(Note: this post is the conclusion to a series; see “John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney,” for an introduction and links to the other articles)
The last time John Piper or Desiring God referenced Robert Lewis Dabney was in 2018, on three separate occasions. These included the first explicit acknowledgement of Dabney’s white-supremacy, but also included continued recommendations, and finally, a call from Piper to do just what I have attempted to do in this series.
Providence is No Excuse
In some ways this whole “Dabney project” started for me in January 2018. I was in my second year of the MDiv program at Bethlehem College & Seminary, and we were taking a J-Term course taught by John Piper titled “Sightings of the Sovereignty of God: Issues and Applications of Divine Providence.” There were two textbooks for this one-week course: John Piper, The Pleasures of God and Roger Olson, Against Calvinism. As I read The Pleasures of God I noticed the references to Dabney (see “The Great Pattern of American Manhood”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 3).
I should back up a little. In October 2017 I had picked up Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s Theology of Prayer because it had been recommended by Desiring God (“What Are Some Books DG Recommends?”). I wanted to know who Palmer was, so I googled his name, and learned that he was a Presbyterian pastor who used the doctrine of providence to justify slavery (see my thoughts from that time here). I learned from this to always look up an author to get context for their book.
So I was curious—did Dabney do the same thing? Did he also use “providence” to justify racism and slavery? I did a little searching, and started finding things like “Ecclesiastical Equality of the Negro,” and was stunned. I asked Piper after class one day, “Will we be discussing the way the doctrine of ‘providence’ has been used by Christians to justify evil?”
“Like Dabney, racism, and slavery.”
After hearing me out a little, he asked, “Would you be willing to write an article on this for Desiring God?”
So I did, and it was published the following week: “Providence Is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist.” The point of the article was not that Dabney was a theologian who just happened to be a white-supremacist, as if those were two separate things, but that the two were intertwined: his racism actually infected his theology, and his theology reinforced his racism.
The reactions were interesting. Many people were appreciative, and since then, it’s been gratifying to know that others have continued to find it helpful. I think I was a little näive, however, to think that all people needed was to see the truth, and of course they would begin to see things rightly. The reactions were initially surprising to me. I was called all kinds of names on social media (see: “Social Justice Dung,” and other thoughts on Dabney“); I was accused of denying the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” (see “On Censoring Dabney and Denying “Sola Fide”); I found myself on a “side” when I didn’t know there were sides—“isn’t everyone opposed to white-supremacy?,” I thought.
This was 2018, and things were heating to a boiling point in evangelicalism more broadly. Later that year we would see the MLK50 conference in Memphis on one side, and then The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel on the other, and the chasm widened.
“Leave Your Century for a While”
A few months later, Piper published an article titled “Leave Your Century for a While: Why I Read Christian Biographies,” as part of the promotion for his new book. As a young pastor, Piper says that “one of the ways I pursued wisdom for the pastoral work in front of me was the reading of pastoral biographies.” He enjoyed reading Warren Wiersbe’s short biographies, but found Iain Murray’s particularly helpful:
But one of the most enjoyable and inspiring things I did to deepen my grasp of the pastoral calling was to listen to a master life-storyteller, Iain Murray. Murray had been a pastoral assistant with Martyn Lloyd-Jones in London and had served as a pastor in two churches in England and Australia. He is a co-founder of the Banner of Truth Trust, and has devoted a great part of his life to biographical writing.
He is well known for his biographies of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Jonathan Edwards, to mention only two. But not as many people know that Iain Murray is a master at taking an hour in a ministerial conference and telling the story of a great Christian in a way that instructs and inspires. For example, even today you can go online and find the (forty-plus-year-old) audio stories of Charles Spurgeon, Robert Dabney, William Tyndale, Ashbel Green, George Whitefield, John Knox, John Newton, William Jay, Thomas Hooker, and more.
The latest technology in the early 1980s was the Walkman — a small cassette player that let me take Murray with me on my morning jogs or in the car. I listened to everything biographical I could get. This stoked the embers of my affections for biography.
Piper provides links to each of these biographical messages, including Robert Lewis Dabney’s. The Dabney biography can be found on Youtube (“Iain Murray – Life of Robert L. Dabney (Christian biography)”) and was also hosted on The Gospel Coalition website until recently pulled from the website (as of December 6, 2021).
Unfortunately, (like his biography of Edwards), Murray’s biography of Dabney is more of a hagiography, and in it, Murray whitewashes Southern slavery, and promotes the myth of the Lost Cause on the Civil War. A full transcription of the message can be found here: “‘Dabney was truly a Caleb’: Iain Murray’s biography of Robert Lewis Dabney.”
Here are a few quotes:
“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.”
“ 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.”
“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.”
Is this where Piper was first exposed to Dabney in a meaningful way? If this happened early in Piper’s ministry, as he says, then it is Iain Murray’s version of Dabney that Piper inherited, and Piper would have had to actively work against the “hero-worship” in order to see the true Dabney.
Regardless, in 2018 there was no caveat in Piper’s recommendation of Murray’s biographies, not even of Dabney. And, consistent with the list of “Books that Desiring God Recommends,” there is not a single link to a biography of a Black Christian — no Lemuel Haynes, no Daniel Payne, no Francis Grimké. In part, this is because Piper is simply passing along Murray’s biographies, and Murray, as far as I can tell, never considered a Black Christian worthy of biographical treatment in this long list of biographies. But Piper himself never delivered any biographies of Black Christians for the “encouragement” of his own conference attendees and readers. His own book, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy, which collects all of Piper’s biographical messages over the years, does not include a single African American Christian. Once again, Piper’s dream of “a single stream” proves to be just a dream, not a reality, even in his own work.
“Flag It, Wave It, Acknowledge It”
In July 2018, Piper did an interview with Justin Taylor for the “Theologians on the Christian Life” conference called “Friends You Need Are Buried in the Past: Q&A on Reading Christian Biographies.” (As an aside, notice that there is not a single African American in that book series either). In the interview, Piper was asked “How do we think of the unrepentant and ongoing blind spots and sins of our heroes such as Edwards and MLK?”
Piper responded with this:
“The first thing I would say is that no one is helped by whitewashing our heroes, your heroes. No one has been helped by it… you don’t benefit by whitewashing your heroes. You won’t ever ask yourself the hardest questions about life if the people you love are whitewashed and you don’t ever come to terms with their sinfulness.”
Then Piper said this, and referenced Dabney specifically:
“And another thought comes to my mind, namely, that if you see in Edwards, Luther, Dabney, if you see sin, you should flag it, wave it, acknowledge it. That’s why the book, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy has the subtitle Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful. “Flawed” — put that right on the cover. If you see it, you should wave the flag and then be alert. Where might that have infected the theology I love, right? So I love Jonathan Edwards’s theology, but his theology didn’t keep him from having blind spots. So why not? Is there something about his theology I could discern where it needs to be tweaked so that if he would have had that right, then he would have had this right? That’s a huge benefit from acknowledging the sins. It makes us intensify our vigilance over our appropriation of their theology.”
I think this is right, and in some ways, this is what this “Dabney project” has been, an effort to “flag it, wave it, acknowledge it” and then to ask “where might that have infected the theology I love?” But in addition, I’ve been driven to take a step back even further and ask “How did we get here? How did a white-supremacist become one of our theological heroes in the first place? How and why did that happen?” And that has driven me to further historical and historiographical questions, because understanding how and why we got here tells us something out ourselves.
As we conclude this series, I want to go back again for some insights that cast light on the Reformed movement as whole. In 1985 George Marsden offered an insightful analysis of what it meant to be “Reformed and American,” (in Reformed Theology in America, edited by David F. Wells). The book as a whole is consistent with the pattern we have seen, in that while there are chapters devoted to Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, James Henry Thornwell, and Robert Lewis Dabney, there is not a single chapter devoted to Black Presbyterians, and the index contains not even a single reference to a figure like Francis Grimké.
Nevertheless, Marsden’s chapter is insightful for understanding what it means to be “[White,] Reformed and American” as we take a step back and reflect on this series as a whole. Marsden described how even in the 1980s, “within most of the larger Reformed denominations, conservatives and progressives are locked in intense struggles over the true meaning of the faith” (1). He described three main types: the “doctrinalist,” the “culturalist,” and the “pietist,” acknowledging that there are spectrums and mixtures of each. Marsden then gave a historical survey of the various streams which is fascinating, and well worth looking up. His conclusion, though, is telling:
“Perhaps the greatest fault of American Reformed communities since Puritan times is that they have cultivated an elitism. Ironically, the doctrine of election has been unwittingly construed as meaning that Reformed people have been endowed with superior theological, spiritual, or moral merit by God himself… The great irony is that … the doctrine of grace ought to cultivate humility as a conspicuous trait of Reformed spirituality… Yet too often Reformed people have been so totally confident of their own spiritual insights that they have been unable to accept or work with fellow Reformed Christians whose emphases may vary slightly.”Marsden, “Reformed and American,” 11.
This rings true to me. The white American Reformed tradition has been so proud of its theological precision, that it was unwilling to learn from other Christians, especially the Black church. The dream of “a single river” will never become a reality until this theological pride is repented of. Further, this confident elitism blinds us to the glaring sins in the tradition, like racism, and chattel slavery. They result in a movement with enslavers enshrined as “heroes” and a reluctance to look those realities squarely in the face.
It’s interesting to me that over the years, on some issues, Piper has been willing to name names and battle publicly for a position. When the Sovereignty of God was at stake, Piper publicly disputed with Greg Boyd and advocated for his removal from Bethel Seminary. Over the doctrine of hell, Piper famously said “Farewell, Rob Bell.” But he has not been willing to do this over racism. Piper has never been willing to publicly critique Douglas Wilson, and my article is the only time Desiring God has done this with Robert Lewis Dabney.
What we choose to say (and not to say) affects the streams of history. What Mark Noll said of Dabney’s fellow Southern Presbyterian James Henry Thornwell applies equally to Dabney: “To an uncomfortably large degree, Thornwell’s reputation rested on the accidents of American social development” (“The Bible and Slavery,” 69). Noll offers this as a corrective to Eugene Genovese’s claim that “Thornwell was ‘arguably, second to none [among theologians] in the United States.’” In other words, is their theology actually “so intrinsically good” that it necessarily rises to the top? Or are there historical processes that explain how a person’s reputation is created, maintained, and passed along to others? I think Mark Noll’s corrective is also warranted in the case of Dabney. His vaunted reputation rests on historical accidents, both in his time, and for a century and a half to follow.
But such is true of all of history. Value-laden judgments of historical figures (“the ‘best’ theologian”; “the ‘greatest’ preacher”), are inescapably the product of historical accident, as reputations are formed, deconstructed, books are published, go out of print, are rediscovered and republished, passed along from hand to hand, by word of mouth, and “Recommended Reading” lists. We were told to esteem and read and emulate Jonathan Edwards and Robert Lewis Dabney, as much because of the these historical accidents, as because of any intrinsic worth in their theology. Other authors, theologians, and faithful Christians whose lives were more worthy of our attention and emulation have been lost (or erased) from the pages of history, and ignored in the “Recommended Reading” lists. As Thabiti Anyabwile has said, “we should actually imagine and pursue a different canon for a different future.”
