“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 Douglas Wilson, Black & Tan, (90).
Douglas 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
Wilson’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, Wilson 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 Douglas Wilson published Southern Slavery as it Was, co-authored with Steve Wilkins, then a board member of the League of the South(!). The booklet 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, Wilson 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 Wilson’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).
Wilson “Repudiates(?)” Dabney’s Racism
In 2005, in response to controversy surrounding Southern Slavery as it Was, Wilson 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, Wilson 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 Wilson 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). Wilson 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” Wilson 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. Douglas Wilson 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
Wilson’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.)
In 2010, Wilson 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.
Other reformed evangelicals have promoted R.L. Dabney (i.e., John MacArthur, Iain Murray / Banner of Truth). Douglas 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 Wilson seems to view Dabney’s white-supremacy as a slight but lamentable “blind spot” in an otherwise great and brilliant man. Wilson 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.