“May His Memory Be Increased!”: Benjamin B. Warfield on Robert Lewis Dabney and Race

“Those who knew him [Robert Lewis Dabney] best loved him most. His career was a distin­guished one; his contributions to the theological sciences are of the first order; his services to the Presbyterian Churches are inestimable: may not only his memory remain green, but his influence be increased through the coming years!”

Benjamin B. Warfield (1901)

Benjamin Breckinridge has been praised for being an outspoken opponent of racism during his time. How did this alleged “prophetic voice” on race in the Presbyterian churches, also endorse one of the most notorious Presbyterian racists of his time? The answer to that question complicates the popular reputation of Warfield as “a stalwart opposer of racism,” and may require (some of) us to adjust our estimations of him.

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851–1921) was professor of theology at Princeton Seminary from 1887 to 1921. In his lifetime he saw the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, and in a denomination with a long history with race and slavery, Warfield had ample opportunities to speak to issues of racism in the church.

In 2018, Fred Zaspel published an article titled, “Reversing the Gospel: Warfield on Race and Racism,” the abstract of which is that: 

“The giant of Old Princeton, B. B. Warfield, outspokenly condemned the racism and rigid segregation of American society of his day. His views were remarkably ahead of his time with regard to an understanding of the evil of racism and even somewhat prophetic with regard to the further evil that would result from it.”

“Reversing the Gospel,” 25.

Reading Zaspel’s account, one gets a very rosy picture of Warfield: 

“Social causes crop up only very seldom in his works, but one social cause stands out as one holding his particular interest: the cause of the American blacks. His literary output here was not extensive, to be sure, but it was pointed, revealing a deep sense of urgency about the issue.”

“Reversing the Gospel,” 25.

“in his condemning of racial pride Warfield was generations ahead of his time.”

“Reversing the Gospel,” 27.

“The plight of the freedmen and their children as Warfield presents it—as “virtually subjects and not citizens, peasants instead of freedmen,” though seven million of Americas then fifty million souls—is disturbingly revealing. “Wicked caste” was not at all overstating the case, Warfield insisted, and when he took up this cause he must have seemed a voice virtually alone.”

“Reversing the Gospel,” 28.

“Warfield’s convictions were ahead of his time. He was a needed corrective for his day whose voice was certainly not heeded enough. And he serves as a guide for us still today.”

“Reversing the Gospel,” 33.

“A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case”

“Twenty-First Annual Report of the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen” (1886)

Warfield served on the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America’s “Board of Missions for Freedmen” from 1885–1890 (see The Presbyterian Monthly Record of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America(1885), 328; The Presbyterian Monthly Record(1886), 321; Board of Missions for Freedmen twenty-second annual report, presented May 1887, 2). While on the Board, Warfield penned the only article on racial issues that he attached his name to, “A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case” (in The Church At Home and Abroad (1887)). In it he reflects on the condition of Black people (“Freedmen”) in American now twenty years after the Civil War, and ten years after the collapse of Reconstruction. Warfield reflects on slavery, and the duty of Christians to rise to the occasion to help Black people at this time.

James Moorhead calls the article “a curious mixture of paternalism, rationalization, and condescension on the one hand and, on the other, a realization of the evil of slavery’s systemic legacy and a fervent hope for a more egalitarian future” (Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture (2012), 253).

The only hint that Zaspel gives us that all might not be perfectly well with Warfield is this: “some could argue that we find even in Warfield traces of paternalistic sentiments that still bound him to his day” (33). Indeed, the article contains such lines as these:

“The southern slaveholders did what they could to teach a true Christianity to their slaves, and the results attained by them, which, all things considered, are nothing less than marvellous, are the sufficient proof not only of their own vital and yearning piety, but also of the strenuousness of their efforts to indoctrinate the souls which were in their charge with the truths of religion… When we grieve over the odd divorce of religion and morality which is so frequently met with among the blacks, let us not indeed blame the slaveholders for it, as if their Christian teaching was at fault, but let us equally remember that slavery itself is re­sponsible for it. I do not forget what contact with Christian masters of a higher race has done for the thousands of heathen savages which were being continually landed on our shores, up to the very outbreak of the war itself. Let any one simply compare the aver­ age self-respecting negro in America with the naked savage of the African forests, and thank God for the marvellous change.”

“A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case,” 62.

In the article, Warfield does oppose what he called the “spirit of caste” (64, 65), but even here he qualifies it:

“a caste which we cannot call unnatural when all the circumstances are taken into consideration, and which I should be one of the last too sharply to blame the South for entertaining…”

“A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case,”64.

Warfield’s mixed record and paternalism was acknowledged as early as 1983 (see W. Andrew Hoffecker, “Benjamin B. Warfield,” in Reformed Theology in America ed. David F. Wells, 83 n. 35) and Bradley Gundlach’s article, “Wicked Caste”: B. B. Warfield, Biblical Authority, and Jim Crow” (available on JSTOR), does an excellent job of exploring Warfield’s mixed record on race, and his “paternalistic sense of duty” to address Jim Crow in the Presbyterian church.

“Drawing the Color Line”

In “A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case,” Warfield addressed the positive role he saw for the church, and he put his name on it. Interestingly, the other article that is usually cited to prove Warfield’s opposition to racism was published anonymously, “Drawing the Color Line: A Fragment of History” by a “Disinterested Spectator” in the Independent (1888) (the original article can be found here). Gundlach gives the backstory to this article:

Warfield’s second anti-segregationist article, “Drawing the Color Line,” appeared in the liberal-tending New York religious newspaper, the Independent in July 1888. A note in one of his scrapbooks indicates that he wrote the piece for the New Princeton Review, but it was rejected there as being too strong… Warfield wrote forcefully against the sin of racism in society and the churches, but this time [in the Independent] chose to do so anonymously.”

“Wicked Caste,” 39.

In “Drawing the Color Line,” Warfield commented on a move to unite the northern and southern Presbyterian churches, a move that was having difficulty because of “the Negro question.”:

The Southern Presbyterian newspapers were practically unanimous in the assertion that the Church which they represented could never consent to reunion unless pledges were given that the colored churches should be organized into a separate denomination… At the recent meeting of the General Assembly at Philadelphia, it declared “its hearty approval of the general principles enunciated in the replies of the Committee to the inquiries propounded by our Southern brethren, as furnishing substantially a reflection of the views of this body touching the several subjects to which they relate.” Thus the whole Presbyterian Church, in both its branches, stands as fully committed to the color line as the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. 

“Drawing the Color Line,” 4.

Bradley Gundlach comments on the dynamic between Warfield and Robert Lewis Dabney. Throughout the 1880s, Dabney advocated strenuously against reunion between the Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches, becauseo f his racist views of Black pastors (see, for example Dabney, “The Atlanta Assembly and Fraternal Relations”). In fact, at the very time that Warfield was writing his articles, Dabney’s biographer Thomas Cary Johnson notes that “he [Dabney] wrote… a famous broadside in the Central Presbyterian, in 1887, against Fraternal Relations” (note: I have been unable to locate this “famous broadside”). Thus from opposite sides, Dabney and Warfield opposed the more “moderate” move toward reunification which entailed “overlooking” the issues of race that still permeated the Presbyteries. Gundlach reflects on this:

“It was bad enough when slaveholders in antebellum days had argued that slavery was necessary to the preservation of Southern (and even Christian) society; now Southern leaders were adding the vitriol of positive hatred for blacks, and cloaking it in a misguided notion of social need. Here Warfield may have had in mind the arguments of Robert Lewis Dabney, a fine ally in matters of conservative religious doctrine, but an outspoken racist and segregationist as well. It is striking that Warfield never took overt notice of the well-publicized social agenda of this otherwise sturdy doctrinal ally in a sister church. Here he impugns Dabney’s cause without confronting him by name, possibly preferring not to get embroiled in a print war on this topic. This may in fact explain his decision to make the article anonymous.”

“Wicked Caste,” 40.

Gundlach notes the cost for Warfield in doctrinal terms:

“That Warfield stood opposed to reunion with the Southern church and the likes of R. L. Dabney, which might be expected to prove staunch allies in the brewing fight with theological liberalism, shows just how strongly he felt about the issue of racism.” 

Wicked Caste,” 41.

So, even while opposing racism in the Presbyterian church, Warfield refrained from calling Dabney out by name. This selective silence would repeat itself again in future decades.

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church

Warfield’s two articles from 1887 and 1888 (plus one short poem, “Wanted–A Samaritan,” again, published anonymously under the pseudonym “Nicholas Worth, Jr.” in 1907) are all that we have from Warfield on race in his voluminous writings. There were many occasions that he could have addressed racism, Jim Crow, and lynching over the years, but the issue hit close to home again in 1904 when the southern Cumberland Presbytery sought union with the PCUSA, but one of the conditions was to allow segregated churches, something the PCUSA had not done before. This was spelled out explicitly in the plan for union, as the very first Recommendation:

“1. It is recommended that such a change be made in the Form of Government of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America as will allow additional or separate Presbyteries and Synods to be organized in exceptional cases, wholly or in part, within the territorial bounds of existing Presbyteries or Synods respectively, for a particular race or nationality, if desired by such a race or nationality.”

Minutes of the General Assembly of the  Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1904), 138.

This particular clause set off a chorus of opposition, particularly from Black pastors in the PCUSA. However, Warfield chose not to speak to this issue. He opposed union with the Cumberland Presbytery, but his reasons were doctrinal—because they were Arminians (see Warfield, “Ecclesiastical Note: The Proposed Union with the Cumberland Presbyterians,” The Princeton Theological Review (1904): 295–316.

Mark Noll comments on this:

“Warfield’s comments on this occasion are poignant because Warfield was one of the few Presbyterian leaders of his age to publish criticisms about the nation’s persistent race prejudice. Yet when Warfield went on record as opposing this reunion with the Cumberland church, his lengthy article addressed only theological issues with no mention of segregated presbyteries.” 

Mark A. Noll, “Theology, Presbyterian History, and the Civil War,” The Journal of Presbyterian History (2011), 13.

Noll’s comments are not quite accurate, but almost. While nearly all of Warfield’s 22 page article is devoted to the fine points of doctrinal and confessional differences between the Calvinist PCUSA and the historically Arminian Cumberland Presbytery, he does make a brief reference, and another (possible) veiled allusion to the issue of race:

Under the head of “ Recommendations” an additional sine qua non seems to be added to those included in the “Concurrent Declarations.” For though the matter here alluded to is put forward merely as a “recommendation,” it is subsequently included in the enumeration of those things which “shall have been adopted in their entirety” before “this entire plan of union shall be operative.” It is not clear what force the adjective “entire” here has. But it is clear that this “ recommendation” involves a matter of some import­ance, which demands careful and prudent handling. Its object is to provide in the united Church for what have been called “race Presby­teries.” Its terms are not mandatory but permissive: though the query may possibly arise whether the permission is intended to be given to the stronger or to the weaker “race..”

Warfield, “The Proposed Union with the Cumberland Presbyterians,” 296–97.

A little later he notes that:

“it is not clear to us that all the differences which have hitherto divided us—or ought still to divide us—reduce to differences of doctrine and polity” (299).

“The Proposed Union with the Cumberland Presbyterians,” 299.

What might some of these differences be? Warfield only hints at them in general terms:

“Similarly it were surely a grave mistake, to use no stronger word, for any two denominations to enter into a union which threatened to handicap either of them in any special mission which seemed to be committed to it in the world. The work of the Lord is more important than any union of Churches.

