“Worse than Questionable”: Commentary on Dabney’s 1851 Letters on Slavery

In April and May 1851, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898), a Presbyterian pastor in Tinkling Spring, Virginia, published eleven letters in the Richmond Enquirer on “The Moral Character of Slavery”:

Dabney, “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (April–May, 1851)

For a historical (and historiographical) introduction to the letters see Part 1 here: “[Nine of] Eleven Letters by Chorepiscopus [Robert Lewis Dabney] to the Richmond Enquirer, on “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (1851).” This post contains brief commentary on each of the nine letters.

Letter 1

The reception of the letters is interesting. The editors of the Enquirer clearly think that Dabney’s arguments, “if circulated and studied, must do much to pierce the film of prejudice and error, and strengthen the bulwarks of Southern Rights.” Dabney was no minor figure in 19th century Virginia, he had influence in both the sacred and the secular sphere. Second, it is interesting that Dabney explicitly repudiates the common Southern sentiment that “slavery is a regrettable but unavoidable necessity” and instead posits a strong and unapologetic “slavery is righteous, just, benevolent, and above all, Biblical.” Dabney saw that arguing for slavery from the Bible was “profitable” and “safe” and would give them a “great advantage.” Nevertheless, it is interesting that even here, he can’t help but acknowledge that things would have to change (which, history demonstrates, they never did): 

“but slaveholders must pay something for all these striking advantages of the discussion; and the tribute which they must pay, is to grant to the slave those rights which are inalienable to humanity—a just and humane treatment, the right of serving his Creator, and those domestic privileges which God gave to all men, when he placed them in families. If we represent slavery as a thing which necessarily includes the overthrow of the slave’s right to life, and of his moral, religious, and marital rights, then we make it a thing indefensible; for these things are a part of that essential humanity, of which no human being can be rightfully deprived.—If we make our institution a something which secures these rights to the slave, then it is defensible: and the victory is ours! To secure these inalienable rights of humanity to the slave, we invoke, not so much legislation, though perhaps a prudent legislation might ameliorate some things, as conscience, justice, and mercy.” 

Note the conditional “if we make our institution” more just “then it is defensible.” But even here, he shies away from legislating any of these changes. Exactly how the institution would so fundamentally change, Dabney never shows, he merely hypothesizes.

Letter 2

Dabney makes a great point here for “immediate emancipation”: if slavery is sinful, it ought to cease at once, no dabbling around the edges with “gradualism”: 

If I did not believe that the bible taught this, I must, in consistency, be a thorough abolitionist. I cannot see how men can say in one breath, that slavery is a malum per se and in the next, that a conscientious man may lawfully continue it for the present, because of the difficulties of emancipation. My conscience and my bible teach me that, if an act is wrong, in its own essential nature, sin, I am to cease it at once. I have no right to look at the supposed evil consequences or difficulties of the reformation. God has not told us that we are to love his law when convenience and safety permit; he has told us that if we do not love it in preference to convenience, profit, and life itself, we cannot be his disciples. Consequences belong to God, duty belongs to us. What would be the thought of the man, who should plead that he ought not to cease living in an adulterous connexion, because a change would be dangerous and inconvenient?—Would not you answer, “unless you cease that connexion at every risk, you are an immoral man?” So, in answer to all the pictures of the mischiefs which emancipation would bring on master and slave, if I believed that slavery were, in its own abstract nature, malum per se, I should be compelled to answer in the words of the well known maxim : Fiat justitia, ruat cælum!

These words could have come from the pen or mouth of William Lloyd Garrison, apart from the very first conditional.

I should note that Dabney’s entire edifice of Old Testament argument hangs on identifying Southern slavery with what is described in the Bible with the Hebrew word עבד (“abad”), an utter lexical fallacy that shows up in his reasoning. Here’s one example: 

An attempt has been made to parry this, and other Old Testament arguments for the lawfulness of slavery, by asserting that the slaves of the Hebrews were only hired. This assertion is only good to display the ignorance of those who make it. A truly learned and honest anti-slavery man, such as the venerable Moses Stuart, would blush to employ it.—All antiquity proves that these servants were slaves for life. They were “bought for money.” They were denoted by one certain Hebrew word, while an entirely different word was employed to denote a hired servant, and was never used interchangeably with the former.

Unfortunately for Dabney, this is easily disproved. עבד is the Hebrew word Dabney claims “was never used interchangeably” with the word for a hired servant. However, in Genesis 29 Jacob עבד Laban his uncle. He does not עבד for nothing, but his service includes specific terms and wages (Gen 29:15, 18, 20, 25). When this agreement is broken, Jacob is angry that he has been deceived (Gen 29:25). The terms are updated. When the time period is complete, Jacob demands to leave along with his “wages” (Gen 30:26, 29). (For a thorough outline on the uses of עבד in the Pentateuch, see “עבד: “work/service/slavery” in the Torah”). This foundational error in Dabney’s exegetical framework leaves his entire argument on unsustainable ground.

Letter 3

In this letter, Dabney attempts to draw strong continuity between the Old Covenant laws and the New Covenant Christian. As a Baptist, I already reject much of the fundamental framework of continuity that Dabney starts with. Nevertheless, in terms of the Old Testament ethics, Dabney claims that “if we find any particular thing sanctioned, or enjoined, in these peculiar, civil, or ceremonial institutions of Moses, it does not prove that thing to be binding on us, or necessarily politic and proper for us; but it does prove it to be, in its essential moral character, innocent.” Because God ordained “slavery” (already a fallacy for Dabney), it must not be an evil in itself. However, in all his discussion on this, Dabney never addresses Jesus’s own teaching which does precisely this:

“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31–32).

“The Pharisees said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3–9)

Setting aside an in-depth discussion of “divorce and remarriage” for Christians, it is evident that Jesus has a category for something in the Law of Moses that was there temporarily because of “the hardness of your hearts” but that, if practiced now, would constitute something sinful (“adultery”). I would say that the treatment of Gentiles by the nation of Israel falls completely in this category: no intermarriage; no eating together; on occasion going to war to kill and conquer them; and harsher terms of servitude than for “Hebrew servants” — all of these fall under the temporary, and even the “for the hardness of your hearts,” aspect of the Old Covenant. Dabney does not refute this—he doesn’t even address it.

Letter 4

Moses Stuart

Dabney continues answering abolitionist objections to Old Testament arguments for slavery. One interesting point to note is the use he makes of “a northern man, and no friend of slavery, Rev. Moses Stuart.” Moses Stuart (1780–1852) was a professor at Andover Theological Seminary (near Boston), and was considered to be one of the leading biblical scholars of the time. He was also a quintessential example of the Northern “moderate,” who claimed to be personally opposed to slavery, but unwilling to actually do anything about it, and actually spent considerable time and energy opposing abolitionists instead for being “too radical.” Stuart himself supported “colonization” (shipping free Black people back to Africa), and discouraged the students at Andover from engaging in abolitionist activism. When George Thompson, an abolitionist from England, came to America in 1835 at the invitation of William Lloyd Garrison, he made a stop in Andover. At chapel, Stuart sounded forth: “”I warn you, young gentlemen, Iwarn you on the peril of your souls, not to go to that meeting tonight” (in Claude M. Fuess, An Old New England School, A History of Phillips Academy, Andover, 226). When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, Stuart publicly supported it, publishing an entire treatise defending it: Conscience and the Constitution with Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster on the Subject of Slavery (Boston, 1850).

Needless to say, abolitionists opposed moderates like Stuart as fiercely as they opposed the “fire-eaters” in the south. The pages of the Liberator frequently critiqued Stuart along with other Christian churches and theologians. Abolitionist William Jay published his own Reply to Remarks of Rev. Moses Stuart, Lately a Professor in the Theological Seminary at Andover, on Hon. John Jay, and an Examination of His Scriptural Exegesis, Contained in His Recent Pamphlet Entitled, “Conscience and the Constitutionin response as did George Perkins in Prof. Stuart and Slave Catching. Remarks on Mr. Stuart’s book “Conscience and the Constitution.” The conflict in the North between abolitionists and moderates is important for understanding these debates (for more on this see: ““We have much theology, but what does it amount to?”: William Lloyd Garrison’s critique of the American Tract Society,” and ““Fraternal” to Whom? White Evangelicalism’s Centuries-long Problem with Race.”) Stuart was the perfect kind of “anti-slavery” figure for Dabney to quote for his own rhetorical purposes.

Letter 7

In letter 7 Dabney directly contradicts himself from just ten years earlier. In a letter sent to Mr. G. Woodson Payne, on January 22, 1840, Dabney admits that 

“I do not believe that we ought to rest contented that slavery should exist forever, in its present form. It is, as a system, liable to most erroneous abuses… Do you think that there will be a system of slavery, where the black is punished with death for an offence for which a white man is only imprisoned a year or two; where the black may not resist wanton aggression and injury; where he is liable to have his domestic rela­tions violated in an instant; where the female is not mistress of her own chastity; where the slave is liable to starvation, oppression and cruel punishments from an unprincipled master—that such a system can exist in the millennium? If not then, it is an obstacle to the Prince of Peace, and if we would see his chariot roll on among the prostrate nations it is our duty to remove this obstruction”

Life and Letters of Dabney, 68. 

Yet, in 1851, in Letter 7, Dabney has completely reversed course:

But they [anti-slavery men] ask: Must not the spread of the pure and lovely principles of the gospel ultimately extinguish slavery ? Yes, I hope it will; not by making masters too good to be guilty of holding slaves, but by so correcting the ignorance, indolence and thriftlessness of laboring people, that the institution of slavery will be no longer needed.

Here is the first hint of an idea that will be much more elaborately expressed in subsequent letters: slavery is right and just because it is a benevolent way to correct “the ignorance, indolence, and thriftlessness of laboring people” — and by “laboring people,” Dabney was referring specifically to Black people.

Letter 8

In Letter 8 Dabney moves from his scriptural argument to arguments from “reason.” Central to his reasoning is the notion of the “common good” or the “good of the whole” or the “general good of society.” The arbiters of just what constitutes the “general good of society” is, of course, upper class white men like Dabney. Mix in some racism, and Dabney can assert that slavery is justified because it is for the “common good”:

“all men are by nature equal in their rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, except so far as the good of the whole requires the submission of all to degrees of restraint corresponding to their qualities and circumstances.”

“Now, we assert, that this surrender of individual, savage, independence to the general good of society, is of the essential nature of slavery… If it can be shown that the degree of restraint which amounts to slavery, is necessary for the best condition of ruler and subject, then it is justifiable”

It is here that Dabney’s racism supplies the crucial premise in the argument. Why is slavery good for society as a whole? Why, for the welfare of the inferior Black people:

“And that the necessities of order, social happiness, and the welfare of the slave himself do call for the relation of domestic slavery, is proved by the admissions of all who have any practical knowledge of the African, and by the disasters which have attended his emancipation.”

Only white-supremacy could argue so audaciously that slavery is for “the common good” and especially good for “the welfare of the slave himself.”

Letter 9

Francis Wayland

In Letter 9, Dabney tries to refute the objection that because American slavery was rooted in kidnapping, “a system which had its origin in wrong cannot become right by the lapse of time; that, if the title of the piratical slave-catcher on the coast of Africa was unrighteous, he cannot sell to the purchaser any better title than he has ; and that an unsound title cannot become sound by the passage of time.” This is a powerful objection, and it should be noted that Dabney doesn’t actually answer it in the letter. Instead, he points the finger back at Northern anti-slavery figures, and says, in effect, “Oh yeah? Well what about the land you stole from the ‘New England Indian’? Are you going to give that back? Didn’t think so. Leave me alone.” He blusters that anti-slavery moderate Francis Wayland had “begged the question” and made a proposition “worse than questionable” but he never actually addresses Wayland’s reasoning, other than those side-stepping assertions. He concludes the letter with a very self-congratulatory justification for the situation: “The relation so iniquitously begun at first, but so fairly and justly transferred to subsequent owners, has resulted in civilization, religious instruction, and untold blessings to the slaves. Its dissolution would be more ruinous to them than to the masters” — indeed, a proposition worse than questionable.

Letter 10

Letter 10 contains the most concentrated dose of Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy:

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… 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.

Notice how Dabney’s white-supremacy infuses his Christianity in this pro-slavery argument:

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… 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!

Dabney’s “common good” argument rests squarely on the foundation of white-supremacy:

Under such circumstances as these, can we avoid conclu­ding that slavery is lawful and righteous? Are not its bless­ings proofs of its righteousness? Is it wrong to promote the greatest good of all classes?

Frederick Douglass

Reflecting on Dabney’s case for slavery, stretched out over these eleven letters, it seems that it was this white-supremacy that was the heart beat that invigorated both his “literal Biblical” reasoning on slavery and his Scottish “common sense” reasoning on the same topic. What might otherwise be neutral interpretive and rational tools (literalism, common sense) become infused with the racism undergirding it, and it shows in Dabney’s work. In answer, let me just quote Frederick Douglass: 

“…the slave master had a direct interest in discrediting the personality of those he held as property. Every man who had a thousand dollars so invested had a thousand reasons for painting the black man as fit only for slavery. Having made him the companion of horses and mules, he naturally sought to justify himself by assuming that the negro was not much better than a mule. The holders of twenty hundred million dollars’ worth of property in human chattels procured the means of influencing press, pulpit, and politician, and through these instrumentalities they belittled our virtues and magnified our vices, and have made us odious in the eyes of the world. Slavery had the power at one time to make and unmake Presidents, to construe the law, dictate the policy, set the fashion in national manners and customs, interpret the Bible, and control the church; and, naturally enough, the old masters set them selves up as much too high as they set the manhood of the negro too low. Out of the depths of slavery has come this prejudice and this color line.” (“The Color Line,” The North American Review (1881), 593.

Letter 11

Adam Smith

In Dabney’s final letter, he takes up the objection that slavery is less productive than free labor. This claim had been made most notably by Adam Smith in his 1776 An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Book  III, Chapter II), and Dabney feels compelled to try to address it. The letter is an amalgam of ad-hoc arguments, and his own comparisons with conditions in the north, in which he can claim that  free labor is more “oppressive” than slavery:

But compared with the hardships, diseases, separations of families, and op­pressions, to which free labor is liable, in its poverty and in its severance from a master’s protecting arm, all the oppres­sions of Southern slavery are trifling. 

I think my favorite argument in the letter amounts to this: “I know a guy who lived in Ohio (a very reliable fellow, trust me), and he says that our farms in Virginia are better than theirs.” Evidently, at this point in the argument, it was time to wrap it up. Dabney’s concluding paragraph includes all the core elements in his argument: race, religion, and “common sense reason” — a powerful recipe: 

If a slave-holding society is more productive than one pos­sessing free labor, and if the institution of slavery secures to the laboring classes a more comfortable share in the profits of the community, then slavery is a merciful and benev­olent institution for a world and a race such as ours. The wisdom and goodness of our Creator are conspicuous in au­thorizing it. We have not then claimed his sanction to an unjust, cruel and mischievous system; but we have found that, contrary to the confident assertions of the wisdom, falsely so called, of this world, it is a system as accordant to justice and benevolence, as it is to that book whose teachings are unmingled righteousness, and whose spirit is mercy.

Slavery was no “blind spot” for Robert Lewis Dabney — it was a foundational cornerstone in his entire ideology, intellectual, theological, spiritual, philosophical, and political.

Further Reading

Giltner, John H. “Moses Stuart and the Slavery Controversy: A Study in the Failure of Moderation.” Journal of Religious Thought (1961): 27–39.

Harrill, J Albert. “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate.” Religion and American Culture 10.2 (2000): 149–86 (available on JSTOR).

Mullin, Robert Bruce. “Biblical Critics and the Battle Over Slavery.” Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985) 61.2 (1983): 210–26 (available on JSTOR).

Noll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006), Chapter 3: “The Crisis over the Bible.”


[Nine of] Eleven Letters by Chorepiscopus [Robert Lewis Dabney] to the Richmond Enquirer, on “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (1851)

In April and May 1851, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898), a Presbyterian pastor in Tinkling Spring, Virginia, published eleven letters in the Richmond Enquirer on “The Moral Character of Slavery.” The letters have been referenced in handful of articles and books, but the letters themselves have never been accessible, other than in newspaper archives. Here, for the first time, is a transcription of nine of these letters, with footnotes added indicating the sources that Dabney interacts with. (Two of the letters, from May 6, 1851, remain elusive):


PDF files of the original issues of the Richmond Enquirer are available on the Library of Congress’s “Chronicling America” site here: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024735/issues/1851/


Robert Lewis Dabney (1862)

Dabney started pastoring at Tinkling Spring, Virginia, in 1847 at the age of 27. He started writing for newspapers and periodicals, publishing sermons, letters, and articles in 1848. His biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, notes that he “found time for special study along chosen lines” and had been purchasing a number of books for that study (Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 127). Among the books cited in the letters are Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1812), Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution: In a Correspondence Between the Rev. Richard Fuller of Beaufort, S. C., and the Rev. Francis Wayland, of Providence, R. I. (1847), and Moses Stuart, Conscience and the Constitution: With Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster in the Senate of the United States on the Subject of Slavery (1850).

Quite a bit was happening in 1850–51. In September 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act had been passed, which law which had the support of Northern moderates, but which alarmed abolitionists and resulted in intensified activism amongst those engaged in the fight for liberation. In June 1851, a month after Dabney’s letters were published, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin would begin to appear in serialized form in newspapers. 

