Doug Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools

The Association of Christian Classical Schools is a national organization headquartered in Moscow, Idaho. It was founded by Douglas Wilson in 1994, and “provides accreditation for CCE [Classical Christian Education] schools” (see “Classical Christian Education and Doug Wilson” and the Christianity Today September 2019 cover story “The Rise of the Bible-Teaching, Plato-Loving, Homeschool Elitists“).

At present (March 2021) there are over 300 schools listed in their nationwide directory. A number of colleges and businesses are listed as “affiliates” and number of prominent evangelical figures “stand with ACCS” in including Albert Mohler, Eric Metaxas, John Piper, and Rod Dreher, as well as ministries like the Nehemiah Institute, and Desiring God.

In 2002, Preston Jones, professor of history at John Brown University, published an article on classical Christian schools (“Christian Classical Learning” pp. 12–13). Jones noted Wilson’s role in the classical Christian education movement and the founding of ACCS, but suggested that “If the Christian classical schools movement is going to be taken seriously in the academic world in the long run, its members would probably do well to distance themselves from some of their current leaders.” He noted Wilson’s views on southern slavery, and the book Southern Slavery as it Was, co-authored by “a neo-Confederate Presbyterian minister and League of the South leader named J. Steven Wilkins.” This book, published by Wilson’s publishing house Canon Press, “maintains, among other things, that the antebellum South was, literally, a holy land and that slavery bred mutual respect between the races— indeed, that relations between blacks and whites were never better than in the South before the Civil War.”

Jones noted that “Wilkins has been a speaker at major conferences of the ACCS, and at their national conference in Memphis last June were featured the wares of a neo-Confederate vendor.” He did note that “most of the parents who send their children to schools affiliated with the ACCS aren’t aware of the nature of some of the leaders’ views.”

In 2016 ACCS was denied accreditation in the state of Tennessee specifically because of Doug Wilson and his views on race, slavery, and other issues (“Bill yanked after school group founder’s views on slavery, homosexuals, adultery revealed”). However, it appears that in 2019, Tennessee reversed course and granted accreditation to ACCS member schools (Tennessee HB1392).

In 2016, the current president, David Goodwin, tried to address some of the controversy surrounding Wilson and create some distance between the organization and its founder (“A Response to ‘Classical Christian Education and Doug Wilson’”). Though Rachel Miller’s article explicitly references Wilson’s views on “theology, history, slavery, patriarchy, marriage, and sex,” Goodwin chose to sidestep these issues, referring only generally to the “theological debates that have involved Mr. Wilson” and noting that “Mr. Wilson certainly offers food for thought.”

Goodwin says that Wilson, “takes specific care not to exert influence on the ACCS.” However, it is interesting to note that:

  • Wilson is listed as an “Educator in Residence” at ACCS.
  • Wilson is featured as a plenary speaker every year at their national “Repairing the Ruins” conference (here’s the 2021 lineup; past and future speakers include Al Mohler, Rosaria Butterfield, and Joel Beeke)
  • Three out of their top five  recommended books are by Wilson, more than any other author on the page. 
  • If you wish to know “What is CCE [Classical Christian Education]?” and click “Read About It” one of Wilson’s books is considered “Foundational for new teachers and parents.”
  • Doug Wilson’s affection for the white-supremacist Robert Lewis Dabney is also reflected in ACCS book recommendations, which includes the Canon Press republication of Dabney’s “Secularized Education.” (For those needing to get caught up, here’s “What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?”). However, some might think “just because someone has bad ideas in one area (white supremacy) doesn’t mean they can’t have good ideas in another (education).” Unfortunately, Dabney’s views of education were thoroughly influenced by his white supremacy. Sean Michael Lucas notes in his biography of Dabney that after the Civil War, Dabney opposed public education and particularly the education of the formerly enslaved people of the south. He thought public education was “heretical” because of its “leveling impulse” because “God had ordained a hierarchy of superiors and inferiors.” He also objected “for fears of racial mixing” and opposed the philosophy that “claims to make the blacks equal, socially and politically, to the most respectable whites” (Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 182–86). It’s disturbing to see Dabney’s work on education recommended by the ACCS, though I’m sure this has been edited of any overtly racist sentiment before republishing.
  • Doug Wilson’s Omnibus curriculum is used in a number of ACCS schools (a quick search of of the school listing found schools from California, to Minnesota, to Missouri, to Maine using this curriculum). Consistent with Wilson’s views of southern slavery, the curriculum includes an assignment asking students to: “Write a letter to a friend in the North who thinks that all slaves are mistreated and beaten. Explain how your family treats your slaves well.” (Omnibus III).

Nearly twenty years after Preston Jones wondered if the Classical Christian Education movement might want to “distance themselves from some of their current leaders,” there are no signs of that happening. In fact, ACCS has become more and more mainstream and has found support from several prominent figures. Back in 2002, Jones assumed that Wilson’s views “aren’t widely taught in ACCS schools.” That may be true. Parents, however, may wish to do a little homework of their own, asking about the level of affiliation and influence of Doug Wilson before entrusting the formation of their children to an ACCS school.

(Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash)

The Edwards of History: A Reply to Doug Wilson

“[Iain] Murray’s biography has been criticized for engaging in hagiography, painting an unrealistic portrait of Edwards as though the eighteenth-century pastor had no faults”

(Ian Clary, “Evangelical Historiography: The Debate over Christian History,” 240).

Last week, Doug Wilson published a blog-post in which he criticized Jason Meyer for lamenting Jonathan Edwards’s slave-owning. No, says Wilson, for all we know Edwards was a kind master, supported by the Bible, and surrendering this point will lead us down the slippery slope toward outright rejection of Biblical authority. He followed up with answers to letters, and then another post defending his defense of Edwards.

For those who have followed Wilson’s work for any time, this is the same argument he attempted to put forward in Black & Tan with regard to the Southern slaveholders 100 years later, men like R.L. Dabney and others.

The argument proceeds like this:

  • assume/assert hypotheses about historical figures based on partial evidence or historical revisionism
  • on the basis of that assumption draw a straight line to New (and Old) Testament texts
  • pivot to otherwise unrelated contemporary issues
  • attack/accuse other Christians of doctrinal squishiness if they don’t agree

What’s interesting, though, is that if you pull out the foundational premise (the historical revisionism) the whole house of cards falls to the ground, and it is at precisely this point that I think Wilson has the weakest case, both here with Edwards, and also with the Southern slaveholding Presbyterians. In this post, I intend to focus on Edwards, but I do hope at some point to return to the issues surrounding Wilson’s “paleo-Confederate” views as well.

Wilson goes to great lengths to find any possible way of excusing Edwards’s purchase and ownership slaves, even speculating utterly implausible motives for his purchase of a fourteen year old girl named Venus. Reading his posts reminded me of the broader debate amongst Edwards’s evangelical biographers, which can be summed up in the difference between Iain Murray’s biography and George Marsden’s. Wilson links to a brief article on Princeton’s website, but when I checked out Wilson’s longer reading list, it was no surprise to find that he has read Murray’s biography, but not Marsden’s.

“Not so much biography as hagiography”

Evangelical historians have debated the best way to approach history for decades, with historians falling broadly into “providentialist” and “naturalist” approaches to history. (For a superb outline of the landscape, see Ian Hugh Clary, “Evangelical Historiography: The Debate over Christian History,” EvQ (2015): 225–251).

Iain Murray is no stranger to these controversies, tangling in 1994 with Harry Stout (over George Whitefield), and in 2010 with Carl Trueman (over Martyn Lloyd-Jones). Murray knows how to be sharply critical when he wants to be (see, for example, the way he treats J.I. Packer and Billy Graham in Evangelicalism Divided). His biography of Edwards, however, seems keen to avoid any negative hint: “Murray’s biography has been criticized for engaging in hagiography, painting an unrealistic portrait of Edwards as though the eighteenth-century pastor had no faults” (Clary, 280). Allan Guelzo’s review was sharply critical: “Murray’s Edwards is not so much a biography as it is a hagiography” (Guelzo, 81). Guelzo points out “several jarring errors,” concluding that “what we end up with, then, is Murray’s Edwards but not Jonathan Edwards” (82). Stephen Stein, an editor of several volumes in the Yale Works of Jonathan Edwards series, thinks that “This biography will be most satisfying to those who wish to see Edwards as the champion of fundamentalist Christianity… He [Murray] continually allows his affection for his subject to color his language. In some instances he sidesteps difficult, uncomplimentary dimensions of the story” (Stein, 565). George Marsden notes that Murray “produced a full biography published in 1987 for an admiring Reformed audience.” However, he finds that it “is intended ultimately as hagiography, not as a critical academic work” (Marsden, “The Quest for the Historical Edwards,” 3).

Now, I want to be clear, I don’t necessarily have a problem with pastors writing edifying biographies of their heroes, and I think they can serve some purpose. However this ought never to take the form of whitewashing. As John Piper said “no one is helped by whitewashing our heroes.” And further, a partial, hagiographical account of a historical figure ought never to be used as the basis for an attempt at Biblical comparison or present day cultural analysis. The faulty historical foundation of hagiography is too sandy a beach upon which to build that house.

The Edwards of History

“We just don’t know” is the refrain that Wilson repeats throughout his posts. But is that true? Are those who lament Edwards’s slaveholding merely speculating about the nature and context of Edwards’s slaveholding?

The account of Edwards drawn from Marsden and other historians provides us with a far more complete picture of his life and times, including the social and cultural attitudes in which he took part. Marsden’s biography is over 600 pages long (including footnotes) and offers a thorough and historically accurate account of Edwards’s life. Here are a few relevant pieces of background information that help us situate Edwards in his time.

The “River Gods”

Jonathan Edwards “was an eighteenth-century British provincial aristocrat—a slaveholding Tory hierarchist—whose social views need to be understood according to the standards of his own day” (Marsden, “Quest,” 11). In his biography, Marsden notes that “Edwards belonged to an elite extended family that was part of the ruling class of clergy, magistrates, judges, military leaders, village squires, and merchants. The Stoddards and Williamses, along with a few other families with whom they intermarried, ruled the Connecticut River Valley” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 3). Again: “this clan dominated the commercial, political, and ecclesiastical affairs of western Massachusetts” (Marsden, Quest,” 11). This powerful clan was dubbed the “River Gods” by Kevin Michael Sweeney in his 1986 Yale dissertation, drawing the term from its use in the period (Marsden, Edwards, 531 n. 2).

Hierarchy

Not surprisingly for someone who was part of the highest class of society, Edwards also held extremely hierarchical views. You don’t have to read much Edwards before finding talk about what is “fitting” for various stations in life. Here’s an example from True Virtue:

“There is a beauty of order, in society, besides what consists in benevolence, or can be referred to it, which is of the secondary kind. As, when the different members of society have all their appointed office, place and station, according to their several capacities and talents, and every one keeps his place, and continues in his proper business” (True Virtue, chapter 3).

Edwards’s hierarchical view of a “beautiful” society included slaves: “Men would hardly count it worthy of the name of humility, in a contemptible slave that formerly affected to be a prince, to have his spirit so far brought down as to take the place of a nobleman; when this is still so far above his proper station” (Religious Affections, 259).

In Edwards’s world, if you were born into the highest ruling classes of aristocracy, it was fitting and orderly that you should enjoy the privileges according to that station: “The Edwardses always had an African slave. Household slaves were particularly common among New England clergy, both because of a pastor’s social status and because the head of the house was not primarily engaged in physical labor” (Marsden, Edwards, 20). Ken Minkema adds this: “Owning a slave had become a prerequisite for the gentry, a symbol of rank as much as a source of profit” and Edwards was firmly a part of that gentry class (Minkema, “Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” 29–30)

Anti-slavery voices

Marsden draws attention to the fact that the issue of slavery was not a “blind spot” in the New England colonies: “by 1700 at least some whites recognized the unusual inequities of African slavery. Solomon Stoddard’s [Edward’s grandfather] Boston friend Judge Samuel Sewall raised the issue most forcefully in The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial (Boston, 1700).” Yet, “if some New England slave owners had uneasy consciences, their most common way of dealing with the subject was to avoid it”—which is exactly what Edwards did (Marsden, Edwards, 20).

A Family Affair

Marsden devotes a section of his biography to “Slavery” (Marsden, Edwards, 255–258, footnotes on 555–56). He reiterates that “many elite New Englanders owned African slaves, and Edwards and his close relatives seem usually to have had one or two slaves per household… Most British-Americans simply absorbed African slavery into their hierarchical views of society, where it was assumed that the higher orders of society would have servants to perform domestic and farm labor” (Marsden, Edwards, 255–56).

For the Edwardses, this was a family affair. Ken Minkema notes that, “Sarah, who as regulator of the domestic sphere was probably more directly concerned in the daily oversight of the family slaves than Jonathan, aggressively searched out potential slaves, which shows that women could take an active hand in the slave market.” (“Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” 43). Sarah inquired of multiple family members seeking to purchase their slaves from them (See “My wife desires to buy your Negro woman”).

Doolittle

Remember that the practice of owning another human being to do your manual labor for you was not something enjoyed by everyone in New England society–it’s not as if “everyone was doing it.” In fact, controversy over the luxuries enjoyed by the upper class reared its head specifically between congregants and their “elite” slaveholding pastors.

In 1741, “some parishioners of the church in Northfield had denounced their pastor, Benjamin Doolittle, for owning African slaves… The ‘disaffected brethren’ accused Doolittle, who had been their pastor since 1716, of making exorbitant salary demands—an issue Edwards and many other pastors were also encountering” (Marsden, Edwards, 256). Edwards was called upon to write a defense of Doolittle, which he did, and the surviving draft of that letter is the only piece of writing we have in which Edwards specifically speaks to the issue of slavery. Marsden notes: “Edwards and his slaveowning colleagues and ‘river gods’ friends and relatives must have been especially eager in 1741 that the status quo regarding slaveholding not be disturbed… If the word got around that, as was claimed, the minister ‘could say nothing that was worth saying’ in defense of slaveholding, such talk could inflame the slaves” (Marsden, Edwards 257). Ironically, there was a twist ending to this saga: Doolittle “freed Abijah Prince and gave him a legacy and land in Northfield,”–liberty and reparations!–something that Edwards never did (Minkema, “Slavery” 42).

Controversies

This class tension between the elite pastor and his congregation also flared up for Edwards. “As in many New England towns, tensions had been building regarding the pastor’s salary, a tax matter decided at yearly town meetings” (Marsden, Edwards 301). Sarah complained that “many jealousies expressed of me and my family, as though we were lavish… much fault was found… with our manner of spending, with the clothes that we wore and the like (in Marsden, Edwards, 302). Was it true? Marsden notes this: “One clue that the family did occasionally display some aristocratic pretensions is a surviving bill for £11 (about a week’s salary) for ‘a gold locket and chain’ for Mrs. Edwards” (Marsden, Edwards, 302). Minkema also notes this tension: “In 1744, a number of his parishioners insisted upon an account of his own expenditures, an action suggesting the jealousy and resentment aroused by the family’s taste for jewelry, chocolate, Boston-made clothing, children’s toys—and slaves” (Minkema, “Slavery,” 36).

Venus

Edwards’s purchase of “a Negro Girle named Venus aged Fourteen years or thereabout” in 1731 is all the more striking when seen in this light. Minkema notes that “Edwards’s annual salary in 1731 was £200, out of which he paid £80 for Venus.” Edwards likely travelled over a week to get to the slave port city of Newport, Rhode Island where he spent nearly half a year’s salary on this girl.

Doug Wilson wonders: “Or was he doing it because he knew that she was already irrevocably torn from her people and enslaved, and that if he purchased her he would treat her decently, and that if he did not do so there was a high risk that another master would not treat her decently?” Was he “attempting to do a good thing in a bad situation”?

Here’s my question: does Wilson’s hypothetical question fit at all with the historical and cultural context of his time? It’s not as if Edwards lived in Newport, constantly seeing Africans dragged in off the ships and then sold off at auction, families ripped apart, children separated from their parents, and when he just couldn’t take it anymore he did the only thing he could think of: he bought a girl to save her from a worse fate. No, Edwards travelled over a week on horseback to spend over a third of his yearly salary on a luxury “item” (a person!), the possession of which would be “fitting” to his status as a member of the wealthy elite. He and Sarah pursued the purchase of additional slaves throughout their lives all the way until the end, and in Edwards’s last will and testament, a “boy named Titus” is listed alongside the other “quick stock” (see “A Negro Boy named Titus; Horse; Yoke of Oxen”). Rather than following the example of Doolittle in freeing his slaves, Edwards participated in one of the chief mechanisms used to break up the black family: selling off an estate at auction, in this case, selling a boy to whoever turned out to be the highest bidder. No amount of “kind treatment” can justify the breaking up of a family like this.

Hopkins, Edwards Jr., Haynes

One often hears the objection of “presentism,” of forgetting that “the past is a foreign country,” and of reading our own moral judgements onto the past. But what did Edwards’s own immediate followers think of slaveholding? Ken Minkema and Harry Stout answer this directly in “The Edwardsean Tradition and the Antislavery Debate, 1740–1865).” In it, they draw particular attention to Samuel Hopkins, Jonathan Edwards Jr., and Lemuel Haynes.

Hopkins was Edwards’s “most renowned intellectual heir.” Minkema and Stout note that he “studied divinity at Edwards’s parsonage in late 1741–curiously, the very time Edwards was grappling with the slavery issue–and again in the late spring and summer of 1742. Thereafter, he and Edwards were close friends and constant correspondents” (“Edwardsean Tradition,” 51). Hopkins had a first hand view of slavery as practiced in the Edwards household. If anyone was poised to be a sympathetic observer, and read American slavery in the best possible light, it was Hopkins. Yet, by 1770, Hopkins had become an ardent abolitionist, pressing for immediate emancipation. He published books (A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans) and treatises (“This whole country have their hands full of blood this day“). Hopkins had no hesitation to call slavery a “cruel” and “shocking” sin, and attributed it to American society at large:

“the Blood of Millions who have perished by means of the accursed Slave trade long practised by these States is crying to heaven for venjance on them and tho’ everyone has not had an equal share in this wickedness, not having been actually guilty of Enslaving his brother, yet by a general connivance it his become now the Sin of the Land” (“Hands full of Blood,” 67).

Jonathan Edwards Jr. also called slavery “wickedness” and “sin.” He was one of the founders of the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom and the Relief of Persons Unlawfully Holden in Bondage, and in an address given at its first annual meeting, he said: “As to domestic slavery our fathers lived in a time of ignorance which God winked at; but now he commandeth all men to repent of this wickedness, and to break off this sin by righteousness” (Edwards Jr., The Injustice and Impolity of the Slave Trade, and of Slavery, 31).

Lemuel Haynes was “A student of Bellamy’s and strongly influenced by Hopkins” (Minkema and Stout, “Edwardseans,” 60). He was the first black “Edwardsean,” and went further than even Hopkins and Edwards Jr. in pushing not just for abolition but for integration. In his powerful and moving address, “Liberty Further Extended,” Haynes repeatedly refers to slavery as a “sin” (95, 99, 100, 102, 103). Directly opposed to Edwards’s (and Wilson’s) attempt to separate the sinful trade from the (allegedly) Biblical practice, Haynes presses the sin of slaveholding all the way home (original spelling retained):

“And not only are they gilty of man-stealing that are the immediate actors in this trade, But those in these colonys that Buy them at their hands, ar far from Being guiltless: for when they saw the theif they consented with him. if men would forbear to Buy Slaves off the hands of the Slave-merchants, then the trade would of necessaty cease; if I buy a man, whether I am told he was stole, or not, yet I have no right to Enslave him, Because he is a human Being: and the immutable Laws of God, and indefeasible Laws of nature, pronounced him free.” (“Liberty Further Extended,” 99).

Does Wilson really intend to charge 21st century Edwardseans (like Jason Meyers) with biblical infidelity simply for echoing what Edwards immediate followers said in the 18th century? Was Samuel Hopkins part of “the zeitgeist”? Was Edwards Jr. under the sway of “Critical Theory”? Was Lemuel Haynes a “snowflake”? The absurdity of impugning such a courageous man as Haynes is evident on its face, and one almost feels ashamed to consider the question rhetorically.

New England Slavery v. Southern Plantations

Wilson makes the observation that New England slavery was a different thing than the Southern plantations. He’s right about that, and I also view the two differently. Under the general category of “grievous sin”—in which a human being made in the imago dei is stolen from her land, sold over an ocean, and held as a piece of property for life—I agree that there are degrees of brutality within that category, and the southern plantation was about as brutal as it could get.

I also weigh differently the sinner who does so with an uneasy conscience versus the one who does so with a seared conscience and a high hand. Marsden notes Edwards’s “deep ambivalence” expressed in the draft letter (Marsden, Edwards, 257). Edwards knew this was not ideal, and felt sharply the charge of hypocrisy. By contrast, a man like Robert Lewis Dabney defended the southern form of slavery in hundreds of pages, spoke repeatedly of his hatred for black people, pleaded passionately for his denomination not to integrate with black pastors, and did so unapologetically (see: “What’s so Bad About R.L Dabney?”). I hold Dabney to a greater judgment due to the accentuated nature of his sin. This is not to excuse Edwards at all. His hypocrisy is evident, but it is certainly to a different degree than Dabney’s.

The problem even in this is that Wilson loves Dabney and the Confederates, and applies the same flawed historical approach to their era as he does to Edwards’s. But again, that is worth its own treatment at another time.

Conclusion

History matters. Imagine you saw me out to coffee with my younger sister, assumed what was going on, and then jumped straight to Biblical texts about “adultery.” When I reply with “no, those texts don’t apply here,” it’s not because I’ve abandoned Biblical authority, but precisely because I hold to it and can’t bear to see it mis-applied. The same holds true with NT texts about δουλοι or OT texts about עבדים. Whether or not these texts apply depends first on the historical facts, and in the case of American race-based chattel slavery, they don’t, and I hold that because I hold to Biblical authority, not in spite of it.

Pursuing historical accuracy rather than hagiography, and feeling appropriately about what one finds (i.e., lament) is something that Christians should never flinch from. It is not because “we live in a toppling time”; it is not a sign of “drift”; it has nothing to do with “critical theory.” Faithful evangelical historians have been carefully working through these matters for decades. Especially the Reformed historian, who believes in “total depravity” is not shocked or surprised when he finds sin in the past. Rather, he expects it, and he has nothing to fear: “because of Christ’s death on our behalf, Christians need not run from guilt. Christ was condemned in our place, which means we can face wrongdoing head-on — both our own and that of our forebears” (Johnathon Bowers, “Bound Together for Good”)

When we lament Edwards’s slaveholding, and draw back from the rampant hero-worship he has received in some circles, it’s not because we are capitulating to a snowflake culture, but because we have been faithfully taught how to handle history: by Marsden, by Piper, by Meyer, but also by Hopkins, by Edwards Jr., and by Lemuel Haynes.

Sources Consulted:

(See here for a bibliography on Edwards and Slavery”)

1987 Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.

1989 Allan C. Guelzo, “Review: Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography.” Fides et Historia: 81–83

1990 Stephen J. Stein. “Review: Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography.” Church History: 564–65.

2003 George M.. Marsden. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press.

2003 Iain H. Murray. “Review: Jonathan Edwards: A Life.Banner of Truth: 14–15.

2003 George M. Marsden. “The Quest for the Historical Edwards: The Challenge of Biography,” in Jonathan Edwards at Home and Abroad. Edited by David W. Kling and Douglas A. Sweeney. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

2003 Allen C. Guelzo. “America’s Theologian: Piety and Intellect.” Christian Century 20: 30–33.

2006 R. Bryan Bademan, “The Edwards of History and the Edwards of Faith.” Reviews in American History 34: 131–49.

2014 Douglas A. Sweeney. “Jonathan Edwards and the Study of His Eighteenth Century World: George Marsden’s Contribution to Colonial American Religious Historiography,” in American Evangelicalism: George Marsden and the State of American Religious History. Edited by Darren Dochuk, Thomas S. Kidd, Kurt W. Peterson. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

2015 Ian Hugh Clary. “Evangelical Historiography: The Debate over Christian History.” Evangelical Quarterly (87.3): 225–51.

 

(image taken from the Wikimedia Commons)

Doug Wilson on R.L. Dabney

“There are those…who exclaim: ‘let us bury the dead past. Its issues are all antiquated, and of no more practical significance…’ I rejoin: Be sure that the former issues are really dead before you bury them”

R.L. Dabney, “The New South,” quoted in Doug Wilson, Black & Tan, (90).

Doug Wilson describes R.L. Dabney as one of “the men I am most indebted to philosophically.” R.L. Dabney was a southern-slaveholding Presbyterian whose white-supremacy infected the Southern Presbyterian denomination for over 100 years. (See here if you need to be reminded “What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?“) This post is an attempt to document Dabney’s influence on Wilson over the decades.

 

The 1980s and 90s

Doug’s reading log includes a number of Dabney’s works (which isn’t necessarily good or bad — so does mine). Note, however, the ratings he gives even to works like A Defense of Virginia and the South:

1980 – Sacred Rhetoric Dabney – Excellent

1984 – A Defense of Virginia & South Dabney  – Excellent

1989 – R.L. Dabney On Preaching Dabney – excellent

1992 – Westminster Confession & Creeds Dabney – excellent

In particular, Doug acknowledges that reading Dabney was influential in shaping his view of the Civil War:

I also read Dabney’s A Defense of Virginia and the South in mid-1984, and was persuaded that my previous take on the Civil War had been too facile.

Note that Sean Michael Lucas, in his excellent biography of Dabney, critiques A Defense of Virginia, demonstrating that portions of this book are “willful propaganda of the highest order and manifestly untrue.” Lucas lays out in painstaking detail how Dabney contradicts his own earlier writings in attempting to paint the southern-slavery in a positive light (See Robert Lewis Dabney: A Presbyterian Life, 117–28).

 

Southern Slavery as it Was / Black & Tan

In 1996 Doug Wilson published Southern Slavery as it Was, co-authored with Steve Wilkins, then a board member of the League of the South(!). The booklet was subsequently pulled from publication in 2003 due to heavy plagiarism (see this World Magazine article). Since the plagiarism was restricted to Wilkin’s contribution, Doug edited the booklet, added some additional essays, and republished it in 2005 under the title Black & Tan: Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America.

Dabney is possibly the most referenced figure in Doug’s book Black & Tan, including a number of positive citations directly from A Defense of Virginia.

Again Lucas, assessing modern approaches to the Civil War that rely on Dabney’s unreliable view:

The way in which Dabney merged racial prejudice and proslavery arguments problematizes contemporary defenses of “Southern slavery as it was”; see, for an example, Wilkins and Wilson, Southern Slavery as it Was. Wilkins and Wilson depend on Dabney’s Defence of Virginia while claiming that “all forms of race hatred or racial vainglory are forms of rebellion against God” (14). This judgment appears to contradict their earlier description of Dabney as “a godly man who fought for the South” (13) as well as to complicate their use of his proslavery arguments that were deeply motivated by racial prejudice” (Robert Lewis Dabney, 159–60, n.47).

 

Doug “Repudiates(?)” Dabney’s Racism

In 2005, in response to controversy surrounding Southern Slavery as it WasDoug was asked simply and plainly to repudiate some of the most vile things that Dabney taught. He responds with equivocal and mocking answers:

Article 2. R. L. Dabney is cited favorably in the slavery booklet and its co-author Steve Wilkins is an instructor at the Dabney Center for Theological Studies in Monroe, Louisana. Dabney was a racist and condemned interracial marriage, something the Bible celebrates. Dabney also condemned the education of African Americans, something the New Testament advocated. But your neo-Confederate friends have proudly republished Dabney’s works, which have blatantly unscriptural positions?

Do you repudiate Dabney and all that he stands for? Yes or No? 

[Wilson]: No . . . wait! I meant yes!

Article 3. Your position on slavery is equivocal. As a moral absolutist you must say that it is always wrong, but your support for biblical slavery and Southern slavery implies that it depends on culture and therefore is relative. Dabney’s position is very interesting: the righteous Anglo-Saxon Christian has a duty to enslave people that cannot govern themselves. The “evil is not slavery, but the ignorance and vice in the laboring classes, of which slavery is the useful and righteous remedy. . . . (A Defense of Virginia, page 207).

a. Do you repudiate this Dabney on this point? Yes or No?

[Wilson]: What is the right answer here?

“Dabney in Full”

In 2004, Doug gave an address at his history conference devoted to Dabney. That address is included in Black & Tan as chapter 7: “Dabney in Full.” Dabney, he thinks, “lived one of the most remarkable lives ever to grace this nation” (82). In it he praises “Dabney the magnificent,” a “remarkably gifted man” (84). In this address, he does acknowledge Dabney’s “condescending racism, and a hard edge of rhetoric concerning the limited capacities of blacks” (87).  The section in this chapter is the only place I could find in all of his work which Doug acknowledges Dabney’s racism, and even here, instead of quoting Dabney, he chooses instead to cite an early example of Abraham Lincoln’s racism, and then says “let this condemnation here serve as a condemnation of this view, and any view similar to it. I condemn the racism of R.L. Dabney, of Margaret Sanger, of Abraham Lincoln, of Charles Darwin, of Louis Farrakhan, and of Ted Kennedy” (87). Doug thinks that Dabney’s bitter fight against integration his denomination “was not like him at all” (89).

In spite of all that, Wilson nevertheless considers him “virtually prophetic” on the issues of “State schools,” “American conservatism,” and his view of history (90).

The Mythological Dabney

Throughout “Dabney in Full” Doug relies on the biography of Thomas Cary Johnson: “A good source for the details of Dabney’s life is Thomas Cary Johnson, The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney” (82, n. 2). He can hardly be faulted for relying on Johnson — for 150 years this has been basically the only biography of Dabney available to us. Unfortunately, Johnson is far from an unbiased source on Dabney. They were contemporaries, ecclesial allies, and close friends. Dabney was responsible for getting Johnson hired as a professor of Hebrew and Greek at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Johnson had such a high view of Dabney that he said things like this:

“In point of intellectual energy and power we not only regard him as superior to every other man we have ever seen, but as having had no equal so far as history has had anything to say, in the whole history of Christianity in this country.”

“Dr. Dabney was a great man. We cannot tell just how great yet. One cannot see how great Mt. Blanc is while standing at its foot. One hundred years from now men will be able to see him better.”

(Johnson, “Robert Lewis Dabney: A Sketch,” in In Memorium: Robert Lewis Dabney)

In the Life and Letters, Johnson presents Dabney’s most objectionable works in a positive light:

  • Defense of Virginia and the South (273–75) – “a very able little book.”
  • “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes” (319–22) – Johnson was in favor of the speech, and glad that the Synod “rescinded the objectionable resolution [for integration with black ministers] and recommended the plan proposed by him [Dabney] to the Assembly” (321).
  • “The Negro and the Common School” and its companion works on State schools (396–400) – “These writings were informing and powerful” (399).

Johnson’s closing chapter in the Life and Letters, “Summary View of the Man and His Services,” speaks of Dabney in superlative terms at every point, presenting what I call “the mythological Dabney,” a saint-like hero to his fellow southerners:

“He was a pre-eminent preacher to preachers, and to an audience of highly intelligent people of earnest purpose” (552).

“He was the greatest teacher that most of his pupils ever knew” (553).

“Dr. Dabney won for himself a place amongst the few greatest theologians hitherto produced on the American continent” (555).

“Many of Dr. Dabney’s friends and admirers have claimed for him a nobler preeminence as a philosopher than as a theologian, and as such he seems to have been without a peer in America” (558).

“In all these phases of his life Dabney was somewhat more than a preacher, teacher, theologian, philosopher, economist, statesman, patriot, friend: he was a servant of God. That was his characteristic everywhere and always” (566).

“As a holy man, he deserves to be ranked with Augustine and Calvin, Owen and Baxter and Edwards” (567).

Johnson presents a dangerous mix – a superlative mythological view of Dabney’s greatness combined with sympathy and agreement with his most abominable racial views. Doug appears to have imbibed and passed along the myth. We can be grateful for a the fresh look at Dabney afforded by new biographies like Sean Michael Lucas’s.

 

Dabney on Education

Doug’s publishing house, Canon Press, took upon itself to republish Dabney for the modern classical and Christian education movement:

On Secular Education by R.L. Dabney was published by Canon in 1996, edited by me.

(Interested readers should see here for a couple of examples of the way Dabney’s white supremacy infected his views of education.)

 

The 2010s

In 2010, Doug was still at it, defending Dabney, alongside contemporary neo-confederates:

“This is one of the great dangers of cultural imperialism in theology. It easily leads to the suppression of voices that do not fit the accepted cultural norms for the practice of theology” (p. 92). As much as I usually differ with Franke about this sort of thing, this observation is actually quite correct. One thinks immediately of the suppressed voices of Thornwell and Dabney, and the silenced cries of contemporary writers for neo-Confederate newsletters. Oh . . . he meant other suppressed voices? Gotcha. So hard to keep this all straight.

And lest you thought his 2013 exchange with Thabiti chastened his enthusiasm for Dabney and his characterization of the South, in 2018 he is still recommending Black & Tan to a reader attempting to sort through what the Bible teaches about slavery.

 

Conclusion

Other reformed evangelicals have promoted R.L. Dabney (i.e., John MacArthur, Iain Murray / Banner of Truth). Doug Wilson, though, seems to have drunk the most deeply from this southern well, and has taken upon him the mantle that Dabney left behind.

The problem, as I see it, is that Doug seems to view Dabney’s white-supremacy as a slight but lamentable “blind spot” in an otherwise great and brilliant man. Doug wishes to keep Dabney’s revisionist and propagandistic history of the Civil War, his views on education, and his “prophetic voice” on politics and culture, as if all of these areas were not also infected with the same disease. He is happy to count Dabney among his significant influences, and it shows. A more comprehensive and clear-eyed look at Dabney, however, should give us pause before following in the steps of his present-day disciples.