The Edwardseans and Immediatism

From Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 622:

“New England Congregationalism showed a moral intensity that could be traced back to Edwardseanism. ‘It is only when we have in hand the puzzle piece of the ethics of disinterested benevolence,’ write Sweeney and Guelzo, that we can grasp ‘the fiery urgency of William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown. Indeed, it was on the topic of slavery that the Edwardseans became known for their radicalism. By 1771, [Samuel] Hopkins was preaching against the slave trade. By 1773, he was attacking slavery itself. Hopkins’s moral radicalism and theological intransigence prepared him to be the preacher of abolition in Newport, Rhode Island—the epicenter of the American slave trade. He won a following in among African Americans in Newport, as well as enduring hostility from slave ship owners. For Hopkins, slavery was a flagrant offense against benevolence and the result of a ‘most criminal, contracted selfishness.’ The only remedy was immediate emancipation, as Hopkins argued in A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans (1776). Similarly, Jonathan Edwards Jr. wrote in The Injustice and Impolity of the Slave Trade and of Slavery (1791) that ‘I conceive it [the slave trade] to be unjust in itself’ and ‘contrary to every principle of justice and humanity.’ Nathanael Emmons also denounced slavery from the pulpit. ‘Immediatism’—the demand for immediate, unconditional emancipation of all slaves, rather than gradual or partial solutions—was the socio-political correlate of Hopkins’s view of conversion and his call for ‘immediate repentance.’”

(Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash)

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Doug Wilson on R.L. Dabney

“There are those…who exclaim: ‘let us bury the dead past. Its issues are all antiquated, and of no more practical significance…’ I rejoin: Be sure that the former issues are really dead before you bury them”

R.L. Dabney, “The New South,” quoted in Doug Wilson, Black & Tan, (90).

Doug Wilson describes R.L. Dabney as one of “the men I am most indebted to philosophically.” R.L. Dabney was a southern-slaveholding Presbyterian whose white-supremacy infected the Southern Presbyterian denomination for over 100 years. (See here if you need to be reminded “What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?“) This post is an attempt to document Dabney’s influence on Wilson over the decades.

 

The 1980s and 90s

Doug’s reading log includes a number of Dabney’s works (which isn’t necessarily good or bad — so does mine). Note, however, the ratings he gives even to works like A Defense of Virginia and the South:

1980 – Sacred Rhetoric Dabney – Excellent

1984 – A Defense of Virginia & South Dabney  – Excellent

1989 – R.L. Dabney On Preaching Dabney – excellent

1992 – Westminster Confession & Creeds Dabney – excellent

In particular, Doug acknowledges that reading Dabney was influential in shaping his view of the Civil War:

I also read Dabney’s A Defense of Virginia and the South in mid-1984, and was persuaded that my previous take on the Civil War had been too facile.

Note that Sean Michael Lucas, in his excellent biography of Dabney, critiques A Defense of Virginia, demonstrating that portions of this book are “willful propaganda of the highest order and manifestly untrue.” Lucas lays out in painstaking detail how Dabney contradicts his own earlier writings in attempting to paint the southern-slavery in a positive light (See Robert Lewis Dabney: A Presbyterian Life, 117–28).

 

Southern Slavery as it Was / Black & Tan

In 1996 Doug Wilson, with Steve Wilkins, published Southern Slavery as it Was, which was subsequently pulled from publication in 2003 due to heavy plagiarism (see this World Magazine article). Since the plagiarism was restricted to Wilkin’s contribution, Doug edited the booklet, added some additional essays, and republished it in 2005 under the title Black & Tan: Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America.

Dabney is possibly the most referenced figure in Doug’s book Black & Tan, including a number of positive citations directly from A Defense of Virginia.

Again Lucas, assessing modern approaches to the Civil War that rely on Dabney’s unreliable view:

The way in which Dabney merged racial prejudice and proslavery arguments problematizes contemporary defenses of “Southern slavery as it was”; see, for an example, Wilkins and Wilson, Southern Slavery as it Was. Wilkins and Wilson depend on Dabney’s Defence of Virginia while claiming that “all forms of race hatred or racial vainglory are forms of rebellion against God” (14). This judgment appears to contradict their earlier description of Dabney as “a godly man who fought for the South” (13) as well as to complicate their use of his proslavery arguments that were deeply motivated by racial prejudice” (Robert Lewis Dabney, 159–60, n.47).

 

Doug “Repudiates(?)” Dabney’s Racism

In 2005, in response to controversy surrounding Southern Slavery as it WasDoug was asked simply and plainly to repudiate some of the most vile things that Dabney taught. He responds with equivocal and mocking answers:

Article 2. R. L. Dabney is cited favorably in the slavery booklet and its co-author Steve Wilkins is an instructor at the Dabney Center for Theological Studies in Monroe, Louisana. Dabney was a racist and condemned interracial marriage, something the Bible celebrates. Dabney also condemned the education of African Americans, something the New Testament advocated. But your neo-Confederate friends have proudly republished Dabney’s works, which have blatantly unscriptural positions?

Do you repudiate Dabney and all that he stands for? Yes or No? 

[Wilson]: No . . . wait! I meant yes!

Article 3. Your position on slavery is equivocal. As a moral absolutist you must say that it is always wrong, but your support for biblical slavery and Southern slavery implies that it depends on culture and therefore is relative. Dabney’s position is very interesting: the righteous Anglo-Saxon Christian has a duty to enslave people that cannot govern themselves. The “evil is not slavery, but the ignorance and vice in the laboring classes, of which slavery is the useful and righteous remedy. . . . (A Defense of Virginia, page 207).

a. Do you repudiate this Dabney on this point? Yes or No?

[Wilson]: What is the right answer here?

“Dabney in Full”

In 2004, Doug gave an address at his history conference devoted to Dabney. That address is included in Black & Tan as chapter 7: “Dabney in Full.” Dabney, he thinks, “lived one of the most remarkable lives ever to grace this nation” (82). In it he praises “Dabney the magnificent,” a “remarkably gifted man” (84). In this address, he does acknowledge Dabney’s “condescending racism, and a hard edge of rhetoric concerning the limited capacities of blacks” (87).  The section in this chapter is the only place I could find in all of his work which Doug acknowledges Dabney’s racism, and even here, instead of quoting Dabney, he chooses instead to cite an early example of Abraham Lincoln’s racism, and then says “let this condemnation here serve as a condemnation of this view, and any view similar to it. I condemn the racism of R.L. Dabney, of Margaret Sanger, of Abraham Lincoln, of Charles Darwin, of Louis Farrakhan, and of Ted Kennedy” (87). Doug thinks that Dabney’s bitter fight against integration his denomination “was not like him at all” (89).

In spite of all that, Wilson nevertheless considers him “virtually prophetic” on the issues of “State schools,” “American conservatism,” and his view of history (90).

The Mythological Dabney

Throughout “Dabney in Full” Doug relies on the biography of Thomas Cary Johnson: “A good source for the details of Dabney’s life is Thomas Cary Johnson, The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney” (82, n. 2). He can hardly be faulted for relying on Johnson — for 150 years this has been basically the only biography of Dabney available to us. Unfortunately, Johnson is far from an unbiased source on Dabney. They were contemporaries, ecclesial allies, and close friends. Dabney was responsible for getting Johnson hired as a professor of Hebrew and Greek at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Johnson had such a high view of Dabney that he said things like this:

“In point of intellectual energy and power we not only regard him as superior to every other man we have ever seen, but as having had no equal so far as history has had anything to say, in the whole history of Christianity in this country.”

“Dr. Dabney was a great man. We cannot tell just how great yet. One cannot see how great Mt. Blanc is while standing at its foot. One hundred years from now men will be able to see him better.”

(Johnson, “Robert Lewis Dabney: A Sketch,” in In Memorium: Robert Lewis Dabney)

In the Life and Letters, Johnson presents Dabney’s most objectionable works in a positive light:

  • Defense of Virginia and the South (273–75) – “a very able little book.”
  • “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes” (319–22) – Johnson was in favor of the speech, and glad that the Synod “rescinded the objectionable resolution [for integration with black ministers] and recommended the plan proposed by him [Dabney] to the Assembly” (321).
  • “The Negro and the Common School” and its companion works on State schools (396–400) – “These writings were informing and powerful” (399).

Johnson’s closing chapter in the Life and Letters, “Summary View of the Man and His Services,” speaks of Dabney in superlative terms at every point, presenting what I call “the mythological Dabney,” a saint-like hero to his fellow southerners:

“He was a pre-eminent preacher to preachers, and to an audience of highly intelligent people of earnest purpose” (552).

“He was the greatest teacher that most of his pupils ever knew” (553).

“Dr. Dabney won for himself a place amongst the few greatest theologians hitherto produced on the American continent” (555).

“Many of Dr. Dabney’s friends and admirers have claimed for him a nobler preeminence as a philosopher than as a theologian, and as such he seems to have been without a peer in America” (558).

“In all these phases of his life Dabney was somewhat more than a preacher, teacher, theologian, philosopher, economist, statesman, patriot, friend: he was a servant of God. That was his characteristic everywhere and always” (566).

“As a holy man, he deserves to be ranked with Augustine and Calvin, Owen and Baxter and Edwards” (567).

Johnson presents a dangerous mix – a superlative mythological view of Dabney’s greatness combined with sympathy and agreement with his most abominable racial views. Doug appears to have imbibed and passed along the myth. We can be grateful for a the fresh look at Dabney afforded by new biographies like Sean Michael Lucas’s.

 

Dabney on Education

Doug’s publishing house, Canon Press, took upon itself to republish Dabney for the modern classical and Christian education movement:

On Secular Education by R.L. Dabney was published by Canon in 1996, edited by me.

(Interested readers should see here for a couple of examples of the way Dabney’s white supremacy infected his views of education.)

 

The 2010s

In 2010, Doug was still at it, defending Dabney, alongside contemporary neo-confederates:

“This is one of the great dangers of cultural imperialism in theology. It easily leads to the suppression of voices that do not fit the accepted cultural norms for the practice of theology” (p. 92). As much as I usually differ with Franke about this sort of thing, this observation is actually quite correct. One thinks immediately of the suppressed voices of Thornwell and Dabney, and the silenced cries of contemporary writers for neo-Confederate newsletters. Oh . . . he meant other suppressed voices? Gotcha. So hard to keep this all straight.

And lest you thought his 2013 exchange with Thabiti chastened his enthusiasm for Dabney and his characterization of the South, in 2018 he is still recommending Black & Tan to a reader attempting to sort through what the Bible teaches about slavery.

 

Conclusion

Other reformed evangelicals have promoted R.L. Dabney (i.e., John MacArthur, Iain Murray / Banner of Truth). Doug Wilson, though, seems to have drunk the most deeply from this southern well, and has taken upon him the mantle that Dabney left behind.

The problem, as I see it, is that Doug seems to view Dabney’s white-supremacy as a slight but lamentable “blind spot” in an otherwise great and brilliant man. Doug wishes to keep Dabney’s revisionist and propagandistic history of the Civil War, his views on education, and his “prophetic voice” on politics and culture, as if all of these areas were not also infected with the same disease. He is happy to count Dabney among his significant influences, and it shows. A more comprehensive and clear-eyed look at Dabney, however, should give us pause before following in the steps of his present-day disciples.

“My wife desires to buy your Negro woman”

Slavery, for the Edwards, was a family affair.

George Marsden, in his biography of Jonathan Edwards, notes that his wife Sarah was herself active in perpetuating their slaveholding: “During the 1750s, Sarah Edwards was actively seeking to purchase a slave and had Jonathan ask both Joseph Bellamy… and their daughter Esther Edwards Burr… about the availability of one of theirs.” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 555 n. 5).

Ken Minkema describes it like this: “Sarah, who as regulator of the domestic sphere was probably more directly concerned in the daily oversight of the family slaves than Jonathan, aggressively searched out potential slaves, which shows that
women could take an active hand in the slave market.” (“Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” 43)

Here are the letters that document this:

Letter to Joseph Bellamy, Letter 186, Stockbridge, February 28, 1754 (available on the Yale site)

Edwards main reason for writing regards “the affair of your going to New York,” as the minister of the church. He needs more information (“I wish you had been a little more particular in your information. I desire you would write to me again as soon as possible.”) in order to help. Bellamy himself was a slaveowner, and Edwards offhandedly asks at the end, that if Bellamy indeed moved to New York, could Edwards buy his slave?

If it should finally so come to pass that you should remove to New York, my wife desires to buy your Negro woman, as she supposes she will do better for the country than the city. She will probably come along through your place some time in April, when she will talk with you about it.

 

Letter to Esther Edwards Burr, Letter 231, Stockbridge, November 20, 1757 (available on the Yale site

After thanking God for sustaining her faith after the death of her husband, Edwards writes about his pending move to Princeton. Wrapping up the letter, he talks about seeing his granddaughter, Lucy, and then offhandedly:

If you think of selling Harry, your mother desires you not to sell him, without letting her know it.

(Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

“Bad wounds must be searched to the bottom”

If any would object to exposing the sins of our theological heroes, let them hear from Jonathan Edwards himself. In his Miscellanies, he gives us a vivid picture of the depths of sin and its ugliness. Racism and slavery is a “bad wound” in the Reformed tradition that has been “skinned over” for too long and we are just starting to “lay open its core.” Indeed, each succeeding generation of Christians in America has seen this sore “break out again.” Edwards gives us great warrant for exposing–searching!–and lancing the deep, bad wounds present in his own life and theology:

635. CONVICTION. HUMILIATION.

Bad wounds must be searched to the bottom; and oftentimes when they are very deep they must be lanced, and the core laid open, though it be very painful to endure, before they can have a good cure. The surgeon may skin them over, so that it may look like a cure without this, without much hurting the patient, but it will not do the patient much good. He does but deceive him for the present, but it will be no lasting benefit to him; the sore will break out again. This figures forth to us the case of our spiritual wound. The plague of our hearts, which is great and deep and must be searched, must be lanced by painful conviction. The core must be laid open. We must be made to see that fountain of sin and corruption there is, and what a dreadful state we are in by nature, in order to a thorough and saving cure.

Jeremiah 8:11, speaking of the teachers of Israel, their prophets and priests, “They have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, peace, peace, when there is no peace.”

(Photo by Brian Patrick Tagalog on Unsplash)

“a Negro Girle named Venus aged Fourteen years or thereabout”

In 1731 Jonathan Edwards traveled to Newport, Rhode Island and bought a 14 year old girl to be his slave. Her name was Venus. You can read the full receipt on the Yale site.

KNOW ALL MEN by these presents That I Richard Perkins of Newport in the County of Newport & Colony of Rhode Island &c Marriner For & in Consideration of the Sum of Eighty pounds of lawful Current money of said Colony To me in hand well & truly paid at & before the ensealing & delivery hereof by Jonathan Edwards of Northampton… And I the said Richard Perkins do hereby bargain sell & deliver unto the said Jonathan Edwards a Negro Girle named Venus aged Fourteen years or thereabout TO HAVE & TO HOLD the said Negro girl named Venus unto the said Jonathan Edwards his heirs Execrs & Assigns and to his & their own proper Use & behoof for Ever.

I can’t help but wonder what her life had been until that point, and what she thought of white people, of her new master and his family, and of their Christianity. I wonder what trauma she had been through, and what awaited her. I wonder who her father was and where he was and what he felt, and if he prayed to the same God that Edwards did, and how God answered some of those prayers.

We have volumes writings and treatises and biographies documenting the life of Edwards. For Venus we have but a single receipt for her sale.

How long, O Lord.

 

What is bitterly ironic is that in 1750 Edwards used the receipt for her sale as paper to write a sermon on: “One Great End In God’s Appointing The Gospel Ministry.” The irony only sharpens when you read the sermon. In it, he discusses “the enjoyment of a well-instructed, faithful gospel ministry to instruct and lead God’s people.” In particular, God

has set ministers to be lights to his people that they might be stars held in Christ’s right hand, and he will make use of them at that day to clear divine truths and to refute errors, and to reclaim and correct God’s people wherein in any respect they have been mistaken and have been going out of the way of duty.”

And this:

 This is a great part of the proper work and business of ministers. It properly belongs to them to endeavor to find out the truth and to exhibit it to the people of God, to search and see whether the way they are going on in be right or no; and if they see them to be going in a wrong way,’tis their proper business to declare it to them. They are set to be shepherds of the flock of Christ, and ’tis the proper business of shepherds, when they see the flock going astray or gone astray out of the right way, to endeavor to reclaim ’em. Ministers are not to make the present or past opinions of their flocks the rule of their teaching.

The physical, tangible, material reality belies the lofty spiritual ideals, both in life and on the very paper which documents them both.

 

(This post was set in motion by a footnote in Kenneth P. Minkema, “Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” The Massachusetts Historical Review (2002): 23–59.

(Photo by Andreea Swank on Unsplash)

“A Negro Boy named Titus; Horse; Yoke of Oxen”

Jonathan Edwards’s last will and testament can be seen here:  “Jonathan Edward’s Last Will, and the Inventory of His Estate”.

Here’s what he listed under the category “Quick Stock”:

  • A Negro Boy named Titus
  • Horse
  • Yoke of Oxen
  • Yoke of Steers
  • Two Cows
  • Four D [?]
  • Two Heifers
  • One Calf
  • Six Hogs

One of these things is dramatically not like the others, namely, a human being–a boy(!)–made in the image of God. The fact that Edwards could categorize a boy alongside his animals in his will is appalling, to say the least, and indicative of a deep category error in his view of reality.

Kenneth Minkema notes the following:

“There is some evidence that he was the young son of Joab and Rose Binney, though, through a confusion of names, he could have been Joseph and Sue’s child. In either case, Titus’s continued slavery illustrates how easily free or enslaved blacks in New England could be separated from their children, even by masters who saw themselves as more Christian than others.”

(“Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” The Massachusetts Historical Review (2002), 44).

Minkema cites William Allen, An Address Delivered at Northampton, Mass (Northampton, Mass, 1855), 52 (available here).

Edwards not only owned slaves as a general category, he owned children, and he separated them from their parents. No amount of “kind treatment” on the part of a “Christian master” can make up for the trauma this would produce. I have two boys, and I seethe to imagine someone doing this to them.

 

(Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

Comparing Princeton, Edwards, and the Dutch on the Bible and Society

Mark Noll contributed a chapter to Reformed Theology in America on “The Princeton Theology.” Toward the end, he compares the theologians of Princeton with two other representatives of Reformed theology: Jonathan Edwards and the Dutch. His second point of comparison, on the Bible and society, was illuminating:

“Second, the three differed in how their approach to Scripture affected their picture of the Christian’s task in society. Princeton used the Bible to construct dogma, while it was content to accept the cultural conventions of the merchant-yeoman middle class without question. To Edwards the Bible was a resource for reflective piety, for discovering the divine and supernatural light that graciously converts the darkened heart; his absorption was so thorough on this theme that he seems to have given little thought to the late-Puritan society in which he lived. The Dutch, by contrast, almost defined themselves by their capacity to find scriptural principles for cultural formation, whether in education, politics, voluntary organizations, or economics. These varied uses of Scripture have appeared complementary in some circumstances and competitive in others” (28–29).