In January 1851, Dabney wrote a letter to his brother Charles on slavery, feeling that “the ethical character of the relation of slavery ought to be vindicated before the great public” (LLD, 128). Charles shared the letter(s?) with the editor of the Richmond Enquirer, who “expressed his great readiness to have the suggested articles.” In all, eleven articles were published in April and May 1851, signed by the pen name “Chorepiscopus,” a transliteration of the Greek for “Country Bishop.” Johnson notes that this was the name that “most of his contributions in the Watchman and Observer, also, had appeared” (LLD, 128), and Morton Smith includes a nearly complete list of articles and letters written by Dabney, signed “Chorepiscopus,” and notes that these are “identified by a manuscript list of his publications in the Union Seminary Library” (Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology, 340).

I can’t find any evidence of anyone responding directly to Dabney’s articles at the time. The editors of the Enquirer puffed them like this: “We commend these admirable letters to the people of the South as well as the North. The arguments, if circulated and studied, must do much to pierce the film of prejudice and error, and strengthen the bulwarks of Southern Rights” (preface to Letter 1). As the last letter was published, the editors said this: “We today conclude the philosophical and truly able Nos. of our accomplished correspondent. We trust that our readers appreciate, as highly as we do, the force and truth of his lucid arguments and masterly array of facts, which will do more to throw a shield of protection around the institutions of the South than all the schemes of the South Carolina disunionsts” (Letter 11). Johnson credits Dabney’s letters published in these papers as helping to build Dabney’s reputation in Virginia Presbyterian circles: “These articles, and others which he published in this period, gave him a well-deserved reputation for vigor and learning, as well as for sound conservatism. They no doubt served to show the church, and especially the Synods of Virginia and North Carolina, his fitness for service as a professor in the Seminary at Hampden-Sidney” (LLD, 130). Indeed, just two years later Dabney was offered the chair of Ecclesiastical History and Polity at Union Theological Seminary, thus beginning Dabney’s thirty year tenure (1853–1883), serving also as professor of Theology for many of those years.

Thirteen years later, in 1863, these letters would serve as the basis for Dabney’s full-throated A Defence of Virginia: (And Through Her, of the South). Johnson again describes the process: “Securing a copy of his articles on slavery, published in the Enquirer, he revised, recast, and enlarged them” (LLD, 273). Indeed, what amounts to around 50–60 pages of material in 1851 was expanded to over 350 pages. Nevertheless, almost everything found in the letters in 1851 remains as the foundation in 1863 (though the book would not actually be published until 1867).

These letters are significant in studies of Dabney, especially as a slight correction to the portrayal of the development of his thought. Some have pointed to the Civil War as a turning point in Dabney’s life, and Johnson says that the fall of the Confederacy was “epochal in Dr. Dabney’s life” (LLD, 292).  One does indeed note a sharp bitterness in Dabney after the Civil War that never goes away, but without accounting for these letters, a full decade before the war, one can make too much of this. For example, Sean Michael Lucas points out a contradiction in Dabney’s views between 1840 and 1867, noting that Dabney had “willingly recognized” the abuses of slavery at the earlier date (see his letter to Mr. G. Woodson Payne, in LLD, 67), but that “by the time he wrote Defense of Virginia, he saw these abuses as unimportant or generally nonexistent, contradicting his earlier opinions” (Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 125–26). There is certainly a marked contrast between 1840 and 1867. Yet, Lucas groups Dabney’s 1851 views with his earlier views, citing a small section of a letter quoted in the Johnson biography (LLD, 128–29) but not interacting at all with the letters themselves. The full context of the letters published in the Enquirer shows that Dabney’s views in 1851 are fully in line with his views in 1867, and are themselves in sharp contrast with what he says in 1840. In other words, the shift came much earlier than the Civil War.

J. Albert Harrill makes a similar assessment when referencing one of Dabney’s pro-slavery arguments in Defence of Virginia, describing it as tinged with “post-Civil War racism and resentment of the abolition of slavery” (“The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate,” 170). Dabney’s argument is this: “This [abolitionist] hypothesis represents that Saviour who claimed omniscience, as adopting a policy which was as futile as dishonest. He forbore the utterance of any express testimony against the sin of slaveholding, say they [the abolitionists], leaving the church to find it out by deduction from general principles of equity” (Defence of Virginia, 203, in Harrill, “The Use of the New Testament,” 170). Yet, this very argument was used by Dabney in his 1851 letters (Letter 7), a full decade before the Civil War and emancipation. The venomous racism was fully present pre-Civil War, and the resentment over abolitionism grew from a full-hearted opposition to it beforehand.

Dabney’s racism and white-supremacy are on full display in these letters, and in fact, they may be the earliest record of his views that we have. He later puts his white-supremacy on full display in the aftermath of the Civil War as he bitterly fought against the efforts of Reconstruction (see “What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?“), but these letters move the record of his strong racial views up into his earliest chapter of ministry, before even his appointment to professor of theology at Union. Reading through the letters, one can see the breadth of Dabney’s whole-hearted support for slavery, and its roots in venomous white-supremacy. This was no “blind spot” for him—it was foundational to his entire ideology, intellectual, theological, spiritual, philosophical, and political.

(Note: for brief commentary on each of the letters, see Part 2: “Worse than Questionable”: Commentary on Dabney’s 1851 Letters on Slavery.

Additional reading:

Carrigan, William D. “In Defense of the Social Order: Racial Thought among Southern White Presbyterians in the Nineteenth Century.” American Nineteenth Century History 1.2 (2000): 31–52.

Giles, Kevin. “The Biblical Argument for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead? A Case Study in Hermeneutics.” The Evangelical Quarterly 66 (1994): 3–17 (available here).

Harrill, J Albert. “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate.” Religion and American Culture 10.2 (2000): 149–86 (available on JSTOR).

Lucas, Sean Michael. Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005).

Maddex, Jack P. “Proslavery Millennialism: Social Eschatology in Antebellum Southern Calvinism.” American Quarterly 31.1 (1979): 46–62 (available on JSTOR).

From the Knights of the White Camelia to Secretary of Foreign Missions: Samuel Hall Chester (1851–1940), Race, and Southern Presbyterian Missions

In December 1861, at their General Assembly, Presbyterians in the South separated from their brethren in the North, and formed a new denomination: The Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (Morton Smith, Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology, 37). State presbyteries already approved this move, as had, for example, the Synod of Virginia in October 1861, under the leadership of Robert Lewis Dabney (Thomas Cary Johnson, Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 244). In 1865, after the fall of the Confederacy, they adopted the name The Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), still separate from the Northern PCUSA (the PCA would later form out of the PCUS in 1973).

But in 1861, the PCCSA, formed over the issue of slavery and “states rights,” was also interested in “foreign missions.” Morton Smith notes that “The new-born Church was especially interested in missions as the supreme work of the Church. Among the resolutions of that first Assembly regarding missions is this classic statement regarding the place of missionary work in the life of the Church”:

“Finally, the General Assembly desires distinctly and deliberately to inscribe on our church’s banner, as she now unfurls it to the world, in immediate connection with the headship of our Lord, his last command: ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature’; regarding this as the great end of her organization, and obedience to it as the indispensible condition of her Lord’s promised presence, and as one great comprehensive object, a proper conception of whose vast magnitude and grandeur is the only thing which, in connection with the love of Christ, can ever sufficiently arouse her energies and develop her resources so as to cause her to carry on, with the vigor and efficiency which true fealty to her Lord demands, those other agencies necessary to her internal growth and home prosperity.”

(Minutes, PCCSA, 1861, p. 17 — in Smith, Studies, 41).

In fact, Smith concludes that “this Assembly considered herself primarily as a witnessing instrument, a mission society” (Studies, 40).

With this context, it is fascinating to look at the man who would eventually become the Secretary of Foreign Missions for the PCUS, Samuel Hall Chester. His Memories of Four-Score Years: An Autobiography by Samuel Hall Chester, D.D. Secretary Emeritus of Foreign Missions of the Southern Presbyterian Church (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1934) is a fascinating picture of Southern Presbyterian life.

Chester was born in 1851 in the “border state” (between slave and free) of Arkansas. His family enslaved Black laborers, and Chester describes the situation through the typical “benevolent master” lens: 

“The institution as we knew it in the South was perhaps the mildest form of slavery the world has ever seen. Our slaves were the best fed and clothed and housed, and the least oppressed peasantry int he world, and the relation between good masters and good slaves was in many instances very happy and very beautiful”

(Memories, 39).

Chester experienced a typical socialization for a white son: “My special friend and playmate was a Negro boy of my own age, with whom I boxed and wrestled and roamed the fields in search of mischief and adventure” (39). Nevertheless, Chester acknowledged the harmful effects of slavery:

“Practically all intelligent southerners are now glad that the institution of slavery is seventy years behind us; even more for the slaveholders sake than for that of his former slaves. Only a small minority of mankind in any age or country have ever been good enough to be safely entrusted with the personal ownership of their fellow man. And in my opinion there is no sound reasoning and no sound interpretation of the Scriptures that can justify an institution that makes it possible under the law for men of small minds and cruel hearts, of whom there is always an oversupply in the world, to wreak their bad temper on the naked back of a helpless and unresisting fellow man, whether he be black or white.”

Memories, 41.

When the Civil War came, Chester’s brothers fought for the Confederacy, and Chester blamed the horrors of war on politicians and abolitionists:

“the unspeakable wickedness of that fratricidal strife into which the nation was dragged by selfish politicians representing supposedly clashing interests on both sides, and by fanatical moral crusaders seeking to destroy what they regarded as a criminal institution by the perpetration of one of the greatest crimes of all history.”

Memories, 45.

After the war, even as a teenage, Chester joined in the Southern hatred of Reconstruction. He complained that Black laborers were less productive (50), and that Yankees were intruding where they were unwanted. He describes the response in the form of secret white societies: 

“The response to these measures all over the south was the Ku-Klux Klan, the Pale Faces, the Knights of the White Camelia, all of them secret oath-bound organizations, differing in minor features, but with the same general character and purpose. This was to ‘protect our people from indignity and wrongs; to succor the suffering, particularly the families of dead Confederate soldiers and from trial otherwise than by jury.’”

Memories, 52.

Chester joined as a teenager:

“Our community adopted the Knights of the White Camelia, and into that order I was initiated at the age of sixteen by the pastor of our church. When the ceremony of initiation was finished and my blindfold removed, I looked around and saw all the elders and deacons of the church and every important member of the community standing around the walls of the room. Certain passwords and signs were adopted, but was understood that no meetings were to be called, except to meet an emergency.”

Memories, 52.

Chester was never aware of “costumes or raids” because “none were ever necessary” but it is possible that the Knights didn’t invite the sixteen year old to every activity. Chester does describe intimidating people to leave the community with typical Southern euphemism: 

“Messages were sent to leading Negroes assuring them that we were their friends as we had always been, and warning them against being deceived and led into any movement against being deceived and led into any movement against he white people by their false friends, the carpet baggers. A few of those who may themselves especially obnoxious received messages posted on their doors to the effect that for a certain number of days they would not be disturbed, in order that they might have an opportunity to arrange their business affairs; but that after a fixed date they were likely to find living conditions in that part of the country neither pleasant nor safe.”

Memories, 53.

As remarkable as the story itself is the fact that Chester could so casually recount these facts in his autobiography, which tells us something about the state of the country and the PCUS in 1934.

From 1869–1872 he attended Washington College which was then under the presidency of Robert E. Lee, “our greatest southern hero” (55). He was a student there when Lee died in 1870 and describes several encounters with him before then in reverential terms.

After college, he entered Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, where he studied under Benjamin M. Smith  (Hebrew and Old Testament), Thomas E. Peck (Church History), Henry C. Alexander (New Testament), and Robert Lewis Dabney (Systematic Theology). His anecdotes about Dabney are interesting. Here is his assessment of Dabney as a theologian:

“Dr. Dabney, our professor of theology, had such insatiable curiosity on all subjects, both sacred and secular, and such a phenomenal memory that he came to know more things and to know them more thoroughly than any man I ever knew. I am satisfied he could have filled a chair in history or chemistry or biology or English literature in any university. He planned and largely built his own houses. He played no mean part in the Civil War as Stonewall Jackson’s chief of staff, serving much of the time also as brigade chaplain. He filled successively several of the chairs in Union Seminary. His great work, how- ever, was done in the Chair of Theology. His contemporary, Dr. Wm. G. T. Shedd, of Union Seminary, New York, once told me that he regarded Dr. Dabney as the greatest of our American theologians. His theological views on some of the higher points of Calvinism were broader and more liberal than those of Dr. Hodge or Dr. Warfield.”

Memories, 77.

Chester recounts an interesting incident which shows Dabney’s deep-seated animosity toward the North which stayed with him his entire life:

“In one matter only did he finally become narrow and, one might say, implacable. During the war and its aftermath of reconstruction, he became so embittered by the ruthless meth- ods of Federal officers like Sheridan and Sherman, and the efforts of Congress to impose Negro rule on the South that he almost went off his mental balance. Being once taken to task for the violence of his denunciation of these leaders, he made no reply, but preached the following Sunday on the text, “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee?”

Memories, 77.

Despite the interest in foreign missions indicated by Smith above, Chester describes the state of things while he was in seminary:

“In the years 1872-75 the foreign missionary work of our church had hardly more than made a beginning, and the missionary spirit was largely undeveloped. Since the close of the war our people’s attention had been too much taken up with carpet- baggers and Freedman’s Bureau agents and armies of occupation to give much thought to things in foreign lands. There were two missionary volunteers in the senior class of 1872. There were none in either the middle or junior classes of that year. Our course in church history, under which the study of missions would have fallen, was largely concerned with questions of creed and church polity and the ancient heresies that had vexed the church. Missionary interest among the students was represented by a band of about a dozen of our student body of sixty-five, which we called “The Society of Missionary Inquiry,” which met every two weeks at nine o’clock Saturday” (78–79).

Memories, 78–79.

Dabney himself was deeply interested in “foreign missions”:

“Dr. Dabney became deeply interested in the opening of our mission to Brazil, and was instrumental in raising a special fund for sending Rev. Edward Lane and Rev. G. Nash Morton as our first missionaries to that field. Mission work had made a small beginning in Greece and in Mexico, but it was not until years afterward that our great missions to Japan, Korea and Africa were opened.”

Memories, 79.

Chester pastored Presbyterian churches for nearly two decades in North Carolina and Tennessee. In 1884 he was married, and in 1893 he was named secretary of Foreign Missions of the PCUS. He continued in this role for thirty years and saw the work of Southern Presbyterian missionaries grow from 143 missionaries with a budget of $143,000 to 517 and $1,400,000. 

Interestingly, the autobiography includes a number of letters, and Chester recounts one from Robert E. Lee’s daughter, Mildred, in October 1894: “We were then living in Nashville, Tennessee, and Mrs. Chester invited her to visit us and attend a United Daughters of the Confederacy Convention that was expected to be held in Nashville” (62). Active participation in Lost Cause organizations was part and parcel of Southern life for those in high levels of leadership, even (or especially), ecclesiastical.

In 1923, he was granted “optional retirement,” until the Committee of Foreign Missions could find a replacement. “What happened was that I went right on for the full three-years term conducting the foreign correspondence, and also filling Dr. Smith’s place as Executive Secretary during his visit of nearly a year to our missions in the far east” (Memories, 231). He actually retired in 1926.


A few things are noteworthy here. One is an observation of the type of racial sensibilities found in the highest levels of Southern Presbyterian leadership. A man who was a member of the Knights of White Camelia was Secretary of Foreign Missions over 500+ foreign missionaries. That he speaks so candidly about these things shows how normal they were in the institution.

Second, this shows how these things were not relegated to the ancient past of 1860, but demonstrates how they carried on to the next generation, and generations after that. Chester brings the legacy of Robert Lewis Dabney (and Southern Presbyterianism as a whole) all the way into the 1930s. When Sean Michal Lucas claims that Dabney “set the racial orthodoxy for the church for the next hundred years” (Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 148–49), this is a concrete example of how that worked.

Third, Chester is an example of a first-hand source for Dabney’s teaching. The anecdote about preaching “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee?” is only found, so far as I can tell, here in Chester.

Finally, Chester, and the Southern Presbyterians as a whole, are just one example of white American Christianity’s unceasing ability to hold the grand ideals of “foreign missions” at the very same time as holding deep seated white-supremacy. In fact, the white supremacy can even serve as a motivation for missions, to “civilize” the barbarous non-white heathen. “From Knights of the White Camelia, to Secretary of Foreign Missions” may sound strange to our ears, but it was the established norm at the time.

The Civil War and the Failure of White American Christianity

Robert Lewis Dabney

The American Civil War was a crisis on a number of levels, including, as Mark Noll has explored, a theological crisis (see Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis). As Abraham Lincoln noted in his second inaugural address, both sides, “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” Among the various lenses available for exploring this crisis is that of Robert Lewis Dabney, a Reformed Presbyterian seminary professor (at Union Seminary), and a pro-slavery, white-supremacist. Dabney had seen war coming years before the fateful events of 1860 and 1861, and he warned against what he feared would be its destructive results. In particular, Dabney’s concerns highlight a deep deficiency in white American Christianity, one that Dabney himself was unable to see, but which may be instructive for white American Christians today.

“Shame on the boasted Christianity of America” — March 29, 1856

On March 29, 1856, Dabney published an editorial in the Central Presbyterian titled “Christians, Pray for Your Country” (in Discussions, Vol. 2, 393–400). He  lamented: “what a war that will be? Civil feud has ever been known as the most bitter of all.” He described, “the conflagration of battle which will rage along this narrow line across the whole breadth of a continent!” (396). He especially feared for the state of religion: “Christianity will sicken and droop amidst the crimes of national convulsion and the license of camps” (398). “Christian America” would be wasting time fighting with each other, “and meantime, the redemption of the race is by so many ages postponed; and sin and hell pray [sic] upon so many more of the teeming generations!”

Dabney then exposes a deep inability at the heart of white American Christianity, an inability which would prove itself in the country as a whole, and in Dabney’s own life in particular, as he later fought for the Confederacy:

Christians of America, will ye suffer this ? If such a crime against God and man be wrought in this land of thirty thou­sand evangelical ministers and four millions of Christians, how burning the sarcasm which it will contain against your Chris­tianity ! What, was there not enough of the oil of love in all these four millions of the servants of the God of love to soothe the surging billows of party strife? Was there not enough of the majesty of moral weight in these four millions of Christians to say to the angry waters, “ Peace, be still ?” ”Were not all these strong enough to throw the arms of their love around their fellow-citizens, keep down the hands that sought each others’ throats, and constrain them by a sweet compulsion to be brethren? Did this mighty church stand idly by and see phrenzy immolate so many of the dearest hopes of man and so much of the glory of God on her hellish altar, and not rather rush between and receive the sword in its own breast? And this church knew, too, that the fiend had borrowed the torch of discord from the altar of Christianity, and that therefore Chris­tians were doubly bound to arrest her murderous hand before the precious sacrifice was lost in the conflagration! If this be suffered, then shame on the boasted Christianity of America, and of the nineteenth century! With all its parade of light and evangelism, wherein will it be less impotent and spurious than the false Christianity which permitted and sanctioned the butcheries of the Crusades, the torture of the Inquisition, or any other great iniquity of the dark ages ?

(“Christians, Pray,” 398–99)

Dabney’s questions are perceptive: “was there not enough of the oil of love in all these four millions of the servants of the God of love to soother the surging billows of party strife?” No, among white American Christians, there was not enough of the “oil of love,” first to love their Black brothers and sisters (which Dabney did not have in mind here), and then, out of those deeds of love and justice, eliminating entirely the need for war.

“Was there not enough fo the majesty of moral weight in these four millions of Christians to say ‘peace be still’?” No—there was not enough moral weight in 4,000,000 white Christians to do what was morally right and just, let alone work for peace.

I agree with Dabney on this point: “shame on the boasted Christianity of [white] America, and of the nineteenth century.” For all of her evangelism and revivals, it proved “impotent and spurious.”

November 1, 1860

Four years later, on November 1, 1860, Dabney preached a sermon on a special “fast-day” appointed by the Synod of Virginia (“The Christian’s Best Motive for Patriotism,” in Discussions, Vol. 2, 401–412). Five days later, Lincoln would be elected and in December, South Carolina would secede from the Union, but for now, Presbyterians in Virginia were gathering to “pray for escape from national convulsions” (401). The sermon includes many of the same themes, but includes some new elements as well:

Now, in view of this picture of possible crime and misery, would to God that I could reach the ear of every professed servant of Jesus Christ in the whole land! I would cry to them : Christians of America—brothers—shall all this be ? Shall this church of thirty thousand evangelical ministers, and four millions of Christian adults—this church, so boastful of its influence and power; so respected and reverenced by nearly all; so crowned with the honors of literature, of station, of secular office, of riches; this church, which moulds the thought of three- fourths of our educated men through her schools, and of all, by her pulpit and her press; this church, which glories in having just received a fresh baptism of the Spirit of heaven in a na­tional revival—permit the tremendous picture to become reality ? Nay, shall they aid in precipitating the dreaded consummation, by traitorously inflaming the animosities which they should have allayed, and thus leave the work of their Master to do the devil’s ? Then, how burning the sarcasm which this result will contain upon your Christianity in the eyes of posterity! Why, they will say, was there not enough of the majesty of moral weight in these four millions of Christians to say to the angry waves, “ Peace be still ” ? Why did not these four millions rise, with a love so Christ-like, so beautiful, so strong, that strife should be paralyzed by it into reverential admiration ? Why did they not speak for their country, and for the house of the Lord their God which was in it, with a wisdom before whose firm mod­eration, righteousness, and clear light, passion and folly should scatter like the mist ? Were not all these strong enough to throw the arms of their loving mediation around their fellow citizens, and keep down the weapons that sought each other’s hearts; or rather to receive them into their own bosoms than permit their mother-country to be slain ? Did this mighty church stand idly by, and see phrenzy immolate so many of the dearest hopes of man, and of the rights of the Redeemer, on her hellish altar ? And this church knew, too, that the fiend had borrowed the torch of discord from the altar of Christianity, and that therefore Christians were bound, by a peculiar tie, to arrest her insane hand before the precious sacrifice was wrapped in flames. Then shame on the boasted Christianity of America, and of the nine­teenth century! With all its parade of evangelism, power, and light, wherein has it been less impotent and spurious than the effete religion of declining Rome, which betrayed Christendom into the dark ages; or than the baptized superstitions which in those ages sanctioned the Crusades and the Inquisition? In the sight of heaven’s righteous Judge, I believe that if the Chris­tianity of America now betrays the interests of men and God to the criminal hands which threaten them, its guilt will be second only to that of the apostate church which betrayed the Saviour of the world ; and its judgment will be rendered in calamities second only to those which avenged the divine blood invoked by Jerusalem on herself and her children.

“Patriotism,” (405–406).

In addition to what he had observed four years previously, Dabney also lays potential (soon to be actual) blame specifically upon the seminaries and churches (“this church, which moulds the thought of three- fourths of our educated men through her schools, and of all, by her pulpit and her press”). He highlights a deep incongruity (via his own anti-Catholicism): “With all its parade of evangelism, power, and light, wherein has it been less impotent and spurious than the effete religion of declining Rome, which betrayed Christendom into the dark ages.” 

He also poses a good question: “Why did not these four millions rise, with a love so Christ-like, so beautiful, so strong, that strife should be paralyzed by it into reverential admiration ?” The answer, which Dabney could not grasp, was that these four millions would not rise with such a love because they did not have it in them. Had a “Christ-like love” actually inhabited white Christians, it would have been evident in their lives long before the eve of Civil War in their treatment of Black brothers and sisters. That horse had not merely “left the barn,” before November 1860—it had never resided there in the first place.

The 1858 “Revival”?

Interestingly, Dabney calls attention to the “revival” of 1858: “this church, which glories in having just received a fresh baptism of the Spirit of heaven in a na­tional revival—permit the tremendous picture to become reality ?” (“Patriotism,” 405). 

This event has sometimes been called the “Businessman’s Revival,” the “1858 Prayer Revival,” or the “Awakening of 1858.” Historians have noted how difficult it is to know how to assess this revival, given how widespread it was, and how short-term its effects. Indeed, it is “so haphazardly interpreted that there exists little unanimity on what even to call it.” (See Leonard I. Sweet, “A Nation Born Again: The Union Prayer Meeting Revival and Cultural Revitalization,” in In the Great Tradition: In Honor of Winthrop S. Hudson: Essays on Pluralism, Voluntarism and Revivalism, ed. Joseph D. Ban and Paul R. Dekar (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1982), 193–221; cited in Kathryn Long, “The Power of Interpretation: The Revival of 1857-58 and the Historiography of Revivalism in America,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 4.1 (1994), 77; Baptist historian William McGloughlin concluded that it was not “any kind of national awakening but merely a response to financial insecurity and newspaper publicity”; William G. McGloughlin, Modern Revivalism, Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (New York: Ronald Press Company, 1959), 164.)

Frederick Douglass

As you might expect, the spuriousness of white Christianity is see in her so-called revivals too. As Frederick Douglass said, “revivals in religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand together” (“American Slavery: Report of a Public Meeting, May 22, 1846,”).

In 1858 at least one anti-slavery figure instantly criticized the “revival” precisely because of what he saw as its pro-slavery features. Isaac Nelson was an Irish evangelical minister who worked with Douglass and Garrison in the 1840s to oppose slavery (see Daniel Ritchie, “Transatlantic Delusions and Pro-Slavery Religion: Isaac Nelson’s Evangelical Abolitionist Critique of Revivalism in America and Ulster,” Journal of American Studies 48.03 (2014), 761).  Nelson critiqued the revival because “it had not led to emancipation or even to the American churches disciplining slaveholders” (“Delusions,” 764). He believed that “a genuine spiritual awakening would have led to an increased interest in anti-slavery,” and that absent this, any so-called revival was “spurious” (“Delusions,” 765). He noted that in some parts of America experiencing this revival, leaders had forbidden prayer on behalf of emancipation. At the epicenter of the revival, the Fulton Street prayer meetings in New York, it was reported that they segregated the meetings and made Black people pray by themselves on a separate floor removed from the main meetings. “This is the first time I have ever been to any of these meetings, and this shall be the last,” said one Black woman. “I told her that these things were a part of the American Religion,” replied a Black man who had also visited the meetings that day (“Letter from a Colored Man,” New York Tribune, March 27, 1858).

