Puritans and the Proof in the Pudding: Is Slave-owning Unrelated to Calvinism?

Humble Beast artist, Propaganda, who has had some recent internet fame from his viral video poem “G.O.S.P.E.L.” [1], recently released a full-length hip hop album entitled “Excellent”. While the entire album is worth a listen, one track in particular is making waves all over the evangelical blogosphere: Precious Puritans. [2] Why? Because a black, Christian hip hop artist dared to denounce the racism and slave-owning of Puritans—the darlings of Neo-Calvinist folklore. (Gasp!) And several of Propoganda’s points are powerful!

Here’s a little taste:

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 heart break.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slaves 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.

…and, some more:

Oh, you get it but you don’t get it.
Oh, that we can go back to an America that once were, founded on Christian values.
They don’t build preachers like they used to. Oh, the richness of their revelations.
It must be nice to not have to consider race.

Even though Propaganda’s critique is devastating, he nevertheless attempts to soften the blow with some entirely unnecessary self-critique:

Think of the congregation that quotes you. Are you inerrant?
Trust me I know the feeling.
It’s the same feeling I get when people quote me.
Like, if you only knew!
I get it. But I don’t get it.
Ask my wife.
And, it bothers me when you quote puritans, if I’m honest, for the same reason it bothers me when people quote me–they precious propaganda.
So, I guess it’s true.
God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.
Just like your precious puritans.

In an interview published by Joe Thorn, Propaganda says,

The song was really designed to be a bait and switch. The indictment on the puritans is really a secondary point. They were not perfect in living out their theology. They had issues just like all of us. And I’m just as much guilty as them. The real point is the last line, ‘God uses crooked sticks to make straight lines.’ God uses us despite our depravity. That’s the main point…I’m guilty too! [3]

The Elephant in the Room: Calvinism

If you’re not paying close attention, you’ll miss it. Calvinists are highly skilled at sleight of hand. Be very careful that you don’t get whiplash as your head spins around trying to track with the theological acrobatics being employed here. Token black blogger at “The Gospel Coalition,” Thabiti Anyabwile, will demonstrate how to praise the Puritan’s “pure” theology while denouncing their slave-owning.

There’s no causal relationship, or even descriptive relationship really, between Edwards’ theology proper and the eighteenth century slave-holding that Edwards engaged in. There’s no genetic relationship between the ‘Doctrines of Grace’ or a high view of Gods sovereignty that leads necessarily to the consequence of holding slaves. [4]

And here:

…good theology does not mechanically lead to good living. We need to understand this. It’s a commonplace Christian assertion that if we believe the right things we ought to do the right things. [5]

Sorry, but that’s not how “belief” works Pastor Thabiti. Belief isn’t merely intellectual assent. Biblical faith isn’t merely theoretical or hypothetical. What one actually and truly believes is demonstrated by their actions. Jesus said, “Wisdom is proved right by all her children.” (Luke 7.35) Translation: the ‘proof is in the pudding.’

Let me give you a very common analogy. There is very easy test to see what a person truly cares about: examine where that person invests their time, treasure, and talents. People can claim all day long that they love, love, love God, but even a cursory examination of their investment exposes their true love. That in which we are invested will become that which we love. Or as Jesus put it: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6.21) That which we love will engender greater and greater investment.

The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught. – Isaiah 29.13

As much as the Reformed wish it were not so, James is still in the canon, and Bishop James is begging to be added to this conversation:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. – James 2.14-26

Now, let the record reflect that it was Bishop James, not me, who called Pastor Thabiti a foolish person.

“Pure” Calvinism: Predestined to Slavery

Here is an example of the “genetic relationship” between Calvinist theology and slave-owning:

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.

“Fore-destined salvation” is the Calvinistic doctrine of Election and/or Predestination (both involve exhaustive definite foreknowledge and causal determinism). To what does Propaganda connect this doctrine? The false gospel of a hierarchy of image-bearing in human beings. How did that happen? Calvinist theology necessitates that the fate of enslaved Africans was the predestined will of God. Calvinist theology necessitates that the social injustice enacted by Puritans was God-ordained for God’s glory.

Propaganda unfortunately ends this brilliant track, that indicts the Puritan’s corrupt and evil choices, with a benign and perfunctory argument for total depravity.

So, I guess it’s true.
God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.
Just like your precious puritans.

So that’s the take-away Prop? The Puritans who heinously, brutally dehumanized their brothers and sisters were just crooked Christians being used by God to make “straight lines”?? Where exactly is the “straight line” we’re supposed to glean from the Puritans? There is no straight line.

The end of Calvinism is oppression. Call it: Applied Calvinism. The Puritans’ problem wasn’t disconnecting their theology from their practice. It’s the modern-day Calvinists who have a problem with the very clear connection the Puritans made—and practiced. Here is the ugly truth: Whenever and wherever the powerful in a society believe they are specially chosen by God, oppression results. That is the historical fact—whether it is pleasant or not.


Theology directly affects practice.

Practice is the full expression of one’s true theology.

“Faith” is what we demonstrate, not merely what we claim to believe.

Therefore, we cannot praise the Puritans for their brilliant, holy, “pure” theology while condemning their practice of slave-owning.

  1. Propaganda’s video poem “G.O.S.P.E.L.” is an excellent [wink] example of the Neo-Calvinist misunderstanding of the Gospel. For the Calvinist, “the Gospel” is the plan of salvation and not the Good News of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and Lord of the Nations. For the Calvinist, “the Gospel” is centered around how people escape personal guilt, and not how God is triumphing over Evil. For the Calvinist, “the Gospel” reflects the Western obsession with the individual, and not God’s dream of a kingdom of priests, a holy nation—the Church. In short, “the Gospel” Prop describes in this video is unfortunately only a small part of the glorious Gospel story.
  2. Evidence that the evangelical blogosphere is indeed the white, male, Calvinist hegemony many of us suspected it was has recently surfaced. According to ChurchRelevance dot com, eight of the top thirteen church-related blogs are written by white, male Calvinists. Only two of the top 44 are written by women. And only 1 of the top 22 is written by a black author. http://churchrelevance.com/resources/top-church-blogs
  3. http://www.joethorn.net/2012/09/25/precious-puritans-pt-2/
  4. http://jecteds.org/media/player_video.php?id=30 ~27:00
  5. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabitianyabwile/2012/10/02/the-puritans-are-not-that-precious