Robert Lewis 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.
“The Moral Character of Slavery,” April–May, 1851
The earliest record I can find of Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy is in a series of letters published in the Richmond, Enquirer in 1851. The full set of letters can be found here: “[Nine of] Eleven Letters by Chorepiscopus [Robert Lewis Dabney] to the Richmond Enquirer, on “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (1851).” Dabney later “revised, recast, and enlarged” the letters in 1863 in his Defence of Virginia, (And Through Her of the South) — on which, see below. The original letters contain some of the vilest racism in all of Dabney’s work:
But I was about to say that, in considering these supposed evils of slavery, we must remember that the real evil is the presence of three millions of half-civilized foreigners among us; and of this gigantic evil, domestic slavery is the potent and blessed cure. This foreign and semi-barbarous population was placed here by no agency of ours. The cupidity of the forefathers of American and British abolitionists placed it here, against our earnest remonstrances, and left us to find the remedy for its presence. It would have been a curse that would have paralyzed the industry, corrupted the morals, and crushed the development of any nation, thus to have an ignorant, pagan, lazy, uncivilized people intermixed with us, and spread abroad like the frogs of Egypt. The remedy is slavery. And let us ask, what has slavery done to rescue the South and the Africans in these portentous circumstances? It has civilized and christianized the Africans, and has made them, in the view of all who are practically acquainted with their condition, the most comfortable peasantry in the world. It has produced a paucity of crimes, riots and mobs, that far surpasses the ‘‘land of steady habits,” the boasted North; as is proved by the statistics of crime.— It has rendered political convulsions in our own borders impossible. It has developed a magnificent agriculture, which in spite of the burden of unequal legislation, has enabled the South to maintain a proportionate increase with its gigantic rival. A reference to the statistics of the religious denominations of the country shows that slavery has made about a half a million, one in every six of these pagan savages, a professor of Christianity. The whole number of converted pagans, now church members, connected with the mission churches of the Protestant world, is supposed to be about 191,000, a goodly and encouraging number indeed. But compare these converted pagans with the 500,000 converts from the pagan Africans among us, and we see that through the civilizing agency of domestic slavery, the much-slandered christianity of the South has done far more for the salvation of heathen men than all the religious enterprise of Protestant christendom! And this is, no doubt, but the dawn of the brighter day, which the benevolent affection of the masters will light up around the black population, if they are not interfered with by the schemes of a frantic fanaticism (“Letter 10”).
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).
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.