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

Banner of Truth’s 1967 reprint of Dabney’s, Discussions

In 1967, Banner of Truth rolled out their reprint of Robert Lewis Dabney’s Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967; reprint 1982) with an article by Iain Murray: “Reintroducing ‘The Best Teacher of Theology in the United States’” (Banner of Truth Magazine (Jan/Feb 1967): 16–17). The quote in the title (“the best teacher of theology”) was said to be “the opinion of the eminent Archibald Alexander of Princeton,” and this was our first clue that the historical claims in this piece would need to be read critically. Archibald Alexander was born in 1772, and died in 1851, two full years before Dabney first took a position as a professor at Union Theological Seminary. The quote actually comes from another Princeton theologian, Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823–1886), who is cited correctly by Dabney’s first biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, presumably where Murray mistakenly drew the quote from (The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 534). This misattribution in the very title of the article is illuminating.

Almost the entire article by Murray was reprinted as the “Publisher’s Preface” to Volume 1 of the Discussions and serves as the frame through which they wish the reader to receive this work. The dust jacket and the preface are loaded with endorsements from B. B. Warfield, Archibald Alexander [Hodge], and Dabney’s biographer Thomas Cary Johnson, in addition to Murray’s own glowing recommendation. Murray closes his article with a quote from Albert Freundt, Jr., then professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi:

“Dabney should be restudied today, and to the extent that modern adherents of the Reformed Faith make themselves familiar with the writings of this devout Christian scholar, they will appreciate once again a great segment of their rich heritage”

“Preface,” viii

Bavinck, though?

All of the gushing seemed a bit over the top, but the claim that caught my attention the most was this one:

“He was, as two continental theologians, Bavinck and Lecerf, have recognized, one of the leading theologians of America.”

Murray, “Preface,” v.
Herman Bavinck

Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) was a Dutch theologian, best known for his four volume Reformed Dogmatics. He is one my favorite theologians, and I was surprised, and a bit dismayed to hear that he had so endorsed a pro-slavery white-supremacist like Dabney. I had seen this claim elsewhere as well. Douglas Floyd Kelly also claimed that: “Reformed theologians of Europe such as Lecerf, Bavinck, and Barth spoke of Dabney with appreciation and respect” (Kelly, “Robert Lewis Dabney,” in Reformed Theology in America: A History of its Modern Development, ed. David F. Wells, 208). When I wrote my first ever article on Robert Lewis Dabney, published at DesiringGod, I too passed this along: 

“In his time, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was considered one of the greatest teachers of theology in the United States. Revered theologians such as Hodge, Shedd, Warfield, Bavinck, and Barth viewed him with appreciation and respect.”

Providence Is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist

At the time, I wasn’t able to track down all of the citations, but recently, as I’ve been examining how and why a white-supremacist like Dabney was commended to our generation as a “great theologian,” these kinds of endorsements have come under greater scrutiny. The question of this particular post is this: Did Herman Bavinck really consider Dabney to be “one of the leading theologians in America”? Or is this another historical blunder like the misattribution to Archibald Alexander [Hodge]?

Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics

The only reference to Dabney in Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is in Volume 1: Prolegomena. Chapter 6: “Reformed Dogmatics” (175–204) gives a historical overview of the development of the Reformed theology, starting with Zwingli and ending with the development of “Reformed Theology in North America” (224). In this historical overview, Bavinck notes that “From the outset Reformed theology in North American displayed a variety of very diverse forms” (200), and traces American church history from 1607 to his present (1906). He closes with a section on the Presbyterian churches in America, and describes the split between the New School and Old School Presbyterians. Here is the entire paragraph, including the reference to Dabney:

The Old School found support above all at the theological seminary of Princeton, a school started in 1812 under the auspices of the General Assembly and represented by Dr. Archibald Alexander (1772–1851), Dr. Charles Hodge (1797–1878), author of Systematic Theology, and his son and successor Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823–86), author of Outlines of Theology, and Evangelical Theology. So-called Princeton theology is in the main a reproduction of the Calvinism of the seventeenth century as it was laid down in the Westminster Confession and the Helvetic Consensus and elaborated especially by F. Turretin in his Theology Elenctica. The same system is represented as well by the Southern theologians James H. Thornwell (1812–62), Robert J. Breckinridge (1800–1871), and Robert L. Dabney. One of the youngest representatives of the Old School is W. G. T. Shedd, emeritus professor since 1890 at Union Seminary, New York, and author of the two-volume Dogmatic Theology. However, between Hodge and Shedd there is a remarkable difference. The former is a federalist and creationist, the latter a realist and traducianist. Both, however, agree in taking a very broad view of elections including in it also all the children who die in infancy.”

Reformed Dogmatics, 1:202–203

Regarding the claim that Bavinck considers Dabney a “leading theologian in America” one should note that compared with the other theologians mentioned in this paragraph, Bavinck makes no mention of the seminary where Dabney taught (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia), nor of any of the books Dabney published, nor of any of his theological positions, other than that he was, alongside Thornwell and Breckinridge, one of “the Southern theologians.” Nothing more than this bare description is deemed worthy of mention by Bavinck.

A turn to the index strengthens this assessment. Thornwell, Breckinridge, and Dabney appear just once in all 2000+ pages of the Reformed Dogmatics, in the paragraph just quoted. However, the other figures are referenced and interacted with dozens and dozens of times throughout the work: Archibald Alexander Hodge (13x), Charles Hodge (47x), W. G. T. Shedd (45x), and another American theologian, B. B. Warfield (36x), across all four volumes. If Bavinck’s opinion of a “leading American theologian” is indicated by the amount of interaction with their theological work, Dabney appears to be “leading” the rear of the pack.

Morton H. Smith, Bavinck, and Dabney

Morton H. Smith

How, then, did this claim come to be? Where did Iain Murray get the idea that Bavinck recognized Dabney as “one of the leading theologians in America”? Murray does not offer any footnote or citation for the claim, but it appears that the sentence was lifted almost exactly from Morton H. Smith’s 1962 Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology. Smith’s book (a reprint of his PhD dissertation under G. C. Berkouwer) includes an entire chapter devoted to Robert Lewis Dabney, and he introduces Dabney as a theologian like this:

“Dabney is recognized as one of the greatest of the American Presbyterian theologians of the 19th Century. He is recognized by both Bavinck and Lecerf as one of the leading theologians of America.”

Smith, Studies, 192.

Compare again with Murray:

“He was, as two continental theologians, Bavinck and Lecerf, have recognized, one of the leading theologians of America.”

Smith does give footnotes for both Bavinck and Lecerf, and his footnote for Bavinck points to the single reference we have reproduced above. 

That Smith was directly involved in Banner of Truth’s effort to republish Dabney’s works is indicated just two pages later in Murray’s “Preface” to Discussions; in fact, he is first in the order of thanks: 

“The publishers are grateful to those whose help or advice has contributed to this reprint: Morton H. Smith (whose Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology, 1962, has served to recall attention to Dabney); W. J. Grier, Belfast; John Murray, Westminster Theological Seminary, H. M. Brimm, the Librarian, Union Theological Seminary, Virginia, and Albert H. Freundt, Jr., Professor of Church History and Librarian, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi.”

Discussions, 1:vii
“The Six” directly involved in reprinting Dabney’s Discussions in 1967.

Why would Smith inflate Bavinck’s bare reference to Dabney into a recognition of great status? In Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology, Smith repeatedly expresses the wish for Dabney to become more well known:

Sad to say, that at present, he is largely unknown and forgotten by his own Church today. Certainly, a man such as Dabney is worthy of more serious study than he is usually given. Especially, as there is presently on foot a move toward a Reformed philosophy, it would seem that the writings of such men deserve at least some consideration in the framing of such a system of thought.

Studies, 192.

He points specifically to the lack of reprints of Dabney’s works:

Again, it is greatly to be lamented that both Dabney and Thornwell have fallen into a secondary place in the estimate of modern day theologians. This may be accounted for, in part, by the fact that their works have not seen the reprinting that the writings of both Shedd and Hodge have enjoyed. We believe that were the writings of Dabney and Thornwell to see republication, that they would again gain a wide degree of acceptance among Reformed theologians.

Studies, 193.

Smith was born and raised in Virginia, and “received  from his father a love for the South and the Confederacy… ‘Dad instilled in us a love for the South and the Confederacy… Both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson became personal heroes of mine’” (Joseph Pipa, Jr., “Morton Howison Smith: A Sketch of His Life,” in Confessing Our Hope: Essays in Honor of Morton Howison Smith on His Eightieth Birthday, 4). This love for the Confederacy manifested itself in his love for the Confederate-theologians, including Dabney, and his remarks in Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology resemble a theological version of “The South Will Rise Again.”

Morton Smith the Segregationist

Given his reverence for a 19th century Presbyterian slave-holder, it may not be surprising to learn that Morton H. Smith was a 20th century Presbyterian segregationist.

Smith’s segregationist views were no secret, and were present around the very time that Banner was reprinting Dabney with Smith’s help. Between the publication of Smith’s Studies (1962) and Banner’s first edition of Dabney’s Discussions (1967), Smith published an article in The Presbyterian Guardian entitled “The Racial Problem Facing America” (1964). The best analysis of this article and the historical context surrounding, that I’ve found, is from Bradly Mason: “Then & Now: The Conservative Presbyterian Race Debate in 1964.” Here are just a few quotes from Smith’s article:

“As a matter of practical consideration in a culture that has been sharply segregated for so long, it seems the point of wisdom to keep a segregated pattern in the sanctuary when there is joint worship” (127).

“The reason that so many see a Communist influence in the present [civil rights] movement is that the goal seems to be the same as that of the Marxist philosophy, namely, the levelling of all to a common uniformity. Even if the American Negro movement has not been started or backed by the Communist Party at first, it certainly plays into the hands of the Communists” (127)

“Again, if diversity is God’s revealed way for mankind, one wonders about any program that advocates the inter-marriage of the diverse races in a way which will eradicate the differences that God has established” (127).

“If, on the other hand, it is necessary to separate large groups of different ethnic groups in order to preserve peace between them, there is no harm in such separation as such” (128).

Albert Freundt, Jr.

Smith was not the only Mississippi segregationist involved in Banner of Truth’s reprinting of Dabney’s Discussions. Albert Freundt, Jr., Smith’s fellow teacher at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, was also an outspoken segregationist. In 1962, when James Meredith became the first Black student to integrate The University of Mississippi, (“Ole Miss”), it sparked violent reactions among white-supremacist segregationists. An Episcopal rector in the state, Duncan Gray, went to the campus to “scold the riotous students” and then afterward “led a petition drive among Oxford’s clergy calling for compliance with desegregation orders. Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian ministers in Oxford called on white Mississippians to acknowledge and repent for their passive acceptance of the conditions that had led to violence.” 

The Citizen

In response, Albert Freundt, Jr., took to the pages of the Citizen’s Council publication The Citizen with an article simply titled: “Oxford Clergy Wrong in Calling for ‘Repentance!’ ” (Citizen, Oct. 1962, 5-6). “It was the federal government and outside agitators, Freundt believed, not white Mississippians, who needed forgiveness for provoking the violence at Ole Miss” (for the above references on Freundt, see Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton University Press, 2007), 70–71). The Citizens Council was an organization founded to oppose “Brown v. Board of Education,” and “its work initiated the private school movement across the South and forged national and international networks of white supremacy that would deeply influence the political and cultural landscape of post-civil rights America” (see Stephanie R. Rolph “The Citizens’ Council”). Freundt was “one of the few PCUS [Presbyterian Church in the United States] clergymen ever to contribute to the Citizens’ Council publications” (Chappell, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, 146).

What is remarkable to me is that, as Bradly Mason notes, all this activity of Smith, Freundt, and Iain Murray—advocating for segregationist positions, and working to retrieve the work of white-supremacist theologians—was taking place “during the height of the Civil Rights movement” (“Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 do NOT Preclude Justice Advocacy”). At this very same time, just a half hour out of Jackson, Mississippi, John Perkins was fighting as a Black evangelical Christian for Civil Rights in Mendenhall, Mississippi (see Perkins, A Quiet Revolution, and Let Justice Roll Down), and yet, these white Reformed pastors, seminary professors, and publishers, were busy at the work of perpetuating the very forces of white supremacy that Meredith, Perkins and many others were fighting against.

Why? Why would Iain Murray and Banner of Truth work so closely with Southern segregationists like Morton Smith and Albert Freundt, Jr. to re-introduce the works of a white-supremacist slaveholder to the reformed community, in the 1960s? This is a question that I am still wrestling with, but the fundamental answer seems to be “Calvinism.” Adherence to so-called “right doctrine” outweighed the ethical considerations of racism, white-supremacy, slavery, and segregationist beliefs, and thus it was “with particular pleasure” that Murray re-introduced Dabney to the Reformed Evangelical world.

Bavinck on American Racism

But what about Bavinck? Thankfully, we don’t have to speculate about what he actually thought of America and American racism. His recent biographer James Eglinton gives us an account of Bavinck’s visit to the U.S. in 1908 in a section subtitled “Tales of a Racist Disaster: A Warning to Would-Be Emigrés” (Note: a version of this section of Eglinton’s book was also published on his blog as “Bavinck on Racism in America”). After returning to the Netherlands, Bavinck gave several public lectures on his “Impressions of America.”

“In an auditorium so full that listeners were also seated on the stage around the speaker, Bavinck went through the usual motions, discussing the majesty of the ocean and Niagara Falls and the historic influence of the Dutch on American society before speaking in apocalyptic tones of the unfolding di­saster that was racialized hatred in America.”

James Eglinton, Bavinck: A Critical Biography, 248
W. E. B. Du Bois

At one point in the trip Bavinck had been told by a Southerner that “‘negroes are not humans. Canaan went to Lod and took a wife. That wife was an ape.’ (Bavinck disagreed, profoundly.)” (Eglinton 248). Eglinton reports that “In his own study notes from this journey, it is clear that Bavinck made a considerable effort to understand race relations in America.” His reading list include a lecture by Booker T. Washington, as well as W. E. B. Du Bois, ““Die Negerfrage in den Vereinigten Staaten.” This article by Du Bois is available in English translation (on JSTOR here), and some of the material is expanded from chapters in The Souls of Black Folk (“Of the Sons of Master and Man” and “Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece”). 

Bavinck was not blind to the issue of American racism, he looked it square in the eye, and he listened directly to Black voices. Overall, Bavinck’s impressions of the U.S. were so “bleak,” that he “warned an audience of young Dutch Christians of ‘a great dan­ger hidden in today’s emigration to America’” (Eglinton, 248). Bavinck thought that America’s deep racial division: 

“could only be over­come by ‘the way of religion.’ Even then, though, he was struck by the segregated reality of American church attendance. Unless it also underwent a profound transformation, the American church could not offer a solution to the problem of race.”

Eglinton, 248

Not only did Bavinck not commend Robert Lewis Dabney, or other white-supremacist theologians like him, had he ever commented directly on them, he is much more likely to have included them in this same bleak assessment.

Morton Smith, Banner of Truth, and those who have relied on their distorted account of Bavinck need to retract this claim regarding Bavinck and Dabney.

And that includes me.

Further Reading:

1976 – John Perkins, A Quiet Revolution.

1998 – David L. Chappel,“Religious Ideas of the Segregationists.” Journal of American Studies 32.2 (1998): 237–62. (Available on JSTOR)

2005 – David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). (Amazon)

2007 – Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution. (Princeton University Press, 2007) (Amazon)

2009 – Peter Slade, Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) (Amazon)

2010 – Anthony Bradley, “Why Didn’t They Tell Us?: The Racist & Pro-Segregation Roots Of The Formation Of RTS, The PCA, And The Role Of First Prez In Jackson, Miss In All Of It.”

Comparing Princeton, Edwards, and the Dutch on the Bible and Society

Mark Noll contributed a chapter to Reformed Theology in America on “The Princeton Theology.” Toward the end, he compares the theologians of Princeton with two other representatives of Reformed theology: Jonathan Edwards and the Dutch. His second point of comparison, on the Bible and society, was illuminating:

“Second, the three differed in how their approach to Scripture affected their picture of the Christian’s task in society. Princeton used the Bible to construct dogma, while it was content to accept the cultural conventions of the merchant-yeoman middle class without question. To Edwards the Bible was a resource for reflective piety, for discovering the divine and supernatural light that graciously converts the darkened heart; his absorption was so thorough on this theme that he seems to have given little thought to the late-Puritan society in which he lived. The Dutch, by contrast, almost defined themselves by their capacity to find scriptural principles for cultural formation, whether in education, politics, voluntary organizations, or economics. These varied uses of Scripture have appeared complementary in some circumstances and competitive in others” (28–29).