Daniel Ritchie makes an acute observation regarding the revival: “when one considers that American quickly fell into the most destructive Civil War, Nelson’s argument about the specious nature of the 1857–58 revival appears accurate… If 1857–58 had been a true revival, then, according to Nelson’s reasoning, it is not likely that the American states would have been plunged into a brutal war only a few years later in 1861” (“Delusions,” 776). Indeed—if 1857–58 had been a true revival, genuine Christianity would have been manifest long before the brutal war in their treatment of Black brothers and sisters in Christ.

“Humble Confession of Our Sins, Individual and Social”

Back to Dabney’s 1860 sermon—the remedy to this dire danger includes, first, “Christians should everywhere begin to pray for their country” (“Patriotism,” 406). Next, Dabney turns to confession: “And along with this should go humble confession of our sins, individual and social.” Dabney understands the connection between individual sin and its social and systemic aspect as well: 

It is for our own sins alone that we are responsible to God. It is our own sins alone that we have the means of reforming, by the help of his grace. Let each man, then, consider and forsake his personal transgressions; for as your persons help to swell the aggregate of this great people, so your individual sins have gone to form that black cloud of guilt which threatens to hide from us the favorable light of our heavenly Father’s face But let us remem­ber, and confess also, our social sins: that general worldliness which hath set up the high places of its covetous idolatries all over the good land God hath given us; that selfish profusion and luxury which have squandered on the pride of life so much of the goods of our stewardship; that heaven-daring profanity and blasphemy by reason of which the land mourneth. And let me not forget faithfully to protest, on such a day as this, against that peculiar sin of the southern country, the passion for bloody retaliation of personal wrong, which has been so often professed and indulged among us, unwhipped of justice. You have allowed too often the man of violence, the duelist, profess­ ing his pretended “ code of honor ”—most hateful and deceitful pretence of that father of lies, who was a murderer from the beginning—to stalk through the land with wrongs upon his angry tongue and blood upon his hand, while his crime was winked at by justice, and almost applauded by a corrupt public opinion. “ So ye have polluted the land wherein ye are; for blood, it defileth the land, and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.’”

Dabney acknowledges a number of sins that characterize the South, but though he names “worldliness and covetous idolatry; selfish profusion and luxury” he refuses to see white-supremacy and chattel enslavement as the foundation of such covetousness and the source of that luxury. Especially interesting is his calling out of the “duelist,” that “peculiar sin of the southern country, the passion for bloody retaliation of personal wrong, which has been so often professed and indulged among us,” driven by their honor/shame culture, “professing his pretended ‘code of honor.’”

Dabney had many of the resources at hand to combat the deep sickness in his country, and in particular, in white American Christianity. He had his Bible, and he knew deeply of its teachings of “Christ-like love”; he had categories for not just individual, but social sins; he knew that seminaries, churches, and printing presses despite their “vaunted successes” could prove utterly impotent in the face of a real call for moral weight; and yet, this form of Christianity—his form of Christianity—proved impotent. 

What was missing? More theology wouldn’t fix it (Dabney himself was a theology professor at Union Seminary); more printing of books, more preaching of sermons (see also “We have much theology, but what does it amount to?”: William Lloyd Garrison’s critique of the American Tract Society“). What was needed was repentance at such a deep level that the entire society would be changed from the bottom up. Even preaching on “Christ-like love” remains impotent when that love is only intended for fellow white people. 

White American Christianity needed to be born again. I think it still does.

The Christian Watchman & Reflector: A 19th Century Boston Baptist Newspaper

When studying history, there are a variety of sources that give us a window into another world, and one of these is newspapers. In their time, newspapers served as the primary medium for the exchange of ideas, at times resembling a form of “social media.” Controversies were debated, sermons reprinted, minutes of various societies published. Newspapers could be so controversial that an editor could lose his life (see the example of Elijah Lovejoy who was murdered at the age of 35 for printing an abolitionist paper).

Over the past few years I’ve come to deeply enjoy digging into the archives of a 19th century Boston Baptist newspaper, The Christian Watchman and Reflector (GenealogyBank has searchable digitized archives for the Christian Reflector for the years 1842–48 and for the Christian Watchman from 1819–1876). It was here that I first discovered nineteen previously unpublished letters written by Charles Spurgeon, including his “Red Hot Letter on American Slaery” (see: “Charles Spurgeon in the Christian Watchman & Reflector | Index”). I’ve since devoted hours upon hours to searching the archives on any variety of topics related to Baptist History. Additionally, when I want to know “what did certain 19th century New England Baptists think about [X]?” I search the archives. Every source, though, needs itself to be examined, in order to better understand the context and the perspectives expressed in it. Though somewhat lengthy, this is actually just a beginning sketch of the history of this paper. An exhaustive study remains to be done, and this merely gestures toward some of the contours such a study could follow.

The Most Popular Baptist Paper in All New England

William Cathcart  (1826–1908), in his Baptist Encyclopædia, called it “the most popular Baptist paper in all New England” (466). Robert Turnbull (1809–1877) considered it “the leading Baptist journal in New England, and one of the best papers in the country.”

Thomas Armitage (1819–1896), in his The History of the Baptists, gives this brief overview of the paper:

The oldest Baptist weekly in America is ‘THE WATCHMAN’, of Boston, established in 1819, with the title, the ‘Christian Watchman,’ and edited by Deacon James Loring. The question of slavery becoming a subject of warm discussion, the ‘Christian Reflector’ was begun at Worcester, Mass., edited by Rev. Cyrus P. Grosvenor. This paper was removed to Boston in 1844, under the editorship of Rev. H. A. Graves, where it obtained a large circulation; but, Mr. Graves’s health failing, Rev. J. W. Olmstead became its editor, March, 1846, and in 1848 the two papers were united, under the name, ‘The Watchman and Reflector,’ Dr. Olmstead remaining as editor

(Armitage, 882)

The leading Baptist seminary at the time—Newton Theological Institution—was just ten miles away, and the Watchman & Reflector tended to stay up-to-date with, and to some extent to reflect, the higher echelons of white Baptist leadership.

Name Changes and Mergers (1819–1913)

The paper underwent a number of mergers and name changes over the years. Here is a nearly complete list of its evolution over the years (with links to the Library of Congress listing for each title):

The Christian Watchman

Christian Watchman: (Boston) 1819-1819

The very first article published in the Christian Watchman was a missionary update from Burma:

Christian Watchman & Baptist Register. (Boston) 1819-1821

The Christian Watchman. (Boston) 1821-1848

(LOC notes that the paper was “Published under the patronage of: Baptist Missionary Society of Massachusetts, Dec. 9, 1825-Aug. 1838.”)

The Christian Reflector

Christian Reflector (Worcester, MA) 1838-1839

Christian reflector. (Worcester, Mass.) 1840-1848

The Christian Watchman & Reflector (or was it “Reflector and Watchman”?!)

In 1848, the Watchman and the Reflector merged, though the order in the name switched during its first year:

Christian Reflector & Christian Watchman: (Boston) 1848-1848

Christian Watchman & Christian Reflector. (Boston) 1848-1850

Christian Watchman & Reflector. (Boston) 1851-1866

Watchman & Reflector. (Boston) 1867-1875

In 1876 the paper merged with another Boston paper, the Christian Era, to form: The Watchman (Boston).

The Watchman. (Boston) 1876-1913

William Cathcart, “The Watchman”

William Cathcart includes an entire entry for “The Watchman” in his Baptist Encyclopædia

Watchman, The, a weekly religious paper, pub­lished in Boston, was started, in 1819, by True & Weston, Mr. Weston being its first editor. The original name of the paper was The Christian Watchman, and it was intended to be an organ of the Baptist denomination, setting forth and vin­dicating, in a kind, Christian spirit, the peculiar tenets and practices of the Baptist churches in this country Messrs. True & Weston did not long retain their connection with the paper, but passed it into the hands of William Nichols, Deacon James Loring acting as its editor. Here it remained for fifteen years, and, as an exponent of Baptist prin­ciples and practices, it performed excellent service for the denomination. On the retirement of Dea­con Loring from the editorial chair, Rev. B. F. Farnsworth took charge of the paper for a few months, when he was succeeded by Rev. Ebenezer Thresher, who was its editor for three years. During the next ten years—from 1838 to 1848— The Christian Watchman was under the editorial management of Rev. William Crowell, whose abil­ity as a writer was everywhere acknowledged. Under his supervision the paper took a high posi­tion among the religious periodicals of the day. In consequence of what by many were regarded as too conservative views on the exciting topics which were agitating the community during this period, Mr. Crowell’s position was condemned ; and there seeming to be a call for the establishment of another paper, the Christian Reflector was started in Worcester, Mass., with Cyrus Grosvenor as editor, and W. S. Dannell as publisher. In 1844 the new paper was removed to Boston, and, under the edi­torial management of Rev. H. A. Graves, it was not long before its circulation exceeded that of The Christian Watchman. The health of Mr. Graves led to his resignation, and the paper passed into the hands of Rev. J. W. Olmstead. The two papers were united in 1848, under the editorial manage­ment of Messrs. Olmstead and Hague. Mr. D. S. Ford, one of the publishers, soon came upon the editorial staff, his specialty being the arrangement of the outside of the paper, which, by his enterprise and rare tact, was made as attractive as the inside. The general tone and circulation of the paper con­tinued to improve from year to year until 1867, when it was enlarged to an eight-paged sheet, furnishing to its patrons nearly double the amount of reading matter, with but a small increase in its price. Mr. Ford retired from the Watchman and Reflector at the close of the year 1867, and the proprietorship and editorial management were in the hands of Dr. Olmstead. The Christian Era, which commenced its existence in Lowell, Mass., in 1852, to meet the demand for a more thoroughly out­ spoken anti-slavery paper, after passing through a successful career, chiefly under the management of its editor, Rev. Dr. Webster, was merged into what, under the present arrangement, is called The Watchman, at the close of 1875. The editors of The Watchman were Drs. Olmstead, Lorimer, and Johnson during the year 1876. Rev. L. E. Smith, D.D., for a long time connected with the Examiner, of New York, took the editorial chair at the beginning of 1877. The circulation of the paper in 1878 was a little under 20,000, and was con­stantly increasing. Its growth has been extraor­dinary. The Christian Watchman, insignificant in size, has expanded to a sheet 49 inches by 33, nearly eight times as large as at its birth. The expense of a single paper for original matter has been often larger than the former outlay for an entire year. It cannot be doubted that a prosper­ous future is before it.

(Cathcart, 1216)

Note: if the language regarding William Crowell and Cyrus Grosvenor seems cryptic (“took a high position”; “too conservative views on the exciting topics which were agitating the community during this period”) let me make it plain: Crowell was moderate on the issue of slavery, and Grosvenor was outspoken: 

Begun in 1838, the Christian Reflector was religious paper for the Baptists of Massachusetts. Intended as a paper for the layman, the Reflector was outspoken in its advocation of temperance and morality, and of abolition. Cyrus P. Grosvenor edited the first four volumes. Although the paper was theological in nature, during his editorship, at least two or more articles concerning the slave and the abolitionary movement appeared each week.

“Christian Reflector,” Library of Congress

William Cathcart’s Baptist Encyclopædia

Cathcart’s Baptist Encyclopædia is a standard reference book for 19th century Baptist history. A search of the book uncovers a wide range of Baptist figures who were connected to the Watchman and Reflector in a variety of ways, whether as owners, editors, writers, reporters, or occasional correspondents. Reading through the list will give you a sense of the various ways Baptists engaged with their newspapers.

Granville S. Abbott (1837–1897)

“For four years he edited the Sunday-school department of The Watchman, of Boston.”

(Cathcart, 10)

Rufus Babcock (1798–1875)

“Dr. Babcock had a ready pen, and always maintained an intimate connection with the religious press… His correspondence with the Watchman, as it is now called, extended over almost the entire period of its existence.”

(Cathcart, 52)

James G. Bolles (1802–1871)

When fifteen, entered a printing-office in Bridgeport, Conn., and remained till twenty; went to Boston, Mass., and was partner in the firm that published the Christian Watchman.”

(Cathcart, 111)

William Chauncy Child (1817–1876)

“In 1861 he was chosen district secretary of the American Tract Society, of Boston, which position he held for eight years,— 1861–69. Soon after retiring from this office he was elected district secretary of the American Baptist Publication Society, and was in office until1873. He occupied during the latter years of his life a responsible position on the editorial staff of The Watchman and Reflector.”

(Cathcart, 215–26)

William Crowell (1806–1871)

Crowell, William, D.D., was born in Middle- field, Mass., Sept. 22, 1806. He received his liter­ary and theological education at Brown and New­ton. While pursuing his studies at the latter he preached in several villages and towns around Bos­ton, especially at Quincy, where he gathered a congregation in a large gambling-room in a house formerly used as a tavern, and such was the bless­ ing attending his ministrations in this room that a church was organized. 

Soon after leaving Newton, Mr. Crowell accepted the editorship of the Christian Watchman. This position he held for ten years, when the Watchman and the Christian Reflector were united. During this period the paper prospered, and its reputation was not surpassed by any denominational organ in the country. 

While in Boston, in 1845, he preached twice every Sunday, and taught in the Sunday-school. After leaving Boston he accepted the pastorate of the church in Waterville, Me., and continued to serve it for about two years, when he removed to St. Louis, Mo., to take editorial charge of The Western Watchman. He held this position for ten years, making the paper a power among the grow­ing hosts of Missouri Baptists. A variety of causes led him, just as the late war was about to convulse the nation, to retire from the editorial chair of The Western Watchman, after which he served as pastor for a short period at Freeport, 111., and at the time of his death he was engaged in ministerial and other labors in New Jersey. He died in August, 1871. The Watchman and Reflector, of Boston, of August 31, 1871, says of him, “His mind was one of uncommon discrimination and clearness. We mourn the loss of so able and good a man, and that his ‘sun should have gone down while it was yet day.’” Dr. Crowell was one of the most tal­ented and cultured men in the Baptist denomina­tion, his piety was all-pervading, and he shed a genial and blessed light over the entire relations of life. Thousands mourned his death as an af­fliction to the whole Baptist Israel. He was the author of several works, chief among which was “The Church Member’s Manual” now used as a text-book in some of our theological seminaries.

(Cathcart, 1304).

Sewell S. Cutting (1813–1882)

.In 1851 he accepted an editorial position on the Watchman and Reflector, of Boston.

(Cathcart, 305)

Daniel Sharp Ford

Daniel Sharp Ford

“Daniel Sharp Ford (1822-1899) is a Northern Baptist newspaper publisher. Born in Cambridge in a Christian home, as a young man Ford apprenticed in the printers’ trade in Boston, soon becoming a partner in the newly-founded Christian Watchman and Reflector, a Baptist newspaper that becomes a leading voice for American Baptists.

Ford’s publishing enterprises did not stop there. In 1857 the business partners founded the Youth’s Companion, a publication aimed at young Christians. In a matter of time, a falling out between Ford and his partner led to his giving up his part in the Watchman and Reflector while assuming full ownership of Youth’s Companion.”

(from Bruce Gourley, “Baptists and the American Civil War: March 5, 1864”)

Amory Gale (1815–1874)

He graduated from Brown University in 1843, and from Newton Theological Seminary in 1846. Under his labors while a student at Brown Univer­sity an extensive revival was experienced in Royalston. His first settlement after graduating was at Ware, Mass. Here he was ordained Nov. 11, 1846. In the spring of 1857 he received a com­ mission from the American Baptist Home Mission Society to visit the West, and settled with the First Baptist church of Minneapolis. He succeeded Rev. T. R. Cressey as general missionary for the State. July 1,1858. For fifteen years he toiled in his mis­sionary work, and reaped a glorious harvest. The Rev. Lyman Palmer collated many facts concerning Brother Gale’s labors, from which we select the fol­lowing : “Sermons, 5000; family calls, 16,000; books sold or donated, 25,000 volumes; miles traveled. 100,000.—more than 50.000 miles of his missionary journevings were with Indian ponies, in a buggy or a sleigh.” Large churches were anxious for his services, but his reply was, “The men are fewer who will take fields to be worked up, so I will take a new field.” He had a strong physical frame, but it was the constraining love of Jesus that wrought within him an indomitable energy to grapple with and overcome great difficulties. He did not stop to look at obstacles, but to inquire for needed work. For years he suffered very much with asthma, and often slept leaning against the wall of his room, lie had as true a missionary spirit as ever dwelt in a human heart. He organized Sunday-schools all over Minnesota. At the time of his death there were one hundred and sixty-nine Baptist churches in that State, more than one-half of which he had assisted in forming. His name will long remain a household word in Minnesota. 

In the summer of 1874 he sailed for Europe. While abroad he visited the principal places of in­terest in Great Britain, many of the continen­tal cities, Greece, Constantinople, and Palestine. At Jaffa, prostrated by Syrian fever, he was taken to the hospital, where he died, Nov. 25, 1874. During his travels a number of highly interesting letters from his pen were published in the Watch­man and Reflector, of Boston. The death of no citizen of Minnesota ever occasioned more profound sadness, lie was buried in the 1”American Prot­estant Cemetery,” near the city of Jaffa.

(Cathcart, 430–31)

George Gardner (1828–1895)

George Gardner

“He has contributed to the pages of the Baptist Quarterly, published several missionary tracts, and was the Sunday-school editor of the Watchman and Reflector for 1871 and 1872.”

(Cathcart, 436)

Hiram Atwell Graves (1813–1850)

In 1842 he became the editor of the Christian Reflector, a Baptist weekly newspaper, published in Boston. He entered upon the duties of the office when the fortunes of the paper were at their lowest ebb. At once it was evident that an energetic man was at the helm of affairs. The moribund paper was lifted into new life. Its subscription list increased largely, and it was a power in the denomination, which made itself felt in every direction. At length it was united with the Christian Watchman, and under the new name of the Watchman and Reflector it was the most popular Baptist paper in all New England. 

Such hard and constant strain on his nervous system, as he was forced to endure to bring his paper up to the point where he finally left it, thoroughly exhausted him, and he was compelled to retire from his editorial chair and seek rest and recuperation in a milder climate. Three or four years were spent in the island of Jamaica. His disease was probably held in check, but it was not subdued. Feeling satisfied that he could not recover, he returned to his native land, and after lingering a few weeks, he died at his father’s house in Bristol, R. I., Nov. 3, 1850. 

The fame of Mr. Graves rests upon his accomplishments as an editor. Of him, as working in this department of Christian labor, Dr. Turnbull says,“He formed the character and laid the foundation of the prosperity of the Watchman and Reflector, the leading Baptist journal in New England, and one of the best papers in the country. 

Easy, versatile, and graceful, apt, also, in a high degree, with sufficient spice of wit and vigor, always sensible and often eloquent. his leaders, short or long, were the first things caught by appreciative readers. In full sympathy with the spirit of Christianity and the progress of the age in all benevolent enterprises, he threw himself into the grand movement of the church for the salvation of the world. Our educational, missionary, and philanthropic schemes are largely indebted to his judicious, earnest advocacy.”

(Cathcart, 466)

William Hague (1808–1876)

“He has also written much for the reviews and the periodical press, especially for the Watchman, of Boston, with which he was at one time connected editorially, and whose columns he has often enriched over his well-known signature “Herbert.” Dr. Hague is justly regarded as one of the ablest and most scholarly ministers of his denomination.”

(Cathcart, 485)

Alvah Hovey (1820–1903)

Alvah Hovey

“Dr. Hovey has contributed a large amount of matter to the Christian Review, the Baptist Quarterly, the Bibliotheca Sacra, the Examiner and Chronicle, the Watchman, the Standard, and other papers.”

(Cathcart, 547)

Heman Lincoln (1821–1887)

Heman Lincoln

“Dr. Lincoln has had much experience in writing for the press during all his professional life. For five years he was editorially connected with the Christian Chronicle, and for thirteen years with the Watchman and Reflector.”

(Cathcart, 703–704)

Richard M. Nott (1831–1880)

“In the summer of 1880 his health so failed that he was obliged to abandon his supply at Brookville, and also his valuable work in the Sunday-school department of The Watchman, the “Lesson Helps,” which were very satisfactorily prepared by him.”

(Cathcart, 859)

John W. Olmstead (1816–1891)

In 1846 he became editor of the Christian Reflector, of Boston. In 1848 the Watchman was united with it, and he filled the editorial chair of the consolidated papers until 1877. His ability as a religious journalist was fully demonstrated in his long and successful management of that paper… His life has been one of great usefulness and honor”

(Cathcart, 868)

George Whitefield Samson (1819–1896)

George Samson

He entered Brown University in September, 1835 ,and graduated in 1839. In the mean time he was an occasional correspondent of, and reporter for, the Christian Watchman, Boston… 

After four years of arduous labor, having specially prepared himself for the study of art and of Biblical archaeology, he spent a year in the East and in Western Europe, devoting half a year to Goshen, the Desert of Sinai, and Palestine; following the route of Napoleon’s engineers in1798–99 through the delta retraced by Seetzen in 1810, and personally finding the valley east of Jebel Mousa, regarded by early Christians as the place of Israel’s encampment, and since his visit recognized by French and German scholars. He satisfactorily identified also the sites of Christ’s birth, baptism, transfiguration, death, ascension, and other localities. A series of letters was written for the Watchman, of Boston ; three articles on Goshen were prepared for the Christian Review; one on Sinai for the Bibliotheca Sacra; a treatise on the places of New Testament baptisms; a small volume on spiritualism,—all appearing between 1848 and 1851. 

…No Baptist clergyman in the country is perhaps better known throughout the denomination than Dr. Samson.”

(Cathcart, 1024–25)

Lucius Smith (1822–1900)

In 1868 he entered upon his duties as literary editor of the Examiner and Chronicle, and held that office until 1876, when he was called to the chair of editor of the Watchman, which place he now occupies. 

Dr. Smith’s editorial calling seems to be the one for which he has special and most superior qualifi­cations. His experience in this line goes back to his student days, when for a year he was editor of the Williams Miscellany, a college magazine. Pres­ident Hopkins said at the expiration of that year’s work, “ I do not believe you are done with editing. I am inclined to think it is your vocation.” The event has justified the correctness of his confident assertions. Besides articles contributed to reviews, magazines, and various newspapers, Dr. Smith published, in 1852, “Heroes and Martyrs of the Missionary Enterprise, with an Historical Review of Earlier Missions.” The degree of D.D. was conferred upon him in 1869 by Williams College. Dr. Smith is held in the highest esteem in the extensive fields which he has cultivated.”

(Cathcart, 1071)

Joseph Stockbridge (1811–1894)

Having received an appointment as chaplain in the U. S. navy, he was ordained in New York in 1842, the sermon being preached by Rev. Dr. William R. Williams, from the appropriate text, Acts xxvii.24, “God hath given thee all them that sail with thee.” In the discharge of his official duties Dr. Stockbridge has visited many parts of the earth, and Occupied several stations as chaplain on land. He has also had intimate connections with the public press, both religious and secular. As a correspondent of The Watchman, under the signature of “Mallah” he has furnished a large amount of matter, especially in the form of interesting and instructive letters from foreign lands.”

(Cathcart, 1111)

Ebenezer Thresher (1798–1886)

Ebenezer Thresher

In 1834 he became editor of The Watchman, though his name did not appear in connection with the paper until1836, when he purchased the proprietorship from William Nichols, and held this three or four years.

(Cathcart, 1151)

Tremont Temple

Tremont Temle

Tremont Temple, Boston, Mass., was pur­chased early in 1843 by Timothy Gilbert, S. G. Shipley, Thomas Gould, and William S. Danwell for $55,000. It had been the Tremont Theatre.. The deed was executed in June, 1843. The object for which the edifice was bought by these gentle­ men was to secure a place of worship for the Tre­ mont Street Baptist church, where the seats should be free, that there might be free seats for the poor, and for strangers coming to the city to seek employ­ment, whose means would not allow them to rent, pews in other churches. 

…The church worshiping in the Temple has a membership of 1500, and, under the able ministry of F. M. Ellis,D.D., one of the largest congregations in the UnitedStates. It is known and designated as the headquarters of New England Baptists. The Missionary Union, the New England departments of the Home Mission Society and the Publication Society, the Woman’s Baptist Home and Foreign Missionary Societies, and the Watchman have rooms in the Temple.

(Cathcart, 1162–64)

James Upham (1815–1893)

In 1866 he retired from this position [president of the New Hampshire Literary Institute], and became one of the editors of the Watchman and Reflector. He held this office for several years with distinguished ability.

(Cathcart, 1185)

John E. Weston (1796–1831)

Henry Weston

Weston, Rev. John E., was born in Amherst, N. H., Oct. 13, 1796. On his mothers side he was of Huguenot descent, and had many of those qualities of character which we associate with those honored French refugees, who suffered so much for the sake of their religion. He estab­lished, in connection with Mr. Benjamin True, in 1818, the Christian Watchman, now The Watchman, of Boston, which has been in existence sixty-three years. His connection with the paper continued not far from three years. While thus engaged his religious impressions ripened into a full hope in Christ, and he was baptized by Rev. James M. Winchell, Feb. 22,1820, and connected himself with the church under the pastoral care of Rev. Dr. Sharp. Having given up his business as a printer, he now resolved to carry out his early purpose to secure a better intellectual training, with a view to entering the ministry. lie repaired to the Andover Phillips^ Academy, and subsequently put himself under the tuition of Rev. Dr. Bolles, of Salem, Mass.; then became a student of Columbian College, and com­pleted his theological studies in part at Andover and in part as a member of the first graduating class at Newton. He was ordained at East Cam­ bridge, Mass., Oct. 10, 1827, and was the pastor of the Baptist church in that place for four years. He resigned his charge May 27, 1831. An invita­tion had been extended to him to become the pas­ tor of the Baptist church in Nashua, N. II., but his work was nearly done. On his way to Nashua to fulfill an engagement he drove into a pond—it being a warm summer’s day—to refresh his horse. Unfortunately it was a dangerous place, and Mr. Weston leaped from the carriage, and, being unable to swim, was drowned. The sad event occurred July 2, 1831. Mr. Weston was father of the Rev. H. G. Weston, D.D., president of the Crozer Theological Seminary.

(Cathcart, 1234)