The Rev. James Hervey, the subject of the following Memoirs, exhibits in his writings a most zealous attachment to the great doctrines of the glorious gospel, and in his life a most eminent example of evangelical holiness
Hervey was a man highly esteemed in his own time, and by generations following him.
If Hervey is as representative and prominent a figure as there was in 18th century evangelicalism, a question naturally arises (for me, at least): what, if anything, did Hervey have to say (or do) regarding the enslavement of Africans in the American colonies?
As far as I can tell, Hervey never visited America (though his works were published, read, and debated there), and never owned any slaves himself (though I am uncertain of the status of the “worthy domestic” cited below). Nevertheless, Hervey’s friendship with George Whitefield resulted in an active participation in slavery that is worth reflecting on.
Though Hervey pastored in Weston Favell, in 1750 he took a trip to London, about 70 miles away, at the behest of some of his friends:
“In June 1750, his health being much impaired by his great attention to duty, and his friends judging that the change of air might be of benefit to him, they formed a design, which they executed, of conveying him to London, under a pretence of riding a few miles in a friend’s post-chaise, who was going thither.”
Brown, Memoirs, 149.
Hervey would remain there nearly two years, until April or May 1752, and during this time he stayed at a few places in London, including his friend George Whitefield’s house:
“One of the winters he staid in London, he lodged at the house of his good friend Mr. Whitefield, in Tottenham-court Road; here he was very happy”
Brown, Memoirs, 152.
Hervey and Whitefield were lifelong friends, and Whitefield had previously visited him up on Weston Favell:
“A worthy domestic, yet alive (in 1811) intimates, his usual visitors were the Rev. Messrs. Whitefield, T. Jones, Cudworth, Doddridge, Ryland, and a pious young man, a stone mason ; these righteous men, their lips fed one another; indeed almost none but religious persons called on him.”
Brown, Memoirs, 156.
Among the things Hervey and Whitefield did was review each others’ manuscripts (though, Hervey being the more literary of the two, this seems to have been a one-sided affair):
“In his friendship to Mr. Whitefield, he also reviewed his manuscripts. So this good man [Whitefield] writes Mr. Hervey; “ I thank you a thousand times for the trouble you have been at in revising my poor compositions, which I am afraid you have not treated with a becoming severity.”
Brown, Memoirs, 263.
Sometime in 1752, Hervey sent some of his own manuscripts to Whitefield for comment (Luke Tyerman thinks these were “Probably “Theron and Aspasio,” now in hand, though not published far three years afterwards” (Tyerman, Oxford Methodists, 277).) Whitefield wrote back:
“London, June 9, 1752.
“My very dear Friend,— I have received and read your manuscripts; but for me to play the critic upon them, would be like holding up a candle to the sun. However, before I leave town, I will just mark a few places as you desire, and then send the manuscripts to your brother. I foretell their fate: nothing but your scenery can screen you. Self will never bear to die, though slain in so genteel a manner, without showing some resentment against its artful murderer.”
“You are resolved not to die in my debt. I think to call your intended purchase Weston, and shall take care to remind him by whose means he was brought under the everlasting Gospel.”
It seems unlikely to me that Whitefield literally thought Hervey was repaying a debt, especially not for his editorial comments on his manuscript. It is more likely that Hervey meant this as a “gift” to his friend, and Whitefield’s response is a courteous reply. Whitefield likely named the enslaved man “Weston” after the town where Hervey was pastor (Weston Favell).
How was this incident received and transmitted by historians and biographers? Luke Tyerman called it an “act … too curious to be omitted” and emphasizes its strangeness like this:
“Every one knows, that, Whitefield believed, that, the keeping of slaves was sanctioned by the Scriptures; that, hot countries could not be cultivated without negroes; and, that, the lives of numbers of white people had been destroyed in Georgia, and large amounts of money wasted, for want of negro labour. Holding such principles, Whitefield, in 1751, bought a number of slaves, partly to cultivate the land attached to his Orphan House, in Georgia: and partly to instruct them, and to make them Christians. Strange to say, the gentle Hervey approved of this procedure; and having, during his residence in London, largely shared in Whitefield’s hospitality, he gave to him, as a souvenir on leaving,—what ? A slave!”
Tyerman, The Oxford Methodists, 277.
However, other biographers of Hervey tried to frame this act in an entirely different light. One of Hervey’s earliest biographers, John Brown, called this an instance of charity:
“Among other instances of his charity, he proposed to buy a slave, to instruct him in the Christian religion.”
Brown, Memoirs, 215.
A whole book was edited in honor of Hervey, called Herveiana; Or, Graphic and Literary Sketches Illustrative of the Life and Writings of the Rev. James Hervey (1822) edited by John Cole. Cole actually attempts to compare Hervey to the great English abolitionist William Wilberforce:
“The following splendid instance of his charity is noticed by Brown, which shews that he possessed alike the spirit that animated Wilberforce, and that which influences Christians of the present day. Mr. Whitefield, being in America, Mr. Hervey proposed to buy a slave, (whom his friend there had opportunity to purchase) to instruct him in the Christian religion…”
““The above account displays that Hervey did as far as was in his power as an individual in the cause of humanity, what Wilberforce as the representative of a body of individuals completely effected in the total overthrow of the cruelty inflicted upon our fellow creatures. Our countrymen of this age are endeavouring with a laudable zeal to convert heathens, and give them the glorious light of the gospel. Hervey used his power to effect the same desirable object in this brilliant and beneficent purchase, which is in every instance worthy of the man.”
To modern eyes, (mine at least), this appears to be a bizarre incident. Yet, in other respects, it is to be expected of evangelicals, who seamlessly wedded enslavement of others with their own evangelical theology (for another example, see “The Edwards of History: A Reply to Douglas Wilson”). In fact, it seems clear that Hervey meant this as a form of evangelism: “may the Lord Jesus Christ give you the precious soul of the poor slave.” For those who believed that God providentially intended the trans-Atlantic slave trade so that enslaved Africans could hear the “gospel,” this is a completely consistent act.
This incident also tells us about how Whitefield was known amongst his friends. Hervey knew that Whitefield would appreciate the “gift” of an enslaved person, and perhaps knew all about the enslaved workers at the Bethesda orphanage in Georgia. When you spend good money on a gift for a friend (£30 was no small sum), you want to be sure they will appreciate it, and whatever Hervey knew of Whitefield, he knew he would appreciate this.
Consider further that Whitefield had said that he would “take care to remind him by whose means he was brought under the everlasting Gospel.” Imagine being Weston, and imagine if Whitefield held true to his promise. Imagine constant reminders to “Reverend Hervey” — another link in the chain of events that brought you from your home in Africa, across the middle passage, to a slave block in London. All along, you are treated as “transferrable property,” such that you could be “given” as a “gift,” from one evangelical preacher to another.
In all, the ethical distortion in the original episode, and the further distortion in the historical reception of it (Tyerman excluded), are illustrative of 18th and 19th century evangelicalism.
In 1826 Lyman Beecher published his Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance (see “A ‘Middle Passage’ of Slavery and Darkness”: Lyman Beecher’s Six Sermons on Intemperance), and drew repeated comparisons between intemperance and the slave trade. Just a few years later, Amherst College president Heman Humphrey would expand upon this parallel and deliver an entire address devoted to the Parallel Between Intemperance and the Slave Trade.
A decade later, Beecher and Humphrey had both moved to Massachusetts–Beecher to a pastorate in Boston, and Humphrey as the President of Amherst College–and when the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance was formed in Boston 1826, they were both listed among the founding members, which included a number of other elite New England evangelicals:
Joshua Bates, president of Middlebury College (Vermont)
Bennet Tyler, president of Dartmouth College (New Hamphsire)
Ebenezer Porter, professor at Andover Seminary (Massachusetts)
Leonard Woods, professor at Andover Seminary
Moses Stuart, professor at Andover Seminary
Lyman Beecher, pastor (Boston, Massachusetts)
Heman Humphrey, president of Amherst College (Massachusetts)
Marcus Morton, Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice
Francis Wayland, president of Brown University (Rhode Island)
Jeremiah Day, president of Yale College (Connecticut)
Eliphalet Nott, president of Union College (New York)
Samuel Miller, professor at Princeton Theological Seminary (New Jersey)
While the First Annual Report did not elaborate at length on the comparison (like Beecher or Humphrey) it too included a reference to the intemperate as an “abject slave” (21), and reprinted the Western District New Hampshire Medical Society’s resolution that physicians prescribing alcoholic “medicines” as producing “slaves to Intemperance” (39).
Thus, the comparison between intemperance and slavery was becoming common, especially among the evangelical elite.
Parallel Between Intemperance and the Slave-Trade
Humphrey’s address was delivered to the students at Amherst College on July 4, 1828, and he expanded greatly on the comparison between intemperance and slavery Beecher had made a couple years earlier.
Humphrey starts off lamenting:
“that after the lapse of nearly fifty years of undisputed political freedom, the blood-freezing clank of a cruel bondage is still heard amid our loudest rejoicings. You will naturally suppose I allude to that grievous anomaly in our free constitution, which darkens all the southern horizon; but I have a more brutifying and afflictive thraldom in view. For however cruel and debasing and portentous African servitude may be, beyond the Potomac, there exists, even in New-England, a far sorer bondage, from which the slaves of the South are happily free. This bondage is intellectual and moral as well as physical. It chains and scourges the soul, as well as the body. It is a servitude from which death itself has no power to release the captive” (4).
Humphrey sounds a note he will repeat over and over: intemperance is “a more brutifying and afflictive thralldom” than African enslavement, “a far sorer bondage.” He thinks that African slavery is merely “physical” but not “intellectual” or “moral,” and this framing sets the stage for his entire argument.
He explains his strategy: “I have long thought, that a great advantage might be gained, by comparing intemperance with some other terrible scourge of humanity, which has fallen under deep and universal reprobation. Such a scourge is the African Slave-trade” (6). Humphrey makes a truly remarkable claim: “the position which I mean to take is this, that the prevalent use of ardent spirits in the United States, is a worse evil at this moment, than the slave-trade ever was, in the height of its horrible prosperity” (6, italics original).
He knows that this is a bold statement:
“However much this position may shock and stagger belief, I am confident it can be maintained, without the least extenuation on one side, or exaggeration on the other. Nothing but a sober and sorrowful parallel is necessary ; and such a parallel I shall attempt to sketch with as much brevity as I can” (6–7).
The Slave-Trade, not Enslavementper se
It is important to be precise about what Humphrey means by “the slave-trade,” since modern readers might think he means “slavery” in general. In fact, he means very specifically the trans-Atlantic trade, which was abolished in 1807 with the passing of the “Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.” It was common to decry loudly the evils of this trade while remaining lukewarm regarding the evils of enslavement itself in the United States (for example, Jonathan Edwards condemned the trade while at the same time holding several people in enslavement; a century later white-supremacist and slavery apologist Robert Lewis Dabney did the same thing). Humphrey makes this clear when he states that “Congress has no hesitation in passing the severest laws against the one [the slave-trade], and why not do something to check the more dreadful ravages of the other [intemperance]?” (30). Spoken in 1828, this can only apply to the “importation of slaves,” not the institution itself (which would not be abolished, at least in the Confederate states, until 1863).
Humphrey’s argument is not that “the slave-trade was not that bad; therefore intemperance is worse”; rather, the argument is that “the slave-trade was horrifically evil; and yet, even still, intemperance is worse”:
“And can any thing, you will ask, be worse ? Can any guilt, or misery, or peril surpass that of the slave-trade ? Can any national stigma be deeper, than for a single year to have tolerated the importation of human blood and broken hearts and daily imprecations? Yes, I answer, intemperance in the United States is worse than all this—is a more blighting and deadly scourge to humanity, than that traffic, all dripping with gore, which it makes every muscle shudder to think of” (8).
He compares the “comparative aggregate of misery” in terms of both the “number of victims” and the “aggregate of human misery which it inflicts” and judges that intemperance outweighs the slave-trade on both counts (8–12). Humphrey has a peculiar judgment regarding the affects of either on human persons:
“But while intemperance mixes ingredients equally bitter, if not similar, in the cup of trembling and woe which it fills up to the brim, it casts in others, which the slave-trade never mingled—for it fetters the immortal mind as well as the dying body” (14).
How Humphrey could claim that enslavement did not afflict the minds of the enslaved is unclear.
“The mere sting of an insect, compared with the fangs of a tyger”
Humphrey piles on rhetorical questions, assuming that his point is obvious:
“Think of his [the intemperate man’s] thus dragging out months and years of torture, till the earth refuses any longer to bear such a wretch upon its surface, and then tell me, if any Barbadian slave was ever so miserable” (15);
“Was ever a kidnapped African more wretched in his Atlantic dungeon?” (16);
“The veriest wretch, chained and sweltering between decks in a Portuguese Guineaman, is not half so miserable” (17);
“who that is bought and sold and thrown into the sea, for the crime of being sable and sick, suffers half so much as this very slave [the intemperate]?” (17);
“can any slave-torture be more excruciating than this?” (18).
Humphrey even claims that given the choice, he would choose to be enslaved on a plantation than to practice intemperance:
“Ah, give me, you say, the chains and stripes and toil and perpetual servitude of a West-India plantation, rather than the woe, the wounds, and the diseases of the dram-shop” (19).