Are there no differences of this relatively secondary—but nevertheless possibly decisive—sort between the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, such as demand at least the most serious consideration when a union of the two bodies comes up for discussion? Differences, perhaps, in tra­ditions and that spirit which grows out of traditions; differences of training and that adaptation that grows out of training; differences in modes of work and the habits that grow out of long-settled modes of work; differences in theories of conduct and those principles of action in dealing with the problems that face the Churches of our day and land which are the outgrowth of these theories: differences, in fine, of mani­ fest mission, opportunities and facilities for special kinds of work, of providential equipment and call to particular tasks?” (301).

“The Proposed Union with the Cumberland Presbyterians,” 301.

Given Warfield’s work with the Board of Missions to Freedmen, was he referring to this as a “special mission” that would be handicapped by union with a segregationist church? By “traditions and that spirit which grows out of traditions” did he mean the “spirit of caste” he had opposed directly 17 years previously? By “differences in modes of work and habits that grow out of long-settled modes of work” did he mean the difference between cooperation with Black brothers and sisters and the partiality of segregation? If so, we can only wish that he would have said so more plainly. Warfield does give us a clue, because he again references the segregationist “Recommendations”:

“One or two such differences receive some mention, more or less full, in the subsidiary conditions of union, adverted to in the “ Concurrent Declarations” and “ Recommendations.”

But Warfield does not mean to spend any time addressing this issue directly:

We have no intention of entering upon a discussion of them here. Enough if this bare general reference explains and perhaps so far justifies the misgivings we have expressed as to whether a simple adoption of common Standards, doctrinal and ecclesiastical, provides a sufficient basis of union between the two Churches. If any of these differences affect seriously our furnishing for doing the work of the Lord or our well-considered modes of prose­cuting that work, they become obstacles to union of very considerable gravity. It is better that the work of the Lord should be done than that the Churches should unite.”

“The Proposed Union with the Cumberland Presbyterians,” 302.

Indeed, a “bare general reference” is all the treatment segregation would get from Warfield here; the rest of the article is devoted entirely to doctrinal matters, hence Noll’s conclusion that Warfield made “no mention of segregated presbyteries,” or Henry Ferry’s placing Warfield in the group “whose theological scruples centered on the issue of Arminian vs. Calvinistic interpretations of the Gospel,” as opposed to the group “whose concerns focused on… the core issue being segregated vs. integrated judicatories” (Ferry, “Racism and Reunion,” Journal of Presbyterian History (1972), 84). In the end, this opposition lost, and the PCUSA did unite with Cumberland on the racist terms proposed.

Warfield on Dabney

Gundlach notes that in spite of resisting efforts to formally unite with the Southern Presbyterians, Warfield collaborated with them in other ways:

“[Warfield] did, however, work closely with Southern Presbyterians in doctrinal matters through non-ecclesiastical means—namely, theological publications. Warfield founded and ran the Presbyterian and Reformed Review (1890–1902) as an independent effort of men from various denominational bodies, including the PCUS [formerly the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America].”

Gundlach, “Wicked Caste,” 46, n. 51

Mark Noll similarly comments on the Presbyterian and Reformed Review:

The effect of these decisions on theological emphases can be illustrated from the pages of the Presbyterian and Reformed Review, a new journal that began publication in 1890 under the editorship of theological leaders from the PCUSA [chiefly Warfield] and representatives from the German Reformed, Dutch Reformed, and Canadian Presbyterian churches. The journal’s first six years of publication, from 1890 to 1895, coincided with the peak years of race-based lynching and the final implementation in the South of Jim Crow laws, which carried on the Civil War’s entanglements over race… During these years the Presbyterian and Reformed Review published many scholarly studies on theology and church history, including at least forty-two separate articles on questions relating to biblical criticism—many monographic in length and quality—as well as a separate four-part series on the composition of Genesis. During the same period there were no major articles on race, Jim Crow, or the general treatment of African Americans.”

Mark Noll, “Theology, Presbyterian History, and the Civil War,” 9. 

In 1901, in a (perhaps) surprising move from one who spoke so pointedly against the “spirit of caste” decades before, Warfield took to the pages of the Presbyterian and Reformed Review to praise one of the most conspicuous white-supremacists of his era, Robert Lewis Dabney (for links to all eight of Warfield’s reviews of various books by and about Dabney, see “Benjamin B. Warfield on Robert Lewis Dabney: Eight Reviews (1891–1905)“). Warfield was reviewing the book In Memoriam: Robert Lewis Dabney, born, March 5th, 1820; died, January 3rd, 1898 (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 1899), a collection of addresses and papers written in honor of Dabney after his death in 1898 (Warfield’s review is available here). Warfield briefly surveys Dabney’s life and praises him highly:

Dr. Dabney, who since Dr. Thornwell’s death has been the most conspicuous figure and the leading theological guide of the Southern Presbyterian Church, who was the most prolific theological writer that Church has as yet produced, and who for a period of over forty years was one of the most distinguished and probably the most impressive teacher of its candidates for the ministry. As a preacher, as a teacher and as a writer equally he achieved greatness, and in the counsels of the State and of the Church alike he was a factor of impor­tance.

He credits Dabney for helping maintain orthodoxy:

What the American Presbyterian Churches are theologically to-day is in the largest measure due to their instruction: and together they present a revival and sustained advocacy of the historical Reformed faith which can be surpassed in few lands and epochs. 

He praises Dabney’s Systematic Theology as:

a solid piece of work, able to take its place worthily by the side of the Compendiums which have conserved the traditions of the Reformed Theology from its beginning—Bucanus, Amesius, Marckius—and to breathe into them the new life of our own time.

The only hint of a flaw in Dabney is this:

He is always robust and vigorous, certainly fortiter in re [firm in principle], if not always suaviter in modo [gentle in manner]. His convictions burned hot within him, and it must be confessed that sometimes passion swept him off of his feet, especially in his secular writings: but ordinarily his strong feelings were curbed by his powerful intellectual grasp and only gave force to his expression and carried his conviction home to the hearts he addressed. 

Thus is the only passing reference to Dabney’s lifelong racism, expressed repeatedly, not just in his “secular writings” but in his ecclesiastical and theological as well.

Warfield concludes his own tribute to Dabney like this:

Those who knew him best loved him most. His career was a distin­guished one; his contributions to the theological sciences are of the first order; his services to the Presbyterian Churches are inestimable: may not only his memory remain green, but his influence be increased through the coming years! 

This may seem perplexing—“may his influence be increased through the coming years!”—given that Warfield had directly opposed that influence in his own lifetime. But apparently, the cause of Presbyterian Orthodoxy trumped these considerations, even for Warfield. Warfield had refrained from naming Dabney when addressing racism in 1887–88, and he now refrained from mentioning racism when addressing Dabney’s life. His careful silence is maintained.

This was not the only time Warfield addressed Dabney’s life and legacy. In 1905 (just one year after the Cumberland controversy) Warfield took to the pages of the Princeton Theological Review (the PRR ceased publication in 1902) to review Thomas Cary Johnson’s The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney (1903) (Warfield’s review is available here). Again, he praises Dabney highly, referencing his previous article:

“We have briefly expressed the high value we place upon his services to theological science and to the life of the Presby­terian Churches in The Presbyterian and Reformed Review for August, 1901 

And once again, he dances around Dabney’s racism:

It must be confessed that the robustness of his views and the vigor with which he expressed them have, especially outside of the spheres of philoso­phical and theological matters where his thought was most at home, betrayed him occasionally into extremities of opinion. This will not, however, be permanently remembered against him. When all is said, he was a man of light and leading, who served his own generation well, and if unable to rise wholly above the provincialism powerfully fostered by the circumstances in which his life was passed, yet always worth listening to and always to be learned from. 

And again, Warfield closes with a call to honor Dabney and extend his influence:

Probably Dr. Dabney is at once the most voluminous theological writer and the most influential character which the Pres­byterian Church of the United States (commonly called the Presbyterian Church, South) has yet produced. Not only that Church, but all Presbyterians owe him a debt of gratitude for his distinguished services to the truth we hold in common; and we shall all do well to honor his memory, and to extend the influence of his powerful advocacy of the truth that was to him his very life. 

“Warfield—champion of racial justice” is far too simplistic. “Warfield the paternalistic but well-meaning opposer of segregation” is better, but still misses some of his later development. “Warfield—collaborator with and promoter of racist segregationists” also needs to be considered. “Warfield—silent on racial issues at crucial moments, and reluctant to rebuke racists by name” also necessary.

Francis Grimké: A True Prophet

Fred Zaspel has presented Warfield to us as a “prophetic voice” who was “ahead of his times” and who stood “virtually alone” against racism and segregation in the Presbyterian church. But is that accurate? Or does that assessment betray a very limited scope of comparison, namely, to other white Presbyterians? If you compare Warfield to other white Christians at the time, he looks good by comparison. But what if we compare him with Black Presbyterians? Does he really come out so far “ahead” of his own times? So prophetic? So “alone”? One figure we must bring in for comparison is Warfield’s contemporary Francis J. Grimké (1850–1937).

Francis J. Grimké

Warfield and Grimké overlapped often throughout their lifetimes. Warfield attended Princeton Seminary at the same time (1873–76) as Grimké (1874–78). At the time that Warfield was serving on the Board of Missions for Freedmen (1885–1890), Grimké was serving as a “missionary” in that organization in Jacksonville, Florida (1885–1889) (see The Presbyterian Monthly Record (1886), 118–119). Warfield’s “A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case” appears side by side with Grimké’s, “Earnest Words from a Colored Missionary,” in The Church At Home and Abroad (Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1887). And later, as Warfield was protesting the Cumberland union over doctrinal issues, Grimké was opposing it because it would formally codify the “color line” in the PCUSA.

Just a survey of Grimké’s works during the era we have considered here paints a start contrast to Warfield’s halting, compromised, and anonymous “prophetic stance.”

In 1888 Warfield critiqued the proposed union with Southern segregationists anonymously. In “It is Drawing the Color Line,” Grimké took to the pages of the New-York Evangelist and wrote over his name and church address in Florida. In 1904, Warfield would only vaguely allude to racism; Grimké spoke at the General Assembly in opposition, again in his own Washington Presbytery (alongside Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan), and published his opposition in pamphlet form as “An Argument Against the Union of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.”

In addition to these two specifically Presbyterian occasions to speak, Grimké wrote on numerous occasions, including opposing lynching, the Atlanta Race Massacre, and many many more.

Grimké’s biographer, Henry Justin Ferry, concludes that Grimké was a “a prophet without honor in his own country” ( Ferry, “Racism and Reunion: A Black Protest by Francis J. Grimké,” Journal of Presbyterian History (1972), 88). Indeed, Grimke’s repeated, public stance against racism earns him the title “prophet.” Zaspel’s lauding of Warfield only makes sense within an entirely white frame of reference. In fact, the dismissal (by omission) of the powerful witness of Black voices is frankly astonishing. If you compare Warfield with Dabney, Warfield looks like a saint. If you compare Warfield with Grimké, his silence and anonymity is deafening. It’s time we recalibrated our criteria for “prophetic” and it’s time we elevated some new figures into the pantheon. Contrary to Warfield’s opinion, that’ does not include Dabney. It might include Warfield himself. It certainly needs to include Grimké.

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