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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Slavery and the Trinity

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

In The Holy Trinity (2004), Robert Letham acknowledges with other scholars “a connection between a unitary view of God and monolithic dictatorship.” According to Letham, “only a Trinitarian-based society” can achieve the “appropriate balance between rights and responsibilities, freedom and order, peace and justice.” (10-11) Unfortunately, Letham does not devote much space in his book to the issue of slavery. As a result, aside from some appendices in his book regarding the topic of gender, the reader is left wondering if the United States qualifies as a so-called “Trinitarian-based society,” and if it does, how so many Trinitarians in American history could sanction the enslavement of other human beings. Applying Letham’s general thesis to slavery, the question of course arises: did one’s view of the Trinity inevitably shape one’s view of slavery? And is there still a connection today between Trinitarianism and individual positions on issues of race? Although one article could not hope to answer such an exhaustive (and explosive) question, the history of American religion does paint a picture of a people whose views of God and humanity were inextricable from one another. (As I discuss in my forthcoming article in The International Journal of Systematic Theology, the decline of psychological Trinitarianism was not completely tangential to the issue of slavery) Therefore, with some historical evidence, we can at least make one observation with certainty: The ideological movements that shaped American theology also had an effect upon American anthropology. While specific kinds of Trinitarianism and particular views on slavery were not directly linked, certain movements and motivations are discernible in both.

At the outset, it’s important to recognize the impossibility of locating an exact correlation between stances on slavery and Trinitarian beliefs. For example, American Transcendentalism was an epistemological movement within New England Unitarianism and produced some of the nation’s staunchest, most militant abolitionists. The group from Hartford, Connecticut was by no means a “Trinitarian-based society” and yet they had an extraordinarily egalitarian community. Theodore Parker, for instance, was one of the infamous “Secret Six” who supported and funded John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry that helped ignite the Civil War. Walt Whitman, on the other hand, adopted a more Jacksonian, pro-Southern stance. John Dagg, who was present at the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 and who composed a pro-slavery work on ethics, would only admit that “Jesus Christ is inferior to the Father in his human nature, and his mediatorial office.” For Dagg, “Inferiority of office does not require inferiority of nature.” (Manual of Theology, 192) In other words, the Son of God was subordinate to the will of the Father in his incarnation, not in the immanent Trinity. Dagg believed in the submission of Africans to whites, but not in the eternal submission of the Son to the Father. Conversely, some of the most contemporary evangelical statesmen have taught that the triune God is not without some kind of submission from eternity. In Knowing God, J. I. Packer insisted, “Thus the obedience of the God-man to the Father while he was on earth was not a new relationship occasioned by the Incarnation, but the continuation in time of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father in heaven. As in heaven, so on earth, the Son was utterly dependent upon the Father’s will.” (62) Was this the doctrine of Eternal Functional Subordination in the theology of J. I. Packer? At the very least, it is another example of a broad evangelical tradition that has boasted several forms of Nicene Trinitarianism, and not always linked directly with sympathies concerning race.

However, this does not mean that Trinitarian theology was altogether unrelated to the issue of race in the America. As American society was levelled by social and political forces in the early national period, so was America’s God, and vice versa. (Noll, Hatch) Perhaps the most compelling illustration of the parallel between the “flattening” of the Trinity and abolitionism is the relationship between the slaveholding Puritan Jonathan Edwards and his patriotic disciples in the New Divinity, most of whom were outspoken opponents of slavery. As George Marsden has indicated, Edwards had a “deep ambivalence toward the institution of African slavery,” condemning the slave trade but accepting slavery in the colonies as a legitimate status quo. (257) The Edwardses owned at least one slave, most likely purchased from the same Rhode Island chattel slave market that inspired the abolitionism of Samuel Hopkins, Edwards’s disciple. Edwards’s Trinity, like his view of mankind, consisted of tiers. His doctrine of the immanent Trinity has been called by Amy Plantinga Pauw a “quasi-genetic order of subsistence.” (105) While acknowledging an equality among the divine Persons and blending aspects of psychological and social models of the Trinity, Edwards insisted that the Father’s position “is more properly called priority than superiority” and that the divine economy must be “agreeable” to the “order of subsistence.” In other words, the order of the gospel reveals the triune order of Persons. Edwards affirmed that “the divine essence should be, and should be what it is, is not in any respect in any dependence or by derivation,” yet “the Son derived the divine essence from the Father, and the Holy Spirit derives the divine essence from the Father and Son.” (Fragment on the Trinity) This kind of language is virtually non-existent in the works of the Edwardseans, who spoke of a “manner of subsistence” and “mode of existence” but not of an “order” per se. Timothy Dwight, Edwards’s grandson, helped to found an abolitionist society in Connecticut as did Edwards’s own son. Even Leonard Woods, who was one of the New Divinity men to actually support slavery, rebutted William Ellery Channing and the Unitarians by appealing to the divinity of Jesus, not the submission of the Son.

Remarkably, even the eternal generation of the Son had gone out of fashion among the Edwardseans. In 1822, Andover professor Moses Stuart, who studied under Dwight, wrote a series of letters to Samuel Miller of Princeton in order to refute the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. “During all my theological life,” Stuart declared, “I had never once heard the doctrine of eternal generation seriously avowed and defended. Nearly all the ministers in New England, since I have been upon the stage, have, so far as I know their sentiments, united in rejecting it, or at least in regarding it as unimportant. Our most distinguished theologians, for forty years past, have openly declared it.” (4-5) Eventually, at least in the Edwardsean tradition, the gospel revealed less of the essence of God and more of his nature. Human psychology was no longer an analogy of the Godhead. Instead, it revealed the dignity of mankind.

In Methodist, Baptist, and other revivalist circles, the Trinity became simply a form of devotion and not of intellectual pursuit. Methodist circuit riders, who often spoke out courageously against the evil of slavery, had relatively little to say about the Trinity, focusing mainly on the sanctifying and perfecting power of the Holy Spirit to bring together the church. Not surprisingly, Charles Finney, who was staunchly abolitionist, did not even include a section on the Trinity (or God for that matter) in his Systematic Theology! Among minority leaders, the unity of the Trinity, not its order, was a primary emphasis. Richard Allen, the father of the A.M.E. Church, believed “in the unity of the Godhead, a trinity of persons,” confessing, “O blessed Jesus, that thou art of one substance with the Father, the very and eternal God.” (41) Sarah Osborn, one of the first female evangelical leaders in America and one of Samuel Hopkins’s parishioners, confessed in her memoir, “Fill me with admiring and adoring thoughts of thee, O God – the Father God, the Son, and God the Holy Ghost- who hast so wonderfully contrived and wrought out my redemption.” (6)

Still, in the antebellum period, Trinitarianism of all kinds persisted in the American church, and authoritarian theology often coincided with authoritarian anthropology. Those who wished to see slavery come to an end but stood opposed to abolitionism for its extremism and harm to societal order were inclined to see order in the doctrine of the Trinity. For instance, Horace Bushnell, the so-called father of American theological liberalism, believed that abolitionists were rabble-rousers and disturbers of the public peace. Seeking instead to free the church from the shackles of dogmatic religion, Bushnell offered up the enigmatic idea of an “instrumental trinity,” eventually being accused of everything from pantheism to modalism. Bushnell even seemed to imply that the second person of the Trinity emerged only with the incarnation. Bordering on Apollinarianism, some accused Bushnell of proffering the idea that there was no incarnation at all, but that God had simply taken possession of a human. God was an “Absolute Being” from which emanations took shape. (154) Alexander Campbell, who seemed to deny the Trinity at the end of his ministry, did not view slavery as a moral evil and did not envision a civilization with integrated races. Although, like Thomas Jefferson and many other evangelicals, he believed slavery to have a negative impact on society, his patriarchal God certainly matched his patriarchal view of American society.

Though he was the theological opponent of both Bushnell and Campbell (and many others during his lifetime), Charles Hodge also took a somewhat ambivalent stance on slavery, oddly suggesting that slavery should come to an end due to the second commandment but that slaveholders themselves were not in sin for buying and selling people. Along with Archibald Alexander, Princeton during this time was known for its friendliness to pro-slavery Southerners, including James P. Boyce. Affirming the “subordinationism of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son,” Hodge clarified that this did not “imply inferiority.” (460) Nevertheless, according to Hodge, who made a distinction between the Nicene Council and the Nicene fathers themselves, “The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation, implied in the Scriptural facts that the Son is of the Father.” Hodge clearly did not mind a bit of authority in his Trinity, seeking to reconcile a theological tension in the same way he attempted to do so in American public life.

Hodge’s student at Princeton, James P. Boyce, the inaugural president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and chaplain in the Confederacy, went a step further in his Trinitarian subordinationism . . . and in his defense of slavery. Affirming the equality of Persons in the Godhead, the slave-owning Boyce argued,

“That sonship may imply inferiority of official rank and personal relation, is readily admitted. But it does not always do this. Such subordination of person, indeed, seems to be taught of the Son of God to his Father. But it is equality and sameness of nature, not of office, which makes the Son truly God.” For Boyce, “Subordination, as to the mode of subsistence, and operation, is a scriptural fact; and so also is the perfect and equal godhead of the Father, and the Son, and therefore, these facts must be consistent.” (144) That Boyce upheld a vehement pro-slavery position and an unabashed Trinitarian authoritarianism should not go without note, so long as we understand that no racial connection can be concretely proven with the given historical record. Simply put, there were no Trinitarian arguments made in support for slavery in America. Nevertheless, the complex relationship between slavery and the Trinity is important not just because of ongoing Trinitarian and racial debates today, but because the American church will continually face the implications of its theology in its anthropology, and vice versa.

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1 Comment

Tanner Williams
Tanner Williams
Dec 22, 2020

I really appreciated this perspective. It is easy to forget that these recent Trinitarian positions are not so recent after all.

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