“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.”

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)

What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?

R.L. Dabney has been so thoroughly whitewashed in reformed evangelical circles that it comes as a surprise when he is criticized for his virulent white-supremacy. The whitewashed version of Dabney started with his close friend and first biographer Thomas Cary Johnson, and was passed along to reformed evangelicals by Iain Murray  (see here, for example) and Banner of Truth publishers. He was then picked up by men like John MacArthur, who gave him unqualified recommendation for over 38 years.

What could possibly be so bad about Dabney? I suspect that very few people have actually read for themselves the kinds of things Dabney said. If they had, I simply cannot imagine them giving him the kind of praise that they have.

Before anyone accuses me of over-reacting to Dabney, or making a mountain out of a molehill, I simply ask you to read for yourself a handful of articles. These are all available for free in the public domain. You can find them on Google Books or on archive.org. I’ve uploaded pdfs of each relevant chapter or address. If you haven’t faced Dabney’s racism and white-supremacy for yourself, you simply cannot make an accurate assessment of his life and legacy. If you only have time to read one, read “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes.” If you have time for a second, read “The Negro and the Common School.” Read it all if you really want to know how abhorrent his teaching and influence has been.

“The Moral Character of Slavery,” April–May, 1851 

The earliest record I can find of Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy is in a series of letters published in the Richmond, Enquirer in 1851. The full set of letters can be found here: “[Nine of] Eleven Letters by Chorepiscopus [Robert Lewis Dabney] to the Richmond Enquirer, on “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (1851).” Dabney later “revised, recast, and enlarged” the letters in 1863 in his Defence of Virginia, (And Through Her of the South) — on which, see below. The original letters contain some of the vilest racism in all of Dabney’s work:

But I was about to say that, in considering these supposed evils of slavery, we must remember that the real evil is the presence of three millions of half-civilized foreigners among us; and of this gigantic evil, domestic slavery is the potent and blessed cure. This foreign and semi-barbarous population was placed here by no agency of ours. The cupidity of the forefathers of American and British abolitionists placed it here, against our earnest remonstrances, and left us to find the remedy for its presence. It would have been a curse that would have paralyzed the industry, corrupted the morals, and crushed the development of any nation, thus to have an ignorant, pagan, lazy, uncivilized people intermixed with us, and spread abroad like the frogs of Egypt. The remedy is slavery. And let us ask, what has slavery done to rescue the South and the Africans in these portentous cir­cumstances? It has civilized and christianized the Africans, and has made them, in the view of all who are practically acquainted with their condition, the most comfortable pea­santry in the world. It has produced a paucity of crimes, riots and mobs, that far surpasses the ‘‘land of steady habits,” the boasted North; as is proved by the statistics of crime.— It has rendered political convulsions in our own borders impossible. It has developed a magnificent agriculture, which in spite of the burden of unequal legislation, has enabled the South to maintain a proportionate increase with its gigantic rival. A reference to the statistics of the religious denomi­nations of the country shows that slavery has made about a half a million, one in every six of these pagan savages, a pro­fessor of Christianity. The whole number of converted pa­gans, now church members, connected with the mission churches of the Protestant world, is supposed to be about 191,000, a goodly and encouraging number indeed. But compare these converted pagans with the 500,000 converts from the pagan Africans among us, and we see that through the civilizing agency of domestic slavery, the much-slandered christianity of the South has done far more for the salvation of heathen men than all the religious enterprise of Protestant christendom! And this is, no doubt, but the dawn of the brighter day, which the benevolent affection of the masters will light up around the black population, if they are not interfered with by the schemes of a frantic fanaticism (“Letter 10”).

Letter to Major General Howard, Oct 21, 1865 (pdf here)

In 1865 Dabney wrote a letter to the Chief of the Freedman’s Bureau which was formed to help former black slaves in the aftermath of the civil war. The Letter is a mixture of a rosy white-washed picture of southern slavery, irony and sarcasm when confessing the South’s “inferiority” to the North, and a concluding section on the challenges of helping African-Americans:

“One of your difficulties is in the thriftlessness of the Africans themselves, and their want of intelligent foresight; a trait which was caused, not by domestic servitude, but by the savage condition from which they were taken, and which we had partially corrected when they were taken out of our hands” (41).

“The larger part of them evidently confound liberty with license; and to them, liberty means living without earning a living” (42).

“You have this task then, gently to educate them out of this innocent mistake of Stealing everything which comes to their hand” (43).

“You, sir, are appointed to do what no other mortal has hitherto done successfully: to transmute four millions of slaves, of an alien race and lower culture, all at once into citizens, without allowing them to suffer or deteriorate on your hands” (44).

 

Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes, Nov. 9, 1867 (pdf here)

This one address encapsulates everything that is wrong with Dabney. Not only was he a white-supremacist, but he influenced his entire Southern Presbyterian denomination in this speech to not grant equality in the church to black preachers. Thus, to the sin of racial animosity, we can add the sin of dividing Christ’s church, and that of influencing many others to stumble. This is Paul and Peter, Galatians 1 territory. Ironically, Dabney quotes Galatians 1 in this address, getting the sense exactly opposite. In Dabney’s surreal version, he himself is Paul, and those arguing for racial equality are Peter.

The effect of this speech was powerful in the Presbyterian assembly. Sean Michael Lucas notes that this speech “turned the tide against racial equality in the Southern Presbyterian church… and set the ‘racial orthodoxy’ of the Southern Presbyterian church for the next hundred years” (Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 148–49). The whole thing is really vile, and I urge readers to read it for themselves or they will be incapable of making an honest assessment of Dabney. Here are a few excerpts:

“an insuperable difference of race, made by God and not by man, and of character and social condition, makes it plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification” (201)

“I greatly doubt whether a single Presbyterian negro will ever be found to come fully up to that high standard of learning, manners, sanctity, prudence, and moral weight and acceptability which our constitution requires” (202).

“Now, who that knows the negro does not know that his is a subservient race; that he is made to follow, and not to lead; that his temperament, idiosyncrasy and social relation make him untrustworthy as a depository of power?” (203–4).

“Our brethren, turning heart-sore and indignant from their secular affairs, where nothing met their eye but a melancholy ruin, polluted by the intrusion of this inferior and hostile race, looked to their beloved church for a little repose. There at least, said they, is one pure, peaceful spot not yet reached by this pollution and tyranny” (205).

“Every hope of the existence of the church and of state, and of civilization itself, hangs upon our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of negro suffrage” (205)

“These tyrants know that if they can mix the race of Washington and Lee and Jackson with this base herd which they brought from the fens of Africa, if they can taint the blood which hallowed the plains of Manassas with this sordid stream, the adulterous current will never again swell a Virginian’s heart with a throb noble enough to make a despot tremble… We have before our eyes the proof and illustration of the satanic wisdom of their plan.” (206)

 

A Defense of Virginia and the South, 1867 (pdf here)

Dabney wrote a 350 page defense of slavery, in which he claimed that the Bible supported the slavery and that only infidels and unbelievers disagreed. See here for an assessment of his treatment of the book of Philemon. Sean Michael Lucas offers an insightful analysis of the book on pages 117–128 of his biography of Dabney, which I highly recommend. Portions of this book are “willful propaganda of the highest order and manifestly untrue.” It’s astonishing to me that Doug Wilson calls this work of Dabney’s “excellent.”

“for the African race, such as Providence has made it, and where he has placed it in America, slavery was the righteous, the best, yea, the only tolerable relation” (25).

“domestic slavery here has conferred on the unfortunate black race more true well-being than any other form of society has ever given them” (261).

 

“On the Civil Magistrate” in Systematic Theology, 1871 (pdf here)

But racism doesn’t affect theology, right? No, Dabney’s white supremacy even made it into his systematic theology:

Thus, if the low grade of intelligence, virtue, and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare, and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. (869)

 

The State Free School System, April 22, 1876 (pdf here)

Here Dabney repeats arguments that he made frequently before about slavery as a “true education” fitting for the condition of the African, and wields it to oppose public-schools in Virginia:

“So, our own country presents an humbler instance in the more respectable of the African freedmen. Tens of thousands of these, ignorant of letters, but trained to practical skill, thought, and resource, by intelligent masters, and imitating their superior breeding and sentiments, present, in every aspect, a far “higher style of man” than your Yankee laborer from his common school, with his shallow smattering and purblind conceit, and his wretched newspaper stuffed with moral garbage from the police-courts, and with false and poisonous heresies in politics and religion. Put such a man in the same arena with the Southern slave from a respectable plantation, and in one week’s time the ascendancy of the Negro, in self-respect, courage, breeding, prowess and practical intelligence, will assert itself palpably to the Yankee and to all spectators. The
slave was, in fact, the educated man” (250).

The Negro and the Common School, 1876 (pdf here)

Dabney goes even further in his attacks against the notion of educating the newly freed slaves in his letter to the editor of the Farmer and Planter:

“The tenor of the argument concedes, what every man, not a fool, knows to be true: that the negroes, as a body, are now glaringly unfit for the privilege of voting. What makes them unfit? Such things as these: The inexorable barrier of alien race, color, and natural character, between them and that other race which constitutes the bulk of Americans: a dense ignorance of the rights and duties of citizenship: an almost universal lack of that share in the property of the country, which alone can give responsibility, patriotic interest and independence to the voter: a general moral grade so deplorably low as to per- mit their being driven or bought like a herd of sheep by the demagogue: a parasitical servility and dependency of nature, which characterizes the race everywhere, and in all ages: an al- most total lack of real persevering aspirations: and last, an obstinate set of false traditions, which bind him as a mere serf to a party, which is the born enemy of every righteous interest of our State” (178–79).

“What is called ‘impartial suffrage’ is, however, permitted by their new Constitution. We should at once avail ourselves of that permission, and without attempting any discrimination on grounds of “race, color, or previous condition of bondage,” establish qualifications both of property and intelligence for the privilege of voting. This would exclude the great multitude of negroes…” (187).

 

Conclusion

Everyone has blind spots. Even our most beloved heroes have feet of clay. However, what should we do when the whole thing is filled with clay? When the blind spot becomes large enough to divide an entire denomination for over 100 years? We need unequivocally repudiate it, lament and ask forgiveness for our unqualified endorsement of such a man, and then rethink whether we ever want to do so again. We can’t even start this process until we see for ourselves what’s really there.

(updated 10/20/2021)

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

The following is an index of the books and articles published by Banner of Truth on the Southern Presbyterians, particularly R.L. Dabney, B.M. Palmer, and J.H. Thornwell (Eugene Genovese called Thornwell and Dabney “the South’s most formidable and influential theologians” in his A Consuming Fire, p. 4).

 

Southern Presbyterianism

1992 Kelly, Preachers with Power: Four Stalwarts of the South [Baker, Thornwell, Palmer, Girardeau]

2000 White, Southern Presbyterian Leaders 1683-1911 [Thornwell, Palmer, Dabney, many others]

2012 Calhoun, ‘Our Southern Zion’: Old Columbia Seminary (1828–1927) [Thornwell, Palmer, others]

 

Dabney

Books:

1979 Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching

1980 Johnson, The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney

1982 Dabney, Discussions of R.L. Dabney, 3 Vols.

1985 Dabney, Systematic Theology

Articles:

1967 Jan/Feb Murray, “R.L. Dabney of Virginia”

1967 May/Jun Murray, “Reintroducing the Best Teacher of Theology in the United States: Reprint of R.L. Dabney Discussions”

1970 Dabney, “When Morality Becomes Impossible”

1975 Dabney, “Britain: An Inverted Pyramid”

1976 Dabney, “Dabney on Preaching”

1977 Johnson, “Robert L. Dabney”

1977 Johnson, “Facing Blindness” (extract from Dabney)

1978 Wray, “Summary of Robert L. Dabney on Spurious Religious Excitements”

1986 Woods, “Dabney: Prince Among Theologians and Men”

1998 Berry, “Robert Lewis Dabney and the Westminster Standards: A Commemoration”

2015 Dabney, “The Influence of False Philosophies upon Character and Conduct”

 

Palmer

Books:

1987 Johnson, Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer

2014 Palmer, Selected Writings of Benjamin Morgan Palmer

Articles:

1987 Johnson, “Doctrine and Sanctification: Extract from The Life and Letters of Palmer”

2014 Willborn, “Selected Writings of Benjamin Morgan Palmer”

2014 Palmer, “Never Too Late”

 

Thornwell

Books:

1974 Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henry Thornwell

1986 Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henry Thornwell, 4 vols.

Articles:

1965 Thornwell, “When Grace Ceases to be Grace”

1969 Thornwell, “Knowing the Divine Will”

1975 Thornwell, “Zeal for God’s Glory”

1978 Aitken, “Readings from a Covenant Father’s Heart” (from Thornwell’s Letters)

The Undercover Revolution: A Review

Iain Murray, The Undercover Revolution (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009)

It has been noted by other reviewers that Murray utterly fails to substantiate his claim regarding “the influence of fiction upon society” (vii). He claims that fiction is the reason why “Christianity is a thing of the past for most people in Britain today” (3), and that “books were the main means by which it came about” (4).

I bought and read this book because Robert Louis Stevenson was reported to be treated prominently, and as I find Stevenson’s fiction to be delightful and profound, I wondered what dangers Murray found in it. Though he has an entire chapter devoted to Stevenson and a few reflections in a later chapter on him, in all of it Murray gives not a single example of Stevenson’s fiction producing the effects he claims.

Instead, he focuses on Stevenson’s personal life, and his rejection of the strict Scottish Calvinism of his parents, and indeed of Christianity itself. Having recently finished a full length biography of Stevenson, I can attest that this is all true, but really beside the point, if the point is that his fiction is what did the damage to Britain.

Further, I’m afraid Murray’s treatment of Stevenson is a bit unfair in places. In one place he quotes W.E. Henley’s criticism of RLS as “incessantly and passionately interested in Stevenson,” i.e. highly self-absorbed (66). However, a look at the context of their relationship reveals a disgruntled Henley, extremely bitter over a perceived slight on the part of Stevenson’s wife, and perhaps a long-standing jealousy. Is a quote from Henley following a major falling-out really a fair way to portray Stevenson? Hardly a reliable perspective.

As a way to prove a point, Murray points out that “the last three years of Stevenson’s life were deeply unhappy” (69). However, knowing the context again elicits compassion rather than victorious comparisons. Stevenson’s wife suffered from mental illness and her behavior was a source of deep trouble for RLS. Nevertheless, he stayed with her to the end, and did his best to accommodate her. Stevenson’s physical ailments also were a source of pain, and his poor diet and alcohol and tobacco consumption didn’t help either. I read the same biography that Murray quoted from here, and my reaction was the opposite.

His personal life aside, I actually think the opposite is true of Stevenson’s fiction. He explores the complexities of human nature, of relationships, and of our experiences of good and evil in ways unlike any other writer. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the most famous treatment, but The Master of BallantraeKidnappedThe Black Arrow, even the boyish Treasure Island and the much maligned (but a personal favorite) Prince Otto all push the reader to wrestle with a reality which is often more messy than our preferred idealized constructions. Stevenson makes you feel like few other writers to, and I think his fiction should be welcome to a thoughtful Christian, contrary to Murray’s (unsubstantiated) claims.

Piper on Lloyd-Jones, part 6: Cessationism Quenches the Spirit

“Therefore, we may say emphatically that Lloyd-Jones was not a Warfieldian cessationist.

I think it is quite without scriptural warrant to say that all these gifts ended with the apostles or the Apostolic Era. I believe there have been undoubted miracles since then. (The Fight of Faith, 786; Joy Unspeakable, 246)

And when he speaks of the need for revival and for the baptism with the Holy Spirit and for a mighty attestation for the word of God today, it is crystal clear in Lloyd-Jones, he meant the same sort of thing as was meant in Acts 14:3, signs and wonders attesting to the Word of God. “It is perfectly clear…” – (Everything is perfectly clear to Martyn Lloyd-Jones) –

It is perfectly clear that in New Testament times, the gospel was authenticated in this way by signs, wonders and miracles of various characters and descriptions … Was it only meant to be true of the early church? … The Scriptures never anywhere say that these things were only temporary—never! – (you can hear him saying it, can’t you?) – There is no such statement anywhere. (The Sovereign Spirit, 31-32)

He deals with cessationist arguments, and says some mighty powerful things, that I can’t imagine Iain Murray would leave out of his biography, which he did. “To hold such a view as Warfield held is simply to quench the Spirit (SS, 46).  Because Iain Murray was publishing it [Warfield] at the time.  Pushing it.  These views, according to their dear father, Dr. Jones, is the quenching of the Holy Spirit!  and he didn’t want to lose his friends any more than he already was losing them, probably, and so he didn’t want them published until he was gone.

~From “A Passion for Christ Exalting Power

Piper on Lloyd-Jones, part 2: “You MUST read Lloyd-Jones”

Revival Is a Baptism of the Holy Spirit

From the beginning of his life Martyn Lloyd-Jones was, in a sense,  a cry for depth.  If I were to sum up, I almost titled this “A Cry for Depth.” If I ever do anything with it I might title it that.  A cry for depth in two areas—1) in Biblical doctrine and 2) in  vital spiritual experience, so Light/heat. Logic/fire. Word/Spirit. Again and again he would be fighting on two fronts: he would be fighting against dead, formal, institutional intellectualism on the one side, and he would be fighting  against superficial, glib, entertainment-oriented, man-centered emotionalism on the other side. He looked out over the world and thought it was in an absolutely desperate condition and he saw the church as very weak and impotent. He said one wing of the church was straining out the gnats of intellectualism and the other was swallowing the camels of evangelical compromise and careless charismatic teaching (The Sovereign Spirit, 55-7). and for Lloyd-Jones the only hope was historic, God-centered revival.  which is really what I want to talk about this morning.

So my aim is this: to talk about the meaning of revival as Lloyd-Jones’ understood it—the sort of power he was seeking,  what he thought it would look like when it came, and how he thought we should seek it.  And then I’m going to be really risky at the end and ask if he practiced what he preached.

More than any other man in this century, I think, Lloyd-Jones has helped  recover the historic meaning of revival.

A revival is a miracle … something that can only be explained as the direct … intervention of God … Men can produce evangelistic campaigns, but they cannot and never have produced a revival (Revival 111-2).

And Lloyd-Jones felt it to be a tremendous tragedy that the historic sense of revival as a sovereign outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church, had been virtually lost by the time he preached about revival  in 1959 on the 100th anniversary of the Welsh Revival. He said in those lectures, “During the last seventy, to eighty years, this whole notion of a visitation, a baptism of God’s Spirit upon the Church, has gone” (The Fight of Faith, 385).  And then he gives this explanation and with this he begins to part ways with almost the entirety of mainline evangelicalism.

The main theological reason that he said there was a prevailing indifference to historic revival and crying out for it is because people had begun to equate what happened on the Day of Pentecost with regeneration. Now let me read the key quote where he describes this view:

Yes, [Acts 2] was the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But we all get that now, (it’s not him talking, he’s quoting the view) and it is unconscious, we are not aware of it, it happens to us the moment we believe and we are regenerated. It is just that act of God which incorporates us into the Body of Christ. That is the baptism of the Spirit. So it is no use your praying to God for some other baptism of the Spirit, or asking God to pour out His Spirit upon the church … It is not surprising that, as that kind of preaching has gained currency, people have stopped praying for revival” (FF, 386).

Revival is when the Spirit comes down, he says, is poured out. And he’s crystal clear that it’s not the same, the baptism with the Holy Spirit is not the same as regeneration.  Here’s the quote, key quote:

I am asserting that you can be a believer, that you can have the Holy Spirit dwelling in you, and still not be baptized with the Holy Spirit … The baptism of the Holy Spirit is something that is done by the Lord Jesus Christ not by the Holy Spirit … Our being baptized into the body of Christ is the work of the Spirit [that’s the point of 1 Cor. 12:13], as regeneration is his work, but this is something entirely different; this is Christ’s baptizing us with the Holy Spirit. And I am suggesting that this is something which is therefore obviously distinct from and separate from becoming a Christian, being regenerate, having the Holy Spirit dwelling within you (Joy Unspeakable, 21-3).

And so he laments that by identifying the baptism with the Holy Spirit with regeneration we have made the baptism of the Holy Spirit wholly non-experimental – as the Puritan’s would say — that is unconscious.  You don’t know when it happens,  you only can see perhaps some  later-on moral results from it. That is not, he says, the way it  happened in the books of Acts or the way it was experienced in the early church. (JU, 52). So he spoke with strong words about such a view.  This is very powerful now, knowing where he’s coming from and who his friends were:

Those people who say that [baptism with the Holy Spirit] happens to everybody at regeneration seem to me not only to be denying the New Testament but definitely to be definitely quenching the Spirit” (JU, 141).

Now just ponder that statement.   Therefore he would say, by implication, virtually the whole evangelical church is quenching the Holy Spirit.  That would be Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s opinion.  Dana told me last night that Warren Wiersbe was told by Martyn Lloyd-Jones that he asked these sermons not to be published before he died.  Well, there’s some real clear reasons for that, I think.  He founded the Banner of Truth publishing house.  It is emphatically cessationist.  Now I don’t know how he felt about that, but in 1972 after he had retired, they published B.B. Warfield.  He’s going to emphatically disagree with this book, in a moment.  And Walter Chantry, The Sign of the Apostles.  His biographer does not do him justice, in my judgment, in the chapter on Cross Winds.  He does not own up to what Lloyd-Jones is saying.  You won’t get the straight picture.  You must read Lloyd-Jones.

“God just thinks His own way”

Another quote from the Q&A from the 1996 Desiring God Conference for Pastors, The Pastor and His Study.  Iain Murray was the featured speaker, and the biography was of Martin Luther.  I highly recommend the audio from the conference.

Q: With regard to signs, things such as falling down and whatnot, being of relatively low importance.  I hear people use the text on the counsel  of Jerusalem in Acts, where Paul addresses the Jerusalem church and there’s a hush over the crowd as he talks about the signs and miracles that were done  among the Gentiles.  And I hear people looking to that and saying, “something’s wrong in our time.”  Or at least something very, very significant is missing, when we have a situation where we’re proclaiming the gospel  and these things are not happening.  John or Iain I wonder if you could help me out there.

Piper: I do not accept the cessationist or Warfieldian argument that there are points in history at which time only there is a great flare-up of signs and wonders.  However, I do think there are seasons, for reasons, at which time there are great flare-ups.  In other words, God is not limited to the apostolic era, or Elijah, or some other time – the crossing of the Red Sea – at which we have a little flare-up of miraculous things.  

But I think while there’s nothing I can see in the New Testament that would limit signs and wonders to the apostles, I think there’s good reason to believe that they had something extraordinary going on upon them.  The drawing near of the incarnation, and the foundation of the church was unique,  and therefore it doesn’t trouble me as much as it does some that the quality and prevalence of miracles in the hands of the apostles should be greater than what we have seen typically throughout church history, I would expect that, frankly, I would expect that from what I see biblically.

However, from the other side, I think, probably, our low expectation of signs and wonders in the evangelistic enterprise is a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s a self-fulfilling low expectation.  If you don’t expect God to do a thing, He probably won’t do it.  And therefore I would think that we probably could expect more, that we could expect some remarkable turns of events and dreams like we’re hearing about among Muslims.   I read about this morning, that “the Lord bore witness with signs and wonders to the word of His grace.”  The Lord witnessed to the word.  Now you had the word right there being preached by an authoritative eye-witness you don’t  need anything else.  You don’t need signs and wonders in Acts.  That’s the last place in history that you need signs and wonders is when you have eye-witnesses to the resurrection.  And yet the Lord gave them.

And we are a generation who don’t have eye-witnesses, and you’d think logically, we need ‘em!  Well, God just thinks his own way, and if he wants to win Muslims through dreams, or if he wants to do something here through a healing.  So, what I’m saying is, if somebody says to me, “ we should be seeing lots of these things, we should see the book of Acts.”  I say, “well, wait, wait, wait, you don’t know that you should see the book of Acts.”  The apostolic age was unique and the signs and wonders done through the hands of the apostles may not be what  gifts of healings is about in 1 Corinthians 12.  Gifts of healings and miracles there in 1 Corinthians 12  may be of a lower order and less powerful, and less frequent.  So yes, probably we could see more, but don’t set up an ideal in Acts that you demand has to be, or the church is carnal and unbelieving.

“This is virtually Dr. Lloyd Jones own position”

From the Q&A from the 1996 Desiring God Conference for Pastors, The Pastor and His Study.  Iain Murray was the featured speaker, and the biography was of Martin Luther.  I highly recommend the audio from the conference.

Q: We’d love some more follow-up from you on your personal view of the Toronto Blessing.

Piper: My approach toward the third wave, even though now the Vineyard has disassociated itself from Toronto, has been what I have called all the way along a critical openness.   That is, I don’t rule out in principle that God is in the signs and wonders movement, or any other particular manifestation.  There’s nothing biblical that I can see that would hinder God from using healing, or prophetic utterances properly understood, or tongues, or laughter or falling down to manifest outwardly something that’s happening inwardly.  But, having said that, once you say what Iain Murray said, which I agree with, and what Edwards would say, is that these outward things prove nothing, and are therefore in a very low level of significance as far as what the Holy Spirit is really about in the world, namely holiness and salvation.  Once you say that it seems like you pull the plug for a lot of people because you are not manifesting the proper enthusiasm for what is viewed to be such a great blessing.

The reason I’m soft on this is because not only do I not see a biblical condemnation of it, but I assess movements doctrinally on the one hand and then what is being produced as far as holiness goes on the other hand.  And I simply know of too many people whose lives have been profoundly helped for good by lying on the ground for 45 minutes in a kind of laughter or peace.   I never have, I went over to the Apache Plaza here when the Toronto Blessing came to town, willing to expose myself to everything under the sun, just about, and had about five high-powered guys around me, praying like crazy, I’m sure, some of them wishing, “goodness I wish this guy would go down, because if he went down, then it would be all right.”  And a whole bunch of my staff went down, and some of you in this room were on the floor, and attribute right now a sweet fellowship with the Lord that is continuing and an enrichment of your own ministry because of what God did spiritually at that moment, and I enjoyed that 25 minutes of prayer that they did over me, and I felt great peace, but I didn’t get dizzy, and I really, really was not saying, “I’m not going down under any cost.”  I frankly, wanted to try it.  What is this “carpet time” that they do, you know?  So I’m very – excessively – open,  some would say.

My son Abraham is 16, and he read me in yesterday’s Tribune, and I said, “is this dealing with the Toronto thing?” He was reading to me out of the newspaper, he said “there’s not anything religious to it at all.”  It was a psychological study on laughter movements in history.  Zero religion.  It talked about this laughter movement in Indonesia or something that lasted for 6 months.  It has nothing to do with religion whatsoever.  It was a little girl, started laughing, and there were these laughing fits that lasted in this community for 6 months.  And it had no religious connection at all.  So I just really find it hard to get excited about falling down or laughing.  I get excited about the Lordship of Christ, and taking risks for Jesus, and bringing people to Christ, and exalting the sovereignty of God. 

And so the other thing besides holiness in people’s lives which I’ve seen come of this, is preaching and the exultation of the word.  And I find it not very high.  I’ve heard stories, “you know the preaching was good.” But the thing that thrills people is the external manifestations.  I’ve watched it happen.  And so the word does seem to drift more into the background and the effort it takes to produce a good message from the book, the external word, is minimized.   and so those would be my concerns open and yet critically open. 

And so I don’t really make anybody happy, you know the cessationists – I got invited to wales a few years ago, to speak at the place where Martyn Lloyd-Jones spoke often, and when they found out I had these kinds of attitudes, they withdrew the invitation.  It’s been real painful to have those experiences happen, and on the other side the people that prophesied over me over at Apache, saying, “The Lord’s hand is upon me to do this and that,” and I’m sure my lack of full bore engagement in the Pentecostal side is leaving them thinking I must be hardhearted or something.   And so I just kind of walk my own way and nobody knows quite whether they can trust me or not, I think.

Iain Murray:  I do think the brethren in Wales were confused, because this is really, this is more or less virtually Dr. Lloyd-Jones own position, I think they were really confused on it.

Piper: That’s somewhat comforting.  Even the criticism I got from Iain, when I spoke on Lloyd-Jones here that I had not been completely just to him, was a grief to me because for the news to go out from this conference that Martyn Lloyd-Jones is anything other than almost a god, little “g,” would make me very sad, because I don’t have many heroes in the world, especially not many in this century, and for me to have my reputation go to Wales and elsewhere that I am mainly critical of Martyn Lloyd-Jones is sad.