictory and sometimes even hypocritical manner in which Puritans like Edwards sought the spiritual redemption of the African and Native American people they enslaved.

Most historians identify the rise of what we call “race,” racialized ways of viewing the world, and the practices of racism, at least in British America, with the late eighteenth century. Bailey shows that the Puritans used racialized categories and expressed racist views much earlier than that—indeed, soon after they rowed ashore.

His book explores what he refers to as “the intersections between the religious frontier that was colonial New England and the racial frontiers pioneered by white colonists as they ordered colonial society,” paying most of its attention “to the ways New England puritans socially, culturally, intellectually, legally, and theologically ordered and attempted to control their experiences with New Englanders of color” (pp. 6-7). Bailey’s thesis is rather vague and usually difficult to follow, perhaps because he is eager to foreground its poignant paradox: “race was created, at least in part, out of the spiritual freedoms offered by New England Puritanism” (p. 7); or, in other words, colonial Americans “constructed race from the spiritual freedoms found in the redemption being offered by puritans of all persuasions, tying race and redemption” close together (p. 14). But the real strength of the book is not its thesis anyway, but the evidence it offers of the racialized perceptions of New Englanders like Edwards.

Those who think that I was wrong, or simply too harsh, for criticizing Edwards as “something of a racist” (Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word, p. 180) really need to read this book. I recommend it most highly to anyone interested in Edwards, Edwards’ world, and its socio-cultural legacies.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS