Robert Lewis Dabney: An Index

Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was a Southern Presbyterian pastor, Confederate soldier, and seminary theology professor. He was also a venomous white-supremacist. Though he died over a century ago, in the 1960s his reputation was rehabilitated when Iain Murray and the Banner of Truth republished his writings and commended him to a new generation of Reformed Evangelicals in America. As a result, a number of leading evangelical figures began to read, cite, and commend Dabney to their followers. Only recently has the problematic elements of his thought, including his white-supremacy, been acknowledged. This page is an index of a number of articles and compilations of sources I’ve written on Dabney and his legacy.

Robert Lewis Dabney: Primary Sources

What’s So Bad about Robert Lewis Dabney?

Start here if you’ve never encountered Dabney’s racist views, and are wondering “what’s the big deal?”

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

In 1851, Dabney published these letters. I transcribed them and made them available for the first time.

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

My thoughts on Dabney’s letters.

The Civil War and the Failure of White American Christianity

Dabney’s views on the Civil War shine a spotlight on the failure of White American Christianity.

“Not [only] as a slave but [also] as a brother”

Shows how Dabney distorted the book of Philemon to mean the opposite of what it says.

Review: Ecclesiastical Relation of Negroes: Speech of Robert L. Dabney, in the Synod of Virginia, Nov. 9, 1867, Against the Ecclesiastical Equality of Negro Preachers in Our Church, and Their Right to Rule Over White Christians

This one address encapsulates everything that is wrong with Dabney.

Robert Lewis Dabney in The Christian Intelligencer, 1872–73

Dabney wrote two articles on Black churches and Black theology — I transcribed and made them available here for the first time.

Robert Lewis Dabney, White Supremacy, and Public Schools

From 1876 to 1879, Dabney wrote several articles on the topic of education and public schools. This gives the historical context for that conflict.

Book Review: The Public School in Its Relations to the Negro

In 1875 and ’76, Bennet Puryear wrote several articles opposing Black education, using some of the most vile white-supremacy I’ve ever seen. Dabney endorsed these articles, and used them as a springboard for his own article “The Negro and the Common School” published in 1876.

Book Review: The New South

This piece is a great example of first-generation Lost Cause propagation, the way the ideology was formed, preserved, and passed down.

Book Review: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism

Dabney’s book has been recommended as a great book on reformed theology. This review examines the historical context and material in the book.

Reception of Dabney: Contemporaries

Book Review: In Memoriam: Robert Lewis Dabney, Born, March 5th, 1820, Died, January 3rd, 1898

After his death, Dabney’s sons collected several of the commemorative articles and addresses in this volume to honor their father.

The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney: Review and Reception

Thomas Cary Johnson wrote a 600 page biography of Dabney after he died. Here’s my review, and a few other reviews of the book.

Benjamin B. Warfield on Robert Lewis Dabney: Nine Reviews (1891–1905)

Warfield reviewed a number of Dabney’s works over the years, and this post collects those reviews in one place.

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

Warfield has been praised for his courageous stance on racial issues; considering his treatment of Dabney, and contrasting him with contemporary Francis Grimké complicates the picture.

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

Chester was one of Dabney’s students, and is the source for an interesting anecdote about Dabney as a professor. Chester himself is a fascinating study of white-supremacy and Presbyterian leadership.

R. J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction

A “Man of Faith and Courage”: Robert Lewis Dabney in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 1974–1999

Dabney was a major influence on R. J. Rushdoony and the Christian Reconstruction movement. This post documents that influence in their Journal.

Iain Murray and Banner of Truth

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

Iain Murray’s biography of Dabney white-washes his white-supremacy, and passes on the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War and slavery.

“A Leading Theologian”?: Herman Bavinck on Robert Lewis Dabney

Banner of Truth claimed that Bavinck endorsed Dabney as a “leading theologian.” That turned out to be an embellished claim, due to their partnership with Mississippi segregationists.

Banner of Truth on Dabney and the Southern Presbyterians: An Index

No one has done more to supply Reformed evangelicals with Dabney’s works than Banner of Truth.

John MacArthur

John MacArthur on Robert Lewis Dabney

“One of the wonderful old past generation American preachers was a man named R.L. Dabney. And reading him is always refreshing.” – John MacArthur

Douglas Wilson

Douglas Wilson on Robert Lewis Dabney

Douglas Wilson describes Dabney as one of “the men I am most indebted to philosophically.” Others have loved Dabney for his Reformed Theology, but Wilson loves him for his views on slavery, too.

Douglas Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools

Shows how Dabney has been commended to educators interested in Christian Classical education.

John Piper and Desiring God

John Piper first cited Dabney in his dissertation, and then recommended him for decades in his books and on Desiring God’s website. This series of posts documents and wrestles with this.

John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney

“Love Your Enemies”? John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, part 2

“The Great Pattern of American Manhood”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 3

“For Theologians”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 4

“A Single River” or a “Poisonous Stream”? John Piper [and Robert Lewis Dabney], Interlude

“Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 6

“Great Saints of the Past”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 7

Whose Calvinism? Which Community? John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 8

“Flag It, Wave It, Acknowledge It”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Conclusion

Providence is No Excuse

Providence is No Excuse (on DesiringGod.org)

This was the article that started it all, demonstrating that racism was not a category separate from Dabney’s “good theology” but rather infected it.

“Social Justice Dung,” and other thoughts on Dabney

Some people didn’t appreciate the DG article (above). This was my response to some of their objections.

Should We Burn Dabney’s Books?

One objection in particular kept coming up; this post addresses it.

On Censoring Dabney and Denying “Sola Fide”

Another author claimed that I had bordered on denying “justification by faith alone.” He’s since deleted the post.

Zachary Garris

Book Review: Dabney On Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government

In 2018, Zachary Garris reprinted four of Dabney’s “greatest essays” on “biblical hierarchy.” Several of the essays are filled with white-supremacy and pro-Confederacy. I do not recommend the book.

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The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney: Review and Reception

In 1891, Robert Lewis Dabney published a short biographical sketch in The Union Seminary Magazine titled “Thomas Carey [sic] Johnson” (available here). Johnson had just been appointed the professor of the English Bible and pastoral theology at Union, and Dabney was giving “the antecedents” to their new professor. After graduating from Hampden-Sidney college, and then Union Theological Seminary, Johnson, “upon the invitation of Dr. Dabney,” went to Texas to teach alongside Dabney in the Austin School of Theology. When Dabney’s illness got much worse in 1890, Johnson shouldered much of the load. Dabney praised Johnson’s scholarship, teaching, work ethic, and preaching, and commended him to Union.

Thomas Cary Johnson

Thirteen years later, Johnson would return the favor for his mentor and friend, first writing a brief sketch of his life and character for The Union Seminary Magazine (“The Rev. Robert Lewis Dabney, D. D., LL. D.” (1898): 157–67) and then greatly expanding this work into The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney.

It is important to understand Johnson’s relationship to Dabney in order to rightly understand this book. On the one hand, it’s important to know that Johnson revered Dabney and agreed with him on almost every single issue he confronted, whether it was the righteousness of slavery, the inferiority of Black people, or Dabney’s side of various theological controversies. Dabney is given to us through the most sympathetic lens possible. This actually serves us well, because Johnson does not feel the need to hide any of the details in these various controversies, because he believes Dabney is right. While many felt that Dabney had too many “crotchets” and was woefully out of step with the times. Johnson, though, was sympathetic to Dabney: “Dr. Dabney has received much criticism as ultra-conservative. Perhaps in some minor matters he was too antagonistic to change, but we confidently await the verdict of history on his conservatism. We do not believe he was too conservative in most matters” (569). Though Johnson had deep sympathies for Dabney, he wanted to give the man “in full,” and not edited to appeal to his contemporaries. In the very first page of the preface, Johnson says this: 

“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” (v).

As long as one keeps in mind Johnson’s perspective, this is a very transparent account of Dabney’s life. It is in the conclusion (“Summary View of the Man and His Services”) that Johnson veers toward hagiography, praising Dabney to high heaven in every sphere he touched—“energy and power,” “sense of responsibility,” “Christian character,” “sanctified common sense,” “as preacher,” “as teacher,” “as theologian,” “as a philosopher,” “as a political economist,” “as a statesman,” “as a [Confederate] patriot,” “as a friend,” and “as a servant of God.” In fact, Johnson says: “as a holy man, he deserves to be ranked with Augustine and Calvin, Owen and Baxter and Edwards” (567).

After reading the book, I am convinced that Dabney was a great man; I am not convinced that he was a good man. Dabney was a force of nature and was possibly the strongest leader, teacher, and influence on Southern Presbyterians in the nineteenth century (and beyond). His seminary teaching stamped his views on hundreds of Presbyterian pastors and teachers, and his activity in the various Presbyterian synods often won the argument through sheer force of personality. Johnson gives us all of this. This influence was often in favor of strict Calvinist theology (which some will praise), but his most vehement and strenuous efforts in the church and in society were launched against the equality of Black people, and in these debates, he also made his imprint, and helped to shape the Southern Church for decades (indeed, over a century) to follow. His influence was great; it was not good.

In his Union Seminary Magazine article, Johnson explains why it is impossible to consider Dabney’s theology in abstraction from his embodied historical context:

“To give an adequate account of his life it would he necessary to enter into a discussion of the general current of theological thought during the last forty years and portray him in relation to these currents. It would also be necessary to give an exposition of many contemporary philosophical systems and show how he stood toward those systems. It would be no less needful to refer to many material, political and sociological changes which have occurred in our country during the last fifty years. For Dr. Dabney, while a minister of the gospel, was also a citizen of his commonwealth [Virginia], and a great christian statesman. He took a burning interest in all that vitally concerned the welfare of his country. He held profound views on political economy and statecraft, and set them forth with tremendous vigor. The lives even of most great preachers pass in such quiet that the historian finds little to dwell upon. What he says of one day’s labor and achievements may be said of almost every other day. Such was not the life of Dr. Dabney. His life touched so many points in the common history of church and state and touched them in a way so unusual that it is impossible to give an adequate sketch in a few pages” (159).

What Johnson said was necessary in 1898, he delivered in 1903. This book is essential for understanding Dabney’s life and legacy. 

A few odds and ends. Johnson’s references to Dabney’s articles and papers are a treasure trove for more digging, but they aren’t always accurate. For example, Johnson references two papers in “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” (337). Actually, those articles were titled “Two Picture” (November 1872), and “Peculiar Religious Opinions of Southern Freedmen,” (January 1873) (see here for more on these particular articles). Trying to track some of these down will need to do some extra digging on occasion. Also, the indexes in Johnson’s book are incomplete. For example, the entry for “slavery” includes 2 page references; I added eleven more as I worked my way through the book. The book is available for free on Google Books. 600 pages is a lot to read on a screen (I have a hard copy), but is very convenient for searching within the book for specific words, phrases, or references. Finally, beware for some strong racial language, including the use of the n-word in some of Dabney’s letters. It is to be expected, but it is still jarring nonetheless.

Anyone interested in digging deeper into Dabney should read this, but I especially commend this book to white reformed(ish) evangelicals who want (or need!) to grapple more fully with the white-supremacy that has poisoned their theological tradition. I would also recommend that you read a contemporary historian’s take, like Sean Michael Lucas’s masterful Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. Following Dabney’s trail through the 20th and 21st century has been fascinating and revealing for me — this book takes us back to the start of that trail.

Reception

It is interesting to see how Johnson’s book has been received and reviewed over the years, from figures like Benjamin B. Warfield, to the Confederate Veterans. 

A reviewer (“E. M”) in the South Atlantic Quarterly said this (review available here):

“While the reader may not agree with Professor Johnson’s exaggerated estimate of him as entitled to ‘the first place amongst the theological thinkers and writers of his century,’ he cannot but be impressed with the commanding position he held as a leader in the Presbyterian church for forty years or more… Professor Johnson is prone to put too high an estimate on the intellectual qualities of Dr. Dabney and to give him the palm in every contest he wages.”

Philip P. Wells, from Yale Law School, offered this summary (available here):

“The subject of this eulogistic biography lived from 1820 to 1898 and was a typical Virginian of the upper class; a rigid Calvinist and a theological professor, regarding slavery as divinely ordained and modern science as atheistic; an army chaplain; chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson in 1862 and later his biographer; and in his later life an uncompromising opponent to the union of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches”

A glowing review (and advertisement) appeared in the Confederate Veteran: Published Monthly in the Interest of Confederate Veterans and Kindred Topics. The advertisement concluded like this:

“The book is a notable contribution to the historical literature of the South, and a copy should be in the home of every true Southerner.”

The review appears further in (available here), and concludes with this warm commendation:

“Taken all in all, few books have been produced in recent years of greater interest and value to all classes of readers.”

The review in the Independent and Weekly Review gave this assessment of Johnson and the book (available here):

“The author is not an adorer of Dr. Dabney, but an admirer and a faithful biographer. He has included in his book something which we could wish were not true, but his apology for so doing is a tribute to Dr. Dabney… Students of our national history might do well to read it, in order to see something relat­ing to our Civil War from the Southern standpoint.”

The Union Seminary Magazine offered a glowing review, as is to be expected. It begins like this:

“The Southern Presbyterian Church is to be congratulated upon the appearance of this book. Many of us looked forward with sharp appe­tite to its coming from the press, and not without some impatience under the delay, after the publishers informed us it was nearly ready for delivery. When it came we sat down to a feast of fat things. We became so much interested as almost to forget that sermons should be prepared for the next Sunday. This book contains many of the burning thoughts of our great teacher, gathered by a loving author fully prepared to appreciate them, who enjoyed special opportunities to learn the character of his great subject.”

It comments on Johnson like this:

“Dr Johnson was a favorite pupil of Dr. Dabney, and engaged by Dr. Dabney to assist him in the theological department of the Uni­versity of Texas. The mind, the energy and the power of work of these two men were cast in a mould somewhat similar; consequently the men were bound together by a bond of congeniality. It was, therefore, natural and appropriate that Dr. Johnson should be selected by the friends of Dr. Dabney to prepare his Life and Letters; and well has he done his task.”

They acknowledge Dabney’s foundational role in Southern Presbyterianism:

“For he had an ardent love for his Southland and her institutions. He felt called to lend all his mighty powers to the advancement of their welfare in church and State. The Southern Presbyterian Church is largely in­debted to him for her foundation and maintenance on solid scriptural principles in both theology and ecclesiology.”

Fundamentally, they are proud of this book:

“It would be an assumption contrary to human observation to expect that every reader will assent to everything in this book; but it is a noble book, of which the Southern Presbyterian Church may be proud.”

The review is available here.

B. B. Warfield reviewed the biography in The Princeton Theological Review, and his review contains a mix of praise and critique. Here is Warfield’s opinion of Johnson’s adulation:

“He is set before us in Dr. Johnson’s biography from the point of view of an intense admirer. He was worthy of his biographer’s admiration, but it may be doubted whether the expression of this admiration does not now and again pass the bounds within which it is effective. When speaking of a man like Dr. Dabney extravagance of praise is not necessary: the plainest picture of him, if true to life, will speak for itself… We may regret the element of unmeasured encomium which has been permitted to intrude into the biographer’s pages, especially into his concluding ‘summary view of the man and his services.’” 

Warfield’s full review is available here.

In 1977, Banner of Truth reprinted Johnson’s book, which stimulated a fresh round of reviews. John Pollock reviewed the book for The Churchman (a British Anglican journal):

“It would be a fair guess that few in England have heard of Robert Lewis Dabney and at first sight the Banner of Truth Trust have made a surprising choice for their admirable series of reprints, of Thomas Johnson’s massive biography of 1893. Nevertheless, the patient reader will be rewarded by entrance into a world worth exploring.”

Pollock comments on the Confederate flavor of the book:

“The modern reader takes for granted that Christianity and slavery are incompatible: Dabney and his biographer would disagree. They never ceased to regret its passing, and one of the charms of this book (however much we may condemn the attitude to slavery) is its unashamed loyalty to the defeated, ravished Confederacy: Yankees are ‘they’, Southerners are ‘we’. And certainly in this old civilization there was a very tine and attractive spirit, which still lingers south of the Mason-Dixon line.”

Finally, the Presbyterian Guardian included a review in their 1978 issue:

“Robert Lewis Dabney, a Southern PResbyterian theologian in the last half of the last century, is one of the outstanding Reformed theologians in American history. The Banner of Truth has done us a great service by republishing the definitive biography by his successor at Union Theological Seminary, Richmond. Those of us in the Presbyterian Church in America stand directly in the tradition of R. L. Dabney, and should be particularly interested in this book; and all those who love the Reformed faith should cherish this volume.”

The full review is available here.

Robert Lewis Dabney, White Supremacy, and Public Schools

Robert Lewis Dabney

There is a strain of conservative reformed Christians who admire the 19th century Presbyterian Confederate Robert Lewis Dabney. In particular, some have looked to his writings on education as inspiration for their opposition to public schools, and in favor of private Christian schools or homeschooling. From R. J. Rushdoony and the Reconstruction movement (see “A “Man of Faith and Courage”: Robert Lewis Dabney in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 1974–1999), to Douglas Wilson (see “Douglas Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools“), to more recent figures like Zachary Garris (see his website “Teach Diligently”), Dabney is viewed as almost “prophetic” in his vision of what would happen to public schools in America.

Rushdoony, Wilson, Garris

Probably the most cited piece by Dabney is “Secularized Education” (1879), which has been reprinted by Douglas Wilson’s Canon Press, and was recently included as a chapter in Zachary Garris’s Dabney on Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government. Occasionally, other works on education by Dabney will also be cited, but almost never do any of these admirers acknowledge the white supremacy embedded at the heart of Dabney’s view of education and his opposition to public schools. Rarely, too, do they consider any of the counter arguments in existence in Dabney’s own time, counter arguments made by fellow Christians, and even fellow Presbyterians. In order to better understand Dabney’s views on education, it is necessary to situate them in context and consider all the sources.

“Civis” in the Richmond Religious Herald (1875)

Dabney’s first article on education was titled “The Negro and the Common School” and on the very first page, he says this:

You may conceive, therefore, the satisfaction with which I saw “Civis” take up the cause of truth in the columns of the Religious Herald, and subsequently in the Planter and Farmer, and my admiration for his moral courage, eloquence and invincible logic. 

Bennet Puryear / “Civis”

“Civis” was the pen-name for a Baptist professor from Richmond, Bennet Puryear. In 1875, Puryear wrote “a much-discussed series of articles opposing mass education on principle” (Maddex, The Virginia Conservatives, 211). I have not been able to locate these articles (yet!) but they seem to have appeared in the following issues:

Objections to Public Schools Considered” (1875)

Barnas Sears

Barnas Sears was one of the most influential Baptists of the nineteenth century. After serving as a professor at the Newton Theological Institution, he took over for Horace Mann as Massachusetts Secretary of Education, and during Reconstruction, was General Agent of the Peabody Fund. In 1875, in response to “Civis”’s attack on public schools, Sears delivered an address defending public schools at the Annual Meeting of the Trustees of the Peabody Fund. This piece is important for demonstrating another way to approach Church/State relations and public schools from a Baptist perspective:

Objections to Public Schools Considered (October 7, 1875)

“The Public School in its Relations to the Negro” (1875–76)

Bennet Puryear followed up on his earlier articles, which had opposed public schools “on principle,” with three more articles in the Planter and Farmer opposing the education of Black people. The articles are filled with Puryear’s white-supremacist views, and it is not surprising that Dabney expressed his “satisfaction” and “admiration” for them. They originally appeared December 1875, January 1876, and February 1876, and were collected and printed in a pamphlet:

The Public School in its Relations to the Negro (1877)

Rev. Dr. John Miller (1875–76)

In “The Negro and the Common School,” Dabney also references another set of articles by fellow Presbyterian John Miller. Miller was born in Virginia, the son of Princeton professor Samuel Miller. Like Dabney, Miller too had served in the Confederacy, before moving back to the north to pastor in Princeton, NJ. Here’s what Dabney said:

With equal satisfaction I have seen the Rev. Dr. John Miller, long an honored citizen of Virginia, and a gallant soldier in her army, arguing the same truth in the Tribune, with even more than his wonted terseness, boldness and condensed logic. 

James G. Blaine

John Miller had written two articles to the New York Tribune opposing public schools. He was responding to a letter by ex-Speaker of the House James G. Blaine that had been published in the Tribune December 3, 1875 advocating for a Constitutional amendment (“The Blaine Amendment”) requiring “non-sectarian schools”:

“The Negro and the Common School” (1876)

In February 1876, Dabney finally joined the fray directly and wrote a letter for the Planter and Farmer which was published in April 1876:

“The Negro and the Common School” (1876)

The piece contains Dabney’s characteristic venomous white supremacy, but goes further and attacks the “satanic” effort to establish public schools to teach Black people in Virginia. Zachary Garris has claimed that William Ruffner, superintendent of public schools in Virginia, “attacked” Dabney after he published this piece. In fact, Dabney was the one who attacked Ruffner, in bitter and vehement terms, as we can see in Ruffner’s response.

“Dr. Dabney Answered by Mr. Ruffner” (1876)

William Henry Ruffner

William Henry Ruffner was a fellow Presbyterian minister, and after the Civil War, he “was the designer and first superintendent of Virginia’s public school system,” and served as state superintendent for twelve years (“William Henry Ruffner (1824–1908)“). After Dabney’s attack in “The Negro and the Common School,” Ruffner wrote a four-part series in the Richmond Enquirer and the Dispatch in April 1876, responding to Dabney’s article point by point.

  1. “Dr. Dabney and Dr. Ruffner” (April 5, 1876)
  2. “Public Schools and the Public Debt” (April 8, 1876)
  3. “Dr. Ruffner and Dr. Dabney. Educated Labor” (April 12, 1876)
  4. “Dr. Ruffner and Dr. Dabney. IV. The Negro” (April 13, 1876)

The series was later reprinted in a slightly revised and condensed version in The Educational Journal of Virginia:

“The Public Free School System: Dr. Dabney Answered by Mr. Ruffner”

Ruffner also took to the pages of the Central Presbyterian to issue an open letter to his “Dear Brother” in a more “in house” setting among fellow Presbyterians:

“Letter from Dr. Wm. H. Ruffner” (April 5, 1876)

In these letters, Ruffner references a number of articles that had been published in previous years. The first was an article he had written anonymously in The Presbyterial Critic in 1855 criticizing public schools, but he claimed he had given up those views after a rejoinder was published the following year:

In his reply to Dabney, Ruffner also references a section of his “First Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, for the year ending August 1, 1871,” addressing Black education:

Ruffner, “Emancipation and its Historical Consequences”: 92–131

Ruffner had also delivered an address in 1874 at the Grace Street Church, which was reprinted in The Educational Journal of Virginia:

Ruffner, “Religion in the Public Schools,” (April 1874)

Last, in his article addressing the cost of public schools, Ruffner referenced a recent article that had been printed in the Richmond Enquirer, and had been reprinted in The Educational Journal of Virginia

Southall, “The Cost of the Free School System in Virginia” (1876)

Dabney’s Rejoinder (1876)

Dabney, never one to walk away from a good fight, responded in kind. He published another volley of articles in the Richmond Enquirer, April 18, April 22, April 25, and May 4, 1876:

“The State Free School System Imposed Upon Virginia by the Underwood Constitution” (1876)

Ruffner’s Surrejoinder (1876)

Ruffner responded again to Dabney’s articles with a seven-part series, also in the Richmond Enquirer, throughout May 1876. These were also reprinted in The Educational Journal of Virginia. The seventh article “failed to appear in the Enquirer, because the MS. was lost in the office of that paper; and now, after an interval of three weeks, I must hurriedly reproduce it for the Journal”:

  1. Virginia School Doctrines
  2. Virginia Doctrines (continued)
  3. Illiteracy
  4. Religion in Schools
  5. The Bible in Public Schools
  6. Education and Crime
  7. Miscellaneous Points

Commissioner of Education (1877)

The Dabney/Ruffner exchange was high profile enough, that the Federal Commissioner of Education referenced it in his 1877 Report (page xxxiii):

“Education of the Colored Race”

Additionally, The Educational Journal of Virginia also carried an article addressing the controversy in general:

T. M. Logan, “The Opposition in the South to the Free School System” (1877)

More Dabney Articles (1879–80)

Virginia proceeded with their public school system, and thus Dabney “lost” that particular battle, but he would not give up the war. He continued to publish additional articles in the Princeton Review and the Southern Planter repeating many of his arguments against state involvement in education, though his Princeton Review articles (perhaps because he was publishing in a northern journal?) he left out his tirades against “the negro.” His (now) popular “Secularized Education” is largely a reprint of Letter 4 to Ruffner from 1876. His “Free Schools” article, written for a southern audience in the Southern Planter, again contains a section explicitly opposing educating Black people.

More Responses (1879–80)

In the 1879 volume of The Educational Journal of Virginia, William N. Nelson responded directly to Dabney’s article on “Free Schools,” and an unknown author responded to his “Secularized Education” in “Christianity in Public Schools.”

The next year there was a meeting of the Department of Superintendents belonging to the National Educational Association in Washington, February 18-20, 1880. In his address, Ruffner made reference to the way the old “defenders of slavery” now denied “the power of common school education” to improve the lives of laborers, especially Black people.

Dabney on State Education in Texas (1884)

It is interesting to compare Dabney’s views on State involvement in public schools for children, versus his views on State education at the college level. In 1883 Dabney moved to Texas and took a position at the University of Texas. In a letter to E. M. Palmer which was published in the Southwestern Presbyterian in 1884, Dabney defends the State’s involvement with education as not inconsistent with Christianity at all. This directly contradicts some of his earlier positions expressed in Virginia — perhaps the difference here is that State sponsored education is acceptable for well-bred white men, but not for Black children:

R. L. Dabney, “Letter to Dr. E. P. Palmer” (1884)

Conclusion

A few brief observations in conclusion. 

First, anyone who wishes to praise Dabney’s insights in education needs to reckon with the white supremacy that was at the heart of his objections to public schools. It is telling that most have not even acknowledged this.

Second, those who think Dabney was “uniquely prophetic” in his stance against public schools, should realize that Dabney was not unique, in fact, this was just one more aspect of Southern resistance to reconstruction. As the Blaine Amendment was being debated in congress in 1875, the whole country was intensely debating these questions. Dabney was just one of many, especially in the south, who opposed public schools in the midst of this debate. 

Third, before you swallow Dabney’s “insights” whole, you really need to read Barnas Sear’s perspective, and the various rebuttals, especiall William Ruffner’s. There is not one single “Christian” perspective on public schools, whatever certain very confident voices would have you believe.

Finally, as with every historical inquiry, there is always far more below the surface than you initially realize. When one sees an isolated quote, or a high-profile endorsement of Dabney’s views of “Secularized Education,” it can initially sound compelling until you dig below the surface and see what else is there. As usual, there is quite a bit of context to be reckoned with.

For Further Reading:

A “Man of Faith and Courage”: Robert Lewis Dabney in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 1974–1999

The role of Robert Lewis Dabney in the Christian Reconstruction movement has been documented by a number of scholars in recent years. In their 2002 article, “The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South,” Edward Sebesta and Euan Hague showed how Rousas J. Rushdoony helped to “revive interest” in Dabney and other Southern Presbyterians (and Confederates) (this article is included in their Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction). Sebesta and Hague note how in addition to reprinting Dabney’s works through his publishing house, Rushdoony also “applauded Dabney’s defense of slavery” in the pages of his Chalcedon Report. The entry for Rushdoony in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (2014) notes that among the “major influences on Rushdoony” were “Southern Presbyterianism (especially Robert Dabney).” Drawing on Sebesta and Hague, Julie Ingersoll’s Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction (2015), 16–19, also highlights Rushdoony’s role in rehabilitating Dabney:

By most accounts, Dabney’s influence had waned when C. Peter Singer and Rushdoony resurrected his work in the middle of the twentieth cen­tury. Yet Dabney has been called prophetic by Reconstructionists from Rushdoony to Doug Phillips. While much of Dabney’s work was repub­lished by Lloyd Sprinkle, Rushdoony’s Ross House Books also republished some of it. Rushdoony publicized those books through Chalcedon Foundation newsletters, public lectures, and his very early “podcasts” sent to subscribers on audiotape. According to Edward Sebesta and Euan Hague, “Rushdoony’s promotion of Sprinkle’s reprints brought them to the attention of the wider Christian Reconstructionist movement in the United States [leading] to their discussion and review in magazine articles, books, audio cassettes, videotape sets, and other pro-Confederate theological and political venues.”

Building God’s Kingdom, 16–17.

Building even further on Sebesta/Hague and Ingersoll, Katherine Stewart also notes Dabney’s influence on Rushdoony in her The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (2020), 105–22, and Kristin Kobes Du Mez also notes the connection in Jesus and John Wayne (2020).

However, one source that has been largely unexplored thus far is the Journal of Christian Reconstruction. Nearly every issue from 1974 to 1999 is available online and text-searchable (see Gary North’s repository here, as well as Chalcedon’s site–search “JCR”), and so affords a convenient avenue for sounding out the recurring appearance of Robert Lewis Dabney over the years.

Indeed, the contributors to JCR refer to Dabney on a wide variety of subjects including many of the core themes of the Christian Reconstruction movement: “biblical creationism,” postmillennialism, critiques of “secular education,” theonomy, the atonement, and even textual criticism. But the JCR did not restrict itself to Dabney’s “theological” or social commentary, they self-consciously promoted Dabney the Confederate—both as an officer in the Confederate army, and as an author defending and glorifying the Confederacy in his Defense of Virginia and his Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson). The use of Dabney was not merely circumstantial—Rushdoony had made it a point to republish Dabney’s works in his Ross House Publishers, and you can see these reprints cited in the pages of the Journal. This growing restoration of Dabney’s reputation throughout the 1970s and 1980s was highlighted in the Journal as an encouraging sign for the movement. Many in the Christian Reconstruction movement viewed the ante-bellum south as a model “Christian nation,” and Dabney as a proto-typical Christian Reconstruction patriarch.

Douglas F. Kelly

Of interest is the role that Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi played in the pages of the Journal. While the brief tenure of Greg Bahnsen at RTS is a well-defined chapter in the story of Christian Reconstruction (see, for example, Michael McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism), the pages of the Journal flesh this out even further. In addition to Bahnsen, a number of students from the seminary also appear in the pages of the Journal, including James B. Jordan, David Chilton, Richard Flinn, and Jack Sawyer. In addition to students (and then alumni), the Journal also included contributions from RTS professors Simon Kistemaker and Douglas Kelly and Kelly would at one point take over as chief editor when Rushdoony fired Gary North from the position in 1981.

Given the role of RTS founding professors Morton H. Smith and Albert Freundt, Jr. in the effort to republish Dabney in the 1960s (see ““A Leading Theologian”?: Herman Bavinck on Robert Lewis Dabney”), and the ongoing work of RTS professor Douglas Kelly to continue promoting Dabney in the 1980s (for example “Robert Lewis Dabney,” in Reformed Theology in America), it shouldn’t be surprising that a movement with significant overlap with RTS (Christian Reconstruction) would also share this enthusiasm for Robert Lewis Dabney.

This post merely documents the numerous times Dabney was cited in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction. Further work could still be done to trace Dabney’s influence through the voluminous writings of Rushdoony, North, Bahnsen, Chilton, and others, as well as its further development in Christian Reconstruction-ish and neo-Confederate-ish figures like Douglas Wilson.

1.1 Symposium on Creation (1974 Summer)

The very first issue of the Journal of Christian Reconstruction was devoted a “Symposium on Creation.” Contributors included Greg Bahnsen, Gary North, Vern Poythress, Rousas J. Rushdoony, and Cornelius Van Til (pdf available here).

Greg Bahnsen’s “Worshipping the Creature Rather than the Creator” (81–127) cites Dabney’s Systematic Theology in support of the idea that there can be no synthesis between Darwinian evolution and biblical creationism:

Robert L. Dabney’s words should ever be kept in mind in this regard: 

“Other pretended theologians have been seen advancing, and then as easily retracting, novel schemes of exegesis, to suit new geologic hypotheses. The Bible has often had cause here to cry, ‘Save me from my friends.’ . . . As remarked in a previous lecture, unless the Bible has its own ascertainable and certain law of exposition, it cannot be a rule of faith; our religion is but rationalism. I repeat, if any part of the Bible must wait to have its real mean­ ing imposed upon it by another, and a human science, that part is at least meaningless and worthless to our souls. It must expound itself independently; making other sciences ancillary, and not dominant over it” [Lectures in Syste­matic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, [1878] 1972), p. 257]. (99 n. 68)

The next page, Bahnsen cites Dabney again in the body of his article:

The Presbyterian theologian, Robert L. Dabney, made a similar ob­servation, saying, “If you persist in recognizing nothing but natural forces . . . it will land you, if you are consistent, no where short of absolute atheism.” (100).

And again:

“Almost a century ago, Robert L. Dabney concluded that “ ‘Darwinism’ happens just now to be the current manifestation, which the fashion of the day gives to the permanent anti-theistic tendency in sinful man.” (101).

Thus, it is Dabney the “biblical creationist” that is the first version of Dabney cited in the pages of the JCR

1976–77 Winter

The Winter 1976–77 issue of JCR, a “Symposium on the Millennium,”includes contributions from Reformed Theological Seminary professors Greg Bahnsen and Simon Kistemaker, as well as then student James B. Jordan. The issue also features a heavy dose of Robert Lewis Dabney, by Bahnsen, Jordan, and Kelly (pdf available here).

Greg Bahnsen’s article “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism” (48–105) cites Dabney. In a concluding section of his article, he gives a historical survey to show that “It is recognized on virtually all sides that postmillennialism was a strong position in the nineteenth century” (97). He surveys England, Scotland, the European continent, and then Princeton, before turning to the Southern Presbyterians: “Such was certainly the conviction of the greatest theologians of the Southern Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.), J. H. Thornwell and Robert L. Dabney” (102). Here he cites Dabney’s Systematic Theology in support of postmillennialism (102–103, citing Dabney, ST, 838–40)

The next is James B. Jordan, then a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, “A Survey of Southern Presbyterian Millennial Views Before 1930” (106–122). Jordan gives a brief historical survey of the denomination, and describes the formation of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America this way, conveniently ignoring the explicit role that slavery played in their withdrawal from their Northern brethren:

The Southern Presbyterian church came into existence in 1861 when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. passed a resolution declaring its “obligation to promote and perpetuate, so far as in us lies, the integrity of these United States. . . .” The Southern men had hoped to keep war politics out of the church; having failed, they with­ drew (107).

After a few pages, his survey reaches the “Positions of the Theologians.” The first of the theologians up for review is Dabney, and Jordan describes him thus:

Doubtless the greatest theologian to serve at Union was Robert Louis Dabney (1820-1898)… Dabney was one of the most brilliant men that American Christianity has ever produced. His Defence of Virginia was called by Richard Weaver “at once the bitterest and the most eloquent” defense of the Southern cause. Dabney’s devastating critique of Northern industrial capitalism has also been assessed recently as remarkable. It is as a theologian of the first rank, however, that Dabney is best known (112, 113).

Jordan gives considerable space to Dabney:

We shall cite Dabney’s views in larger measure than others, both out of respect for his stature and influence (His Lectures in Systematic Theology was reprinted six times from 1878 to 1927) and because Dabney in his writings locked horns with the innovative premillennialism of his day (113).

Jordan then cites two of Dabney’s arguments against pre-millennialism:

Dabney declares that premillennialism is “directly against our stand­ards.” As he saw it, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms ruled out premillennialism by teaching that there is only one physical resurrection at the end of history, not two separated by the millennium. Second, Dab­ney issued a devastating critique of one of the most common and recurring fallacies of eschatological belief. It is often argued that the New Testa­ment teaches that Christ may return to the earth at any time, and that belief in an “any moment coming” is a great incentive to holiness. 

Throughout, Jordan interacts with Dabney’s Systematic Theology, as well as ““The Theology of the Plymouth Brethren,” reprinted in Discussions, Vol. 1, by Banner of Truth (1967), and a scholarly article: David H. Overy, “When the Wicked Beareth Rule: A Southern Critique of Industrial America,” Journal of Presbyterian History 48 (1970): 130-142.

Stonewall Jackson

The final article that references Dabney is in the section of the JCR entitled “Defenders of the Faith” (166–77). This issue’s featured “defender” was the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, written by Douglas Kelly, pastor of First Presbyterian Church (U.S.), in Dillon, South Carolina, but soon to become professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi in 1983. Kelly’s portrayal of Jackson is standard Lost Cause hagiography:

Few American leaders, if any, either Southern or Northern, have ever stood so close to the throne of God as Thomas J. Jackson. The humility, purity, tender love of a crucified Saviour, and glorious splendor of a risen Lord are reflected in the attributes of this man (166). 

In addition to his “Christian piety,” Jackson was a “military genius”:

he was a military genius of the highest order, who has been considered by experts in the science of war as equal to Napoleon on the European scene, and possibly superior to such American herpes as Generals George Washington, John Pershing, and Douglas MacArthur (166).

Kelly recounts the “Confederate Revival” plank in the story, too:

Jackson’s prayers and active efforts to promulgate the gospel among his troops were answered when a major revival broke out in the Con­ federate Army, with particular fervency in the regiments under his com­mand. His “unsung” victorious leadership in the spiritual realm has counted for more than the military conquests that made him famous (167).

Throughout the short piece, Dabney relies heavily (almost, but not quite, exclusively) on Dabney’s Life of General Jackson, specifically, the 1976 Sprinkle Publications reprint of the 1865 edition. Kelly, relying on Dabney, white-washes Jackson’s life as a slave-owner:

Family worship was near and dear to him. Twice daily he kept the flame of devotion high on the family altar, requiring black servants as well as family to be present. Though he was part of a slaveholding society, the constraining love of Christ in him knew no social or racial bounds. “He was indeed the black man’s friend,” writes Dabney. “His prayers were so attractive to them, that a number of those living in his quarter of the town petitioned to be admitted on Sabbath nights, along with his own servants, to his evening domestic worship.” Later he established a sabbath school for the black people, which he personally organized, taught, disciplined, and prayed over. Manifold and lovely were the fruits of this endeavor in the black community. Many were converted, and characters were morally (171).

Kelly, again relying on Dabney, paints Jackson in literally glowing terms (“beams of divine light”):

To make a long story short, soon after the onslaught of this ghastly war (the first war in which truly modern weaponry was widely used), Jackson’s merits as an exceptionally brilliant, courageous leader— an officer’s officer—were recognized on every hand, and he rapidly rose to power. Here was a man God could trust with authority. The higher he rose, the humbler he became. Dabney notes how his pre-regenerate am­bition had been transmuted into the sincerest, burning desire that Christ should have all the glory. “In place of harbouring Cromwell’s selfish am­bition . . . Jackson crucified the not ignoble thirst for glory which animated his youth, until his abnegation of self became as pure and magnanimous as that of Washington. . . . The piety of Jackson continually repaired its benignant beams at the fountain of divine light and purity, becoming brighter and brighter unto the perfect day. His nature grew more unselfish, his aims more noble, his spirit more heavenly. . .” (172–73).

Kelly praises Jackson’s “heaven sent piety”:

The heaven-sent piety of Jackson made him one of finest generals of both armies, and caused him to consecrate all the efforts he legitimately could for the reformation of society and glorifying of God in political life (175).

Appropriate for the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Kelly finds in Jackson a proto-model of reconstructionism:

Beyond that, he had a vision for Constitutional reformation, or at least reinterpretation. Jackson felt that the popular American doctrine of separation of church and state had gone too far by the mid-nineteenth century. He astutely foresaw that this “separation” was coming to mean not a friendly independence of church and state, but a practical disestablishment of orthodox Christianity, and in its place a grow­ ing establishment of secular materialism and humanism. Jackson hoped that after a Southern victory he would see congressional action that would clearly establish biblical Christianity (though of course non-sectarian) as the officially encouraged religion of the land (175).

Kelly adds his own historical interpretation to the events of the Civil War, an interpretation deeply influenced by the Lost Cause. First, the “Christian Army” component:

One wonders if, with the exception of the Scottish covenanter regiments and Cromwell’s English army, there has ever been such an evangelical Christian army as that of the Confederacy after this revival (176).

Second, the “infidel North” versus the “Christian South” framing:

Secondly, through the influence of those who survived—a great com­pany of converted veterans, who returned home after the war—the South­ern States became more evangelical than ever. A defeated land became known as the “Bible belt.” The victorious Northern States (whose army was often manned with Unitarian chaplains alongside true believers) ex­perienced no revival, and with all their material prosperity and power were increasingly deluged with soulless secular humanism (Footnote 23: This is not to obscure the fact that there have always been large numbers of the finest evangelicals in the North. Nevertheless, as a generalized historical ten­dency, it is true that the North has tended to secularism, while the South has held on to a Christian world and life view.) (177).

Thus, Dabney is established in the pages of the Journal as “the greatest theologian to serve at Union,” “one of the most brilliant men that American Christianity has ever produced,” and a reliable source on the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. Southern Presbyterianism and Christian Reconstruction overlap in their love for the Confederacy and the Southern Presbyterians of a former era.

1977

Albert N. Martin

the 1977 issue was a “Symposium on Education” (pdf available here). It was not just Southern Presbyterians in the PCA who loved Dabney and worked for Christian Reconstruction. Reformed Baptists were also involved (consider also how Banner of Truth and Iain Murray were connected both with the Reformed Baptists in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the Southern Presbyterians in Jackson, Mississippi). Trinity Baptist Church was pastored by Albert Martin, and they were starting a new training program, the “Trinity Ministerial Academy.” They announced this in the pages of the Journal of Christian Reconstruction in “Trinity Ministerial Academy: Prospectus” (100–107). The Prospectus begins with “The Nature of the Ministry”:

One’s understanding of the nature of the Christian ministry, both as to its origin and its function, will pervasively influence his attitude to the matter of training men for that ministry.

An understanding of the “ministry” will affect the understanding of the “minister”:

Furthermore, we believe that God has designated the essential function of the ministerial office (wherever that office is exercised, whether at home or abroad) as shepherding “the flock of God” (Acts 20:28; I Pet. 5:2). This work of shepherding (“feeding,” “tending”) is accomplished by means of the authoritative preaching and teaching of “the whole counsel of God,” together with loving guidance, encouragement, and admonition of the people of God, and wise rule in the house of God. Moreover, these activi­ ties must be given credibility and acceptance by the consistent godly ex­ ample of the minister himself (I Tim. 4:12; Titus 2:7).

And here, these Reformed Baptists appeal to Robert Lewis Dabney:

Thus we believe that the only sure indication that a man is being formed by Christ into an able minister of the New Covenant is his growing con­ formity to the clear standard of graces and gifts set forth in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. This truth was excellently set forth by R. L. Dabney more than a century ago in his essay entitled, “What Is a Call to the Ministry?” Dabney wrote:

“This leads us to add another important class of texts by which the Holy Spirit will inform the judgment, both of the candidate and his brethren, as to his call. It is that class in which God defines the qualifications of a minister of the Gospel. Let every reader consult, as the fullest specimens, 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9. The inquirer is to study these passages, seeking the light of God’s Spirit to purge his mind from all clouds of vanity, self-love, prejudice, in order to see whether he has or can possibly acquire the qualifications here set down. And his brethren, under the influence of the same Spirit, must candidly decide by the same standard whether they shall call him to preach or not” (in Discussions, Vol. 1, reprinted by Banner of Truth, 1967).

Obviously, our hearty acceptance of this view of the Christian ministry so ably set forth by Dabney means that we have been guided by it in all the planning of Trinity Ministerial Academy, both as to the subject matter and the method of instruction (101–102).

Summer 1978

The Summer 1978 issue was a “Symposium on Politics” (pdf available here). Gary North, in his introductory “Editorial,” made a passing reference to Dabney and the other southern leaders:

(It should be understood that the majority of the pre-war leaders had been pro-Union, not secessionists, especially the military men like Lee, Jackson, and Jackson’s chaplain, Robert L. Dabney. The radical secessionists of South Carolina forced them into the Confederacy, once Lincoln took the calculated risk of reinforcing Fort Sumter.) (2).

Winter 1978–79

Winter 1978–79 was a “Symposium on Puritanism and Law” (pdf available here). Reformed Theological Seminary is still heavily represented in terms of professors, graduates, and students (Bahnsen, Chilton, Flint, Jordan, Sawyer). James Jordan contributed an article titled “Calvinism and the ‘Judicial Law of Moses’” (17–48). He begins by addressing some “Criticisms of Theonomic Ethics,” and then considers “John Calvin and Martin Bucer,” “The Sixteenth Century,” “The Rise of Puritanism,” “The Era of the Westminster Assembly,” and “The Later Colonial Period in America,” before arriving at “The Southern Presbyterian Writers.” Here, as in his previous article, Jordan again appeals to “the thought of the two most excellent theo­logians of Southern Presbyterianism: James H. Thornwell and Robert L. Dabney” (46). Jordan paints the Confederacy as a “Christian nation”:

When the Confederate States of America were formed, in re­sponse to a perceived economic and atheistic threat from the Northern States, it was widely hoped that the new nation would be explicitly Chris­tian. A petition was sent to the Congress of the CSA from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the CSA, authored by Thornwell, to that end. The proposed amendment to the CSA Constitution, to be added to the section providing for liberty of conscience, read: 

Nevertheless we, the people of these Confederate States, directly ac­ knowledge our responsibility to God, and the supremacy of His Son, Jesus Christ, as King of kings and Lord of lords; and hereby ordain that no law shall be passed by the Congress of these Confederate States inconsistent with the will of God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. 

Thornwell argued that though “the will of God, as revealed in the Scrip­tures, is not a positive Constitution for the State,” yet the State must believe the Scriptures “to be true, and regulate its own conduct and legis­lation in conformity with their teachings.” (Note that this is the position of Bahnsen and Rushdoony.) (46).

Jordan then turns to Dabney, and these two pages are worth reproducing in full, as an example of how and why the Christian Reconstruction movement looked to Dabney as a theological source for their views:

Robert L. Dabney, like Ridgeley, nowhere in his works explicitly states that the judicial law of God is binding, yet seems to assume it as a principle in his writings. In his Lectures in Systematic Theology he cites the Older Testament capital punishments for murder, striking parents, adultery, and religious imposture, without any hint that he thought these had ceased to bind nations (Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, [1898] 1972), pp. 402f.). With respect to adultery, his statement is explicit: 

The law of Moses, therefore, very properly made adultery a capital crime; nor does our Saviour, in the incident of the woman taken in adultery, repeal that statute, or disallow its justice. The legislation of modern, nominally Christian nations, is drawn rather from the gross­ ness of Pagan sources than from Bible principles (Ibid., pp. 407f. See also his The Practical Philosophy (Mexico, Mo.: Crescent Book House, 1896), pp. 362f.)

This statement, especially its reference to “nominally Christian nations,” makes it evident that, in Dabney’s view, a genuinely Christian nation would draw its legislation from the law of God, including the penal particulars, rather than from pagan sources. Dabney here explicitly disagrees with Calvin’s notion of a “common law of nations.” Pagan sources are con­trasted with Biblical law. 

Dabney’s view is further elaborated and brought into sharper focus in his discussion of the lex talionis. 

The application of the lex talionis made by Moses against false wit­ nesses was the most appropriate and equitable ever invented. What­ ever pain or penalty the false swearing would have brought on the innocent man maligned had the law followed the false witness un­ protected, that penalty must be visited on the perjurer maligning him. 

Let the student compare the admirable symmetry of Moses’ provision with the bungling operation of our statute against perjury. He dis­criminates the different grades of guilt with exact justice. We punish the perjurer who swears away his neighbor’s cow with imprisonment, and the perjurer who swears away his neighbor’s honor and life, still with imprisonment (The Practical Philosophy, p. 513f.) (Jordan, “Calvinism,” 46–47).

Winter 1980–81

Winter 1980–81 was devoted to a “Symposium on Evangelism” (pdf available here). Herbert Bowsher, pastor of a Presbyterian church in Birmingham, Alabama, submitted “Will Christ Return ‘At Any Moment’ ?” (48–60), and near the end of the article, Bowsher appeals to Dabney to support one of his points:

The church is very important to Christ. Scripture teaches that He loves it and gave Himself for it. He desires that it not have spot or wrinkle or any such thing (Eph. 5:25, 27). To this end, Christ gives officers for edification of the body (Eph. 4:11-12). Teaching is to be carried out and discipline maintained. But an “ any-moment” scheme has implications that seriously undermine this Scriptural view. Dabney has seen this problem clearly: 

If no visible church, however orthodox, is to be Christ’s instrument for overthrowing Satan’s kingdom here; if Christ is to sweep the best of them away as so much rubbish, along with all “world powers” at his advent; if it is our duty to expect and desire this catastrophe daily, who does not see that we shall feel very slight value for ecclesiastical ties and duties? And should we differ unpleasantly from our church courts, we shall be tempted to feel that it is pious to spurn them. Are we not daily praying for an event which will render them useless lumber? (Robert L. Dabney, Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (2 vols.; London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), I, 208.)

Regardless of one’s ecclesiology, none would deny that an inadequately low view of the church prevails today among Christians. Could this emphasis on an “ any-moment” return be a contributing factor? (59).

1981

1981 featured a “Symposium on Social Action” (pdf available here). Gary North could now speak of a “revival of interest” in men like Dabney:  

“The 1980’s have brought a revival of interest in the older conservative tradition of the nineteenth century within fundamentalist circles. Ideas and political programs somewhat reminiscent of the older Presbyterianism- the Hodges and Alexanders in the North, and men like Dabney in the South have begun to gain attention” (17).

In the same issue, Archie Jones wrote about “The Imperative of Christian Action: Getting Involved as a Biblical Duty” (86–131). He starts off by framing all of life as war:

It should be manifest to Bible-believing Christians that we are involved in a war. It is a spiritual war between the forces of Satan and the forces of Christ, a war fought within man as well as between men. It is a multi- faceted war, involving every dimension o f life and thought, every sphere o f human activity (86).

Jones describes the “Attack on the Family” and then the “attack on Christian Education.” Here, he says 

The humanistic attack on the family extends beyond the family to the attack ·on Christianity in education, for humanism is a religion, and a militantly anti-Christian and intolerant religion at that, and as such aims to extinguish God’s truth in every sphere of thought and life (98–99).

Jones goes all the way back to the 19th century and contrasts Horace Mann with Robert Lewis Dabney:

The whole concept and motivation of “free public education” since Horace Mann and James G. Carter has been fundamentally humanistic and radically anti-Christian. The movement for “free” government-controlled education in Massachusetts and New England was led by Mann and other Unitarians who sought to eliminate the previously dominant Christian influence on society and to eliminate all social problems via education. The movement to impose state-controlled education on the states of the South after the “Civil War” was motivated by a similar philosophy, and was seen by perceptive Christian theologians as a continuation of the same ”practical atheism” which had motivated abolitionism (Note 22: See the perceptive essays on government education by Robert L. Dabney, in his Discussions, Vol. IV (Ross House Books, P.O. Box 67, Vallecito, Calif. 95251: 1979 reprint of 1897 ed.). In fact, the philosophy of “public” (read: government-controlled) education in America has always been humanistic, messianic, and anti-Christian (99).

Notice the reference to the “atheism which had motivated abolitionism” and the appeal to Dabney’s views on education, in an edition of Dabney’s Discussions that Rushdoony had recently issued. Jones goes on:

The deliberate divorce of Christianity from education in the government schools inherent in the philosophy of “public school” education has proceeded from government control in an increasingly humanistic society, organizational humanism in the bureaucracies and the teachers’ unions, and ever present humanistic judicial fiats. As R. L. Dabney noted long ago, the combination of the (misunderstood) doctrine of “separation of church and state” in America and the religious and anti-Christian views among our population results in “a practical atheism” taught, of practical necessity (non-Christians often resent the preaching of Christianity) in government schools. (Note 26: Dabney, Discussions, pp. 176-247 [“The Negro and the Common School,” “The State Free School System Imposed upon Virginia by the Underwood Constitution,” and “Secularized Education”], provides a tremendously insightful discussion of this phenomenon, and of the historic and philosophical inner dynamic of government-controlled, secularized education. His essays, though penned a century ago,·are so timely that they deserve a separate reprinting) (100).

Winter 1982

Winter 1982 was a “Symposium on the Atonement” (available here). This is the first issue edited by soon-to-be Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson) professor Douglas Kelly, and contained contributions from RTS graduate Kenneth Gentry, as well as R. J. Rushdoony, and Cornelius Van Til. Rushdoony kicks off the Symposium with an article titled “The Atonement Analyzed and Applied.” In his section on “4. Imputation” Rushdoony says this:

In the atonement by Jesus Christ, this fallen man dies in Christ and is made a new creation in Him. His actual sins are atoned for, and his old life and nature are sentenced to death and then made a new creation (Footnote 12: See Robert L. Dabney, Christ our Penal Substitute (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, reprint, 1978). 

Summer 1986–87

The Summer 1986–87 issue was a “Symposium on the Education of the Core Group” (available here). In his “Introduction,” Rushdoony explained the “central duty” of Christian education for children:

 “We cannot turn our children over to the humanistic state schools without serious consequences. If it is wrong for a Christian to join ungodly churches, or to become a worshipper in pagan cults and religions, is it not at least equally wrong to turn our children over to schools which refuse to acknowledge Christ as Lord or Sovereign over all men and nations?

It is a grim and ugly fact that most pastors do NOT have their children in Christian schools, or in home schooling.”

Rushdoony also contributed a full article, titled “Education: Today’s Crisis and Dilemma.” The article is focused on the “crisis” in “statist education.” In the brief (6 page) article, Rushdoony cites Dabney several times in articulating his position:

The early promoters of state control of education had a slogan, “It costs less money to build school-houses than jails.” To this Robert L. Dabney in 1876 responded, “But what if it turns out that the state’s expenditure in school-houses is one of the things which necessitates the expenditure in jails?” (Footnote 3: Robert L. Dabney, Discussions (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, [1897], 1979), 195.)

This was Rushdoony’s own reprint (Ross House Books) of Dabney. A little further, Rushdoony returns to Dabney:

Who should control education? Historically, we have seen church and state contend for that power. Dabney held that the Christian position should be parental control, the family as the determining power. The mistake in control by the church is that education becomes ecclesiastical and institutional. State control means politicization and secularization. Dabney rejected the concept of secularized education as both impossible and inadmissible, since education is inescapably a religious discipline. (Footnote 5: Dabney, [“Secularized Education,” in] Discussions [Vol. 4], 225-47). All education is the transmission of the values and skills of a culture to its children, and this is a religious task. 

Rushdoony cites Dabney to the effect that public schools are a form of communism:

Dabney saw also the premise of communism in taxing all people to provide schools for some. This was a radical innovation which did not exist under the previous common-school system (Footnote 6: Dabney, [“Review of ‘Wilson’s Slave Power in America,” and “State Free Schools,” in] Discussions [Vol. 4], 248–80).

And finally, Rushdoony cites the Sprinkle Publications reprint of Dabney’s Practical Philosophy:

But this is not all. As Dabney wrote in 1897, “A state religion [is] logically involved in state education” (Footnote 7: Robert L. Dabney, The Practical Philosophy (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, [1897] 1987), 339). Because education is the importation of values, it is inescapably religious, because values are religiously determined. 

1988

1988 saw a “Symposium on the Constitution and Political Theology” (available here). Jean-Marc Berthoud was now on “Chalcedon’s European staff,” and contributed an article titled “Historical Reality of the Christian Cultural Consensus in Europe and America.” Berthoud opens his article lamenting historical suppression:

The impact of the liberal humanist historiography on the schools and the universities of our nations has been so thorough that our whole culture suffers from historical amnesia. In communist countries this transformation of history is undertaken by blatantly suppressing all witness of the past which is contrary to the ideological interpretation in favor amongst the ruling party elite. In the West, the change in our historical self-consciousness has been more gradual, but no less thorough. 

However, Berthoud saw some encouraging signs, including the reprinting of some specific works of Robert Lewis Dabney:

From a distance it would seem that this state of affairs is changing for the better in the United States. For many years work has quietly been going on to restore to the Church and nation the memory of their past. Amongst other works, the historical writing of Dr. R.J. Rushdoony, those of Frederik Nymeyer, the re-editions of the exceptional historical writings of Southern scholars such as Robert L Dabney — of the d’Aubigne family — (Defense of Virginia and Life of Stonewall Jackson, Sprinkle, (1977)) and the pioneering volumes by Verna M. Hall and Rosalie J. Slater have certainly contributed much to the revival of awareness of America’s Christian past. 

It is interesting that these reprinting were seen as part of the overall work of Christian Reconstruction, by Rushdoony (who reprinted Dabney with his Ross House Books), and by others in the movement.

1989

Theodore P. Letis

1989 was devoted to a “Symposium on the Biblical Text and Literature” (available here). It was, in part, a defense of the traditional King James Version and the Greek text (the Textus Receptus) underlying it. The bulk of this Journal was devoted to reprinting Theodore P. Letis’s Master’s Thesis from Emory University, “Edward Freer Hills’s Contribution to the Revival of the Ecclesiastical Text” (1987). In the thesis, Letis claims that there was once a unified view of textual criticism (“The Reformed View”), as seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith, John Owen, Francis Turretin, and the Helvetic Consensus Formula (a claim that does not hold up to scrutiny; see my “‘Kept Pure in All Ages’: Textual Criticism and the Seventeenth-Century Protestant Orthodox”). From this faulty premise, Letis then claims that B. B. Warfield introduced enlightenment rationalism into the handling of the Biblical text, and puts forth Robert Lewis Dabney as a counter-example of someone who “more generally reflected the scholastic confessional stance” (81). Letis devotes a whole 4 page section to Dabney and interacts with several of his articles (“The Doctrinal Various Readings of the New Testament Greek” (1872); “The Revised Version of the New Testament” (1881); “The Influence of the German University System on Theological Literature” (1881); “The Doctrinal Contents of the [Westminster] Confession—Its Fundamental and Regulative Ideas and the Necessity and Value of Creed” (1897)). He sums up like this:

So with the passing of A. Alexander and Charles Hodge, the view of Scripture held by the Reformed scholastics no longer played any role at Princeton. Dabney kept it alive for a time in the south—but in the person of Warfield, the Enlightenment had arrived at Princeton (89).

An in-depth critique of Letis’s thesis, in particular his treatment of Dabney and the Southern Presbyterians, is beyond the scope of this survey. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that even when the Christian Reconstruction movement addressed textual criticism, Robert Lewis Dabney was promoted as a faithful model.

1994

1994 featured a “Symposium on the Decline and Fall of the West and the Return of Christendom” (available here). Richard Bostan contributed an article titled “Religion, Abolition, and Proslavery Arguments in Pre-Civil War America.” The thesis of the somewhat florid article isn’t exactly clear, but along the way he references “Dabney, illustrious theologian and pastor,” and cites two articles of his (“Wilson’s Slave Power in America,” and “Liberty and Slavery”).

The real highlight, though, was that this issue’s featured “Man of Faith and Courage” was Robert Lewis Dabney. F. W. Schnitzler wrote the short (5 page) profile, and started off with a reference to “The War for Southern Independence” (i.e., the Civil War). “Many of those who participated,” Schnitzler said, “became very famous…,” but “Most participants remain virtually unknown, however, lost in the pages of history. While the men were very brave, very gallant, very determined and fearless, some deserve wider recognition as well as a second look.” Dabney, apparently, was one who deserved wider recognition. Schnitzler spends a significant portion of the article highlighting Dabney’s participation in the Confederacy as chief-of-staff (briefly) to Stonewall Jackson. After the war, Schnitzler recounts what has become a common description of Dabney amongst his admirers:

Dabney’s perception and foresight were remarkably prophetic (so much so that he considered himself “predestined to prophesy truth and never to be believed until too late”). Dabney commented on developments that were then only in their infancy, but we now know that Dabney accurately assessed those developments and the consequences they were likely to produce. Darwinism, labor unions, strikes, secular education, the abandonment of the gold standard and modernism were all accurately assessed by Dabney while they were yet fledgling movements. So as not to think such praise is undeserved, consider Dabney’s comments on communism. “Communism is slavery! Moreover, all history teaches us, that the more paternalistic any government becomes, be its form either impersonal, monarchical, aristocratic or democratic, the more will its officials engross the powers of the State, and the earnings of the citizens to themselves.” It reads like something from yesterday’s editorial page, but was written well over one hundred years ago! 

Schnitzler closes by recommending some of Dabney’s works for further study. Interestingly, none of them are specifically theological, but his most stringent pro-Confederate material is endorsed:

Robert Lewis Dabney was truly a remarkable man and is worthy of greater recognition. For those interested in reading more of his work, the following books are recommended: A Defense of Virginia and the South, The Practical Philosophy, Selected Discussions, and the Life and Campaigns of Lt. Gen. T. J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

1997

1997 featured a “Symposium on the Reformation” (available here), and this final reference to Robert Lewis Dabney brings us full circle. Jean-Marc Berthoud, listed as “editor of the review Résister et Construire [“Resist and Build”], President of the Association vaudoise de Parents chretiens in Switzerland,” contributed an article titled “Why Is the Biblical Doctrine of Creation So Important?” the topic of the very first Journal of Christian Reconstruction (1974). Berthoud takes aim at any compromise with evolution:

Theistic evolution, which accepts a form of evolution, directed by God, diminishes the Creator’s power and wisdom in order to attribute a portion of his power and wisdom to the laws of evolution supposedly contained in nature. It is a lack of faith that leads one to uphold such a position. 

And here, he cites Dabney in support:

Robert Lewis Dabney, an American theologian of the latter half of the nineteenth century, wrote on the subject of Christian thinkers who adhered to a theistic vision of evolution: 

Why are theistic philosophers so eager to push God’s creative act as far back in time as possible and reduce His action as much as possible, as they are constantly doing in their speculations?… What is the use, unless one is aspiring towards atheism? (R. L. Dabney: Lectures in Systematic Theology, 261)