Banner of Truth on Dabney and the Southern Presbyterians: An Index

The following is an index of the books and articles published by Banner of Truth on the Southern Presbyterians, particularly R.L. Dabney, B.M. Palmer, and J.H. Thornwell (Eugene Genovese called Thornwell and Dabney “the South’s most formidable and influential theologians” in his A Consuming Fire, p. 4).


Southern Presbyterianism

1992 Kelly, Preachers with Power: Four Stalwarts of the South [Baker, Thornwell, Palmer, Girardeau]

2000 White, Southern Presbyterian Leaders 1683-1911 [Thornwell, Palmer, Dabney, many others]

2012 Calhoun, ‘Our Southern Zion’: Old Columbia Seminary (1828–1927) [Thornwell, Palmer, others]




1979 Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching

1980 Johnson, The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney

1982 Dabney, Discussions of R.L. Dabney, 3 Vols.

1985 Dabney, Systematic Theology


1967 Jan/Feb Murray, “R.L. Dabney of Virginia”

1967 May/Jun Murray, “Reintroducing the Best Teacher of Theology in the United States: Reprint of R.L. Dabney Discussions”

1970 Dabney, “When Morality Becomes Impossible”

1975 Dabney, “Britain: An Inverted Pyramid”

1976 Dabney, “Dabney on Preaching”

1977 Johnson, “Robert L. Dabney”

1977 Johnson, “Facing Blindness” (extract from Dabney)

1978 Wray, “Summary of Robert L. Dabney on Spurious Religious Excitements”

1986 Woods, “Dabney: Prince Among Theologians and Men”

1998 Berry, “Robert Lewis Dabney and the Westminster Standards: A Commemoration”

2015 Dabney, “The Influence of False Philosophies upon Character and Conduct”




1987 Johnson, Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer

2014 Palmer, Selected Writings of Benjamin Morgan Palmer


1987 Johnson, “Doctrine and Sanctification: Extract from The Life and Letters of Palmer”

2014 Willborn, “Selected Writings of Benjamin Morgan Palmer”

2014 Palmer, “Never Too Late”




1974 Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henry Thornwell

1986 Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henry Thornwell, 4 vols.


1965 Thornwell, “When Grace Ceases to be Grace”

1969 Thornwell, “Knowing the Divine Will”

1975 Thornwell, “Zeal for God’s Glory”

1978 Aitken, “Readings from a Covenant Father’s Heart” (from Thornwell’s Letters)


Should We Burn Dabney’s Books?

This was one of the objections I received after the article I wrote on how Dabney’s white-supremacy infected his doctrine of Providence. In the article, I said that we should “acknowledge, lament, and repudiate such toxic and deadly doctrinal distortions.” I didn’t say anything about censorship, but the reaction was shrill: “are you saying we should ban his books?!”

The question was raised again for me as I discussed Dabney with someone recently. They brought up the fact that King David was a horrible sinner (adultery, murder) and yet we read his writings in the Bible. Shouldn’t we apply the same logic to Dabney? Can’t we appreciate his good theological writings but just leave out his racism?

Don’t Whitewash

First let me say that I entirely agree that we should read books written by sinners, otherwise we wouldn’t read any books at all, even the Bible. No disagreement there. However, here are a couple of differences I see between someone like King David and the Southern Presbyterians. David’s sins are not hidden from view, but are prominently displayed, rebuked, and repented of in the Bible. In many Reformed spheres, the virulent sin of white-supremacy has not been addressed, but rather tucked away and not talked about. Even now, as some of us try to examine and repudiate these influences on our movement, there is a lot of resistance.

John Piper helpfully explains that “no one is helped when we whitewash our heroes.” The Bible doesn’t whitewash its heroes. Unfortunately, the white reformed community has whitewashed our entire theological history for a long time. I’m encouraged that this is starting to change, but there is still a lot of work to do.

I’m actually thankful that we still have all of Dabney’s writings available to read (most of them are free digitally on Google Books). If all we had were the positive quotes and references from people we respect, we would never see the real picture. We should read Dabney’s works, especially his racist white-supremacist ones, so that we actually face and begin to deal with this legacy in our camp.

Infected Theology

Here’s another difference that I see — I have no reason to believe that David’s sin influenced his theology, other than to produce repentance. There was no syncretism between “murder/adultery” and “YHWH-worship.” However, this is not the case with the Southern Presbyterians. Their racism was woven into the very foundations of their view of society, Christianity, and civilization itself. It profoundly influenced their views of ecclesiology, providence, the family, and even Christian honor and piety. It was an entire worldview, not just an isolated aberration. It’s not as simple as plucking out the racism and keeping the rest. The racism deeply influenced the rest, and I don’t think we (conservative reformed evangelicals) have dealt with this yet. I’d recommend Sean Michael Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life as a great starting point for some of these things.

On a further point, folks who love Dabney’s theology so much can avoid much of the trouble with his white-supremacy if they would skip Dabney and just go straight to Turretin.

Dabney’s systematic theology course at Union Seminary relied heavily on Turretin’s magisterial Institutes of Elenctic Theology. One student recalled that in Dabney’s theology class, Dabney would assign a topic with a set of questions and readings for the student to pursue, mainly from Turretin in Latin (Lucas, 86–87).

The structure of Dabney’s Systematic Theology followed Turretin’s Institutes fairly closely… One of the most surprising differences was that, while Turretin devoted a lengthy section to the doctrine of Scripture, Dabney did not deliver a lecture on Scriptures inspiration and authority (87).

Dabney reasoned that “revealed theology cannot be a progressive science” and cannot gain new truth. Once the Reformed faith was recovered by Calvin, Turretin, and the Westminster divines, there was no further need to innovate but rather to conserve the tradition (88).

Now, there might be problems with Turretin! But to reclaim reformed theology from white-supremacy, we need to go further back than Dabney.

Continuing Influence

One more difference: I don’t know of any movement of men who defended murder and adultery as a godly thing to do and relied on David’s example to do so. Dabney, however, is a hero to Christian white-supremacists and neo-confederates even to this day. Lucas points out how his influence “set the ‘racial orthodoxy’ of the Southern Presbyterian church for the next hundred years” (149). For that reason, I think we need to more carefully examine, disentangle, and repudiate his unbiblical racism from the rest of his theology and influence; and we can’t do any of that without first acknowledging it.

So the answer is a hearty, “no” — I don’t think we should ban (or burn) Dabney’s books. But that doesn’t mean we should necessarily buy them, quote appreciatively from them, or recommend them either. Dabney’s works preserve an important record of the deep sinfulness found in our tradition, and if we hope to live more faithfully today, we need to deal with it, not whitewash it.

(Photo by Maxim Lugina on Unsplash)

The Bible vs. Southern-Slavery: a downward hermeneutical spiral

Mark Noll wrote The Civil War as a Theological Crisis “to explain why clashes over the meaning of the Bible and the workings of providence… revealed a significant theological crisis” (6). One key element of the crisis is how, as Lincoln said, both sides “read the same Bible” but came to such opposite conclusions. In fact, the interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on slavery and its application to Southern-slavery turned into a downward spiral of reactions that pushed both sides further from the truth.

Just Open the Bible, Read it, and Believe it

One important element in the crisis was an Enlightenment induced confidence in one’s ability to easily understand the world, including the Bible: “understanding things was simple.” Our entire country, after all, was founded on truths that are “self-evident” (22).

The significance of this marriage between Christianity and the Enlightenment influenced the harsh polemical tone and the firmly drawn battle lines of the debate:

“On the one side, it bestowed great self-confidence as Americans explained the moral urgency of social attitudes and then of national policy. On the other, it transformed the conclusions reached by opponents into willful perversions of sacred truth and natural reason” (20). 

There was a foundational naivety in reading the Bible that ignored the interpretive process. Questions like “what did that word mean in its original context, and are there any important differences in my own context that would affect my understanding?” were rarely asked. The process was much more simple: “In effect: open the Bible, read it, believe it” (33).

Southern-Slavers’ Conflation and Abolitionist Reaction

One fascinating dynamic was the interplay between abolitionists and the defenders of slavery over the Bible. At the very root of the entire conflict is the confusion between what the Bible refers to as slavery, and Southern-slavery as it was actually practiced in America. When slave holders conflated the two and appealed to the Bible to defend their horrific practices, they created a stumbling-block over Biblical truth. Some abolitionists responded by simply discarding those portions of the Bible. William Garrison said this: “to discard a portion of scripture is not necessarily to reject the truth, but may be the highest obedience that one can give of his love of truth” (32). I think the warnings in Mark 9 against causing others to stumble apply squarely to the defenders of Southern-slavery:

But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me [i]to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea (Mark 9:42).

By entangling the Bible with their unbiblical system, Southern-slavers caused others to reject the Bible. Given a choice between the clear dictates of conscience and this twisting of Scripture, I can understand why the abolitionists sided with their consciences in their “love of truth.”

The Southern-Slavers’ Counter-reaction

This, of course, fueled a counter-reaction by the “Biblically orthodox” slavers: “the willingness of Garrison and a few others to favor abolitionism in place of Scripture actually worked to the advantage of those who defended slavery on the basis of Scripture.” In fact, the counter-reaction entangled the issues even more tightly: “biblical defenders of slavery were ever more likely to perceive doubt about the biblical defense of slavery as doubt about the authority of the Bible itself” (32). This is why if you read any of “the Southern divines” (as Genovese calls them) you frequently hear “abolitionism” paired with “infidelity.” Henry Van Dyke claimed: “Abolitionism leads, in multitudes of cases, and by a logical process, to utter infidelity” (32); or R.L. Dabney:

“the Word is on our side, and the teachings of Abolitionism are clearly of rationalistic origin, of infidel tendency, and only sustained by reckless and licentious perversions of the meaning of the Sacred text” (A Defense of Virginia, 21).

When abolitionists accepted the slave-holders’ false premise—that Biblical slavery is the same as Southern-slavery—and attacked slavery as an evil in itself, including a willingness to discard the Bible’s teaching on this subject, they created a very confusing situation for the “moderates.” Many of these moderates “had also grown troubled about America’s system of chattel bondage, but who were not willing to give up loyalty to Scripture” (36). The slaveholders’ conflation of the two set everyone on the wrong course.

As the hermeneutical conflict wound itself up, those in the South could encourage themselves with statements like this: “your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error — of Bible with Northern infidelity—of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism” (39). This “biblical” defense of slavery “increasingly came to look like a defense of Scripture itself” (45).

How appalling and heartbreaking that this syncretism between between Southern slave-culture and “christianity” was so thorough and so entrenched.

The Hard Work of Untangling

In this context, some of the best and most important work was the work of disentangling Southern-slavery from the Bible. Men like David Barrow, Francis Wayland, James M. Pendleton, and Taylor Lewis all worked to prove that the Bible described “a very different situation than prevailed in the South” (46). Pendleton observed that “there are points of material dissimilarity between that system and our system of slavery… it does not follow necessarily that Abraham’s servants were slaves in the American acceptation of that word” (47). Taylor Lewis argued that “‘the Patriarchal Servitude’ in ancient times was very different from the slavery found in the American South” (48). As I hope to demonstrate in another post, these “points of dissimilarity” were sharp and they were many. I take my stand with those who held both to abolitionism and to Scripture, and in fact argued for the former precisely from the latter. 

The whole complicated scenario demonstrates the importance of carefully untangling and refuting false teaching, especially when perpetrated by otherwise “orthodox” Christians. To fail in this task is to make a stumbling-block out of the Bible, and a steep barrier to Christianity. This has lamentably been the case in our country for a long time, and is still seen when people reject evangelicalism because of her entanglements with obvious wickedness. When we hear these criticisms, we should set about the important work of untangling dangerous syncretism and dismantling any elements in our presentation of Christianity that actually poison our message. White-supremacy is just one significant form of such American-syncretism.

Civil War: War and Aftermath

I realized this summer that I knew very little of substance about America’s Civil War. Louis Masur’s The Civil War: A Concise History was a fantastic primer on this part of our country’s history and reading it prompted a number of reflections on my part. (This is Part 2, reflecting on the War itself and its aftermath. See part 1 on some of the causes and background to the war).

Southern lust for war

I’ve heard the Civil War called “the war of northern aggression” but listen to this quote from the same Atlanta newspaper quoted in part 1: “let the consequences be what they may—whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms in depth with mangled bodies… the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln” (19). I had forgotten that the South actually fired the first shot of the war — on Fort Sumter. “Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs had warned against this action… ‘it puts us in the wrong. It is fatal’” (24). The south was not some innocent, passive victim of invasion. They fully played their own part in the conflict.

An easier way out

I’ve heard southern sympathizers lament that the North waged a war to end slavery that cost hundreds of thousands of lives when slavery could have been ended in some other way. Interestingly, Lincoln repeatedly offered them some other way. In 1862 “Lincoln appealed again to border-state members of Congress to adopt a plan for gradual, compensated emancipation… they had a chance to get something in return for their property.” However, they “rejected his plea” (40). I say their blame rests on their own heads.


We view the emancipation proclamation as a great act by Lincoln. I hadn’t recalled how vehemently the south reacted. Jefferson Davis called it “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man” (48). This is telling at how deeply distorted southern Christian values were.

Caving in on itself

Part of the southern states’ reason for seceding from the Union was over states’ rights (namely, the right to own slaves). They resented the “tyrannical” federal government telling them what to do. But in order for the confederacy to work together in the war, it needed to have a centralized organized government (what could possibly go wrong?) “States’ rights ideologues, who believed that the reason for secession was to escape a tyrannical centralized government, were increasingly reluctant to comply with the Confederate government’s demands, essential though they were to waging war effectively” (49). You reap what you sow. Eventually the southern governors “resisted Davis’s call for men and material” (63). The separatist impulse that started the war also helped lose the war.

Racial violence in the North

The country was founded on white supremacy, and even at the time of the war the entire country was still white supremacist. The South expressed it through slavery, but the North did it in other ways. I had never heard of the New York City Draft Riots in 1863. People were angry that “they had to compete for jobs with free blacks, whose numbers they believed would only grow with emancipation. The rioters overwhelmed the police and let loose on the black community a wave of horrific racial violence. They burned buildings, including the Colored Orphan Asylum, and lynched more than a dozen blacks, stringing them up from lamp posts” (56). Nearly everyone was white supremacist in the 1850s.

White Supremacy in the Union Army

Black soldiers fought in the Union army, but they suffered at the hands of white supremacy even there. They “suffered the taunts of white soldiers… Prejudice against them meant not only skepticism about their ability to fight but also harsher punishments and unequal treatment. They served in segregated units commanded by white officers and received less pay than white soldiers” (58). One incident reminds me of the of the later plea from the civil rights era: “ain’t I a man?” A soldier wrote directly to the president: “we have done a Soldier’s duty. Why can’t we have a Soldier’s pay?” (58). White supremacy was ubiquitous and systemic.

“But slavery ended 150 years ago”

I’ve heard some people say, “slavery ended so long ago, so why is race still an issue?” Well, it did, and it didn’t. After Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson became president. Johnson “supported state’s rights generally. A former slaveholder, he also shared in the dominant racial ideology [i.e., white supremacy] of his day” (80). Johnson opposed a measure that would give blacks the right to vote. Southern states passed laws that “forbade blacks from serving on juries, stipulated harsher punishments for crimes than those given to whites, and outlawed interracial marriage” (82). Johnson vetoed a bill that would have continued the Freedman’s Bureau devoted to helping blacks. He also vetoed a civil rights bill passed by Congress. Not just in the south, but in even in northern states like Ohio and Minnesota “black men in the North could not vote any more than freed slaves in the South” (85). Did slavery itself end? Sure, but as one Southern lawyer said, “Blacks have freedom in name, but not in fact” (89).

The problem is that slavery went away, but white supremacy didn’t, and it found other ways of effectively oppressing black people that would linger on far longer, even to this day.

(Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash)

Civil War: Causes

I realized this summer that I knew very little of substance about America’s Civil War. Louis Masur’s The Civil War: A Concise History was a fantastic primer on this part of our country’s history and reading it prompted a number of reflections on my part. This is Part 1, reflecting on some of the causes and background to the war. Part 2 will focus on the War itself and its aftermath.

Longstanding American Hypocrisy

The southern states “saw themselves as upholding the principle on which the American Revolution had first been fought: opposition to remote, tyrannical authority” (1). The same bitter irony runs through both time periods. The founders of our country complained about “tyranny” and fought for “freedom” from a three penny tea tax, all the while holding slaves in actual bondage. Frederick Douglass articulates this marvelously in his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” The southern states similarly complained against the “tyrannical authority” of the federal government while exercising their own tyrannical authority over their slaves. In the run-up to Lincoln’s first election, an Atlanta newspaper claimed “the south will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln” (19), all the while subjecting their slaves to daily humiliation and degradation. The hypocrisy here is glaring.

America’s Founding was White Supremacist

White supremacy didn’t just appear out of nowhere in 1850 in Mississippi—it was woven into the fabric of our country from the beginning. “Thomas Jefferson, one of many slaveholding founders, struggled at times over what to do about the institution [of slavery]… he believed that blacks were innately inferior to whites (“the difference is fixed in nature” he would write)” (3). Or takes the famous Patrick Henry who proclaimed “give me liberty or give me death!” while denying liberty to slaves, and wanted the right to own slaves written into the constitution itself. “Henry asked why a clause was ‘omitted to secure us that property in slaves which we held now’” (4). However, the constitution did get a clause regarding fugitive slaves:

No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due. (Article 4, Section 2).

America was a white supremacist country from the very beginning, and it even made its way into our founding documents. “All men” did not really include all men in the original intent of the writers. When the U.S. Supreme court considered the Dred Scott vs. Sanford case in 1857, their understanding of the rights in the constitution meant that “as a slave he was not a citizen and had ‘no rights which the white man was bound to respect’” (17). “Rights” were for white men only, and this was consistently since the very beginning.

Slavery the foundation of Southern society

I’ve heard some people idealize some aspects of south society and culture, as if slavery can be treated in isolation from the rest of society. Just ignore their racism and slaveholding, but keep the parts that were good. However, slavery was woven into the very foundation of southern society, their views of the family, the economy, the political order, and the ordered structure of reality itself. John Calhoun claimed that “slavery was a ‘positive good…the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions” (7). For Calhoun, you can’t separate politics/states’ rights from slavery. The latter is the foundation of the former. The very identity of southerners was formed around slavery: “A racial ideology built around white supremacy united slaveholders and nonslaveholders and provided Southern states with a common identity” (7).


At the bottom of it all was money. The “Southern aristocracy was reaping untold wealth from the production of cotton for export” (8). This is where the phrase “cotton is king” comes from. Cotton was such an important product in the north and back in Europe that the south felt secure from any threats: “You dare not make ware on cotton… No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king” (8). The north and  those in Europe enjoyed the fruits of slave labor in cheap cotton, while opposing slavery. To be consistent, perhaps they should have changed their consumption habits and not turned a blind eye to where their cotton came from.


Not every family in the south owned slaves, but those who owned the most slaves had the most power, and used their power to keep slavery the way they wanted it. “The members of the planter elite owned twenty or more slaves, and while they accounted for just 3 percent of all white families, they exercised disproportionate political power and among themselves owned more than half of all slaves” (9) Even those who didn’t own slaves shared in the same system of values and worldview: “Two thirds of Southerners were non-slaveholding farmers—yeoman—but they identified their interests, as well as their dreams of upward mobility, with the slaveholding elite” (9). The south wielded their power not just in the individual states but also in Congress. At one point there was a “gag rule” that “banned discussion of antislavery petitions” from even taking place (10). Money and power created a deep stronghold keeping slavery in existence, and they were not going to give this up easily.


“Territorial expansion” was an important factor in pushing the country to the brink of war. With the balance of power between slave-states and free-states so tightly balanced, adding new states would upset the balance one way or the other if not done carefully. What stands out to me here is how greed and injustice has ripple effects. The story of westward expansion is a story of greed for land and resources that resulted in violent and dishonest stealing from the Natives (see The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, for example). “The desire for territory remained insatiable” and Americans spread west under the banner of “manifest destiny.” This was a key factor in disrupting the delicate balance between states, and eventually led to war (10). Various kinds of evils are all deeply intwined.

(see part 2)

(Photo by Trisha Downing on Unsplash)

Observations on “Some Observations on William Carey’s Bible Translations”

H.L. Richard has just published a new article on the flaws in William Carey’s Bible translations in the International Bulletin of Mission Research: “Some Observations on William Carey’s Bible Translations,” (241–250). Here’s the abstract:

William Carey’s historic role in Bible translation is widely recognized. That Carey’s actual translations were of an inadequately low quality is not so widely known. This article, while not undermining Carey’s importance as a pioneer, points out five reasons why Carey’s translations were never widely used. Modern understandings of translation inform this paper, and Carey’s historical context explains many of his weaknesses. Not only is this article historical, but it concludes with the modern repercussions of inadequate Bible translations, calling for new translations in all major India languages that focus on people outside the church.

It’s a helpful and thought provoking article, and here are a few reflections.

First, it’s a helpful corrective to my perception of Carey. I had often been amazed and wondered how he translated the Bible into so many languages. It seemed too good to be true, and seemed to set a high and unrealistic bar for missionaries and Bible translators. Missionaries should certainly aspire to “attempt great things for God,” but must also be realistic. We are finite creatures, and if we try “to do too much” (shortcoming #3), we may not succeed in doing it well.

Shortcoming #1 was Carey’s “limited linguistic knowledge.” This is partly a produce of his time and the shortcomings of European studies of linguistics in general, but it is a factor nonetheless. Richard points out some specific aspects of this weakness, including assumptions about the development of Indian languages and their reliance on Sanskrit, assumptions which have since been shown to be false. The result was translations that were “strange and incomprehensible” (244).

Shortcoming #2 on “India’s undeveloped regional languages” mostly raised questions for me. The problem here was that “the vernacular languages in India during his time had not yet been standardized” (244). I wonder what can even be done about that? Perhaps there should be a concurrent effort to publish a variety of indigenous works alongside the Bible in order to “develop” the literary use of the language and move the language toward more stable footing?

The article made me interested to learn more about William Ward — “the best missiologist among the Serampore trio” (245). I know a bit about Carey, next to nothing about Ward.

Shortcoming #4 explores the “failings of the assistants.” Not that they were incompetent language helpers, but intercultural dynamics and the complexities of their relationship resulted in flattery (“this is perfect!”) rather than honest feedback and criticism.

I feel a little bit of tension regarding point #5 “Misplaced focus on words and word order.” As an American evangelical who holds to verbal plenary inspiration, I have a predisposition that the words do matter. But I realize that translation is much more complex and nuanced than a 1/1 code of word for word, or even phrase for phrase. This is an undeveloped area of thought for me. This tension reminds me of that articulated by John Piper (he got it from Andrew Walls) between imposing foreign categories and adopting indigenous categories: “Don’t aim to preach only in categories of thought that can be readily understood by this generation. Aim at creating biblical categories of thought that are not present.” I wonder to what degree this applies to syntax and even words as well as theological categories. There is give and take between languages in the process of translation. Even our English translations contain transliteration. However, it is helpful to be reminded of the ditch on the side of an over-emphasis on words at the cost of meaning.

In his conclusion Richard describes how a new language was created by Carey’s translations, what is called “Christian Bengali” (247). Such a language is fine for those who use it (they even take pride in it), but creates a barrier to evangelizing anyone outside the linguistic bubble. I’ve seen a similar dynamic in English among those who use the KJV exclusively. I personally found the archaic language a significant barrier to evangelism and discipleship which was an important factor in my switch to NKJV a few years ago.

Anyway, tolle lege! This is a great article. Thanks to Dr. Travis Myers for bringing it to my attention.

(Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash)

The Undercover Revolution: A Review

Iain Murray, The Undercover Revolution (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009)

It has been noted by other reviewers that Murray utterly fails to substantiate his claim regarding “the influence of fiction upon society” (vii). He claims that fiction is the reason why “Christianity is a thing of the past for most people in Britain today” (3), and that “books were the main means by which it came about” (4).

I bought and read this book because Robert Louis Stevenson was reported to be treated prominently, and as I find Stevenson’s fiction to be delightful and profound, I wondered what dangers Murray found in it. Though he has an entire chapter devoted to Stevenson and a few reflections in a later chapter on him, in all of it Murray gives not a single example of Stevenson’s fiction producing the effects he claims.

Instead, he focuses on Stevenson’s personal life, and his rejection of the strict Scottish Calvinism of his parents, and indeed of Christianity itself. Having recently finished a full length biography of Stevenson, I can attest that this is all true, but really beside the point, if the point is that his fiction is what did the damage to Britain.

Further, I’m afraid Murray’s treatment of Stevenson is a bit unfair in places. In one place he quotes W.E. Henley’s criticism of RLS as “incessantly and passionately interested in Stevenson,” i.e. highly self-absorbed (66). However, a look at the context of their relationship reveals a disgruntled Henley, extremely bitter over a perceived slight on the part of Stevenson’s wife, and perhaps a long-standing jealousy. Is a quote from Henley following a major falling-out really a fair way to portray Stevenson? Hardly a reliable perspective.

As a way to prove a point, Murray points out that “the last three years of Stevenson’s life were deeply unhappy” (69). However, knowing the context again elicits compassion rather than victorious comparisons. Stevenson’s wife suffered from mental illness and her behavior was a source of deep trouble for RLS. Nevertheless, he stayed with her to the end, and did his best to accommodate her. Stevenson’s physical ailments also were a source of pain, and his poor diet and alcohol and tobacco consumption didn’t help either. I read the same biography that Murray quoted from here, and my reaction was the opposite.

His personal life aside, I actually think the opposite is true of Stevenson’s fiction. He explores the complexities of human nature, of relationships, and of our experiences of good and evil in ways unlike any other writer. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the most famous treatment, but The Master of BallantraeKidnappedThe Black Arrow, even the boyish Treasure Island and the much maligned (but a personal favorite) Prince Otto all push the reader to wrestle with a reality which is often more messy than our preferred idealized constructions. Stevenson makes you feel like few other writers to, and I think his fiction should be welcome to a thoughtful Christian, contrary to Murray’s (unsubstantiated) claims.