Robert Lewis Dabney in The Christian Intelligencer, 1872–73

In 1872 and 1873, Robert Lewis Dabney wrote a couple of articles for The Christian Intelligencer, a New York paper published by members of the Protestant Reformed Dutch Church, which ran from 1830 to 1920. His biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, describes them thus:

“During these years he contributed a great mass of matter to the reviews and periodicals, some on religious themes and matters connected with the interpretation of the Scriptures, and some on political and sociological topics… He wrote several papers for the Christian Intelligencer, which were interesting reading, e. g., “Description of Negro Worship in Richmond and Lynchburg, Ante and Post Bellum,” December 1872; “Description of Negro Theology,” January 1873, et al.

Thomas Cary Johnson, The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 337.
The Christian Intelligencer

The two articles were a little bit tricky to find, because neither the titles nor the dates match Johnson’s descriptions, perhaps because he was working from Dabney’s original papers, rather than from the published articles themselves. The articles were written anonymously, signed “Observer,” but each article is given the provenance of “Hampden Sidney,” which is where Dabney lived at the time, and the subjects of the two articles match Johnson’s description. The racist condescension is hard to read, though I suppose, no harder than his other works. Here is Dabney, the white-supremacist, going to visit a Black church in order to be entertained, and then writing about it for the newspaper. Unsurprisingly, this racist white Presbyterian has nothing but criticism for Black Methodist church practice and theology. He critiques their “enthusiasm”; their reliance on the Spirit; their appreciation for supernatural conversions; their belief in “religious excitement” (what he calls the “New Measures”); and their doctrine of sanctification. The articles are condescending, and completely of a piece with the view of white Southern Presbyterians at the time (see, for example, this thread). I hesitated to even publish these, except that I think it’s valuable for the sake of the historical record.

Here are transcriptions of the two articles:

  • “Two Pictures,” The Christian Intelligencer, Thursday, November 14, 1872 (pdf here |original here).
  • “Peculiar Religious Opinions of Southern Freedmen,” The Christian Intelligencer, Thursday, January 9, 1873 (pdf here | original here).

Here are a few quotes:

“In the pulpit was the Rev. Dr. Robert Ryland, the pastor of this flock—I scarcely need say a white divine (as the laws of Virginia did not permit the public exercise of the ministerial office by a black), and President of the flourishing “Richmond College.”

“But the thing which I chiefly observed was, of course, the performance of the black men, who led in prayer. With this I was both disappointed and gratified; disappointed, because the prayers were so devoid of all that might have met a thirst for novelty—so very much, in a word, like what one expects from intelligent white Christians; gratified, because of their general propriety.”

“But my first statement is almost universally true, within my acquaintance: that they are all reluctant to accept any religious guidance, or derive any religious opinions, from the Southern white people, and especially from former masters. This temper shows itself surprisingly in nearly all the more intelligent Christians among them, as well as in the more fanatical; even the older church-members, whose religious character was chiefly formed under the instruction and example of intelligent Christian masters, and who seemed before to submit to that guidance with full satisfaction, are now as jealous and distant as the rest… The great body obstinately separate themselves. The great cause is this feeling: that it will be a badge of subserviency to their recent masters to derive their religious opinions from that quarter. Should they do so, they would not be really free. This feeling has doubtless been fanned by designing intruders, who wish to monopolize the religious influence among them for political purposes. The blacks also show an almost universal unwillingness to receive any instruction in politics from their former masters; and for precisely the same reasons. 

“Thus it not seldom happens that the most zealous religionists are the most thoroughly dishonest and licentious; and these delusions, with their spiritual pride, seal their consciences against all warning, and sear them as with a hot iron. The considerate reader will see from the above how necessary, and at the same time how arduous, is the work of communicating to these people a true scriptural knowledge. Satan seems to have exercised his most consummate ingenuity in placing them under influences where it is as nearly hopeless to reach them for good as any work can be that has divine grace as a helper.”

This last quote is laden with irony for me. Dabney, the most zealous theologian, is the most thoroughly racist, partial and divisive toward his Black brothers and sisters. And his racist delusions, with his spiritual pride, sealed his conscience against all warning, and seared it as with a hot iron. How arduous was the work of trying to communicate to him a true scriptural knowledge. Satan seems to have exercised his most consummate ingenuity in placing Dabney, and other Reformed white-supremacists, under influences where it was nearly hopeless to reach them for good.

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