“Dabney was truly a Caleb”: Iain Murray’s biography of Robert Lewis Dabney

Over the years, Iain Murray has delivered a number of biographical messages of various Christian theologians and pastors. Among them is a biography of Robert Lewis Dabney. The date of this message is unknown, but seems to be sometime in the 1960s when Banner of Truth had just reprinted two volumes of Dabney’s Discussions (for more on this, including Murray’s partnership with Mississippi segregationists, see ““A Leading Theologian”?: Herman Bavinck on Robert Lewis Dabney“).

Murray’s biography of Dabney is available on Youtube as well as on the The Gospel Coalition website.

The message is over an hour long and covers Dabney’s whole life. I have transcribed it, and a pdf of the transcription is available here:

Frankly, the message is a hagiography of Dabney, as well as a Lost Cause version of the Civil War, and an apology for Southern slavery.

One of Murray’s purposes in delivering the message coincided with Banner of Truth’s reprinting of Dabney’s Discussions, and Murray makes this explicit:

Dabney’s works have never been printed in this country, I should think practically impossible to buy any Dabney books in our second hand bookshop for that reason.

I have two reasons why I chose the subject of Robert Lewis Dabney for this morning’s session… The second reason then is that I wanted to say something which perhaps would encourage more reading of Dabney’s theological writing and to that end we brought with us from London quite a number of Dabney’s Discussions

He concludes his message with this:

Let me then commend these precious volumes to you. Two volumes, you who’ve got sons, you should buy copies so that they’ll have them too, and another generation will not forget this man as our fathers forgot him.

Murray lauds Dabney to his listeners:

His life gives us the most impressive example, that I know, of courage and heroism in the Christian ministry. I mean, of course, outside the pages of Scripture, but outside the pages of Scripture, I do not know a life which is more moving in terms of the quality of courage and endurance than the life of Robert Dabney. Dabney was truly a Caleb.

His biographer, speaking of Dabney as a spiritual Christian, comes to this conclusion: “as a holy man, he deserves to be ranked with Augustine and Calvin, Owen and Baxter and Edwards. Dr. Dabney was a great man. We cannot tell just how great yet. One cannot see how great Mount Blanc is while standing at its foot. 100 years from now, men will be able to see him better”

We get the hint early on that Murray intends to downplay the horrors of Southern slavery with euphemism and understatement. He describes Dabney’s childhood like this:

His father was a local magistrate, farmer, colonel of the militia, a man who owned a farm, where there were wheat and corn and tobacco, and in that environment, country environment, Dabney grew up. It was of course, a typical Southern farm, with Negroes in the family, with the structure of society that existed before the civil war still in force.

According to Murray, the enslaved were “in the family,” and the systemic injustice of enslavement is called “the structure of society.” Later on in the message, Murray turns toward a full-throated apology for Southern slavery:

Then one must bear in mind of course that there were great differences and discrepancies in the way that slaves were treated in the South. Slaves in Christian homes, were almost always as much, as it were, a part of the family, as anyone else. They were born in the home, they lived there, they were nursed there, they were cared for, they died there. One of Dabney’s reasons why he could not go to Princeton was that it would break up his family, and by his family of course he included his slaves.

 I am quite convinced that in the hearts of these Christians in the South, I say Christians in the South, there was very great regard and love to their colored slaves and servants.

To rebut this, one needs simply to look at how Dabney treated his own slaves: “transfer some of your own troubles to the backs of the cuffies”; “I have hired a man more whipable than those we had last”; “beat him into good behavior” (“Robert Lewis Dabney Papers, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville”).

Murray gives a double-barrel case for the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War. First, Murray emphasizes the issue of “states rights” in the abstract, without any reference to the fact that it was specifically the states’ rights to enslave Black people. For example, here is a quote from the 1864 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, at which Dabney was present:

“We hesitate not to affirm that it is the peculiar mission of the Southern Church to conserve the institution of slavery, and to make it a blessing both to master and slave

Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, 293.

But Murray emphasizes this:

But there existed in the years that followed [the 1780s], considerable tension between their loyalty to their own identity as a state and their loyalty to the union. And this tension was at the heart of the troubles which led up to the civil war in 1861. You, of course, you’ll expect me to enlarge upon that, but that is the heart of the story. There were those who believed that their first loyalty was to their state. There were others who believed that state loyalty had been superseded by loyalty to the union. The southerners adhered to the view that state loyalty was the primary loyalty.

Murray claims that the issue of slavery was northern propaganda:

I had wanted to say something on the attitude of these men to the Negro question and the slavery question because of course it was the great propaganda of the North and propaganda that was accepted by the world that the civil war was fought simply for the abolition of slavery. I think I can give you sufficient evidence to show that that simply cannot be true… They were not fighting to preserve slavery

Murray joins Dabney, and the entire league of the Lost Cause, in praising Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. In fact, in a strange twist, a good portion of Dabney’s biography is actually devoted to Jackson:

Stonewall Jackson was the commander of what became known as the Stonewall Brigade, the army of Northern Virginia, probably the greatest general that the Southern army had. And certainly one of the greatest generals in history.

Murray gets so engaged in describing Jackson’s military “genius,” that he stops partway through and remarks “Well, I’m not here to speak about the battles,” which prompted knowing laughter from his audience. He praises Jackson’s Christian character:

Well, I must say something, however, on the Christianity of Stonewall Jackson. Robert Lee and Jackson were both outstanding Christians. There’s no, I think, there’s no one who questions that.

Murray makes one allusion to Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy:

Some of you are aware that Dabney, like us all, sometimes spoke illadvisedly with his lips, and there are on record certain words spoken on the color issue by Dabney, which had better not have been spoken.

Indeed, see “What’s So Bad About R. L. Dabney?” and see for yourself. “Sometimes” is understating it–this was a major theme of Dabney’s life as a writer and a churchman. Nevertheless, Murray wishes to highlight how white Southern Presbyterians in the south, like Dabney and John L. Girardeau, really did “love” Black people, and did not wish to exclude them from the church. What Murray leaves out, is that these white leaders wanted to keep Black people in the church so that they could maintain their control over them (see this thread for example, which treats both Dabney and Girardeau).

Murray references the fact that Dabney was opposed to reunion with Northern Presbyterians “on two grounds” but says “I’ll mention only one of them,” namely, the issue of new methods in evangelism that Dabney was opposed to. Murray conveniently leaves out the other reason: his white-supremacy. Here’s Dabney himself on the issue in question (warning: it’s vile!):

It means, of course, that we must imitate the church which absorbs us, in the ecclesiastical amalgamation with negroes; accepting negro presbyters to rule white churches and judge white ladies; a step which would seal the moral and doctrinal corruption of our church in the South, and be a direct step towards that final perdition of Southern society, domestic amalgamation… For, let any man look on the negro character calmly, and he will see that the introduction of any, the smallest, element of negro rule in our church, means moral and doctrinal relaxation, and ecclesiastical corruption, poisoning the life-blood of our churches… Merge our churches with the North, and at once we poison the noble Synods of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia with the infusion of the black “Synod of Atlantic;” with the prospect of the similar corruption of our whole Southern church.

“The Atlanta Assembly and Fraternal Relations,” (1882) in Discussions, Volume 2, 524–25

Murray would have know about this quote, because it’s contained in Volume 2 of the very books he was selling at the conference.

Murray quotes favorably Dabney’s strong stand “Against a false anti-biblical secularism, a philanthropy which was not Christian,”neglecting to note that by this, Dabney included the “cruelty” of abolitionism (“Crimes of Philanthropy”).

Murray favorably quotes Dabney on his opposition to women’s rights:

If you read him on woman’s rights, for example, you will find a most heart stirring appeal. He believed that it was not only a woman’s duty to be in the home, but that was her highest privilege, and the movement for the vote to be given to woman and for woman’s in society to be equal to man, that movement, he saw, as one of the greatest perils to the United States, and I haven’t time to read from him, but you’ll feel that if you read him. That is a whole area of Dabney, which is very relevant for the present time. There’s an anti-biblical theory of rights and it is that which he is concerned to oppose…

Certain circles of Reformed evangelicalism have held Iain Murray in high esteem, especially for his work at Banner of Truth. It’s time that Murray’s views of Dabney, the Confederacy, and Southern slavery were known.

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