On Censoring Dabney and Denying “Sola Fide”

Shortly after my article on R.L. Dabney was published at Desiring God (Providence Is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist), Taylor Sexton wrote a response at his blog (“Racism, White Confederate Theologians, and Justification by Faith Alone). Unfortunately, I just discovered it earlier this week, and thought it was worth responding to.

I’ve never met Taylor, but I suspect we have quite a bit in common, and I’m guessing we’d get along quite well. I’m really grateful for the time and thought he put into engaging my post, and I think we actually agree on a large number of things. In fact, I think that his largest criticisms are based on a misunderstanding of what I wrote, and the responsibility for that lies with me for not being more clear.

So with that in mind, I’d like to try to clarify some things in an effort to either remove any disagreement, or help us see more exactly where it lies.

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”?

Taylor’s first “issue” with the article is with this sentence: “for those of us who are white, Reformed, American Christians, eulogies to King sound hollow while the echoes of white supremacy still haunt our halls.” He interprets me as positing a catch-22: “when white people are silent about racism, they are racists; when they speak out about it, they are ‘hollow.’”

I’d like to clarify this point. Notice that I mentioned a specific kind of activity eulogies to Kingand not “speaking about racism” in general. I also had in mind another kind of hypocritical activity, namely, criticisms of King and/or his theology. I actually think that there is plenty of work to be done by white people in fighting against racism and dismantling white-supremacy in evangelical spaces and institutions, but there are also plenty of superficial and hypocritical ways of going about it. On MLK Jr. Day especially, it’s easy to talk about King and avoid the more difficult, controversial, but utterly necessary work. Daniel Hill captures this point well in his book White Awake: “Dismantling white supremacy trumps the seeking of diversity.” Until we directly confront white supremacy in our midst, everything else will sound hollow — eulogies of King, criticisms of King, praising diversity, etc. Once we’ve removed the plank in our own eye, we’ll see more clearly  in order to have constructive conversations on this issue. I’m not calling for “white silence,” I’m calling for us to be vocal in calling out white-supremacy—that’s why I wrote the article!

“Where, exactly, have I ‘afflicted atrocious injustice’ on anyone”?

The next sentence that Taylor takes issues with is this one: “Just because we embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean we have not afflicted atrocious injustice on our fellow human beings.” He asks: “Where, exactly, have I ‘afflicted atrocious injustice’ on anyone?”

Here, I think, Taylor makes a fair criticism. This sentence reads like a blanket and imprecise accusation.

To be completely honest, that’s actually not what I originally wrote. I went back and forth with the editors at DG a couple of times, and the last draft I submitted contained this sentence: “Just because you embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean you won’t also inflict atrocious injustice on your fellow human being.” I stand by that sentence. Unfortunately, simply changing “you” to “we” and “won’t also inflict” to “haven’t also inflicted” completely alters the sense. I wouldn’t have signed off on the sentence the way it was published, and I can’t defend it. Oh, the difference that person, number, and tense can make!

Taylor’s right — rather than an aid to precise analysis, that sentence became a stumbling block and a distraction to my real point.

Should we censor Dabney’s books?

This was a common reaction to the article, and I actually wrote an entire post addressing it (Should we Burn Dabney’s Books?). Taylor, though, takes it to another level by turning it into a question about justification by faith alone. Here I think he missed my point entirely.

He first asks the question: “why does this author feel the need to comment on the fact that Dabney’s books are still being printed, sold, read, and even quoted?”

I felt the need to mention it in order to support the claim I made in the preceding sentence. Here’s how it reads together: “Robert Dabney’s influence has not disappeared in Reformed circles. His books are still being repackaged, reprinted, and sold.” I anticipated a certain reaction, namely, “why are you talking about an irrelevant old dead guy from 150 years ago that no one has ever even heard of?” (In fact, I did receive this response numerous times; see: Social Justice Dung and other thoughts on Dabney). I mentioned the fact that his books are still being reprinted (and recommended at big conferences) in order to support the claim that “his influence has not disappeared.”

Taylor goes on: “This author has an underlying premise… that the very fact we are printing, selling, and reading Dabney’s works means we are in reality supporting everything he taught and believed.”

Actually, I don’t believe that, and I didn’t say that. I’ve never thought that. In fact, I’ve resisted the opposite accusation whenever someone impugns a blanket accusation of “abandoning the gospel for Marxism” whenever someone appropriates a few genuine Marxist insights.

Taylor: “It might even be sinful to buy his works! …why else would the author express concern about someone’s writings merely being ‘sold’?”

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Oh dear — I sure hope it’s not sinful to buy Dabney’s books, otherwise I’m the chief of sinners!

My point in mentioning that his books are still printed and sold was not so much to express “concern” as to to prove “continuing influence.”

Taylor, though, sees a “refusal to think that anything he had to say was God-honoring.” Perhaps I’ve even implicitly denied “justification by faith alone” as the title of the post suggests. Given that his premise doesn’t fit (I never called for any kind of “censorship” let alone the “blatant” kind) I’d submit that none of the rest of the charges stick either.

Unfortunately, though Taylor quoted my paragraph in full, he never addressed my main concern: “He is still quoted in our own books without caveat or qualification.”

Note carefully: my concern is not that “he is still quoted in our own books.” My concern is that for an entire generation of Reformed American Christians, we have done so “…without caveat or qualification.” That’s the issue. White supremacy long unchecked, unexposed, and unaddressed.

Was Dabney even a Christian?

Taylor correctly notes that I “made no assertion of the sort.” In fact, he thinks that to question Dabney’s salvation would amount to “legalism.”

I didn’t say it in the article because I didn’t even think about it at the time. However, I’ve read quite a bit of Dabney since then, and I do want to go on record saying that I think that’s actually a very good question. While I pray that I will see Dabney in the new heavens and new earth, I personally do not have utmost confidence in his salvation. Dabney persisted in unrepentant sin until the end of his life, which Paul warns desperately against. He bitterly resisted all attempts to raise the social and ecclesial status of black Christians until the end of his life, even when he was a lonely minority in a changing south. He persuaded an entire denomination to discriminate against and segregate black Christians and thus caused a division in Christ’s church that lasted over 100 years. For these sins, Dabney would be excommunicated from any self-respecting Gospel church today. Given that this never happened in his own day, I don’t know whether it might have been used to bring him to repentance, and I can’t pass any final judgment. I will say, though, that given the evidence we have, it doesn’t look good.

Even if he was genuinely saved, I consider him utterly unqualified for the office of a teacher in the church, and I don’t intend to treat him like one. None of his “impeccable Reformed theology” or vaunted reputation changes this in my opinion, it only serves to heighten his hypocrisy. There’s a difference between saying “we should censor his books!” and “we shouldn’t treat him as a ‘great teacher’ in the church.”

What about Jonathan Edwards?

Taylor thinks that not mentioning Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding was “an unfortunate omission from Desiring God, who is the primary popular venue by which Edwards’s theology and philosophy is spread.” He later says “the standard is never applied fairly; e.g., Jonathan Edwards as mentioned above.”

I’m not really sure what Taylor is talking about here. John Piper and Desiring God have addressed Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding numerous times over the years in podcast episodes, articles, videos,  book chapters, and again in a recent Q&A.

I’m not sure what kind of “unfortunate omission” Taylor is talking about. On the other hand, until my article, Dabney’s racism had never been treated at DG even though his books had been recommended on their site and quoted in Pastor John’s books. I’m grateful that they were willing to publish my article, but it’s really no surprise if you know Pastor John and his track record of leaning hard into these issues. 

Dabney’s life and legacy

I can’t tell from reading the post how familiar Taylor actually is with Dabney’s life and legacy. He references a biographical message by Iain Murray, but unfortunately that message is an utter white-wash—not just of Dabney’s white-supremacy, but of the civil war, and southern slavery itself.

Taylor admits that he isn’t sure whether Dabney defended “the American form of slavery, or the idea of slavery in general.” The answer is “both” and he used the latter to do the former. This could be cleared up by reading Dabney own words, or a clear-eyed biography (like Sean Michael Lucas’s). In fact, I suspect that a large part of the reason we’ve approached this differently is because of the different kinds of exposure we’ve had to his vile ideology. It grieves me, it makes me sick to my stomach to read some of Dabney’s addresses, and sicker still think that his racist influence infected Reformed American Christians for over 100 years. I don’t hear those same notes of lament in Taylor’s post, and it makes me wonder if he’s really looked Dabney’s sin as squarely in the eye as it ought to be. The fact that he describes himself in another post as ”an enthusiast about the Southern Presbyterian and Reformed pastors and theologians during the nineteenth century (e.g., Dabney, Thornwell, Girardeau, etc.)” makes me wonder if he’s really looked as long and hard as he should.

Hopefully this puts to rest what I think are some misunderstandings of my position and sets us up to discuss any that remain. This is the kind of work we need to engage in–wrestling hard with the legacy of Reformed white-supremacy and what we should do about it.

(Photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash)

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What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?

R.L. Dabney has been so thoroughly whitewashed in reformed evangelical circles that it comes as a surprise when he is criticized for his virulent white-supremacy. The whitewashed version of Dabney started with his close friend and first biographer Thomas Cary Johnson, and was passed along to reformed evangelicals by Iain Murray  (see here, for example) and Banner of Truth publishers. He was then picked up by men like John MacArthur, who gave him unqualified recommendation for over 38 years.

What could possibly be so bad about Dabney? I suspect that very few people have actually read for themselves the kinds of things Dabney said. If they had, I simply cannot imagine them giving him the kind of praise that they have.

Before anyone accuses me of over-reacting to Dabney, or making a mountain out of a molehill, I simply ask you to read for yourself a handful of articles. These are all available for free in the public domain. You can find them on Google Books or on archive.org. I’ve uploaded pdfs of each relevant chapter or address. If you haven’t faced Dabney’s racism and white-supremacy for yourself, you simply cannot make an accurate assessment of his life and legacy. If you only have time to read one, read “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes.” If you have time for a second, read “The Negro and the Common School.” Read it all if you really want to know how abhorrent his teaching and influence has been.

 

Letter to Major General Howard, Oct 21, 1865 (pdf here)

In 1865 Dabney wrote a letter to the Chief of the Freedman’s Bureau which was formed to help former black slaves in the aftermath of the civil war. The Letter is a mixture of a rosy white-washed picture of southern slavery, irony and sarcasm when confessing the South’s “inferiority” to the North, and a concluding section on the challenges of helping African-Americans:

“One of your difficulties is in the thriftlessness of the Africans themselves, and their want of intelligent foresight; a trait which was caused, not by domestic servitude, but by the savage condition from which they were taken, and which we had partially corrected when they were taken out of our hands” (41).

“The larger part of them evidently confound liberty with license; and to them, liberty means living without earning a living” (42).

“You have this task then, gently to educate them out of this innocent mistake of Stealing everything which comes to their hand” (43).

“You, sir, are appointed to do what no other mortal has hitherto done successfully: to transmute four millions of slaves, of an alien race and lower culture, all at once into citizens, without allowing them to suffer or deteriorate on your hands” (44).

Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes, Nov. 9, 1867 (pdf here)

This one address encapsulates everything that is wrong with Dabney. Not only was he a white-supremacist, but he influenced his entire Southern Presbyterian denomination in this speech to not grant equality in the church to black preachers. Thus, to the sin of racial animosity, we can add the sin of dividing Christ’s church, and that of influencing many others to stumble. This is Paul and Peter, Galatians 1 territory. Ironically, Dabney quotes Galatians 1 in this address, getting the sense exactly opposite. In Dabney’s surreal version, he himself is Paul, and those arguing for racial equality are Peter.

The effect of this speech was powerful in the Presbyterian assembly. Sean Michael Lucas notes that this speech “turned the tide against racial equality in the Southern Presbyterian church… and set the ‘racial orthodoxy’ of the Southern Presbyterian church for the next hundred years” (Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 148–49). The whole thing is really vile, and I urge readers to read it for themselves or they will be incapable of making an honest assessment of Dabney. Here are a few excerpts:

“an insuperable difference of race, made by God and not by man, and of character and social condition, makes it plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification” (201)

“I greatly doubt whether a single Presbyterian negro will ever be found to come fully up to that high standard of learning, manners, sanctity, prudence, and moral weight and acceptability which our constitution requires” (202).

“Now, who that knows the negro does not know that his is a subservient race; that he is made to follow, and not to lead; that his temperament, idiosyncrasy and social relation make him untrustworthy as a depository of power?” (203–4).

“Our brethren, turning heart-sore and indignant from their secular affairs, where nothing met their eye but a melancholy ruin, polluted by the intrusion of this inferior and hostile race, looked to their beloved church for a little repose. There at least, said they, is one pure, peaceful spot not yet reached by this pollution and tyranny” (205).

“Every hope of the existence of the church and of state, and of civilization itself, hangs upon our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of negro suffrage” (205)

“These tyrants know that if they can mix the race of Washington and Lee and Jackson with this base herd which they brought from the fens of Africa, if they can taint the blood which hallowed the plains of Manassas with this sordid stream, the adulterous current will never again swell a Virginian’s heart with a throb noble enough to make a despot tremble… We have before our eyes the proof and illustration of the satanic wisdom of their plan.” (206)

 

A Defense of Virginia and the South, 1867 (pdf here)

Dabney wrote a 350 page defense of slavery, in which he claimed that the Bible supported the slavery and that only infidels and unbelievers disagreed. See here for an assessment of his treatment of the book of Philemon. Sean Michael Lucas offers an insightful analysis of the book on pages 117–128 of his biography of Dabney, which I highly recommend. Portions of this book are “willful propaganda of the highest order and manifestly untrue.” It’s astonishing to me that Doug Wilson calls this work of Dabney’s “excellent.”

“for the African race, such as Providence has made it, and where he has placed it in America, slavery was the righteous, the best, yea, the only tolerable relation” (25).

“domestic slavery here has conferred on the unfortunate black race more true well-being than any other form of society has ever given them” (261).

“On the Civil Magistrate” in Systematic Theology, 1871 (pdf here)

But racism doesn’t affect theology, right? No, Dabney’s white supremacy even made it into his systematic theology:

Thus, if the low grade of intelligence, virtue, and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare, and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. (869)

The State Free School System, April 22, 1876 (pdf here)

Here Dabney repeats arguments that he made frequently before about slavery as a “true education” fitting for the condition of the African, and wields it to oppose public-schools in Virginia:

“So, our own country presents an humbler instance in the more respectable of the African freedmen. Tens of thousands of these, ignorant of letters, but trained to practical skill, thought, and resource, by intelligent masters, and imitating their superior breeding and sentiments, present, in every aspect, a far “higher style of man” than your Yankee laborer from his common school, with his shallow smattering and purblind conceit, and his wretched newspaper stuffed with moral garbage from the police-courts, and with false and poisonous heresies in politics and religion. Put such a man in the same arena with the Southern slave from a respectable plantation, and in one week’s time the ascendancy of the Negro, in self-respect, courage, breeding, prowess and practical intelligence, will assert itself palpably to the Yankee and to all spectators. The
slave was, in fact, the educated man” (250).

The Negro and the Common School, 1876 (pdf here)

Dabney goes even further in his attacks against the notion of educating the newly freed slaves in his letter to the editor of the Farmer and Planter:

“The tenor of the argument concedes, what every man, not a fool, knows to be true: that the negroes, as a body, are now glaringly unfit for the privilege of voting. What makes them unfit? Such things as these: The inexorable barrier of alien race, color, and natural character, between them and that other race which constitutes the bulk of Americans: a dense ignorance of the rights and duties of citizenship: an almost universal lack of that share in the property of the country, which alone can give responsibility, patriotic interest and independence to the voter: a general moral grade so deplorably low as to per- mit their being driven or bought like a herd of sheep by the demagogue: a parasitical servility and dependency of nature, which characterizes the race everywhere, and in all ages: an al- most total lack of real persevering aspirations: and last, an obstinate set of false traditions, which bind him as a mere serf to a party, which is the born enemy of every righteous interest of our State” (178–79).

“What is called ‘impartial suffrage’ is, however, permitted by their new Constitution. We should at once avail ourselves of that permission, and without attempting any discrimination on grounds of “race, color, or previous condition of bondage,” establish qualifications both of property and intelligence for the privilege of voting. This would exclude the great multitude of negroes…” (187).

Conclusion

Everyone has blind spots. Even our most beloved heroes have feet of clay. However, what should we do when the whole thing is filled with clay? When the blind spot becomes large enough to divide an entire denomination for over 100 years? We need unequivocally repudiate it, lament and ask forgiveness for our unqualified endorsement of such a man, and then rethink whether we ever want to do so again. We can’t even start this process until we see for ourselves what’s really there.