Intemperance is worse than the slave-trade in the shame it produces, and the guilt upon the conscience (19–20), and here he waxes eloquent:
“Now what, I pray you, is African slavery in its most terrific forms compared with this ? The mere sting of an insect, compared with the fangs of a tyger—the slight inconvenience of a ligature, contrasted with the live and crushing folds of the Boa Constrictor. Drag me bound and bleeding, if you will, from my blazing habitation— thrust me half dead into the fetid hold of any slave-ship—sell me me to any foreign master— doom me to labour in any burning climate— set over me any iron-hearted driver—load me with any chains and compel me to toil night and day in any sugar-house ;—but deliver me not over to the retributions of a conscience, exasperated by the guilt of intemperance!” (22).
If it seemed that something was off in Humphrey’s moral calculus, he says it explicitly partway through the address. Intemperance “inflicts more misery” than the slave-trade, in part because of “the keener sensibilities of a civilized than of a savage state” (22, 23). Because white civilized men have “keener sensibilities” than the African “savage” white men would be more miserable in the bondage of drink than a Black person in actual enslavement. Humphrey’s comparison rests fundamentally on the stereotype of Black people as more impervious to pain, more “hardy,” with duller “sensibilities.”
Again, he asserts that the pain of a family ripped apart in Africa suffers not as badly as a family afflicted with intemperance:
“Or when you have wept with that aged pair, on the slave-coast, whose only son has just been carried off by the ruthless man-stealer, come home to New- England, and see the only prop of once doting, and now aged parents, falling intoxicated and blaspheming over the threshold of their door ; and tell me, whose breach is widest, whose sorrows spring from the deepest fountain ? Much as I love my children, let them all grind in chains till they die, rather, in finitely, than become the slaves of strong drink” (23).
“The Means of Grace”
Humphrey also compares the affect on religious faith, and again, makes several questionable claims regarding the two evils:
“intemperance is beyond all comparison more destructive to the souls of men than the slave-trade. Diabolical as this traffic is, it does not deprive its victims of the means of grace, for they never enjoyed them. It seals not up the bible, nor blots out the sabbath, nor removes men from the “house of God and the gate of heaven.” It hardens not their hearts. It sears not their consciences. They are not more likely to lose their souls in America, than they would have been in their native country” (25).
The fact that many enslaved people and their descendants have struggled with Christianity as a “white slaveholding religion” seems utterly foreign to Humphrey. In fact, Humphrey pulls out the age old providential apology for slavery at this point:
“On the contrary, many are brought under the saving light of the gospel here, who, in all probability, would never have heard of a Saviour there” (25).
Humphrey’s dubious comparison causes him to extend his argument into another fallacy, condemning drinking even in moderation:
“if intemperance is more afflictive and disgraceful to humanity than the slave-trade, who can justify himself even in the moderate use of strong drink ? Would those respectable and influential men who drink sparingly, lend the weight of their example, for a moment, to perpetuate the slave-trade, supposing it had not yet been abolished? Would they go into the market and buy at all? Would they tell us, that much as they abhor a wholesale traffic in human flesh, they see no harm in trading a little ; and that nobody can be comfortable without a few slaves?” (35).
If there is no such thing as “slaveholding in moderation,” then, according to Humphrey, neither can alcohol be consumed in moderation either. In fact, on the last page of the address, Humphrey exhorts his hearers to “Touch not—taste not—handle not”—even though, ironically, in the passage he is quoting from (Colossians 2:21), the apostle Paul is condemning such strict rules as “doctrines of men” rather than from God(Col 2:22). Humphrey’s rhetorical zeal got away from him in almost every sense.
Like many “moderate” northerners, Humphrey seemed more concerned with anti-slavery advocacy than with slavery itself, and as he demonstrates clearly in his address, was far more concerned with other social ills, like intemperance, than he was with enslavement.
Carl R. Osthaus, Freedmen, Philanthropy, and Fraud: A History of the Freedman’s Savings Bank (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976).
“This bank is just what the Freedmen need” said Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1865, when the bill chartering the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company was signed into law. Yet, by the time it was all over, Frederick Douglass would say that “the Freedman’s Bank was the black man’s cow but the white man’s milk” (Frederick Douglass to Gerrit Smith, July 3, 1874, Smith MSS, Syracuse University Library, in Osthaus, 1).
W. E. B. Du Bois gives a brief survey of this episode in his Black Reconstruction and sums it up like this: “No more extraordinary and disreputable venture ever disgraced American business disguised as philanthropy than the Freedmen’s Bank—a chapter in American history which most Americans naturally prefer to forget” (Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (Oxford, 2007), 491).
In 1976, Carl Osthaus published his dissertation on the Freedman’s Bank, which he completed at the University of Chicago under his mentor John Hope Franklin. The book is a superb study enabling us to not forget. His detailed, meticulous account tells both the story of the Freedman’s Bank as well as as the broader movements in America during Reconstruction.
The Freedman’s Bank and Racial “Uplift”
The Freedman’s Bank is a powerful illustration of dynamics that were taking place throughout the country, involving every sphere of society:
“Just as the Freedmen’s Bureau would seek to satisfy the ex-slaves’ need for land, education, and immediate relief, and the Christian missionaries would care for the reformation of their souls, the Freedman’s Bank would instill economic morals and social values in the Negroes”
I found particularly fascinating the role of northern missionaries, white and Black, in promoting the bank, and the way moral and spiritual “uplift” was intertwined with the material operations of the Bank:
“Every piece of Freedman’s Bank literature revealed the officers’ missionary zeal. Bank officials incessantly distributed, in D. L. Eaton’s words, ‘tracts and papers… on temperance, frugality, economy chastity, the virtues of thrift & savings; explaining how daily savings in small sums at interest will accumulate & the duty of men to provide for their families–and in a word giving short & simple homilies on the virtues which constitute the moral life of civilized communities'”
Eaton to Committee on Freedmen’s Affairs, July 5, 1868, Committee on Freedmen’s Affairs, National Freedman’s Savings and Trust Co., Legislative Records, NA, RG 233, in Osthaus, 49.
Osthaus does not shy away from describing the paternalism that infused some of the efforts on behalf of the bank:
“Bank officials spoke with egalitarian rhetoric, although sometimes their actions and comments displayed paternalistic attitudes… A circular intended for the freedmen would, they erroneously believed, “of course” be referred “for advice to those more intelligent whom they have been accustomed to trust.” Other statements were not so subtly condescending. The Memphis cashier declared that “the fickel [sic] mindedness of the Colored people makes it impossible for me to remit to you yet the small sum I have as yet on deposit.”
Cooke, Railroads, and Banks
The original reason I was drawn to look at the Freedman’s Bank was the role of Jay Cooke, his brother Henry Cooke, and the way the massive enterprise of trans-continental railroads affected the entire country. Osthaus tells the story of the Cookes and the Bank in full:
“The name of Jay Cooke, the famous Civil War financier, appeared frequently in Bank advertisements, although he had no connection with the Bank and was associated with it only tangentially because his brother and business partner Henry D. Cooke, became chairman of the Finance Committee in mid-1867. That the Cookes had no connection with the Bank before 1867 did not prevent the Semi-Weekly Louisianian from praising their roles in its establishment. Later Bank officials used the Civil War fame of Jay Cooke specifically to bolster confidence in the Bank’s investment policy and generally to highlight the Bank’s sound financial standing”
Ironically, the Cookes would take advantage of the Freedman’s Bank as their own banking and investment institutions came under severe strain in the early 1870s. At one point, Henry Cooke transferred $500,000 from the Freedman’s Bank to the First National Bank (which they controlled):
“$500,000 [was] an enormous sum on which the Cookes paid only 5 percent interest, while the Freedman’s Bank was paying its depositors 6 per- cent”
This was a pattern in the management of the bank:
“This episode reveals a significant pattern: Cooke, Huntington, and other officers and trustees on occasion used the Freedmen’s Bank as a dumping ground for their bad private claims or the poor securities of the First National Bank”
When Jay Cooke & Company went bankrupt in 1873, it sent shockwaves through the entire world and triggered a massive recession and the failure of a number of banks, companies, and individuals. The Freedman’s Bank failed at this time, though Osthaus notes that this was not a simple case of cause and effect:
“Obviously no single factor was decisive, and even a combination of fraud and national economic crisis leaves much to be explained”
As the bank was floundering, they appointed Frederick Douglass to be the president in an effort to prop up its reputation, while keeping important information from him:
“Later it was alleged that Douglass was elected president so that a black man would be in office when the Bank failed. (Fleming, p.85, makes this statement but fails to document it)”
All along, southerners opposed the bank:
“The most avid purveyors of the conspiracy legend were the southern Democratic newspapers. For years they had regarded the Bank as just another element in the Reconstruction carpetbaggger-missionary complex, and the failure with all its scandalous exposures simply vindicated their judgment”
Du Bois notes the same thing:
“the white planter regarded the Freedman’s Bank as part of the Freedmen’s Bureau and did everything possible to embarrass it and curtail its growth”
Black Reconstruction, 492.
(As a historiographical note, this southern attitude is reflected in another book on the Freedman’s Bank, Walter Fleming, The Freedmen’s Savings Bank (1927), which I cannot recommend).
Long after it was all said and done, in 1890 Frederick Douglass would assess a number of institutions established to “help” Black people after the Civil War, including the Freedman’s Bank:
“Like the Peabody fund, the Slater fund, the Freedman’s Bank, and many other Institutions, nominally established for the benefit of these people, the hands are white that handle the money. The Germans have a proverb “That they who have the cross will bless themselves,” and there is nothing in the history of the Institutions named, or in the history of others that might be named to contradict this proverb.”
The story of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company is a fascinating, instructive, and little known episode in American history. Carl Osthaus’s book is a the best and most thorough treatment of it, and I highly recommend it. (There’s a copy available for $2,333 on Amazon–I borrowed it from my public library).
Lyman Beecher (1775–1863) was a Presbyterian minister and seminary president, and was “one of the most prominent and powerful evangelical Protestant religious leaders” in his day (J. Earl Thompson, “Lyman Beecher’s Long Road to Conservative Abolitionism,” Church History 42.1 (1973), 90). In the early 19th century, evangelicals were increasingly active in a multitude of reform movements, and Beecher was one of the most active. Among other issues, Beecher was particularly concerned about the sin of intemperance.
The sermons are widely recognized as foundational to the temperance movement that was developing in the 1820s:
“Perhaps no man in America has done more to mould public opinion on the temperance question than Lyman Beecher… Dr. Beecher’s celebrated ‘Six Sermons on Intemperance,’ delivered in 1826 and published in book form in 1827, mark a most important epoch in the temperance movement. Reprinted abroad and eagerly read by many thousands, they did more than any other agency to create a distinct and practical temperance sentiment and were recognized as the standard authority on the temperance question for many years” (The Cyclopaedia of Temperance and Prohibition(1891), 43, 44).
“Reprinted during the next decade by almost every temperance or organization of consequence, the sermons were as widely read and exerted as great an influence as any other contribution.” (John Allen Krout, The Origins of Prohibition (1925), 105–6.)
“In the fall of 1825 Beecher preached six thunderous sermons on temperance; these were published the following year and had a tremendous influence, both at the time and over the decades.” (Ronald G. Walters, American Reformers, 1815-1860(1978), 126.
“In 1825, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father, Lyman Beecher, gave a series of six sermons which helped to launch the temperance movement” (Cynthia Hamilton, “Dred’: Intemperate Slavery,” Journal of American Studies 34.2 (2000): 257)
“the social organization of the temperance movement begins in earnest in the 1820s in Boston, with the American Temperance Society (ATS) and its cofounder, the abolitionist Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher.” Beecher’s Six Sermons were a “foundational document of the temperance movement” (Mark Lawrence Schrad, Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition (2021), 313).
There is much to digest and analyze in the Six Sermons, but I wish to highlight one issue in particular: Beecher’s rhetorical use of American slavery to argue against intemperance. This particular feature has been noted by Charles Cole, Cynthia Hamilton, and Mark Schatz:
“Noteworthy in Beecher’s work is the connection he made between the evils of intemperance and slavery. The sale of ardent spirits, he believed, was just as vicious as the slave trade and the fight for the abolition of the enslavement to drink just as noble as the plea for the cause of the Negro. Both were enormities that had to be eradicated.” (Charles C. Cole, Jr., The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists 1826-1860 (1966), 118–19).
“Beecher used the slave trade as a moral yardstick for the evils of intemperance.” (Hamilton, “Intemperate Slavery,” 257).
“Like many abolitionist activists, Beecher reasoned that drunkenness was actually a greater threat than slavery: one-tenth of the American population were subjugated to the slave-master, while all of humanity was vulnerable to being enslaved to the liquor trader. The slave-master went home after sundown, they reasoned, while liquor’s grasp knew no rest” (Schatz, Smashing the Liquor Machine, 315).
Beecher uses the issue of slavery rhetorically in several different ways in the sermons, both implicitly and explicitly. He implicitly ranks the sins of slavery and intemperance, he describes intemperance using the imagery of slavery, and he compares intemperance and slavery and the efforts to eradicate them.
The first “reference” to slavery is not a reference at all, but rather an implicit ranking of two issues:
“Intemperance is the sin of our land, and, with our boundless prosperity is coming in upon us like a flood; and if anything shall defeat the hopes of the world, which hang upon our experiment of civil liberty, it is that river of fire which is rolling through the land, destroying the vital air, and extending around an atmosphere of death.”
Six Sermons, 7–8.
Alcohol was indeed a big problem in the 19th century: “By the 1820s, the typical adult white American male consumed nearly a half pint of whiskey a day. This is about three times the present consumption rate” (W. J. Rorabaugh, Prohibition: A Very Short Introduction (2020), 9).
Yet, comparing the two issues, Beecher asserted that intemperance, rather than slavery, was “the sin of our land.”
In the next reference to slavery, Beecher describes intemperance in terms of slavery:
“many a wretched man has shaken his chains and cried out in the anguish of his spirit, Oh, that accursed resort of social drinking: there my hands were bound and my feet put in fetters ; there I went a freeman, and became a slave—a temperate man, and became a drunkard.”
Six Sermons, 19.
For Beecher, intemperance was a form of slavery, and this may be why he felt so comfortable comparing the two issues throughout the sermons.
In addition to ranking and describing, Beecher includes many comparisons between slavery and intemperance, their evils, and their remedies:
“WHAT THEN IS THIS UNIVERSAL, NATURAL, AND NATIONAL REMEDY FOR INTEMPERANCE? IT IS THE BANISHMENT OF ARDENT SPIRITS FROM THE LIST OF LAWFUL ARTICLES OF COMMERCE, BY A CORRECT AND EFFICIENT PUBLIC SENTIMENT; SUCH AS HAS TURNED SLAVERY OUT OF HALF OF OUR LAND, AND WILL YET EXPEL IT FROM THE WORLD” (63). [note: this is the only passage in the sermons printed in all-caps].
“This however cannot be done effectually so long as the traffic in ardent spirits is regarded as lawful, and is patronized by men of reputation and moral worth in every part of the land. Like slavery, it must be regarded as sinful, impolitic, and dishonorable. That no measures will avail short of rendering ardent spirits a contraband of trade, is nearly self-evident” (64–65).
“It is admitted that the trade employs and sustains many families, and that in many instances the profits are appropriated to useful purposes. But this is no more than might have been said of the slave-trade” (67).
In a striking passage, Beecher elaborates at length on the similarities—in his mind—between American slavery, including the middle passage, and intemperance:
“We execrate the cruelties of the slave-trade—the husband torn from the bosom of his wife—the son from his father—brothers and sisters separated for ever— whole families in a moment ruined! But are there no similar enormities to be witnessed in the United States? None indeed perpetrated by the bayonet, but many, very many perpetrated by intemperance” (70).
“We have heard of the horrors of the middle passage, the transportation of slaves, the chains, the darkness, the stench, the mortality, and living madness of woe, and it is dreadful. But bring together the victims of intemperance, and crowd them into one vast lazar-house, and sights of woe quite as appalling would meet your eyes.
Yes, in this nation there is a “middle passage” of slavery and darkness and chains and disease and death. But it is a middle passage, not from Africa to America, but from time to eternity, and not of slaves whom death will release from suffering, but of those whose sufferings at death do but just begin. Could all the sighs of these captives be wafted on one breeze, it would be loud as thunder. Could all their tears be assembled, they would be like the sea” (71).
Beecher also believed that the same remedies that he thought were adequately addressing slavery would also work to address intemperance:
“And what has been done justifies the expectation that all. which yet remains to be done will be accomplished. The abolition of the slave-trade, an event now almost accomplished, was once regarded as a chimera of benevolent dreaming. But the band of Christian heroes who consecrated their lives to the work, may some of them survive to behold it achieved. This greatest of evils upon earth, this stigma of human nature, wide-spread, deep-rooted, and intrenched by interest and state policy, is passing away before the unbending requisitions of enlightened public opinion” (84).
“Men who are mighty to consume strong drink, are unfit members of that kingdom which consisteth not in “meat and drink,” but in “ righteousness and peace.” The time, we trust, is not distant, when the use of ardent spirits will be proscribed by a vote of all the churches in our land, and when the commerce in that article shall, equally with the slave-trade, be regarded as inconsistent with a credible profession of Christianity. All this, I have no doubt, can be accomplished with far less trouble than is now constantly occasioned by the maintenance or the neglect of discipline, in respect to cases of intemperance” (90).
Beecher’s rhetorical use of slavery reveals a few things about his views of American slavery. Though he was personally opposed to slavery, and believed it to be a sin, he was quite optimistic that the institution would inevitably decline and disappear from American culture. In his 1826 Sermons, Beecher felt that slavery was well on its way to being “expelled from the world,” that it was “an event now almost accomplished.” Unfortunately, slavery and the Southern “Slave Power” would grow and increase for 40 more years, and would only be expelled violently through a bloody civil war.
Because he thought slavery was well on its way out, he did not feel the same sense of urgency in addressing it as he felt about intemperance, a fact noted by abolitionists:
“From the abolitionists’ perspective Beecher’s notion of the corporate guilt of slavery and his appeal to mild reforming methods were merely verbal camouflage concealing his deficient sense of moral urgency about and his lack of empathy for the plight of the slaves.”
By contrast, one of Beecher’s students at Lane Seminary, Theodore Dwight Weld, inverted the priority and urgency of the two issues:
“As Weld put it to Tappan in late 1835, the abolition cause “not only overshadows all others, but it involves all others and absorbs them into itself. . . . revivals, moral Reform etc., etc., will remain stationary until the Temple is cleansed.”
J. Earl Thompson compares up Beecher’s activity on slavery and intemperance and sums it up thus:
“During his career he gave barely a respectable amount of time and attention to the slavery question, and it can hardly be placed at the top of his list of favorite reforms— a position that was occupied probably by Sabbatarianism and the temperance movement for him and the many other evangelical reformers who reached the apex of their dynamism and influence in the 1820s.”
Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 108–09.
The larger movements of abolitionism and temperance reform are quite illustrative and fascinating to compare, with many overlapping figures (including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and others), and overlapping concerns. Lyman Beecher’s Six Sermons offer a vivid illustration of the way one prominent white evangelical viewed these social ills and the rhetorical use he made of one in combatting another.
Lyman Beecher (1775–1863) was “one of the most prominent and powerful evangelical Protestant religious leaders” in his day (J. Earl Thompson, “Lyman Beecher’s Long Road to Conservative Abolitionism,” Church History 42.1 (1973), 90). Beecher was a Presbyterian minister in Connecticut, and Boston, Massachusetts, and in 1832 became the president of Lane Seminary, a Presbyterian school in Cincinnati. Beecher was involved in a number of evangelical social reform movements, especially Sabbatarianism and the temperance movement, and his endorsement was coveted:
“Being one of the most prominent and powerful evangelical Protestant religious leaders, his endorsement of moral causes was highly coveted and assiduously cultivated and gave them an aura of legitimacy, respectability and urgency.”
Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 109.
Thompson highlights the white Christian nationalism at the heart of Beecher, and other evangelicals, reform efforts:
“Many historians have pointed out that he and most evangelical Protestants of his generation yearned for the millennial age of spiritual purity, material abundance, democratic freedoms and socio-political tranquility and that they dreaded any individual, group or institution that threatened to delay or block it. But what has been neglected almost altogether is that these Protestants perceived this halcyon era to be tantamount to the triumph of white evangelical Protestantism in America… Beecher’s goal was the ascendancy of white evangelical Protestantism in a predominately white America.”
Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,”90.
How did the issue of slavery fit into Beecher’s vision of a Christian America? Beecher was personally opposed to slavery, and believed it to be a sin. However, in spite of the fact that the population of enslaved people in the United States increased over 30% (from 1.5 million to over 2 million) between 1820 and 1830, Beecher was naively optimistic that slavery would inevitable decline and disappear from American culture (see J. David Hacker, “From ‘20. and Odd’ to 10 Million: The Growth of the Slave Population in the United States,” Slavery & Abolition 41.4 (2020), 13).
At an 1834 Colonization meeting in Cincinnati, Beecher said this:
“There can be no doubt that slavery, through the world, is destined to cease.”
Additionally, Beecher did not see a place for free Black people in American society, and endorsed the colonizationist dream of sending all freed Black people back to Africa as “missionaries. Thompson describes the way abolitionists viewed Beecher:
“From the abolitionists’ perspective Beecher’s notion of the corporate guilt of slavery and his appeal to mild reforming methods were merely verbal camouflage concealing his deficient sense of moral urgency about and his lack of empathy for the plight of the slaves.”
Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 93.
The conflict between Beecher’s moderate opposition to slavery and the more urgent efforts of the “immediate abolitionists” reached the national stage in 1834, just two years after he assumed the presidency of Lane Seminary. That year a number of anti-slavery students had joined the seminary (including Theodore Dwight Weld), had organized debates on “immediate abolition” versus colonization, and had subsequently formed a student anti-slavery society. Not content merely to discuss these issues, the students took to the streets of Cincinnati to put their ideas into action:
“It was only after they plunged into missionary work among the freedmen of Cincinnati, which also involved frequent social contacts with them—visiting, eating and boarding with them—that the Lane educator became upset and unsure of his proteges. Just as the town’s respectable white citizens became enraged by the missionaries’ practicing ‘immediate intercourse irrespective of color,’ so Beecher was also repelled by this doctrine and offended by his students’ refusal to give up their style of evangelism.”
Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 100.
The faculty met with the students repeatedly and asked them to stop. Eventually the faculty and trustees disbanded the anti-slavery society, and a large group of students withdrew from the school and went down the road to Oberlin College instead. The whole incident is a case study of the white, northern, paternalistic racism in some of the conservative “anti-slavery” circles, and has been much written about. However, what I have not seen much attention to (though some, like Thompson, mention it briefly) is the main point of contention at the heart of the whole dispute: “social intercourse irrespective of color.”
“The Evils Which Its Existence Occasioned”
In shutting down the society, the faculty had complained of “the evils which its existence occasioned” (“Statement of the Faculty Concerning the Late Difficulties in the Lane Seminary,” 33). The faculty sought to clarify why they had shut down the society: not because of abolitionism per se, but because of “the spirit and manner of doing a few things not necessary to the prosperity of the society itself, against the advice of the faculty, and reckless of the consequences in doing violence to public sentiment” (“Statement of the Faculty,” 34). What were these “few things” and their “consequences”?
The main issue, which the faculty emphasized over and over, was “social intercourse” with Black people, or, in Thompson’s words, “treating blacks as equals with dignity and respect” (“Beecher’s Long Road,” 100):
“In the discussions preceding the organization of the society, the doctrine of social intercourse according to character, irrespective of color, was strenuously advocated, and the knowledge of this opinion of the students became extensive in the city, and it was not long before reports multiplied, that they were beginning to put their doctrine in practice. These reports, greatly amplified, appeared, on examination, to originate in the fact, that an influential member of the anti-slavery society, weary with lecturing and too much indisposed to return to the seminary, accepted the proffered hospitality of a respectable colored family to pass the night with them, and that one of the teachers of a colored school, a member of the Abolition Society, and till recently a member of the seminary, boarded in a colored family.”
“Statement of the Faculty,” 36.
Manisha Sinha describes the activities of the students:
Contact with African Americans made the Lane rebels even more committed to immediatism and against colonization. Their activities caused an uproar, and school authorities sought to ban discussion of slavery. Two of the students, Augustus Wattles and Marius Robinson, began to teach full-time in black schools. Weld never forgot his experience with black Cincinnatians, many of whom had bought themselves out of slavery and continued to scrape money together to buy friends and families. Recounting their stories, he ‘was forced to stop from sheer heart-ache and agony.'”
The trustees and faculty could not abide this. They were perfectly fine with efforts to “help” Black people…:
On this occasion the students were convened, and the reports in circulation and the state of public feeling were explained to them by the faculty, and the belief was expressed that, without offence to the community or injury to the seminary, the colored people might be instructed in common schools, and Sabbath schools, and lectures, and by any missionary labors, among them, necessary for their best good…
…so long as that help was meted out from a proper distance:
…provided they abstained from the apparent intention of carrying the doctrine of intercourse into practical effect. That this, in our belief, would not be endured by the community, and would be resisted in a manner which would render it impossible to protect either them or the institution.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 36.
The faculty tried to pressure students to stop associating so closely with Black people:
These considerations were pressed upon the attention of an influential member of the Abolition Society, who had been especially instrumental in the establishment of the schools, and he was requested to exert his influence to change the residence of the instructor, and to prevent that kind of intercourse, which would offend the community and injure the seminary.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 36.
The “influential member” was likely Weld. In his autobiography, Beecher describes the scene:
“When they founded colored schools,” said Dr. Beecher, “ I conversed with Weld repeatedly, and pointed out these things. Said I, you are taking just the course to defeat your own object, and prevent yourself from doing good. If you want to teach colored schools, I can fill your pockets with money; but if you will visit in colored families, and walk with them in the streets, you will be overwhelmed.”
In reply, he justified the boarding of white instructors in colored families, as indispensable to secure the confidence of that injured people and do them good. That any reference to color, in social intercourse, was an odious and sinful prejudice, and that some action, in advance of public sentiment, was necessary to put it down.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 36–37.
A further bit of trouble and controversy involved the Lane students associating with Black women in public:
The next excitement was caused by a visit paid to the seminary by several female colored persons, in a carriage, and the marked attention said to have been paid to them by the students. In this case, also, the public excitement was greatly increased by various exaggerations and misrepresentations of the fact.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 37.
And further, a seminary student walked with a Black woman as they travelled to their respective destinations:
Sometime after this, a new excitement was created by the walking of the instructor, who boarded in a colored family, with a colored female to the seminary or its vicinity, and returning in like manner. It was said that their meeting on the road was accidental, and that the young gentleman merely complied with her request to be directed to some place with which she was not acquainted. But they returned to the city in the same manner, and it was regarded by the community as part of a settled design to carry into effect the scheme of equalization.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 37.
Again, the faculty tried to convince the seminary students to stop this practice of “immediate intercourse irrespective of color”:
About this time the dissatisfaction in the community became so great, as to induce the faculty to convene and address the students once more… they were distinctly notified that it was the doctrine and practice of immediate intercourse irrespective of color, which provoked the community, and arrayed its rising indignation against them and the seminary… and that if they persisted in their course with the distinct admonition and high moral certainty of these amplified and exasperating measures, they would be accountable for all the mischief which they produced; and that a continuance of this course would be, in our opinion, intolerable and ruinous.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 37–38)
What were these “intolerable and ruinous” effects on the seminary? One was fundraising:
Lane Seminary … is in its infancy, and has a character yet to form, confidence to earn, and funds for its complete endowment to collect; its patrons, past and to come, are deeply committed on both sides of this question [of slavery].
“Statement of the Faculty,” 35.
Another consequence was the affect on recruiting Southern students. In their response to the students, the faculty complained that the anti-slavery society “repelled the accession of southern and western students” (“Statement of the Faculty,” 43). Several years later, Beecher was able to reassure an Old School Presbyterian leader in Virginia, in an 1840 recruitment letter:
“Our trustees and faculty are not abolitionists—and our students are conservatives rather than ultra and young men from the south will not be annoyed here or disqualified for usefulness at home.’”
Vincent Harding, “ Lyman Beecher and the Transformation of American Protestantism” (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Chicago, 1965), p. 624, n. 1.—cited in Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 105 n. 97.
The “interests” of the seminary, both in terms of fundraising and enrollment, meant that pro-slavery patrons could not be provoked by the outrageous behavior of students in promoting anti-slavery and living out the principles of equality in the city of Cincinnati. When push came to shove, Beecher’s personal “anti-slavery” sentiments were pushed aside in light of these more compelling interest of the school.
The Students’ Response
The students met to consider the recommendations of the faculty to cease their activities, and responded with their own report. They outlined what the anti-slavery society had done in its official capacity, and what members had done “as individuals.” As individuals, they had done four things:
1st. Engaged in instructing in the elements of science and in religion, the colored population of Cincinnati.
2d. Written for the newspapers.
3d. Avowed opposition to the principles of the American Colonization Society.
4th. Visited, eaten, and boarded with colored people.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 39.
They agreed with the faculty that it was especially Number 4 that had incited the opposition of the community:
“But the great stone of stumbling to the community seems to be found in the fact, that some of our number have associated with the colored people upon terms of equality, have visited and eaten with them ; and, especially, that an individual, late a member of this institution, in the course of his missionary operations, has boarded in a colored family.”
“Statement of the Faculty,” 39.
The students defended this practice at length, and their reply provides a great contrast to the more blatant paternalism of their faculty:
But as the measure, to which he [that student] has resorted, involves a principle of action, to which the faculty have called our attention, the frankness which we mean to manifest, forbids that we should conceal our sentiments upon this point, especially as such a perfect unanimity of sentiment obtains among us. The following considerations have had great weight with your committee:
1st. The objection is unintelligent and founded in prejudice.
2d. Public sentiment upon this subject is partial. It is found essential to success in all foreign missions, for the teachers to associate intimately with the people they instruct. It is essential to the gaining of that confidence, without which all efforts to good will fail in time to come, as they have in time past. The same thing, which so scandalizes the public here, is practised without reproach at Liberia upon similar communities ; nay, it is even commended by the same public who condemn it in our brother.
3d. He, whose example it is our business and our glory to imitate, once suffered detriment to his popularity by ‘sitting at meat with publicans and sinners.’ Surely their condition and the estimation with which they were regarded, gave them no advantage over the African race. Surely their color would have been a bar to free intercourse, with such as hold the sentiments of the Caucasians of this generation.
If he, who was harmless, undefiled, and thus separate from sinners, did nevertheless associate with those whose hearts were stained with sin, we are ashamed to claim his image, and then shut in our social sympathies from the children of God, because their skins independently of volition, absorb the rays of the sun.
It is fundamental to our principles to treat men according to their character without respect to condition or complexion. Thus we have learned the law of love. Thus we would act against the pride of caste. Thus we would practise as we preach—the only mode to get credit for sincerity or to influence others.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 40.
The students concluded their report with a number of formal resolutions, including this:
“Resolved, That we cannot censure the practice of our members in eating, visiting, and boarding in colored families, on any principle of religion or of reason.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 41)
The faculty considered this report by the students in the anti-slavery society to have an “ungracious aspect” (“Statement of the Faculty,” 41).
The term ended, and students went on summer vacation. The faculty had been willing to wait and hope that the controversy (like slavery itself) would fizzle out over time. However, in contrast with the issue of “immediate abolition,” they soon found themselves pressed to immediate action regarding the anti-slavery society:
“During the vacation, and in the absence of a majority of the faculty, events occurred which brought upon the executive committee, the necessity in their judgment of immediate action. The urgency of this necessity was greatly increased during their attention to the subject, by another visit to the seminary, of a carriage of colored persons. This augmented greatly the public exasperation, and occasioned, as the committee believed, a necessity for suspending the Abolition Society in the institution.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 42.
Again, the faculty repeated, the main problem with the society was not their ideas; the suspension of the society “had in its origin no reference at all to the rights of discussion and free inquiry, or to the question of abolition as right or wrong, expedient or inexpedient, or to the rights of the students to associate for the discussion and the propagation of abolition principles” (“Statement of the Faculty,” 42).
Rather, the problem was their direct association with Black people:
…there was a frequency and familiarity of intercourse between the students and the colored families of the city, which was on some accounts inconvenient to them, and occasioned animadversions, which we cannot repeat, but which subjected the students to ridicule, and were derogatory to the dignity and propriety, which ought ever to characterize young men who are in preparation for the ministry. These attentions of the young men to the colored people of the city, were also reciprocated with great frequency at the institution, and by invitations to dine with the students and other marked attentions, they were encouraged to come ; and these things, which were done, with the amplifications and invidious insinuations to which they gave occasion, went out over the city and over the West, and rendered the institution an object of intolerable odium and indignation.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 42.
The faculty again made themselves very clear:
And if, at any time, the committee or the trustees have spoken of abolition in terms of strong aversion, or expressed their determination to rid the institution of it, it has always been abolitionism associated with the doctrine of immediate equalization irrespective of color, and the attempt to reduce it to practice, and in view of the inflammatory influences, and odium, and peril thus brought upon the institution.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 43, italics original.
By way of contrast, all other manner of voluntary reform societies were still approved:
…we also regard with favor, voluntary associations of students designed to act upon the community, in the form of Sabbath schools, tract, foreign mission, temperance, and other benevolent labors in subordination to the great ends of the institution, of which, in all instances, the faculty, as the immediate guardians of the institution, must be the judges.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 44.
In the end, the faculty blamed the students for the whole thing:
…no impediment has existed, to the full exercise of free inquiry and benevolent action, which the abolitionists did not themselves create, by pressing upon public sensibility the doctrine, and countenancing and justifying the practice, of intercourse irrespective of color.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 47.
The “Statement of the Faculty” reports were signed by Lyman Beecher, Thomas Biggs, and Calvin Stowe.
Bertram Wyatt-Brown describes in grossly offensive terms how the news was reported to the anti-slavery philanthropist Arthur Tappan, who had helped to fund Lane:
“Hence, it came as a shock to Arthur Tappan when the board of trustees threatened to expel Weld’s company because of their ‘n*ggerism’”
This incident is reflective of Beecher’s general views on slavery in America. Though he was personally opposed slavery, and hoped and believed it would fade away from American society, he held antipathy for “both sides” of the controversy, and felt that the abolition movement was just as much a divine punishment on the country as the slaveholders in the South. A few years after the Lane controversy, he expressed himself on the subject:
I regard,” writes Dr. Beecher, March 1838, “the whole abolition movement, under its most influential leaders, with its distinctive maxims and modes of feeling, and also the whole temper, principles, and action of the South in the justification of slavery, as signal instances of infatuation permitted by Heaven for purposes of national retribution. God never raised up such men as Garrison, and others like him, as the ministers of his mercy for purposes of peaceful reform, but only as the fit and fearful ministers of his vengeance upon a people incorrigibly wicked.
Autobiography, Correspondence, Etc., of Lyman Beecher, vol. II, 426.
Thompson notes that “This opinion, uttered in 1838, was never retracted or altered.” (Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 102).
When considering the issue of slavery in the United States, it’s easy to oversimplify the matter. The slaveholding south was bad, the free north was good; simply being opposed to slavery surely is enough to be on “the right side of history,” right? Lyman Beecher gives us a great case study of a conservative evangelical minister, and we can learn much from his example. Though he was personally opposed to slavery, he saw no place for Black people in what he saw as a white Christian America. Though he was perfectly happy for white people to “help” Black people from a distance, he felt that “social intercourse” on equal terms was too scandalous. Though the issue of slavery carried little urgency for him, the issue of whites and Blacks associating together carried great urgency, and moved him to take immediate action to shut down the anti-slavery society.
Christians today who look around and see the problems in their country, issues of systemic racialized injustice, often want to do something about it. They can think that simply by noticing the evil, and being personally opposed to it, they are doing the right thing. They can even get involved in “helping”—many white Christians get involved in missionary and non-profit work to address the ills they see. But is their effort to “help” constrained by an unwillingness to actually join the community they seek to serve? Are they more concerned with losing donors and constituents, then they are with living and acting consistently with their stated beliefs? Is their perception of the “problems” in the target community colored with an unrecognized assumption of their own cultural superiority? Do they maintain a careful distance from those they are seeking to help? Or are they cultivating genuine partnerships, partnerships established on the basis of “equality irrespective of color,” partnerships that involve walking together, eating meals together, and even living together, mutually giving and receiving from each other?
These are some of the lessons we can learn when we move past simplistic portrayals of the past, and dive deeper into the details.
Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was a Southern Presbyterian pastor, Confederate soldier, and seminary theology professor. He was also a venomous white-supremacist. Though he died over a century ago, in the 1960s his reputation was rehabilitated when Iain Murray and the Banner of Truth republished his writings and commended him to a new generation of Reformed Evangelicals in America. As a result, a number of leading evangelical figures began to read, cite, and commend Dabney to their followers. Only recently has the problematic elements of his thought, including his white-supremacy, been acknowledged. This page is an index of a number of articles and compilations of sources I’ve written on Dabney and his legacy.
In 1875 and ’76, Bennet Puryear wrote several articles opposing Black education, using some of the most vile white-supremacy I’ve ever seen. Dabney endorsed these articles, and used them as a springboard for his own article “The Negro and the Common School” published in 1876.
In 1891, Robert Lewis Dabney published a short biographical sketch in The Union Seminary Magazine titled “Thomas Carey [sic] Johnson” (available here). Johnson had just been appointed the professor of the English Bible and pastoral theology at Union, and Dabney was giving “the antecedents” to their new professor. After graduating from Hampden-Sidney college, and then Union Theological Seminary, Johnson, “upon the invitation of Dr. Dabney,” went to Texas to teach alongside Dabney in the Austin School of Theology. When Dabney’s illness got much worse in 1890, Johnson shouldered much of the load. Dabney praised Johnson’s scholarship, teaching, work ethic, and preaching, and commended him to Union.
Thirteen years later, Johnson would return the favor for his mentor and friend, first writing a brief sketch of his life and character for The Union Seminary Magazine (“The Rev. Robert Lewis Dabney, D. D., LL. D.” (1898): 157–67) and then greatly expanding this work into The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney.
It is important to understand Johnson’s relationship to Dabney in order to rightly understand this book. On the one hand, it’s important to know that Johnson revered Dabney and agreed with him on almost every single issue he confronted, whether it was the righteousness of slavery, the inferiority of Black people, or Dabney’s side of various theological controversies. Dabney is given to us through the most sympathetic lens possible. This actually serves us well, because Johnson does not feel the need to hide any of the details in these various controversies, because he believes Dabney is right. While many felt that Dabney had too many “crotchets” and was woefully out of step with the times. Johnson, though, was sympathetic to Dabney: “Dr. Dabney has received much criticism as ultra-conservative. Perhaps in some minor matters he was too antagonistic to change, but we confidently await the verdict of history on his conservatism. We do not believe he was too conservative in most matters” (569). Though Johnson had deep sympathies for Dabney, he wanted to give the man “in full,” and not edited to appeal to his contemporaries. In the very first page of the preface, Johnson says this:
“An effort has been made to present, as nearly as possible, the genuine Robert Lewis Dabney in this book. He did not relish the thought of being trimmed to suit the notions of an author or an editor, and thus presented to the public. When his Collected Discussions were being brought out, there was some criticism of one of the articles to be presented in the first volume. The critic made the point that the article objected to would injure Dr. Dabney’s reputation if republished. The Doctor, on hearing this, turned somewhat sharply us, and said: ‘What do you think of this? Do you like the plan of trimming a man, whose life and work you would perpetuate, to suit your notions, and then handing the resultant down as if it were real?’ We made answer, that it seemed to us that, if a man’s works and life are worthy of preservation through the medium of the press, they and he should be handed down as they were, warts and all. He replied emphatically, ‘The truth demands it, sir.’ The memory of this little conversation helps to explain the presence of some features of the book. He was so intensely honest that he would have abhorred any effort to present him sheared to the demands of current moral and religious tastes” (v).
As long as one keeps in mind Johnson’s perspective, this is a very transparent account of Dabney’s life. It is in the conclusion (“Summary View of the Man and His Services”) that Johnson veers toward hagiography, praising Dabney to high heaven in every sphere he touched—“energy and power,” “sense of responsibility,” “Christian character,” “sanctified common sense,” “as preacher,” “as teacher,” “as theologian,” “as a philosopher,” “as a political economist,” “as a statesman,” “as a [Confederate] patriot,” “as a friend,” and “as a servant of God.” In fact, Johnson says: “as a holy man, he deserves to be ranked with Augustine and Calvin, Owen and Baxter and Edwards” (567).
After reading the book, I am convinced that Dabney was a great man; I am not convinced that he was a good man. Dabney was a force of nature and was possibly the strongest leader, teacher, and influence on Southern Presbyterians in the nineteenth century (and beyond). His seminary teaching stamped his views on hundreds of Presbyterian pastors and teachers, and his activity in the various Presbyterian synods often won the argument through sheer force of personality. Johnson gives us all of this. This influence was often in favor of strict Calvinist theology (which some will praise), but his most vehement and strenuous efforts in the church and in society were launched against the equality of Black people, and in these debates, he also made his imprint, and helped to shape the Southern Church for decades (indeed, over a century) to follow. His influence was great; it was not good.
In his Union Seminary Magazine article, Johnson explains why it is impossible to consider Dabney’s theology in abstraction from his embodied historical context:
“To give an adequate account of his life it would he necessary to enter into a discussion of the general current of theological thought during the last forty years and portray him in relation to these currents. It would also be necessary to give an exposition of many contemporary philosophical systems and show how he stood toward those systems. It would be no less needful to refer to many material, political and sociological changes which have occurred in our country during the last fifty years. For Dr. Dabney, while a minister of the gospel, was also a citizen of his commonwealth [Virginia], and a great christian statesman. He took a burning interest in all that vitally concerned the welfare of his country. He held profound views on political economy and statecraft, and set them forth with tremendous vigor. The lives even of most great preachers pass in such quiet that the historian finds little to dwell upon. What he says of one day’s labor and achievements may be said of almost every other day. Such was not the life of Dr. Dabney. His life touched so many points in the common history of church and state and touched them in a way so unusual that it is impossible to give an adequate sketch in a few pages” (159).
What Johnson said was necessary in 1898, he delivered in 1903. This book is essential for understanding Dabney’s life and legacy.
A few odds and ends. Johnson’s references to Dabney’s articles and papers are a treasure trove for more digging, but they aren’t always accurate. For example, Johnson references two papers in “the Christian Intelligencer, which were interesting reading, e. g., “Description of Negro Worship in Richmond and Lynchburg, Ante and Post Bellum,” December 1872; “Description of Negro Theology,” January 1873, et al” (337). Actually, those articles were titled “Two Picture” (November 1872), and “Peculiar Religious Opinions of Southern Freedmen,” (January 1873) (see here for more on these particular articles). Trying to track some of these down will need to do some extra digging on occasion. Also, the indexes in Johnson’s book are incomplete. For example, the entry for “slavery” includes 2 page references; I added eleven more as I worked my way through the book. The book is available for free on Google Books. 600 pages is a lot to read on a screen (I have a hard copy), but is very convenient for searching within the book for specific words, phrases, or references. Finally, beware for some strong racial language, including the use of the n-word in some of Dabney’s letters. It is to be expected, but it is still jarring nonetheless.
Anyone interested in digging deeper into Dabney should read this, but I especially commend this book to white reformed(ish) evangelicals who want (or need!) to grapple more fully with the white-supremacy that has poisoned their theological tradition. I would also recommend that you read a contemporary historian’s take, like Sean Michael Lucas’s masterful Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. Following Dabney’s trail through the 20th and 21st century has been fascinating and revealing for me — this book takes us back to the start of that trail.
It is interesting to see how Johnson’s book has been received and reviewed over the years, from figures like Benjamin B. Warfield, to the Confederate Veterans.
“While the reader may not agree with Professor Johnson’s exaggerated estimate of him as entitled to ‘the first place amongst the theological thinkers and writers of his century,’ he cannot but be impressed with the commanding position he held as a leader in the Presbyterian church for forty years or more… Professor Johnson is prone to put too high an estimate on the intellectual qualities of Dr. Dabney and to give him the palm in every contest he wages.”
Philip P. Wells, from Yale Law School, offered this summary (available here):
“The subject of this eulogistic biography lived from 1820 to 1898 and was a typical Virginian of the upper class; a rigid Calvinist and a theological professor, regarding slavery as divinely ordained and modern science as atheistic; an army chaplain; chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson in 1862 and later his biographer; and in his later life an uncompromising opponent to the union of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches”
A glowing review (and advertisement) appeared in the Confederate Veteran: Published Monthly in the Interest of Confederate Veterans and Kindred Topics. The advertisement concluded like this:
“The book is a notable contribution to the historical literature of the South, and a copy should be in the home of every true Southerner.”
The review appears further in (available here), and concludes with this warm commendation:
“Taken all in all, few books have been produced in recent years of greater interest and value to all classes of readers.”
The review in the Independent and Weekly Review gave this assessment of Johnson and the book (available here):
“The author is not an adorer of Dr. Dabney, but an admirer and a faithful biographer. He has included in his book something which we could wish were not true, but his apology for so doing is a tribute to Dr. Dabney… Students of our national history might do well to read it, in order to see something relating to our Civil War from the Southern standpoint.”
The Union Seminary Magazine offered a glowing review, as is to be expected. It begins like this:
“The Southern Presbyterian Church is to be congratulated upon the appearance of this book. Many of us looked forward with sharp appetite to its coming from the press, and not without some impatience under the delay, after the publishers informed us it was nearly ready for delivery. When it came we sat down to a feast of fat things. We became so much interested as almost to forget that sermons should be prepared for the next Sunday. This book contains many of the burning thoughts of our great teacher, gathered by a loving author fully prepared to appreciate them, who enjoyed special opportunities to learn the character of his great subject.”
It comments on Johnson like this:
“Dr Johnson was a favorite pupil of Dr. Dabney, and engaged by Dr. Dabney to assist him in the theological department of the University of Texas. The mind, the energy and the power of work of these two men were cast in a mould somewhat similar; consequently the men were bound together by a bond of congeniality. It was, therefore, natural and appropriate that Dr. Johnson should be selected by the friends of Dr. Dabney to prepare his Life and Letters; and well has he done his task.”
They acknowledge Dabney’s foundational role in Southern Presbyterianism:
“For he had an ardent love for his Southland and her institutions. He felt called to lend all his mighty powers to the advancement of their welfare in church and State. The Southern Presbyterian Church is largely indebted to him for her foundation and maintenance on solid scriptural principles in both theology and ecclesiology.”
Fundamentally, they are proud of this book:
“It would be an assumption contrary to human observation to expect that every reader will assent to everything in this book; but it is a noble book, of which the Southern Presbyterian Church may be proud.”
B. B. Warfield reviewed the biography in The Princeton Theological Review, and his review contains a mix of praise and critique. Here is Warfield’s opinion of Johnson’s adulation:
“He is set before us in Dr. Johnson’s biography from the point of view of an intense admirer. He was worthy of his biographer’s admiration, but it may be doubted whether the expression of this admiration does not now and again pass the bounds within which it is effective. When speaking of a man like Dr. Dabney extravagance of praise is not necessary: the plainest picture of him, if true to life, will speak for itself… We may regret the element of unmeasured encomium which has been permitted to intrude into the biographer’s pages, especially into his concluding ‘summary view of the man and his services.’”
In 1977, Banner of Truth reprinted Johnson’s book, which stimulated a fresh round of reviews. John Pollock reviewed the book for The Churchman (a British Anglican journal):
“It would be a fair guess that few in England have heard of Robert Lewis Dabney and at first sight the Banner of Truth Trust have made a surprising choice for their admirable series of reprints, of Thomas Johnson’s massive biography of 1893. Nevertheless, the patient reader will be rewarded by entrance into a world worth exploring.”
Pollock comments on the Confederate flavor of the book:
“The modern reader takes for granted that Christianity and slavery are incompatible: Dabney and his biographer would disagree. They never ceased to regret its passing, and one of the charms of this book (however much we may condemn the attitude to slavery) is its unashamed loyalty to the defeated, ravished Confederacy: Yankees are ‘they’, Southerners are ‘we’. And certainly in this old civilization there was a very tine and attractive spirit, which still lingers south of the Mason-Dixon line.”
Finally, the Presbyterian Guardian included a review in their 1978 issue:
“Robert Lewis Dabney, a Southern PResbyterian theologian in the last half of the last century, is one of the outstanding Reformed theologians in American history. The Banner of Truth has done us a great service by republishing the definitive biography by his successor at Union Theological Seminary, Richmond. Those of us in the Presbyterian Church in America stand directly in the tradition of R. L. Dabney, and should be particularly interested in this book; and all those who love the Reformed faith should cherish this volume.”
Probably the most cited piece by Dabney is “Secularized Education” (1879), which has been reprinted by Douglas Wilson’s Canon Press, and was recently included as a chapter in Zachary Garris’s Dabney on Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government. Occasionally, other works on education by Dabney will also be cited, but almost never do any of these admirers acknowledge the white supremacy embedded at the heart of Dabney’s view of education and his opposition to public schools. Rarely, too, do they consider any of the counter arguments in existence in Dabney’s own time, counter arguments made by fellow Christians, and even fellow Presbyterians. In order to better understand Dabney’s views on education, it is necessary to situate them in context and consider all the sources.
“Civis” in the Richmond Religious Herald (1875)
Dabney’s first article on education was titled “The Negro and the Common School” and on the very first page, he says this:
You may conceive, therefore, the satisfaction with which I saw “Civis” take up the cause of truth in the columns of the Religious Herald, and subsequently in the Planter and Farmer, and my admiration for his moral courage, eloquence and invincible logic.
“Civis” was the pen-name for a Baptist professor from Richmond, Bennet Puryear. In 1875, Puryear wrote “a much-discussed series of articles opposing mass education on principle” (Maddex, The Virginia Conservatives, 211). I have not been able to locate these articles (yet!) but they seem to have appeared in the following issues:
Barnas Sears was one of the most influential Baptists of the nineteenth century. After serving as a professor at the Newton Theological Institution, he took over for Horace Mann as Massachusetts Secretary of Education, and during Reconstruction, was General Agent of the Peabody Fund. In 1875, in response to “Civis”’s attack on public schools, Sears delivered an address defending public schools at the Annual Meeting of the Trustees of the Peabody Fund. This piece is important for demonstrating another way to approach Church/State relations and public schools from a Baptist perspective:
“The Public School in its Relations to the Negro” (1875–76)
Bennet Puryear followed up on his earlier articles, which had opposed public schools “on principle,” with three more articles in the Planter and Farmer opposing the education of Black people. The articles are filled with Puryear’s white-supremacist views, and it is not surprising that Dabney expressed his “satisfaction” and “admiration” for them. They originally appeared December 1875, January 1876, and February 1876, and were collected and printed in a pamphlet:
In “The Negro and the Common School,” Dabney also references another set of articles by fellow Presbyterian John Miller. Miller was born in Virginia, the son of Princeton professor Samuel Miller. Like Dabney, Miller too had served in the Confederacy, before moving back to the north to pastor in Princeton, NJ. Here’s what Dabney said:
With equal satisfaction I have seen the Rev. Dr. John Miller, long an honored citizen of Virginia, and a gallant soldier in her army, arguing the same truth in the Tribune, with even more than his wonted terseness, boldness and condensed logic.
John Miller had written two articles to the New York Tribune opposing public schools. He was responding to a letter by ex-Speaker of the House James G. Blaine that had been published in the Tribune December 3, 1875 advocating for a Constitutional amendment (“The Blaine Amendment”) requiring “non-sectarian schools”:
The piece contains Dabney’s characteristic venomous white supremacy, but goes further and attacks the “satanic” effort to establish public schools to teach Black people in Virginia. Zachary Garris has claimed that William Ruffner, superintendent of public schools in Virginia, “attacked” Dabney after he published this piece. In fact, Dabney was the one who attacked Ruffner, in bitter and vehement terms, as we can see in Ruffner’s response.
“Dr. Dabney Answered by Mr. Ruffner” (1876)
William Henry Ruffner was a fellow Presbyterian minister, and after the Civil War, he “was the designer and first superintendent of Virginia’s public school system,” and served as state superintendent for twelve years (“William Henry Ruffner (1824–1908)“). After Dabney’s attack in “The Negro and the Common School,” Ruffner wrote a four-part series in the Richmond Enquirer and the Dispatch in April 1876, responding to Dabney’s article point by point.
In these letters, Ruffner references a number of articles that had been published in previous years. The first was an article he had written anonymously in The Presbyterial Critic in 1855 criticizing public schools, but he claimed he had given up those views after a rejoinder was published the following year:
Last, in his article addressing the cost of public schools, Ruffner referenced a recent article that had been printed in the Richmond Enquirer, and had been reprinted in The Educational Journal of Virginia
Ruffner responded again to Dabney’s articles with a seven-part series, also in the Richmond Enquirer, throughout May 1876. These were also reprinted in The Educational Journal of Virginia. The seventh article “failed to appear in the Enquirer, because the MS. was lost in the office of that paper; and now, after an interval of three weeks, I must hurriedly reproduce it for the Journal”:
Virginia proceeded with their public school system, and thus Dabney “lost” that particular battle, but he would not give up the war. He continued to publish additional articles in the Princeton Review and the Southern Planter repeating many of his arguments against state involvement in education, though his Princeton Review articles (perhaps because he was publishing in a northern journal?) he left out his tirades against “the negro.” His (now) popular “Secularized Education” is largely a reprint of Letter 4 to Ruffner from 1876. His “Free Schools” article, written for a southern audience in the Southern Planter, again contains a section explicitly opposing educating Black people.
In the 1879 volume of The Educational Journal of Virginia, William N. Nelson responded directly to Dabney’s article on “Free Schools,” and an unknown author responded to his “Secularized Education” in “Christianity in Public Schools.”
The next year there was a meeting of the Department of Superintendents belonging to the National Educational Association in Washington, February 18-20, 1880. In his address, Ruffner made reference to the way the old “defenders of slavery” now denied “the power of common school education” to improve the lives of laborers, especially Black people.
It is interesting to compare Dabney’s views on State involvement in public schools for children, versus his views on State education at the college level. In 1883 Dabney moved to Texas and took a position at the University of Texas. In a letter to E. M. Palmer which was published in the Southwestern Presbyterian in 1884, Dabney defends the State’s involvement with education as not inconsistent with Christianity at all. This directly contradicts some of his earlier positions expressed in Virginia — perhaps the difference here is that State sponsored education is acceptable for well-bred white men, but not for Black children:
First, anyone who wishes to praise Dabney’s insights in education needs to reckon with the white supremacy that was at the heart of his objections to public schools. It is telling that most have not even acknowledged this.
Second, those who think Dabney was “uniquely prophetic” in his stance against public schools, should realize that Dabney was not unique, in fact, this was just one more aspect of Southern resistance to reconstruction. As the Blaine Amendment was being debated in congress in 1875, the whole country was intensely debating these questions. Dabney was just one of many, especially in the south, who opposed public schools in the midst of this debate.
Third, before you swallow Dabney’s “insights” whole, you really need to read Barnas Sear’s perspective, and the various rebuttals, especiall William Ruffner’s. There is not one single “Christian” perspective on public schools, whatever certain very confident voices would have you believe.
Finally, as with every historical inquiry, there is always far more below the surface than you initially realize. When one sees an isolated quote, or a high-profile endorsement of Dabney’s views of “Secularized Education,” it can initially sound compelling until you dig below the surface and see what else is there. As usual, there is quite a bit of context to be reckoned with.
For Further Reading:
1903 – Thomas Cary Johnson, The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 396–399 (available here)
1988 – Thomas C. Hunt and Jennings L. Wagoner, Jr., “Race, Religion, and Redemption: William Henry Ruffner and the Moral Foundations of Education in Virginia,” American Presbyterians 66.1 (1988): 1–9. (on JSTOR)
The role of Robert Lewis Dabney in the Christian Reconstruction movement has been documented by a number of scholars in recent years. In their 2002 article, “The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South,” Edward Sebesta and Euan Hague showed how Rousas J. Rushdoony helped to “revive interest” in Dabney and other Southern Presbyterians (and Confederates) (this article is included in their Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction). Sebesta and Hague note how in addition to reprinting Dabney’s works through his publishing house, Rushdoony also “applauded Dabney’s defense of slavery” in the pages of his Chalcedon Report. The entry for Rushdoony in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (2014) notes that among the “major influences on Rushdoony” were “Southern Presbyterianism (especially Robert Dabney).” Drawing on Sebesta and Hague, Julie Ingersoll’s Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction(2015), 16–19, also highlights Rushdoony’s role in rehabilitating Dabney:
By most accounts, Dabney’s influence had waned when C. Peter Singer and Rushdoony resurrected his work in the middle of the twentieth century. Yet Dabney has been called prophetic by Reconstructionists from Rushdoony to Doug Phillips. While much of Dabney’s work was republished by Lloyd Sprinkle, Rushdoony’s Ross House Books also republished some of it. Rushdoony publicized those books through Chalcedon Foundation newsletters, public lectures, and his very early “podcasts” sent to subscribers on audiotape. According to Edward Sebesta and Euan Hague, “Rushdoony’s promotion of Sprinkle’s reprints brought them to the attention of the wider Christian Reconstructionist movement in the United States [leading] to their discussion and review in magazine articles, books, audio cassettes, videotape sets, and other pro-Confederate theological and political venues.”
However, one source that has been largely unexplored thus far is the Journal of Christian Reconstruction. Nearly every issue from 1974 to 1999 is available online and text-searchable (see Gary North’s repository here, as well as Chalcedon’s site–search “JCR”), and so affords a convenient avenue for sounding out the recurring appearance of Robert Lewis Dabney over the years.
Indeed, the contributors to JCR refer to Dabney on a wide variety of subjects including many of the core themes of the Christian Reconstruction movement: “biblical creationism,” postmillennialism, critiques of “secular education,” theonomy, the atonement, and even textual criticism. But the JCR did not restrict itself to Dabney’s “theological” or social commentary, they self-consciously promoted Dabney the Confederate—both as an officer in the Confederate army, and as an author defending and glorifying the Confederacy in his Defense of Virginia and his Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson). The use of Dabney was not merely circumstantial—Rushdoony had made it a point to republish Dabney’s works in his Ross House Publishers, and you can see these reprints cited in the pages of the Journal. This growing restoration of Dabney’s reputation throughout the 1970s and 1980s was highlighted in the Journal as an encouraging sign for the movement. Many in the Christian Reconstruction movement viewed the ante-bellum south as a model “Christian nation,” and Dabney as a proto-typical Christian Reconstruction patriarch.
Of interest is the role that Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi played in the pages of the Journal. While the brief tenure of Greg Bahnsen at RTS is a well-defined chapter in the story of Christian Reconstruction (see, for example, Michael McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism), the pages of the Journal flesh this out even further. In addition to Bahnsen, a number of students from the seminary also appear in the pages of the Journal, including James B. Jordan, David Chilton, Richard Flinn, and Jack Sawyer. In addition to students (and then alumni), the Journal also included contributions from RTS professors Simon Kistemaker and Douglas Kelly and Kelly would at one point take over as chief editor when Rushdoony fired Gary North from the position in 1981.
Given the role of RTS founding professors Morton H. Smith and Albert Freundt, Jr. in the effort to republish Dabney in the 1960s (see ““A Leading Theologian”?: Herman Bavinck on Robert Lewis Dabney”), and the ongoing work of RTS professor Douglas Kelly to continue promoting Dabney in the 1980s (for example “Robert Lewis Dabney,” in Reformed Theology in America), it shouldn’t be surprising that a movement with significant overlap with RTS (Christian Reconstruction) would also share this enthusiasm for Robert Lewis Dabney.
This post merely documents the numerous times Dabney was cited in the Journalof Christian Reconstruction. Further work could still be done to trace Dabney’s influence through the voluminous writings of Rushdoony, North, Bahnsen, Chilton, and others, as well as its further development in Christian Reconstruction-ish and neo-Confederate-ish figures like Douglas Wilson.
1.1 Symposium on Creation (1974 Summer)
The very first issue of the Journal of Christian Reconstruction was devoted a “Symposium on Creation.” Contributors included Greg Bahnsen, Gary North, Vern Poythress, Rousas J. Rushdoony, and Cornelius Van Til (pdf available here).
Greg Bahnsen’s “Worshipping the Creature Rather than the Creator” (81–127) cites Dabney’s Systematic Theology in support of the idea that there can be no synthesis between Darwinian evolution and biblical creationism:
Robert L. Dabney’s words should ever be kept in mind in this regard:
“Other pretended theologians have been seen advancing, and then as easily retracting, novel schemes of exegesis, to suit new geologic hypotheses. The Bible has often had cause here to cry, ‘Save me from my friends.’ . . . As remarked in a previous lecture, unless the Bible has its own ascertainable and certain law of exposition, it cannot be a rule of faith; our religion is but rationalism. I repeat, if any part of the Bible must wait to have its real mean ing imposed upon it by another, and a human science, that part is at least meaningless and worthless to our souls. It must expound itself independently; making other sciences ancillary, and not dominant over it” [Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House,  1972), p. 257]. (99 n. 68)
The next page, Bahnsen cites Dabney again in the body of his article:
The Presbyterian theologian, Robert L. Dabney, made a similar observation, saying, “If you persist in recognizing nothing but natural forces . . . it will land you, if you are consistent, no where short of absolute atheism.” (100).
“Almost a century ago, Robert L. Dabney concluded that “ ‘Darwinism’ happens just now to be the current manifestation, which the fashion of the day gives to the permanent anti-theistic tendency in sinful man.” (101).
Thus, it is Dabney the “biblical creationist” that is the first version of Dabney cited in the pages of the JCR.
The Winter 1976–77 issue of JCR, a “Symposium on the Millennium,”includes contributions from Reformed Theological Seminary professors Greg Bahnsen and Simon Kistemaker, as well as then student James B. Jordan. The issue also features a heavy dose of Robert Lewis Dabney, by Bahnsen, Jordan, and Kelly (pdf available here).
Greg Bahnsen’s article “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism” (48–105) cites Dabney. In a concluding section of his article, he gives a historical survey to show that “It is recognized on virtually all sides that postmillennialism was a strong position in the nineteenth century” (97). He surveys England, Scotland, the European continent, and then Princeton, before turning to the Southern Presbyterians: “Such was certainly the conviction of the greatest theologians of the Southern Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.), J. H. Thornwell and Robert L. Dabney” (102). Here he cites Dabney’s Systematic Theology in support of postmillennialism (102–103, citing Dabney, ST, 838–40)
The next is James B. Jordan, then a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, “A Survey of Southern Presbyterian Millennial Views Before 1930” (106–122). Jordan gives a brief historical survey of the denomination, and describes the formation of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America this way, conveniently ignoring the explicit role that slavery played in their withdrawal from their Northern brethren:
The Southern Presbyterian church came into existence in 1861 when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. passed a resolution declaring its “obligation to promote and perpetuate, so far as in us lies, the integrity of these United States. . . .” The Southern men had hoped to keep war politics out of the church; having failed, they with drew (107).
After a few pages, his survey reaches the “Positions of the Theologians.” The first of the theologians up for review is Dabney, and Jordan describes him thus:
Doubtless the greatest theologian to serve at Union was Robert Louis Dabney (1820-1898)… Dabney was one of the most brilliant men that American Christianity has ever produced. His Defence of Virginia was called by Richard Weaver “at once the bitterest and the most eloquent” defense of the Southern cause. Dabney’s devastating critique of Northern industrial capitalism has also been assessed recently as remarkable. It is as a theologian of the first rank, however, that Dabney is best known (112, 113).
Jordan gives considerable space to Dabney:
We shall cite Dabney’s views in larger measure than others, both out of respect for his stature and influence (His Lectures in Systematic Theology was reprinted six times from 1878 to 1927) and because Dabney in his writings locked horns with the innovative premillennialism of his day (113).
Jordan then cites two of Dabney’s arguments against pre-millennialism:
Dabney declares that premillennialism is “directly against our standards.” As he saw it, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms ruled out premillennialism by teaching that there is only one physical resurrection at the end of history, not two separated by the millennium. Second, Dabney issued a devastating critique of one of the most common and recurring fallacies of eschatological belief. It is often argued that the New Testament teaches that Christ may return to the earth at any time, and that belief in an “any moment coming” is a great incentive to holiness.
Throughout, Jordan interacts with Dabney’s Systematic Theology, as well as ““The Theology of the Plymouth Brethren,” reprinted in Discussions, Vol. 1, by Banner of Truth (1967), and a scholarly article: David H. Overy, “When the Wicked Beareth Rule: A Southern Critique of Industrial America,” Journal of Presbyterian History 48 (1970): 130-142.
The final article that references Dabney is in the section of the JCR entitled “Defenders of the Faith” (166–77). This issue’s featured “defender” was the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, written by Douglas Kelly, pastor of First Presbyterian Church (U.S.), in Dillon, South Carolina, but soon to become professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi in 1983. Kelly’s portrayal of Jackson is standard Lost Cause hagiography:
Few American leaders, if any, either Southern or Northern, have ever stood so close to the throne of God as Thomas J. Jackson. The humility, purity, tender love of a crucified Saviour, and glorious splendor of a risen Lord are reflected in the attributes of this man (166).
In addition to his “Christian piety,” Jackson was a “military genius”:
he was a military genius of the highest order, who has been considered by experts in the science of war as equal to Napoleon on the European scene, and possibly superior to such American herpes as Generals George Washington, John Pershing, and Douglas MacArthur (166).
Kelly recounts the “Confederate Revival” plank in the story, too:
Jackson’s prayers and active efforts to promulgate the gospel among his troops were answered when a major revival broke out in the Con federate Army, with particular fervency in the regiments under his command. His “unsung” victorious leadership in the spiritual realm has counted for more than the military conquests that made him famous (167).
Throughout the short piece, Dabney relies heavily (almost, but not quite, exclusively) on Dabney’s Life of General Jackson, specifically, the 1976 Sprinkle Publications reprint of the 1865 edition. Kelly, relying on Dabney, white-washes Jackson’s life as a slave-owner:
Family worship was near and dear to him. Twice daily he kept the flame of devotion high on the family altar, requiring black servants as well as family to be present. Though he was part of a slaveholding society, the constraining love of Christ in him knew no social or racial bounds. “He was indeed the black man’s friend,” writes Dabney. “His prayers were so attractive to them, that a number of those living in his quarter of the town petitioned to be admitted on Sabbath nights, along with his own servants, to his evening domestic worship.” Later he established a sabbath school for the black people, which he personally organized, taught, disciplined, and prayed over. Manifold and lovely were the fruits of this endeavor in the black community. Many were converted, and characters were morally (171).
Kelly, again relying on Dabney, paints Jackson in literally glowing terms (“beams of divine light”):
To make a long story short, soon after the onslaught of this ghastly war (the first war in which truly modern weaponry was widely used), Jackson’s merits as an exceptionally brilliant, courageous leader— an officer’s officer—were recognized on every hand, and he rapidly rose to power. Here was a man God could trust with authority. The higher he rose, the humbler he became. Dabney notes how his pre-regenerate ambition had been transmuted into the sincerest, burning desire that Christ should have all the glory. “In place of harbouring Cromwell’s selfish ambition . . . Jackson crucified the not ignoble thirst for glory which animated his youth, until his abnegation of self became as pure and magnanimous as that of Washington. . . . The piety of Jackson continually repaired its benignant beams at the fountain of divine light and purity, becoming brighter and brighter unto the perfect day. His nature grew more unselfish, his aims more noble, his spirit more heavenly. . .” (172–73).
Kelly praises Jackson’s “heaven sent piety”:
The heaven-sent piety of Jackson made him one of finest generals of both armies, and caused him to consecrate all the efforts he legitimately could for the reformation of society and glorifying of God in political life (175).
Appropriate for the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Kelly finds in Jackson a proto-model of reconstructionism:
Beyond that, he had a vision for Constitutional reformation, or at least reinterpretation. Jackson felt that the popular American doctrine of separation of church and state had gone too far by the mid-nineteenth century. He astutely foresaw that this “separation” was coming to mean not a friendly independence of church and state, but a practical disestablishment of orthodox Christianity, and in its place a grow ing establishment of secular materialism and humanism. Jackson hoped that after a Southern victory he would see congressional action that would clearly establish biblical Christianity (though of course non-sectarian) as the officially encouraged religion of the land (175).
Kelly adds his own historical interpretation to the events of the Civil War, an interpretation deeply influenced by the Lost Cause. First, the “Christian Army” component:
One wonders if, with the exception of the Scottish covenanter regiments and Cromwell’s English army, there has ever been such an evangelical Christian army as that of the Confederacy after this revival (176).
Second, the “infidel North” versus the “Christian South” framing:
Secondly, through the influence of those who survived—a great company of converted veterans, who returned home after the war—the Southern States became more evangelical than ever. A defeated land became known as the “Bible belt.” The victorious Northern States (whose army was often manned with Unitarian chaplains alongside true believers) experienced no revival, and with all their material prosperity and power were increasingly deluged with soulless secular humanism (Footnote 23: This is not to obscure the fact that there have always been large numbers of the finest evangelicals in the North. Nevertheless, as a generalized historical tendency, it is true that the North has tended to secularism, while the South has held on to a Christian world and life view.) (177).
Thus, Dabney is established in the pages of the Journal as “the greatest theologian to serve at Union,” “one of the most brilliant men that American Christianity has ever produced,” and a reliable source on the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. Southern Presbyterianism and Christian Reconstruction overlap in their love for the Confederacy and the Southern Presbyterians of a former era.
the 1977 issue was a “Symposium on Education” (pdf available here). It was not just Southern Presbyterians in the PCA who loved Dabney and worked for Christian Reconstruction. Reformed Baptists were also involved (consider also how Banner of Truth and Iain Murray were connected both with the Reformed Baptists in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the Southern Presbyterians in Jackson, Mississippi). Trinity Baptist Church was pastored by Albert Martin, and they were starting a new training program, the “Trinity Ministerial Academy.” They announced this in the pages of the Journal of Christian Reconstruction in “Trinity Ministerial Academy: Prospectus” (100–107). The Prospectus begins with “The Nature of the Ministry”:
One’s understanding of the nature of the Christian ministry, both as to its origin and its function, will pervasively influence his attitude to the matter of training men for that ministry.
An understanding of the “ministry” will affect the understanding of the “minister”:
Furthermore, we believe that God has designated the essential function of the ministerial office (wherever that office is exercised, whether at home or abroad) as shepherding “the flock of God” (Acts 20:28; I Pet. 5:2). This work of shepherding (“feeding,” “tending”) is accomplished by means of the authoritative preaching and teaching of “the whole counsel of God,” together with loving guidance, encouragement, and admonition of the people of God, and wise rule in the house of God. Moreover, these activi ties must be given credibility and acceptance by the consistent godly ex ample of the minister himself (I Tim. 4:12; Titus 2:7).
And here, these Reformed Baptists appeal to Robert Lewis Dabney:
Thus we believe that the only sure indication that a man is being formed by Christ into an able minister of the New Covenant is his growing con formity to the clear standard of graces and gifts set forth in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. This truth was excellently set forth by R. L. Dabney more than a century ago in his essay entitled, “What Is a Call to the Ministry?” Dabney wrote:
“This leads us to add another important class of texts by which the Holy Spirit will inform the judgment, both of the candidate and his brethren, as to his call. It is that class in which God defines the qualifications of a minister of the Gospel. Let every reader consult, as the fullest specimens, 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9. The inquirer is to study these passages, seeking the light of God’s Spirit to purge his mind from all clouds of vanity, self-love, prejudice, in order to see whether he has or can possibly acquire the qualifications here set down. And his brethren, under the influence of the same Spirit, must candidly decide by the same standard whether they shall call him to preach or not” (in Discussions, Vol. 1, reprinted by Banner of Truth, 1967).
Obviously, our hearty acceptance of this view of the Christian ministry so ably set forth by Dabney means that we have been guided by it in all the planning of Trinity Ministerial Academy, both as to the subject matter and the method of instruction (101–102).
The Summer 1978 issue was a “Symposium on Politics” (pdf available here). Gary North, in his introductory “Editorial,” made a passing reference to Dabney and the other southern leaders:
(It should be understood that the majority of the pre-war leaders had been pro-Union, not secessionists, especially the military men like Lee, Jackson, and Jackson’s chaplain, Robert L. Dabney. The radical secessionists of South Carolina forced them into the Confederacy, once Lincoln took the calculated risk of reinforcing Fort Sumter.) (2).
Winter 1978–79 was a “Symposium on Puritanism and Law” (pdf available here). Reformed Theological Seminary is still heavily represented in terms of professors, graduates, and students (Bahnsen, Chilton, Flint, Jordan, Sawyer). James Jordan contributed an article titled “Calvinism and the ‘Judicial Law of Moses’” (17–48). He begins by addressing some “Criticisms of Theonomic Ethics,” and then considers “John Calvin and Martin Bucer,” “The Sixteenth Century,” “The Rise of Puritanism,” “The Era of the Westminster Assembly,” and “The Later Colonial Period in America,” before arriving at “The Southern Presbyterian Writers.” Here, as in his previous article, Jordan again appeals to “the thought of the two most excellent theologians of Southern Presbyterianism: James H. Thornwell and Robert L. Dabney” (46). Jordan paints the Confederacy as a “Christian nation”:
When the Confederate States of America were formed, in response to a perceived economic and atheistic threat from the Northern States, it was widely hoped that the new nation would be explicitly Christian. A petition was sent to the Congress of the CSA from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the CSA, authored by Thornwell, to that end. The proposed amendment to the CSA Constitution, to be added to the section providing for liberty of conscience, read:
Nevertheless we, the people of these Confederate States, directly ac knowledge our responsibility to God, and the supremacy of His Son, Jesus Christ, as King of kings and Lord of lords; and hereby ordain that no law shall be passed by the Congress of these Confederate States inconsistent with the will of God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.
Thornwell argued that though “the will of God, as revealed in the Scriptures, is not a positive Constitution for the State,” yet the State must believe the Scriptures “to be true, and regulate its own conduct and legislation in conformity with their teachings.” (Note that this is the position of Bahnsen and Rushdoony.) (46).
Jordan then turns to Dabney, and these two pages are worth reproducing in full, as an example of how and why the Christian Reconstruction movement looked to Dabney as a theological source for their views:
Robert L. Dabney, like Ridgeley, nowhere in his works explicitly states that the judicial law of God is binding, yet seems to assume it as a principle in his writings. In his Lectures in Systematic Theology he cites the Older Testament capital punishments for murder, striking parents, adultery, and religious imposture, without any hint that he thought these had ceased to bind nations (Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,  1972), pp. 402f.). With respect to adultery, his statement is explicit:
The law of Moses, therefore, very properly made adultery a capital crime; nor does our Saviour, in the incident of the woman taken in adultery, repeal that statute, or disallow its justice. The legislation of modern, nominally Christian nations, is drawn rather from the gross ness of Pagan sources than from Bible principles (Ibid., pp. 407f. See also his The Practical Philosophy (Mexico, Mo.: Crescent Book House, 1896), pp. 362f.)
This statement, especially its reference to “nominally Christian nations,” makes it evident that, in Dabney’s view, a genuinely Christian nation would draw its legislation from the law of God, including the penal particulars, rather than from pagan sources. Dabney here explicitly disagrees with Calvin’s notion of a “common law of nations.” Pagan sources are contrasted with Biblical law.
Dabney’s view is further elaborated and brought into sharper focus in his discussion of the lex talionis.
The application of the lex talionis made by Moses against false wit nesses was the most appropriate and equitable ever invented. What ever pain or penalty the false swearing would have brought on the innocent man maligned had the law followed the false witness un protected, that penalty must be visited on the perjurer maligning him.
Let the student compare the admirable symmetry of Moses’ provision with the bungling operation of our statute against perjury. He discriminates the different grades of guilt with exact justice. We punish the perjurer who swears away his neighbor’s cow with imprisonment, and the perjurer who swears away his neighbor’s honor and life, still with imprisonment (The Practical Philosophy, p. 513f.) (Jordan, “Calvinism,” 46–47).
Winter 1980–81 was devoted to a “Symposium on Evangelism” (pdf available here). Herbert Bowsher, pastor of a Presbyterian church in Birmingham, Alabama, submitted “Will Christ Return ‘At Any Moment’ ?” (48–60), and near the end of the article, Bowsher appeals to Dabney to support one of his points:
The church is very important to Christ. Scripture teaches that He loves it and gave Himself for it. He desires that it not have spot or wrinkle or any such thing (Eph. 5:25, 27). To this end, Christ gives officers for edification of the body (Eph. 4:11-12). Teaching is to be carried out and discipline maintained. But an “ any-moment” scheme has implications that seriously undermine this Scriptural view. Dabney has seen this problem clearly:
If no visible church, however orthodox, is to be Christ’s instrument for overthrowing Satan’s kingdom here; if Christ is to sweep the best of them away as so much rubbish, along with all “world powers” at his advent; if it is our duty to expect and desire this catastrophe daily, who does not see that we shall feel very slight value for ecclesiastical ties and duties? And should we differ unpleasantly from our church courts, we shall be tempted to feel that it is pious to spurn them. Are we not daily praying for an event which will render them useless lumber? (Robert L. Dabney, Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (2 vols.; London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), I, 208.)
Regardless of one’s ecclesiology, none would deny that an inadequately low view of the church prevails today among Christians. Could this emphasis on an “ any-moment” return be a contributing factor? (59).
1981 featured a “Symposium on Social Action” (pdf available here). Gary North could now speak of a “revival of interest” in men like Dabney:
“The 1980’s have brought a revival of interest in the older conservative tradition of the nineteenth century within fundamentalist circles. Ideas and political programs somewhat reminiscent of the older Presbyterianism- the Hodges and Alexanders in the North, and men like Dabney in the South have begun to gain attention” (17).
In the same issue, Archie Jones wrote about “The Imperative of Christian Action: Getting Involved as a Biblical Duty” (86–131). He starts off by framing all of life as war:
It should be manifest to Bible-believing Christians that we are involved in a war. It is a spiritual war between the forces of Satan and the forces of Christ, a war fought within man as well as between men. It is a multi- faceted war, involving every dimension o f life and thought, every sphere o f human activity (86).
Jones describes the “Attack on the Family” and then the “attack on Christian Education.” Here, he says
The humanistic attack on the family extends beyond the family to the attack ·on Christianity in education, for humanism is a religion, and a militantly anti-Christian and intolerant religion at that, and as such aims to extinguish God’s truth in every sphere of thought and life (98–99).
Jones goes all the way back to the 19th century and contrasts Horace Mann with Robert Lewis Dabney:
The whole concept and motivation of “free public education” since Horace Mann and James G. Carter has been fundamentally humanistic and radically anti-Christian. The movement for “free” government-controlled education in Massachusetts and New England was led by Mann and other Unitarians who sought to eliminate the previously dominant Christian influence on society and to eliminate all social problems via education. The movement to impose state-controlled education on the states of the South after the “Civil War” was motivated by a similar philosophy, and was seen by perceptive Christian theologians as a continuation of the same ”practical atheism” which had motivated abolitionism (Note 22: See the perceptive essays on government education by Robert L. Dabney, in his Discussions, Vol. IV (Ross House Books, P.O. Box 67, Vallecito, Calif. 95251: 1979 reprint of 1897 ed.). In fact, the philosophy of “public” (read: government-controlled) education in America has always been humanistic, messianic, and anti-Christian (99).
Notice the reference to the “atheism which had motivated abolitionism” and the appeal to Dabney’s views on education, in an edition of Dabney’s Discussions that Rushdoony had recently issued. Jones goes on:
The deliberate divorce of Christianity from education in the government schools inherent in the philosophy of “public school” education has proceeded from government control in an increasingly humanistic society, organizational humanism in the bureaucracies and the teachers’ unions, and ever present humanistic judicial fiats. As R. L. Dabney noted long ago, the combination of the (misunderstood) doctrine of “separation of church and state” in America and the religious and anti-Christian views among our population results in “a practical atheism” taught, of practical necessity (non-Christians often resent the preaching of Christianity) in government schools. (Note 26: Dabney, Discussions, pp. 176-247 [“The Negro and the Common School,” “The State Free School System Imposed upon Virginia by the Underwood Constitution,” and “Secularized Education”], provides a tremendously insightful discussion of this phenomenon, and of the historic and philosophical inner dynamic of government-controlled, secularized education. His essays, though penned a century ago,·are so timely that they deserve a separate reprinting) (100).
Winter 1982 was a “Symposium on the Atonement” (available here). This is the first issue edited by soon-to-be Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson) professor Douglas Kelly, and contained contributions from RTS graduate Kenneth Gentry, as well as R. J. Rushdoony, and Cornelius Van Til. Rushdoony kicks off the Symposium with an article titled “The Atonement Analyzed and Applied.” In his section on “4. Imputation” Rushdoony says this:
In the atonement by Jesus Christ, this fallen man dies in Christ and is made a new creation in Him. His actual sins are atoned for, and his old life and nature are sentenced to death and then made a new creation (Footnote 12: See Robert L. Dabney, Christ our Penal Substitute (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, reprint, 1978).
The Summer 1986–87 issue was a “Symposium on the Education of the Core Group” (available here). In his “Introduction,” Rushdoony explained the “central duty” of Christian education for children:
“We cannot turn our children over to the humanistic state schools without serious consequences. If it is wrong for a Christian to join ungodly churches, or to become a worshipper in pagan cults and religions, is it not at least equally wrong to turn our children over to schools which refuse to acknowledge Christ as Lord or Sovereign over all men and nations?
It is a grim and ugly fact that most pastors do NOT have their children in Christian schools, or in home schooling.”
Rushdoony also contributed a full article, titled “Education: Today’s Crisis and Dilemma.” The article is focused on the “crisis” in “statist education.” In the brief (6 page) article, Rushdoony cites Dabney several times in articulating his position:
The early promoters of state control of education had a slogan, “It costs less money to build school-houses than jails.” To this Robert L. Dabney in 1876 responded, “But what if it turns out that the state’s expenditure in school-houses is one of the things which necessitates the expenditure in jails?” (Footnote 3: Robert L. Dabney, Discussions (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, , 1979), 195.)
This was Rushdoony’s own reprint (Ross House Books) of Dabney. A little further, Rushdoony returns to Dabney:
Who should control education? Historically, we have seen church and state contend for that power. Dabney held that the Christian position should be parental control, the family as the determining power. The mistake in control by the church is that education becomes ecclesiastical and institutional. State control means politicization and secularization. Dabney rejected the concept of secularized education as both impossible and inadmissible, since education is inescapably a religious discipline. (Footnote 5: Dabney, [“Secularized Education,” in] Discussions [Vol. 4], 225-47). All education is the transmission of the values and skills of a culture to its children, and this is a religious task.
Rushdoony cites Dabney to the effect that public schools are a form of communism:
Dabney saw also the premise of communism in taxing all people to provide schools for some. This was a radical innovation which did not exist under the previous common-school system (Footnote 6: Dabney, [“Review of ‘Wilson’s Slave Power in America,” and “State Free Schools,” in] Discussions [Vol. 4], 248–80).
And finally, Rushdoony cites the Sprinkle Publications reprint of Dabney’s Practical Philosophy:
But this is not all. As Dabney wrote in 1897, “A state religion [is] logically involved in state education” (Footnote 7: Robert L. Dabney, The Practical Philosophy (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications,  1987), 339). Because education is the importation of values, it is inescapably religious, because values are religiously determined.
1988 saw a “Symposium on the Constitution and Political Theology” (available here). Jean-Marc Berthoud was now on “Chalcedon’s European staﬀ,” and contributed an article titled “Historical Reality of the Christian Cultural Consensus in Europe and America.” Berthoud opens his article lamenting historical suppression:
The impact of the liberal humanist historiography on the schools and the universities of our nations has been so thorough that our whole culture suffers from historical amnesia. In communist countries this transformation of history is undertaken by blatantly suppressing all witness of the past which is contrary to the ideological interpretation in favor amongst the ruling party elite. In the West, the change in our historical self-consciousness has been more gradual, but no less thorough.
However, Berthoud saw some encouraging signs, including the reprinting of some specific works of Robert Lewis Dabney:
From a distance it would seem that this state of affairs is changing for the better in the United States. For many years work has quietly been going on to restore to the Church and nation the memory of their past. Amongst other works, the historical writing of Dr. R.J. Rushdoony, those of Frederik Nymeyer, the re-editions of the exceptional historical writings of Southern scholars such as Robert L Dabney — of the d’Aubigne family — (Defense of Virginia and Life of Stonewall Jackson, Sprinkle, (1977)) and the pioneering volumes by Verna M. Hall and Rosalie J. Slater have certainly contributed much to the revival of awareness of America’s Christian past.
It is interesting that these reprinting were seen as part of the overall work of Christian Reconstruction, by Rushdoony (who reprinted Dabney with his Ross House Books), and by others in the movement.
1989 was devoted to a “Symposium on the Biblical Text and Literature” (available here). It was, in part, a defense of the traditional King James Version and the Greek text (the Textus Receptus) underlying it. The bulk of this Journal was devoted to reprinting Theodore P. Letis’s Master’s Thesis from Emory University, “Edward Freer Hills’s Contribution to the Revival of the Ecclesiastical Text” (1987). In the thesis, Letis claims that there was once a unified view of textual criticism (“The Reformed View”), as seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith, John Owen, Francis Turretin, and the Helvetic Consensus Formula (a claim that does not hold up to scrutiny; see my “‘Kept Pure in All Ages’: Textual Criticism and the Seventeenth-Century Protestant Orthodox”). From this faulty premise, Letis then claims that B. B. Warfield introduced enlightenment rationalism into the handling of the Biblical text, and puts forth Robert Lewis Dabney as a counter-example of someone who “more generally reflected the scholastic confessional stance” (81). Letis devotes a whole 4 page section to Dabney and interacts with several of his articles (“The Doctrinal Various Readings of the New Testament Greek” (1872); “The Revised Version of the New Testament” (1881); “The Influence of the German University System on Theological Literature” (1881); “The Doctrinal Contents of the [Westminster] Confession—Its Fundamental and Regulative Ideas and the Necessity and Value of Creed” (1897)). He sums up like this:
So with the passing of A. Alexander and Charles Hodge, the view of Scripture held by the Reformed scholastics no longer played any role at Princeton. Dabney kept it alive for a time in the south—but in the person of Warfield, the Enlightenment had arrived at Princeton (89).
An in-depth critique of Letis’s thesis, in particular his treatment of Dabney and the Southern Presbyterians, is beyond the scope of this survey. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that even when the Christian Reconstruction movement addressed textual criticism, Robert Lewis Dabney was promoted as a faithful model.
1994 featured a “Symposium on the Decline and Fall of the West and the Return of Christendom” (available here). Richard Bostan contributed an article titled “Religion, Abolition, and Proslavery Arguments in Pre-Civil War America.” The thesis of the somewhat florid article isn’t exactly clear, but along the way he references “Dabney, illustrious theologian and pastor,” and cites two articles of his (“Wilson’s Slave Power in America,” and “Liberty and Slavery”).
The real highlight, though, was that this issue’s featured “Man of Faith and Courage” was Robert Lewis Dabney. F. W. Schnitzler wrote the short (5 page) profile, and started off with a reference to “The War for Southern Independence” (i.e., the Civil War). “Many of those who participated,” Schnitzler said, “became very famous…,” but “Most participants remain virtually unknown, however, lost in the pages of history. While the men were very brave, very gallant, very determined and fearless, some deserve wider recognition as well as a second look.” Dabney, apparently, was one who deserved wider recognition. Schnitzler spends a significant portion of the article highlighting Dabney’s participation in the Confederacy as chief-of-staff (briefly) to Stonewall Jackson. After the war, Schnitzler recounts what has become a common description of Dabney amongst his admirers:
Dabney’s perception and foresight were remarkably prophetic (so much so that he considered himself “predestined to prophesy truth and never to be believed until too late”). Dabney commented on developments that were then only in their infancy, but we now know that Dabney accurately assessed those developments and the consequences they were likely to produce. Darwinism, labor unions, strikes, secular education, the abandonment of the gold standard and modernism were all accurately assessed by Dabney while they were yet fledgling movements. So as not to think such praise is undeserved, consider Dabney’s comments on communism. “Communism is slavery! Moreover, all history teaches us, that the more paternalistic any government becomes, be its form either impersonal, monarchical, aristocratic or democratic, the more will its officials engross the powers of the State, and the earnings of the citizens to themselves.” It reads like something from yesterday’s editorial page, but was written well over one hundred years ago!
Schnitzler closes by recommending some of Dabney’s works for further study. Interestingly, none of them are specifically theological, but his most stringent pro-Confederate material is endorsed:
Robert Lewis Dabney was truly a remarkable man and is worthy of greater recognition. For those interested in reading more of his work, the following books are recommended: A Defense of Virginia and the South, The Practical Philosophy, Selected Discussions, and the Life and Campaigns of Lt. Gen. T. J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
1997 featured a “Symposium on the Reformation” (available here), and this final reference to Robert Lewis Dabney brings us full circle. Jean-Marc Berthoud, listed as “editor of the review Résister et Construire [“Resist and Build”], President of the Association vaudoise de Parents chretiens in Switzerland,” contributed an article titled “Why Is the Biblical Doctrine of Creation So Important?” the topic of the very first Journal of Christian Reconstruction (1974). Berthoud takes aim at any compromise with evolution:
Theistic evolution, which accepts a form of evolution, directed by God, diminishes the Creator’s power and wisdom in order to attribute a portion of his power and wisdom to the laws of evolution supposedly contained in nature. It is a lack of faith that leads one to uphold such a position.
And here, he cites Dabney in support:
Robert Lewis Dabney, an American theologian of the latter half of the nineteenth century, wrote on the subject of Christian thinkers who adhered to a theistic vision of evolution:
Why are theistic philosophers so eager to push God’s creative act as far back in time as possible and reduce His action as much as possible, as they are constantly doing in their speculations?… What is the use, unless one is aspiring towards atheism? (R. L. Dabney: Lectures in Systematic Theology, 261)
I found a plan for reading through the Greek New Testament in one year over at Lee Iron’s site several years ago, but it was a pdf and needed to be updated each year. I loved this plan so much, I made my own for reading the English Bible through in one year as well. Two principles are at work: (1) chapters longer than 38 verses are broken into two readings; (2) extra day(s) added at the end of each month in order to build in space in case you fall a day or two behind.
For my English Bible reading I use the NKJV. The plan is arranged in Hebrew canonical order (Law, Prophets, Writings), and not the typical English Bible order (which follows the Septuagint). I switched to Hebrew canonical order several years ago and have loved the effect it has on my reading through the OT.
For the NT, I read the Robinson-Pierpont Byzantine text which (rightly!) places the Catholic Epistles immediately after Acts, rather than the Pauline epistles. I love reading James, Peter, John, and Jude up front, rather than towards the end of the year. I wonder how our theology might shift if we gave slightly more prominence to these books than we typically do. I use this plan to get through the Greek NT in a year, but you could use it to read through the NT in English as well if you’d like.
So, for that tiny group out there who hopes to read through the the Bible following the Hebrew and old Greek canonical order in 2022, here are a couple of plans to print out and check off as you go: