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.

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:

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

(Note: this post is part of a series—see “John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney,” for an introduction and links to the other articles)

So far our series has taken us from a footnote in 1979 to a full endorsement of Dabney in 1991, again in 1995, with reprints of those recommendations echoing for decades. We’ve paused to consider Piper’s efforts toward “ethnic harmony” from 1994 to 2015, and are now comparing words with actions, using Dabney as a test case. So far, we’ve only seen continued endorsements in 2002, and 2003, and this post will now consider the crucial years from 2007 to 2014. The question driving this exploration is this: “How and why was a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney recommended to a whole generation of Reformed evangelicals, and what role did John Piper and Desiring God play?”

What Are Some Books That DG Recommends?

In 2006 Desiring God published a post What Are Some Books That DG Recommends? By my rough count, the list includes 354 books (or sets of books) in 68 categories, including theology, literature, education, culture, and racial harmony. If Piper’s dream of “a single river” was to start becoming a reality, a massive booklist would be one easy place to start.

It might be useful to pause for a moment to consider the place of the “recommended book list” in Reformed circles. Books are highly prized in this tradition, and the movement has been perpetuated in large part through the publishing of books. Every Desiring God conference included a massive book store, and often a bag full of free books for attendees; Piper himself has devoted himself to a writing ministry and published over 50 books; Justin Taylor graduated from The Bethlehem Institute under Piper and has gone on to become the executive vice president of book publishing at Crossway. In a movement that loves ideas and the books that contain them, a “recommended book list” carries great weight in helping to shape its followers.

So, did this recommended book list move forward the dream of “a single river” articulated just four years earlier? Well, out of those 354 books, there were two written by African American Christians, a whole 0.5% of the list. Both books were relegated to the “racial reconciliation” category, one merely as a co-author. For comparison, a number of white men (D. A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, Iain Murray, R. C. Sproul) are recommended on the list multiple times in a variety of categories. Next to John Piper himself (12x), the most recommended author on the list is Douglas Wilson (9x). Let that sink in—Douglas Wilson alone is recommended more than 4x as many times as all of the African American Christian authors combined [CORRECTION: two of those books were written by Nancy Wilson, Douglas Wilson’s wife. The math should read “3.5x as many …”]. Also featured in the list? Southern Presbyterian white-supremacists Robert Lewis Dabney and Benjamin Morgan Palmer.

I think in some ways this book list encapsulates in one place what is wrong with the Reformed movement. The “single river” was a lofty aspiration, but in the end, was merely wishful thinking detached from any meaningful action, even the simplest act of recommending a book. In this book list we are so far removed from “two strong streams mingling in a single river”—all we have is a tiny trickle mingling with a rushing river full of white water. 

Wilson, Black & Tan

And not only has this list done nothing to address the “poison of racist slavery” and white supremacy, the list perpetuates it, by recommending to its readers racist enslavers (like Dabney), and slavery apologists (like Douglas Wilson). While (thankfully?) the list did not recommend Wilson’s recently published book on slavery and the Confederacy (Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America (2005)), or his previously published pamphlet Southern Slavery as it Was (1998), nevertheless, the list demonstrates a remarkable familiarity with the catalog of Wilson’s writings. It would be surprising if they did not know about Black & Tan at the time, and negligent if indeed they did not.

Desiring God recommends Douglas Wilson

I think the list as whole demonstrates what is wrong with the white Reformed movement, but one recommendation in particular is the quintessential example: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism. Dabney wrote this book at the end of his life (in 1895), at the very same time that he was pleading for the “retention of the [Union Theological] Seminary in Southside Virginia as needed to help the white people in their struggle to prevent their sections being Africanized” (The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 510–11). The book contains allusions to “well bred [white] lady,” to an ante-bellum plantation, to a Confederate General, and to the case of a “master and servant” For a complete review of the book see my “Book Review: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism”). This book, written by this man, at this time, is what is recommended to those who want to learn more about the topic “Providence and Predestination.”

Douglass; Du Bois; Grimké; King

Imagine what could have been. What if the “Literature” section of the list had included the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, and The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois? There is not a single book on the Black church—what if Carter G. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church or Leroy Fitts, A History of Black Baptists had made the list? What if even a single biography of Martin Luther King Jr. had been included in the section on biography? What if the The Works of Francis J. Grimké (4 volumes) had been included among the recommended “Sets”? What if Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South by Albert Raboteau had been included in the “History” category? What if Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had been deemed worthy of inclusion in the literature section? Lemuel Haynes is absent from the list; John Perkins’s classic Let Justice Roll Down (1976) is absent; Tom Skinner Black and Free is absent;not even Carl Ellis Jr.’s Free at Last?: The Gospel in the African American Experience, which had allegedly made such an impact on Piper five years previously, is worth recommending on this list. Nor is Anthony Carter’s On Being Black and Reformed, which had been published a few years earlier in 2003. Had all of these books been included, the list would still be a far cry from that “single river,” but it would have been a tiny step closer.

Douglas Wilson

How the dream of “a single river” would play out in reality is further seen in the way Piper and Desiring God gave Douglas Wilson a platform beginning in 2009. It appears that Piper had met Wilson once, at a Ligonier conference in 2000 (see “Mohler, Piper, Sproul, and Wilson: Questions and Answers #1”), but by 2008 still had not met him in person. It was Mark Driscoll who seems to have made the connection (see “John Piper on Doug Wilson”). By 2006, Desiring God was recommending more Douglas Wilson books than any other author than Piper himself (see above), but it was 2009 when Wilson was first invited to share the stage at a Desiring God National Conference.

Wilson; Dabney

What is relevant for this series on Robert Lewis Dabney, is that although other
Reformed evangelicals (John MacArthur, Iain Murray) have promoted Dabney over the years, Wilson seems to have drunk the most deeply from this southern well and considers Dabney to be one of the men “I am most indebted to philosophically” (see “Doug Wilson on R.L. Dabney”). In his book Black & Tan, Wilson quotes Dabney more than any other figure, and repackages Dabney’s Lost Cause propaganda for slavery and the Confederacy for his contemporary audience. Douglas Wilson, the self-proclaimed “paleo-confederate,” has promoted Robert Lewis Dabney, the actual Confederate, more extensively than anyone else in modern memory. Southern Slavery as it Was was co-authored with Steve Wilkins, long time board member of the neo-Confederate group The League of the South. (For more on Wilson and Wilkins, see William Ramsey and Sean Quinlan, “Southern Slavery As It Wasn’t: Coming to Grips with Neo-Confederate Historical Misinformation” (2004); Euan Hague, Heidi Beirich, and Edward Sebesta, editors, Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction (2005)).

The way Piper promoted Douglas Wilson is an example of why “a single river” was never going to work (for a full account of this, including my own meager efforts for change while working at the institution, see “Bethlehem College & Seminary, Ethnic Harmony, and Doug Wilson”).

Rigney, Piper, Wilson (2013)

Rather than addressing the “poison” of “racist slavery,” Piper allowed its most prominent contemporary apologist his largest platform at conferences and on the Desiring God website. When Thabiti spilt gallons of digital ink debating Wilson over these issues in 2013, Piper gave Wilson the stage to explain his views (see “A Conversation on Christ and Culture with John Piper and Douglas Wilson”). When Wilson offered a vague and heavily qualified “apology,” and Thabiti carefully explained why it was insufficient, Piper called it “all good,” without ever addressing Thabiti’s unresolved concerns. Observe Piper’s interactions with the Reformed African American Network, a young “Black and Reformed” organization at this time. In an interview with Phillip Holmes, Piper claimed that Thabiti Anyabwile “drew forth appropriate concessions” from Wilson (“What Can the Church Learn from the Doug Wilson and Thabiti Anyabwile dialogue?”). Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns, who were in the room for that RAAN interview, describe Piper’s defense of Wilson as a key turning point in their own realization that white Reformed evangelical institutions were not places they belonged (see “Pass the Mic: Leave LOUD–Jemar Tisby’s Story,” 50:30–57:30). Here’s how I’ve summarized the whole situation: 

“Whether or not we intended it, here’s the message that I’m afraid minorities heard: ‘come to the table for hard work on racial reconciliation; then, when extremely racially insensitive statements are made with no (or vague and heavily qualified) apologies, we’re going to call it “a great dialogue” and chastise you for being too thin-skinned.’ Minorities have gotten the message, and they’ve left the table.”

Bethlehem College & Seminary, Ethnic Harmony, and Doug Wilson,” 13

Returning to the theme of this series, as long as the spirit of Dabney was alive and well in Reformed circles, the “soul-dynamic” of the Black church would never truly be welcome. One or the other would have to go, because the poison of white-supremacy cannot remain unchecked forever without manifesting itself and pushing out that which is its opposite. This is exactly what we have seen play out over the last twenty years.

“Lemuel Haynes and Robert Dabney”?

On March 12, 2014, Piper was invited to deliver the annual “Gaffin Lecture on Theology, Culture, and Mission” at Westminster Theological Seminary. Piper chose as his theme “The New Calvinism and the New Community: The Doctrines of Grace and the Meaning of Race” and the   message and transcript are available here.

At the time, there was much discussion about the “New Calvinist” movement, (also called “Young, Restless, and Reformed”), and there were intra-mural fights about the boundary lines between “New Calvinism” and “Old Calvinism.” In describing the issue, Piper said this:

I do not mean for these features of the new to be dividing lines between the new and the old. I don’t think there are such lines. I don’t think there is a clear distinction between the new and the old except perhaps in regard to the use of media and technology that didn’t exist 20 years ago. How can there be distinctives unique to the New Calvinism when the Old is as diverse as:

St. Augustine and Adoniram Judson, Francis Turretin and John Bunyan, John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon, John Owen and George Whitefield, John Knox and J. I. Packer, Cotton Mather and R. C. Sproul, Abraham Kuyper and William Carey, Lemuel Hanes [sic] and Robert Dabney, Theodore Beza and James Boice Isaac Backus and Martyn Lloyd-Jones?

If there is such diversity in the Old, can we find dividing lines between the Old and the New? I don’t think so.

Dabney | Haynes

This a fascinating list, and in particular, the pairing of Lemuel Haynes and Robert Lewis Dabney  shines a glaring spotlight on the issues of race and the poison of white supremacy in the Reformed theological tradition. Dabney explicitly and repeatedly opposed the equality of Black teachers in his Presbyterian denomination for his entire life (see “What’s So Bad About R. L. Dabney?”). His efforts “set the racial orthodoxy” in the PCUS for the next hundred years (Sean Michal Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 148–49). Dabney himself would never have allowed a Black preacher like Lemuel Haynes to exist on equal terms within his own definition of “The Church,” and the idea of a Black preacher to a white congregation enraged Dabney more than anything. Piper lumps together men under the table “Old Calvinism” that are so disparate, they never could have even co-existed in their own time.

Regarding the “New Calvinism” Piper claims this: 

“The New Calvinism is international in scope, multi-ethnic in expression, and culturally diverse. There is no single geographic, racial, cultural, or governing center.” 

This is massively disputable. While there may have been “outcroppings” of Reformedish theology in many diverse places, the “New Calvinism” very  much had institutional centers: Desiring God; The Gospel Coalition; Acts 29. And these spaces did very much have a cultural and racial center: whiteness. Just see the list of “recommended books” above: overwhelmingly white. A statement like this is wishful thinking, elevating a tiny minority into more than it really was. By overstating the role of the “Black and Reformed” movement, the urgency to deal with White Supremacy was diminished. And by failing to deal with White Supremacy, the powerful figures at the cultural center of New Calvinism pushed the Black and Reformed out, whether they intended to or not.

Piper acknowledged that this diversity was tentative: “It may be short-lived, or it may be deep and wide and long. God will decide.” Notice how he appeals to “providence” rather than his own responsibility: “God will decide.” As if God’s sovereignty did not work through means; the means of conference speaker lineups; the means of book lists; the means of decisions of who to defend and who to critique; the means of decisions to speak or to remain silent in key situations. 

The year before this address Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by vigilante George Zimmerman, and this event started to highlight again the already existing differences in the Black and white “streams” even within the “Calvinist community.” Later that year, in August 2014, Michael Brown would be shot and killed in Ferguson, and this would accentuate these differences even more, especially with the creation of Black Lives Matter, and the white backlash to such outspoken advocacy. The racial diversity within the New Calvinism would indeed be short-lived: key leaders at the center of the movement had proved unwilling to deal with the root issues of white supremacy, and thus the community would be unable to withstand the coming storms.

Next: Conclusion: “Wave It, Flag It, Acknowledge It”

John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney

“I go back more than a hundred years to find the most helpful explanation I know of. It comes from an essay by Robert L. Dabney, a Presbyterian minister and theological professor whose writings have proved helpful for over a century.”

John Piper, The Pleasures of God

Over the past few years, I’ve been wrestling with the question “How and why was a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney recommended to generations of evangelicals?” How did it happen is a historiographical question, why did it happen is an analytical one; and I am convinced that as evangelicals continue to struggle with the issues surrounding race, that there is much to learn from our reception of Dabney. There are many figures who played a part in the long chain passing down Dabney from the 19th to the 21st century. Not all played as large a role as others, but all did have their part: there was Clement Read Vaughan, editor of Dabney’s Discussions; Thomas Cary Johnson, Dabney’s first biographer; Morton H. Smith, promoter of Dabney in the 1960s; Iain Murray and Banner of Truth, who reprinted Dabney’s works in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s; and then there were the leaders of the last generation: John MacArthur, Douglas Wilson, and yes, even John Piper.

John Piper hits the closest to home for me of all these figures (I attended Bethlehem Baptist Church and Bethlehem College & Seminary for seven years), and, and I’ve spent considerable time wrestling with his endorsement of Dabney. It was Piper’s request to write an article on Dabney for Desiring God that started me on this “Dabney project” back in January 2018, and ever since then, part of that project has included the question “what role did John Piper play in all this?” 

This series of articles is an attempt to wrestle thoroughly with that question. This post serves as an introduction, and here is a “Table of Contents” with links (forthcoming) to the other posts in the series:

  1. Introduction [this post]
  2. “Love Your Enemies”?
  3. “The Great Pattern of American Manhood” (The Pleasures of God)
  4. “For Theologians” (Future Grace)
  5. Interlude: “A Single River” or “A Poisonous Stream”?
  6. “Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner” (A God Entranced-Vision of All Things)
  7. “Great Saints of the Past” (Suffering and the Sovereignty of God)
  8. Whose Calvinism? Which Community?
  9. Conclusion: “Flag It, Wave It, Acknowledge It”

Piper and Dabney?

John Piper is well-known for his love of Jonathan Edwards, and has perhaps done more than any other figure to popularize Edwards to his generation. But Piper’s love of Calvinism also caused him to recommend Robert Lewis Dabney repeatedly for decades. In these posts, I retrace Piper’s steps through the footnotes. I’ve re-read each of the works by Dabney that Piper cites, and I’ve commented on both Dabney and Piper along the way. If Piper errs on the side of downplaying historical context and emphasizing “the text alone” (see, for example, his discussion with D.A. Carson), I will add the opposite emphasis: highlighting the historical context, and historiographical features of Dabney’s works and Piper’s use of him. 

I should acknowledge how much I have been shaped in this regard by Piper himself. Piper has repeatedly sounded the call to be a “first-hander” and not a “second-hander”—read the primary sources for yourself, don’t merely rely on the judgments of others. I’ve applied this to Dabney: rather than resting content to receive him from others, I’ve been reading him for myself, and coming to my own conclusions. I’ve also expanded the scope slightly beyond just Piper himself to include those articles and book chapters published on Desiring God, even if not written by Piper himself. This will illustrate the way that the reception of a figure like Dabney works not just on the individual level (Piper himself), but begins working outwardly through the community of people surrounding him, and through them, to even more broad segments of evangelicalism. I should note that I do not intend this series mainly as a critique of Piper (though there will certainly be some critiques along the way), but as an attempt to answer the question “how and why?”

The Digital Age

I want to acknowledge at the outset that I live under different informational conditions in 2021 than John Piper did in 1971, or 1991, or 2001. I can access all of Dabney’s works in digitized, searchable format online, and a quick search for “slavery” or “negro” instantly pulls up search results that would have taken hours of reading and indexing to find, just a few decades ago. In pointing out historical context from Dabney’s life and thought, I am not necessarily saying that Piper ought to have known this. In some cases, perhaps, but not always. And we must keep in mind that Piper himself received Dabney passed along to him from others, figures who (like Iain Murray) had a vested interested in downplaying Dabney’s racism and highlighting his Calvinism. To make observations about what happened is not necessarily to assign blame. Nevertheless, there was some moral shock when I realized, “There’s an actual white-supremacist on my bookshelves. How did that happen?” This is part of my grappling with that question.

A Note on Indexes

As a preliminary note, readers should know that the original indices to Piper’s books and the new Bibliography and Indexes in Piper’s Complete Works are missing several references to Dabney that actually do appear in those volumes. In addition to those indexes, I have also relied on searches of digitized versions of the books, and have even “randomly” encountered others that I would otherwise have missed. This series is as complete of an account as I have found at this time, but I make no claim to absolute completeness.

Next Post: 2. “Love Your Enemies”?

“Bethlehem College & Seminary, Ethnic Harmony, and Doug Wilson”

In March 2019 I submitted two reports to the leadership of Bethlehem College & Seminary: “Bethlehem College & Seminary and Ethnic Harmony: A Minority Report,” and “Bethlehem College & Seminary, Ethnic Harmony, and Doug Wilson” (note: “ethnic harmony” is Bethlehem’s language for issues related to racial reconciliation). I was the Director of Admissions and was responsible for recruiting and admitting students to all programs, including the college and the seminary. We had been struggling to recruit Black students the seminary for several years, and I had recently heard concerns that “BCS is not a good place for minority students” from some current students, former students, and fellow Bethlehem Baptist Church members. Since this was my job, I followed up and took a representative survey of some students, alumni, faculty, board members, and friends of the school, out which came these two reports. 

Recently, I have heard from multiple attempts to downplay or minimize the relationship between Bethlehem and Douglas Wilson, and I would like to document the fact that (1) there is a substantial connection and (2) BCS leadership has been directly confronted with this question for several years. (note: I am not sharing the first report, as it contains direct feedback from people whom I have not received permission to share from).

(Note: this report is specifically focused on issues of race, and thus does not discuss Wilson’s views on women, sexual abuse victims, or any other number of issues that could each receive their own focused treatment.)

I had four goals in the report, reflected in the main headings:

I. Document the affiliation between Bethlehem College & Seminary, DesiringGod, and Doug Wilson.

II. Show why Black and Tan is so offensive and historically inaccurate.

III. Reflect on the past six years (now 8) since the Doug Wilson / Thabiti Anyabwile exchange in 2013.

IV. Suggest some areas we might consider taking action on.

I had intended to share the report with all faculty in order to discuss it at one of the monthly “Faculty Forum” meetings, but was encouraged to share it with the President’s Cabinet first. 

It was not well received.

First, I was immediately told that I was not permitted to share these findings with anyone. Not with faculty, not with pastors, not with board members — no one. I asked specifically if I could share it with Jason Meyer, who was then on the board of trustees, was the Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church, and professor of preaching at the seminary, and was told “no.” I asked to share with Sam Crabtree, chair of the BCS board — “no.” Of course, sharing with other faculty was out of the question, but the leadership decided to share it with Joe Rigney.

I was told that my reports were “incendiary,” as in “highly flammable,” and that they had the potential to damage the school’s reputation. This seemed to me to be a case of misdirection. It is Doug Wilson who is incendiary. It was our affiliation with him that I though could get us burned. It seemed strange to blame the person saying “Look! There’s a fire!” when the fire was started by someone else.

A number of meetings followed, some of which were very intense. At one meeting, I was admonished for “aggressively” pushing an “agenda” for racial justice. Whether I realized it or not, I was espousing “Critical Race Theory,” which, in 2019, was just starting to come on the evangelical radar. My social media posts were being observed and commented on, and apparently some of our faculty had expressed concern to school leadership regarding my statements, though no one had ever spoken to me directly about any of it. 

There was fear that the issues of racial justice had the potential to divide our faculty deeply, which was surprising to me, and if true, seemed to be a sign of brittleness. American slavery came up, including that sentiment that “the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery” so how can we condemn Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding and call it “sin”?

The report on Doug Wilson was dismissed as “Desiring God’s problem,” ignoring the specific affiliations that the school itself had (and continues to have).

Later that summer, I again raised concern about our affiliation with Wilson at the time of the annual Association of Christian Classical Schools conference “Repairing the Ruins.” I expressed that my conscience was troubling me, and “I feel compelled to raise again the issue of our affiliation with Doug Wilson, an issue that has not been addressed at all since my raising it nearly 3 months ago.” Much of what I expressed is contained in this post: “Doug Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools.” I concluded with this:

I think that our affiliation with Doug Wilson, including ACCS, is a big mistake. I am asking you to reconsider whether this is really in the best interest of our school.

Specifically, I would be served to have clarity on the following questions:

—What exactly is our position on Doug Wilson?

—In the absence of any clear direction, are all faculty and staff free to make their own determinations on how to relate to Doug Wilson and his associated organizations? I.e., if Joe is free to associate in public and prominent ways with Doug, NSA, and ACCS, are others of us free to offer criticism in equally public ways? If not, what is the specific standard or policy to which we will be held on this issue? 

—Why do we feel the need to affiliate with ACCS? There are other classical education organizations that we could pursue like the Society for Classical Learning. Can someone articulate the difference between the two and offer an argument in support of the ACCS?

The school sent another representative to this conference, and ultimately it was determined that nothing public would be said clarifying Bethlehem’s connections to Doug Wilson. 

Finally, in October 2019, our annual renewal to ACCS came up and I once again raised concern about our official affiliation with Wilson and the ACCS. On October 31, 2019, I was told that I was no longer permitted to “advocate for institutional change” regarding our various connections with Doug Wilson.

I closed my report with 8 suggestions, intended to prompt discussion among the faculty. Here was the eighth suggestion:

There may be other things that Bethlehem might consider in order to clarify what has appeared to be confusing and ambiguous messaging regarding ethnic harmony in general and Doug Wilson in particular. With a faculty and staff of such creative minds, I’m sure there will be even better ideas than the ones suggested here.

Ultimately, the school, chose option #9:

But Bethlehem College & Seminary might decide that the price is too high to pay, and say and do nothing at all. I’m praying that that will not be the case. I love this school, and I pray that we will submit to our King, Jesus, whatever he might ask of us.

I continued working as Director of Admissions for another year and a half, and stopped advocating for “institutional change” regarding Doug Wilson. In February 2021, I resigned from my position and in July 2021 I left Bethlehem Baptist Church.

(Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash)