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.

2 thoughts on “The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney: Review and Reception”

  1. Shocking to see such an unguardedly glowing review in the 1978 Presbyterian Guardian. That saddens and alerts me. How can they think, as recently as 1978, that “[it] should serve to spur us on in the Christian life”. Sadly, they are not alone.

    Like

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