“The Truth Demands It”
Someone told me recently that I had “reduced Dabney to his sins” which was “un-neighborly.” Have I been unfair to Dabney in this process? Have I been uncharitable? On the contrary, I believe I have treated Dabney exactly as he would have wished to be treated. Here’s how his first biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, opens up the preface to his book:
“An effort has been made to present, as nearly as possible, the genuine Robert Lewis Dabney in this book. He did not relish the thought of being trimmed to suit the notions of an author or an editor, and thus presented to the public. When his Collected Discussions were being brought out, there was some criticism of one of the articles to be presented in the first volume. The critic made the point that the article objected to would injure Dr. Dabney’s reputation if republished. The Doctor, on hearing this, turned somewhat sharply us, and said: ‘What do you think of this? Do you like the plan of trimming a man, whose life and work you would perpetuate, to suit your notions, and then handing the resultant down as if it were real?’ We made answer, that it seemed to us that, if a man’s works and life are worthy of preservation through the medium of the press, they and he should be handed down as they were, warts and all. He replied emphatically, ‘The truth demands it, sir.’ The memory of this little conversation helps to explain the presence of some features of the book. He was so intensely honest that he would have abhorred any effort to present him sheared to the demands of current moral and religious tastes.”Johnson, Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, v.
I think that Dabney would similarly bristle at the idea that his support of slavery and white-supremacy was merely a “blind spot.” White supremacy was something he believed in to the core of his being, and fought for to the end of his life. I think he would have considered it dishonorable to treat him otherwise. “Oh Robert, you didn’t really mean to say that, did you?” — “Oh yes! And let me say it again! and again! and again!” In fact, I imagine that if Dabney is indeed in heaven right now, he is looking down on my project and grateful that some of the damage of his sins is being undone. In fact, I wonder if he would applaud this project, and join the chorus encouraging us to read Francis Grimké instead.
Dabney as a Case Study and a Litmus Test
As American evangelicals continue to struggle to make progress on issues of racial justice and reconciliation, I think that Robert Lewis Dabney makes for an instructive case study, as we have seen throughout this series. If we can figure out what went happened here, we might start to make the tiniest bit of progress on the larger issues of race and justice and the church.
Dabney certainly is a litmus test for me — if you offer unqualified praise for Dabney, my response is to be:
- skeptical about your historical awareness/ignorance;
- skeptical about what you have to say about race in the church and/or social justice;
- skeptical about your claims regarding the implications of the gospel;
- skeptical about your assessment of “good theology”; or
- all of the above.
If you consider the entire scope of John Piper and Desiring God’s work, he/they have not offered “unqualified praise” of Dabney, at least when you consider my article and his comments in 2018. I am thankful that he was willing to publish my article, and has encouraged others to “flag it, wave it, acknowledge it.” But when I also consider the decades long span of his work, for most of those years he repeatedly commended a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney to thousands of pastors, church leaders, and readers. When I consider the question “how and why was Robert Lewis Dabney commended to a generation of reformed evangelicals?” John Piper has played a significant role.
Rivers in the Desert
When I consider “what happened to the vision of ‘a single river’ and the ‘Black and Reformed’ movement of the 2000s?” the case of Robert Lewis Dabney is one piece of that puzzle. We’re in a different place in 2021 than we were in 2001 or 2011. Is there still hope for that “single river” to materialize this side of eternity? As things stand, white Reformed evangelicalism has shown little interest in changing, finding ever ready reasons to resist “social justice”; fear-mongering around Critical Race Theory; “anti-wokeness”; and who knows what so-called “threats to the gospel” 2022 might bring?. But there are also some encouraging signs of white evangelicals leaving behind those streams and seeking others. That single river might still happen, though probably not from “the mountain stream of Reformed theology,” but from elsewhere. As many feel lost as their familiar institutions fracture and crumble around them, who have tasted bitterness in the streams they looked to for refreshing water, and now feel like they are wandering in the wilderness, we should remember that we serve a liberating God who “makes a way in the sea, and a path through the mighty waters,” who makes “a road in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.”
I give waters in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert,
To give drink to My people, My chosen.
This people I have formed for Myself;
They shall declare My praise.Isaiah 43: 16, 19, 20–21