Robert Lewis Dabney: An Index

Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was a Southern Presbyterian pastor, Confederate soldier, and seminary theology professor. He was also a venomous white-supremacist. Though he died over a century ago, in the 1960s his reputation was rehabilitated when Iain Murray and the Banner of Truth republished his writings and commended him to a new generation of Reformed Evangelicals in America. As a result, a number of leading evangelical figures began to read, cite, and commend Dabney to their followers. Only recently has the problematic elements of his thought, including his white-supremacy, been acknowledged. This page is an index of a number of articles and compilations of sources I’ve written on Dabney and his legacy.

Robert Lewis Dabney: Primary Sources

What’s So Bad about Robert Lewis Dabney?

Start here if you’ve never encountered Dabney’s racist views, and are wondering “what’s the big deal?”

[Nine of] Eleven Letters by Chorepiscopus [Robert Lewis Dabney] to the Richmond Enquirer, on “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (1851)

In 1851, Dabney published these letters. I transcribed them and made them available for the first time.

“Worse than Questionable”: Commentary on Dabney’s 1851 Letters on Slavery

My thoughts on Dabney’s letters.

The Civil War and the Failure of White American Christianity

Dabney’s views on the Civil War shine a spotlight on the failure of White American Christianity.

“Not [only] as a slave but [also] as a brother”

Shows how Dabney distorted the book of Philemon to mean the opposite of what it says.

Review: Ecclesiastical Relation of Negroes: Speech of Robert L. Dabney, in the Synod of Virginia, Nov. 9, 1867, Against the Ecclesiastical Equality of Negro Preachers in Our Church, and Their Right to Rule Over White Christians

This one address encapsulates everything that is wrong with Dabney.

Robert Lewis Dabney in The Christian Intelligencer, 1872–73

Dabney wrote two articles on Black churches and Black theology — I transcribed and made them available here for the first time.

Robert Lewis Dabney, White Supremacy, and Public Schools

From 1876 to 1879, Dabney wrote several articles on the topic of education and public schools. This gives the historical context for that conflict.

Book Review: The Public School in Its Relations to the Negro

In 1875 and ’76, Bennet Puryear wrote several articles opposing Black education, using some of the most vile white-supremacy I’ve ever seen. Dabney endorsed these articles, and used them as a springboard for his own article “The Negro and the Common School” published in 1876.

Book Review: The New South

This piece is a great example of first-generation Lost Cause propagation, the way the ideology was formed, preserved, and passed down.

Book Review: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism

Dabney’s book has been recommended as a great book on reformed theology. This review examines the historical context and material in the book.

Reception of Dabney: Contemporaries

Book Review: In Memoriam: Robert Lewis Dabney, Born, March 5th, 1820, Died, January 3rd, 1898

After his death, Dabney’s sons collected several of the commemorative articles and addresses in this volume to honor their father.

The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney: Review and Reception

Thomas Cary Johnson wrote a 600 page biography of Dabney after he died. Here’s my review, and a few other reviews of the book.

Benjamin B. Warfield on Robert Lewis Dabney: Nine Reviews (1891–1905)

Warfield reviewed a number of Dabney’s works over the years, and this post collects those reviews in one place.

“May His Memory Be Increased!”: Benjamin B. Warfield on Robert Lewis Dabney and Race

Warfield has been praised for his courageous stance on racial issues; considering his treatment of Dabney, and contrasting him with contemporary Francis Grimké complicates the picture.

From the Knights of the White Camelia to Secretary of Foreign Missions: Samuel Hall Chester (1851–1940), Race, and Southern Presbyterian Missions

Chester was one of Dabney’s students, and is the source for an interesting anecdote about Dabney as a professor. Chester himself is a fascinating study of white-supremacy and Presbyterian leadership.

R. J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction

A “Man of Faith and Courage”: Robert Lewis Dabney in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 1974–1999

Dabney was a major influence on R. J. Rushdoony and the Christian Reconstruction movement. This post documents that influence in their Journal.

Iain Murray and Banner of Truth

“Dabney was truly a Caleb”: Iain Murray’s biography of Robert Lewis Dabney

Iain Murray’s biography of Dabney white-washes his white-supremacy, and passes on the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War and slavery.

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

Banner of Truth claimed that Bavinck endorsed Dabney as a “leading theologian.” That turned out to be an embellished claim, due to their partnership with Mississippi segregationists.

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

No one has done more to supply Reformed evangelicals with Dabney’s works than Banner of Truth.

John MacArthur

John MacArthur on Robert Lewis Dabney

“One of the wonderful old past generation American preachers was a man named R.L. Dabney. And reading him is always refreshing.” – John MacArthur

Douglas Wilson

Douglas Wilson on Robert Lewis Dabney

Douglas Wilson describes Dabney as one of “the men I am most indebted to philosophically.” Others have loved Dabney for his Reformed Theology, but Wilson loves him for his views on slavery, too.

Douglas Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools

Shows how Dabney has been commended to educators interested in Christian Classical education.

John Piper and Desiring God

John Piper first cited Dabney in his dissertation, and then recommended him for decades in his books and on Desiring God’s website. This series of posts documents and wrestles with this.

John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney

“Love Your Enemies”? John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, part 2

“The Great Pattern of American Manhood”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 3

“For Theologians”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 4

“A Single River” or a “Poisonous Stream”? John Piper [and Robert Lewis Dabney], Interlude

“Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 6

“Great Saints of the Past”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 7

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

“Flag It, Wave It, Acknowledge It”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Conclusion

Providence is No Excuse

Providence is No Excuse (on DesiringGod.org)

This was the article that started it all, demonstrating that racism was not a category separate from Dabney’s “good theology” but rather infected it.

“Social Justice Dung,” and other thoughts on Dabney

Some people didn’t appreciate the DG article (above). This was my response to some of their objections.

Should We Burn Dabney’s Books?

One objection in particular kept coming up; this post addresses it.

On Censoring Dabney and Denying “Sola Fide”

Another author claimed that I had bordered on denying “justification by faith alone.” He’s since deleted the post.

Zachary Garris

Book Review: Dabney On Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government

In 2018, Zachary Garris reprinted four of Dabney’s “greatest essays” on “biblical hierarchy.” Several of the essays are filled with white-supremacy and pro-Confederacy. I do not recommend the book.

“Flag It, Wave It, Acknowledge It”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Conclusion

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

The last time John Piper or Desiring God referenced Robert Lewis Dabney was in 2018, on three separate occasions. These included the first explicit acknowledgement of Dabney’s white-supremacy, but also included continued recommendations, and finally, a call from Piper to do just what I have attempted to do in this series.

Providence is No Excuse

In some ways this whole “Dabney project” started for me in January 2018. I was in my second year of the MDiv program at Bethlehem College & Seminary, and we were taking a J-Term course taught by John Piper titled “Sightings of the Sovereignty of God: Issues and Applications of Divine Providence.” There were two textbooks for this one-week course: John Piper, The Pleasures of God and Roger Olson, Against Calvinism. As I read The Pleasures of God I noticed the references to Dabney (see “The Great Pattern of American Manhood”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 3). 

I should back up a little. In October 2017 I had picked up Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s Theology of Prayer because it had been recommended by Desiring God (“What Are Some Books DG Recommends?”). I wanted to know who Palmer was, so I googled his name, and learned that he was a Presbyterian pastor who used the doctrine of providence to justify slavery (see my thoughts from that time here). I learned from this to always look up an author to get context for their book.

So I was curious—did Dabney do the same thing? Did he also use “providence” to justify racism and slavery? I did a little searching, and started finding things like “Ecclesiastical Equality of the Negro,” and was stunned. I asked Piper after class one day, “Will we be discussing the way the doctrine of ‘providence’ has been used by Christians to justify evil?” 

“Like what?” 

“Like Dabney, racism, and slavery.”

After hearing me out a little, he asked, “Would you be willing to write an article on this for Desiring God?”

So I did, and it was published the following week: “Providence Is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist.” The point of the article was not that Dabney was a theologian who just happened to be a white-supremacist, as if those were two separate things, but that the two were intertwined: his racism actually infected his theology, and his theology reinforced his racism.

The reactions were interesting. Many people were appreciative, and since then, it’s been gratifying to know that others have continued to find it helpful. I think I was a little näive, however, to think that all people needed was to see the truth, and of course they would begin to see things rightly. The reactions were initially surprising to me. I was called all kinds of names on social media (see: “Social Justice Dung,” and other thoughts on Dabney“); I was accused of denying the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” (see “On Censoring Dabney and Denying “Sola Fide”); I found myself on a “side” when I didn’t know there were sides—“isn’t everyone opposed to white-supremacy?,” I thought. 

This was 2018, and things were heating to a boiling point in evangelicalism more broadly. Later that year we would see the MLK50 conference in Memphis on one side, and then The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel on the other, and the chasm widened.

“Leave Your Century for a While”

A few months later, Piper published an article titled “Leave Your Century for a While: Why I Read Christian Biographies,” as part of the promotion for his new book. As a young pastor, Piper says that “one of the ways I pursued wisdom for the pastoral work in front of me was the reading of pastoral biographies.” He enjoyed reading Warren Wiersbe’s short biographies, but found Iain Murray’s particularly helpful:

But one of the most enjoyable and inspiring things I did to deepen my grasp of the pastoral calling was to listen to a master life-storyteller, Iain Murray. Murray had been a pastoral assistant with Martyn Lloyd-Jones in London and had served as a pastor in two churches in England and Australia. He is a co-founder of the Banner of Truth Trust, and has devoted a great part of his life to biographical writing.

He is well known for his biographies of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Jonathan Edwards, to mention only two. But not as many people know that Iain Murray is a master at taking an hour in a ministerial conference and telling the story of a great Christian in a way that instructs and inspires. For example, even today you can go online and find the (forty-plus-year-old) audio stories of Charles Spurgeon, Robert Dabney, William Tyndale, Ashbel Green, George Whitefield, John Knox, John Newton, William Jay, Thomas Hooker, and more.

The latest technology in the early 1980s was the Walkman — a small cassette player that let me take Murray with me on my morning jogs or in the car. I listened to everything biographical I could get. This stoked the embers of my affections for biography.

Iain Murray

Piper provides links to each of these biographical messages, including Robert Lewis Dabney’s. The Dabney biography can be found on Youtube (“Iain Murray – Life of Robert L. Dabney (Christian biography)”) and was also hosted on The Gospel Coalition website until recently pulled from the website (as of December 6, 2021).

Unfortunately, (like his biography of Edwards), Murray’s biography of Dabney is more of a hagiography, and in it, Murray whitewashes Southern slavery, and promotes the myth of the Lost Cause on the Civil War. A full transcription of the message can be found here: “‘Dabney was truly a Caleb’: Iain Murray’s biography of Robert Lewis Dabney.”

Here are a few quotes:

“His life gives us the most impressive example, that I know, of courage and heroism in the Christian ministry. I mean, of course, outside the pages of Scripture, but outside the pages of Scripture, I do not know a life which is more moving in terms of the quality of courage and endurance than the life of Robert Dabney. Dabney was truly a Caleb.”

“ I am quite convinced that in the hearts of these Christians in the South, I say Christians in the South, there was very great regard and love to their colored slaves and servants.”

“I had wanted to say something on the attitude of these men to the Negro question and the slavery question because of course it was the great propaganda of the North and propaganda that was accepted by the world that the civil war was fought simply for the abolition of slavery. I think I can give you sufficient evidence to show that that simply cannot be true… They were not fighting to preserve slavery.”

Is this where Piper was first exposed to Dabney in a meaningful way? If this happened early in Piper’s ministry, as he says, then it is Iain Murray’s version of Dabney that Piper inherited, and Piper would have had to actively work against the “hero-worship” in order to see the true Dabney.

Regardless, in 2018 there was no caveat in Piper’s recommendation of Murray’s biographies, not even of Dabney. And, consistent with the list of “Books that Desiring God Recommends,” there is not a single link to a biography of a Black Christian — no Lemuel Haynes, no Daniel Payne, no Francis Grimké. In part, this is because Piper is simply passing along Murray’s biographies, and Murray, as far as I can tell, never considered a Black Christian worthy of biographical treatment in this long list of biographies. But Piper himself never delivered any biographies of Black Christians for the “encouragement” of his own conference attendees and readers. His own book, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy, which collects all of Piper’s biographical messages over the years, does not include a single African American Christian. Once again, Piper’s dream of “a single stream” proves to be just a dream, not a reality, even in his own work. 

“Flag It, Wave It, Acknowledge It”

In July 2018, Piper did an interview with Justin Taylor for the “Theologians on the Christian Life” conference called “Friends You Need Are Buried in the Past: Q&A on Reading Christian Biographies.” (As an aside, notice that there is not a single African American in that book series either). In the interview, Piper was asked “How do we think of the unrepentant and ongoing blind spots and sins of our heroes such as Edwards and MLK?”

Piper responded with this: 

“The first thing I would say is that no one is helped by whitewashing our heroes, your heroes. No one has been helped by it… you don’t benefit by whitewashing your heroes. You won’t ever ask yourself the hardest questions about life if the people you love are whitewashed and you don’t ever come to terms with their sinfulness.”

Then Piper said this, and referenced Dabney specifically:

“And another thought comes to my mind, namely, that if you see in Edwards, Luther, Dabney, if you see sin, you should flag it, wave it, acknowledge it. That’s why the book, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy has the subtitle Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful. “Flawed” — put that right on the cover. If you see it, you should wave the flag and then be alert. Where might that have infected the theology I love, right? So I love Jonathan Edwards’s theology, but his theology didn’t keep him from having blind spots. So why not? Is there something about his theology I could discern where it needs to be tweaked so that if he would have had that right, then he would have had this right? That’s a huge benefit from acknowledging the sins. It makes us intensify our vigilance over our appropriation of their theology.”

“Flag it, wave it”

I think this is right, and in some ways, this is what this “Dabney project” has been, an effort to “flag it, wave it, acknowledge it” and then to ask “where might that have infected the theology I love?” But in addition, I’ve been driven to take a step back even further and ask “How did we get here? How did a white-supremacist become one of our theological heroes in the first place? How and why did that happen?” And that has driven me to further historical and historiographical questions, because understanding how and why we got here tells us something out ourselves.

Concluding Reflections

As we conclude this series, I want to go back again for some insights that cast light on the Reformed movement as whole. In 1985 George Marsden offered an insightful analysis of what it meant to be “Reformed and American,” (in Reformed Theology in America, edited by David F. Wells). The book as a whole is consistent with the pattern we have seen, in that while there are chapters devoted to Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, James Henry Thornwell, and Robert Lewis Dabney, there is not a single chapter devoted to Black Presbyterians, and the index contains not even a single reference to a figure like Francis Grimké.

Nevertheless, Marsden’s chapter is insightful for understanding what it means to be “[White,] Reformed and American” as we take a step back and reflect on this series as a whole. Marsden described how even in the 1980s, “within most of the larger Reformed denominations, conservatives and progressives are locked in intense struggles over the true meaning of the faith” (1). He described three main types: the “doctrinalist,” the “culturalist,” and the “pietist,” acknowledging that there are spectrums and mixtures of each. Marsden then gave a historical survey of the various streams which is fascinating, and well worth looking up. His conclusion, though, is telling:

“Perhaps the greatest fault of American Reformed communities since Puritan times is that they have cultivated an elitism. Ironically, the doctrine of election has been unwittingly construed as meaning that Reformed people have been endowed with superior theological, spiritual, or moral merit by God himself… The great irony is that … the doctrine of grace ought to cultivate humility as a conspicuous trait of Reformed spirituality… Yet too often Reformed people have been so totally confident of their own spiritual insights that they have been unable to accept or work with fellow Reformed Christians whose emphases may vary slightly.”

Marsden, “Reformed and American,” 11.

This rings true to me. The white American Reformed tradition has been so proud of its theological precision, that it was unwilling to learn from other Christians, especially the Black church. The dream of “a single river” will never become a reality until this theological pride is repented of. Further, this confident elitism blinds us to the glaring sins in the tradition, like racism, and chattel slavery. They result in a movement with enslavers enshrined as “heroes” and a reluctance to look those realities squarely in the face.

It’s interesting to me that over the years, on some issues, Piper has been willing to name names and battle publicly for a position. When the Sovereignty of God was at stake, Piper publicly disputed with Greg Boyd and advocated for his removal from Bethel Seminary. Over the doctrine of hell, Piper famously said “Farewell, Rob Bell.” But he has not been willing to do this over racism. Piper has never been willing to publicly critique Douglas Wilson, and my article is the only time Desiring God has done this with Robert Lewis Dabney.

What we choose to say (and not to say) affects the streams of history. What Mark Noll said of Dabney’s fellow Southern Presbyterian James Henry Thornwell applies equally to Dabney: “To an uncomfortably large degree, Thornwell’s reputation rested on the accidents of American social development” (“The Bible and Slavery,” 69). Noll offers this as a corrective to Eugene Genovese’s claim that “Thornwell was ‘arguably, second to none [among theologians] in the United States.’” In other words, is their theology actually “so intrinsically good” that it necessarily rises to the top? Or are there historical processes that explain how a person’s reputation is created, maintained, and passed along to others? I think Mark Noll’s corrective is also warranted in the case of Dabney. His vaunted reputation rests on historical accidents, both in his time, and for a century and a half to follow.

But such is true of all of history. Value-laden judgments of historical figures (“the ‘best’ theologian”; “the ‘greatest’ preacher”), are inescapably the product of historical accident, as reputations are formed, deconstructed, books are published, go out of print, are rediscovered and republished, passed along from hand to hand, by word of mouth, and “Recommended Reading” lists. We were told to esteem and read and emulate Jonathan Edwards and Robert Lewis Dabney, as much because of the these historical accidents, as because of any intrinsic worth in their theology. Other authors, theologians, and faithful Christians whose lives were more worthy of our attention and emulation have been lost (or erased) from the pages of history, and ignored in the “Recommended Reading” lists. As Thabiti Anyabwile has said, “we should actually imagine and pursue a different canon for a different future.”

“The Truth Demands It”

Someone told me recently that I had “reduced Dabney to his sins” which was “un-neighborly.” Have I been unfair to Dabney in this process? Have I been uncharitable? On the contrary, I believe I have treated Dabney exactly as he would have wished to be treated. Here’s how his first biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, opens up the preface to his book:

“An effort has been made to present, as nearly as possible, the genuine Robert Lewis Dabney in this book. He did not relish the thought of being trimmed to suit the notions of an author or an editor, and thus presented to the public. When his Collected Discussions were being brought out, there was some criticism of one of the articles to be presented in the first volume. The critic made the point that the article objected to would injure Dr. Dabney’s reputation if republished. The Doctor, on hearing this, turned somewhat sharply us, and said: ‘What do you think of this? Do you like the plan of trimming a man, whose life and work you would perpetuate, to suit your notions, and then handing the resultant down as if it were real?’ We made answer, that it seemed to us that, if a man’s works and life are worthy of preservation through the medium of the press, they and he should be handed down as they were, warts and all. He replied emphatically, ‘The truth demands it, sir.’ The memory of this little conversation helps to explain the presence of some features of the book. He was so intensely honest that he would have abhorred any effort to present him sheared to the demands of current moral and religious tastes.”

Johnson, Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, v.

I think that Dabney would similarly bristle at the idea that his support of slavery and white-supremacy was merely a “blind spot.” White supremacy was something he believed in to the core of his being, and fought for to the end of his life. I think he would have considered it dishonorable to treat him otherwise. “Oh Robert, you didn’t really mean to say that, did you?” — “Oh yes! And let me say it again! and again! and again!” In fact, I imagine that if Dabney is indeed in heaven right now, he is looking down on my project and grateful that some of the damage of his sins is being undone. In fact, I wonder if he would applaud this project, and join the chorus encouraging us to read Francis Grimké instead.

Dabney as a Case Study and a Litmus Test

As American evangelicals continue to struggle to make progress on issues of racial justice and reconciliation, I think that Robert Lewis Dabney makes for an instructive case study, as we have seen throughout this series. If we can figure out what went happened here, we might start to make the tiniest bit of progress on the larger issues of race and justice and the church. 

Dabney certainly is a litmus test for me — if you offer unqualified praise for Dabney, my response is to be: 

  1. skeptical about your historical awareness/ignorance; 
  2. skeptical about what you have to say about race in the church and/or social justice; 
  3. skeptical about your claims regarding the implications of the gospel; 
  4. skeptical about your assessment of “good theology”; or 
  5. all of the above.

If you consider the entire scope of John Piper and Desiring God’s work, he/they have not offered “unqualified praise” of Dabney, at least when you consider my article and his comments in 2018. I am thankful that he was willing to publish my article, and has encouraged others to “flag it, wave it, acknowledge it.” But when I also consider the decades long span of his work, for most of those years he repeatedly commended a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney to thousands of pastors, church leaders, and readers. When I consider the question “how and why was Robert Lewis Dabney commended to a generation of reformed evangelicals?” John Piper has played a significant role.

Rivers in the Desert

When I consider “what happened to the vision of ‘a single river’ and the ‘Black and Reformed’ movement of the 2000s?” the case of Robert Lewis Dabney is one piece of that puzzle. We’re in a different place in 2021 than we were in 2001 or 2011. Is there still hope for that “single river” to materialize this side of eternity? As things stand, white Reformed evangelicalism has shown little interest in changing, finding ever ready reasons to resist “social justice”; fear-mongering around Critical Race Theory; “anti-wokeness”; and who knows what so-called “threats to the gospel” 2022 might bring?. But there are also some encouraging signs of white evangelicals leaving behind those streams and seeking others. That single river might still happen, though probably not from “the mountain stream of Reformed theology,” but from elsewhere. As many feel lost as their familiar institutions fracture and crumble around them, who have tasted bitterness in the streams they looked to for refreshing water, and now feel like they are wandering in the wilderness, we should remember that we serve a liberating God who “makes a way in the sea, and a path through the mighty waters,” who makes “a road in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.”

I give waters in the wilderness

And rivers in the desert,

To give drink to My people, My chosen.

This people I have formed for Myself;

They shall declare My praise.

Isaiah 43: 16, 19, 20–21

“Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 6

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

In 2003, Desiring God devoted their entire National Conference to the 300 year anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards. The conference was entitled “A God-Entranced Vision of All Things: The Unrivaled Legacy of Jonathan Edwards,” and featured an all-white cast of plenary speakers: John Piper, Iain Murray, J. I. Packer, Mark Dever, Sam Storms, and Noël Piper. The following year, Crossway published a book, A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (2004), edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. The book was “a continuation and expansion of that tercentenary celebration” and the whole effort had a specific purpose: “the aim of introducing readers to Edwards, and more importantly to his ‘God-entranced vision of all things’” (Justin Taylor, “Introduction,” in A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 13).  The book was dedicated “To Iain H. Murray whose life and labors proclaim a God-entranced vision of all things” (A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 5).

Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner”

Sherard Burns

The book contains some chapters that are not available as conference messages on desiringgod.org, including one by Sherard Burns, then the “Associate Pastor of Evangelism, Discipleship, and Assimilation, Bethlehem Baptist Church,” entitled “Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner.” The fact that Edwards had been a slaveowner had recently been re-discovered in the Yale archives, and historians, theologians, and admirers were forced to take this into consideration (for more on this see “John Piper, Desiring God, Jonathan Edwards, and Slavery”).

While the chapter, like the conference, is focused on Edwards, Burns references Dabney near the end, and several portions of the chapter apply generally to both Edwards and Dabney.

Burns begins by acknowledging that 

“Nothing has been more of a stain on our history than the institution and cruelty of slavery in America… what formed the very heart of slavery was the belief that some had the authority to impose their rights on others in such a way that stealing men, women, and children from their native land, tearing families apart, and systematically dehumanizing them was condoned and rewarded. Hence merchandise was made of oppression.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 145–46. 

Indeed, this belief characterizes Dabney fully (see for example, “[Nine of] Eleven Letters by Chorepiscopus [Robert Lewis Dabney] to the Richmond Enquirer, on “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (1851)”).

Burns then highlights the issue of Christian enslavers: 

“One of the most troubling facts concerning slavery was its association with Christianity. Not only those who were deemed unregenerate and heathen owned slaves; those who professed to have met the true Liberator, Christ, also refused such liberty to men… In preparing this chapter I wanted to understand how Edwards, with his intellect and theological understanding and love for God, could own slaves and do so till the day of his death. ”

Burns,”Trusting,” 146.

Later he articulates the central question this way: 

“Slavery was and still is a blemish upon America. Even after its abolition the residual effects are evident in the culture at large and regrettably within the church. As an African American who loves Reformed theology and Jonathan Edwards and who desires to see these truths embraced by all, especially those within the African-American context, I have to make sense of this hypocrisy.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 162. 

This effort to “make sense of this hypocrisy” is what I have been trying to do as well.

“Giants of the Christian Faith”?

Burns offers a caveat early on: 

“R. C. Sproul has said that when he disagrees with the giants of the Christian faith, he does so with fear and trembling. I feel the same way as I write this concerning Edwards. It is a difficult thing to posit that Edwards compromised theologically when what we have known of him in virtually every other case is theological precision and conviction. Yet the facts remain. However, though such compromise happened, we must be careful to remember that, though he was a brilliant thinker, he, like all of us, still fought against the remaining effects of sin.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 148.

Here I need to pause and ask a question: who gets to decide who the “giants of the Christian faith” are? What are the qualifications for such an elevation of status? Here, it appears to be “theological precision” and being “a brilliant thinker,” “a man of great learning and religion” (148). This, to me, is part of the problem. Our criteria for “giant of the Christian faith” is ethically anemic; it elevates intellect, and ignores the obedience of love and justice. We elevate “heroes” based on their “theology,” and then find ourselves in a conundrum: “Now what do we do with their glaring inconsistencies?” Maybe we need to go all the way back to square one, and re-evaluate what makes a “giant,” and only hold those in esteem who are actually worthy of imitation, not just those who intellectually stimulate us through their books.

Burns then explores Edwards’s own words and actions regarding enslavement, and since the topic of this post is Robert Lewis Dabney, we won’t dig into that here (for my own reflections on Edwards and slavery, see: “The Edwards of History: A Reply to Doug Wilson”). However, in the middle of this section, Burns offers an assessment of the sin of owning slaves, which applies to Dabney as well: 

“In the cosmic sense of reality, owning slaves is no different from any other sin, in that all sin is against God, and all of us are capable of the greatest of evils were God to release his restraining hand for his eternal purposes. What is interesting, however, is that while we must see sin as the cause of Edwards’s behavior, Edwards himself never called what he and his other colonists were doing “sin.” To Edwards, slavery was a necessary evil that served some positive good in the natural order that God had decreed—a thought his disciples would take up some years following his death. Yet if Edwards was wrong, it is not his God or his theology that is to blame—only his sin (footnote 34: I am grateful to John Piper for this insight.) Reformed theology did not produce a heart to own slavery.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 156.

Here, again, I must take issue with this “insight” which Burns credits to Piper “it is not his theology that is to blame—only his sin. Reformed theology did not produce a heart to own slavery.” Unfortunately, I don’t think it is this simple. Reformed theology fit perfectly with the hierarchical view of the world that both Edwards and Dabney shared (i.e., “God has sovereignly appointed each his ‘proper place’”). It was just this intertwining of Reformed theology and White supremacy that started me on this project (“Providence is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist”). The more I have dug into this, the less I am convinced that “it is not their theology that is to blame”—I fear that it is indeed their theology that bears at least some of the blame. Whether the theology actively contributed to white-supremacy and enslavement (which it did at times) or passively failed to produce the necessary works of love or the impetus to dismantle enslavement and racism, the theology seems very much to blame.

“Men of their times”?

On the next page, Burns repeats an oft-heard warning: 

“Marsden cautions us against the natural inclination to view men of history from our own contexts, stating that we should think ‘about Edwards as an eighteenth-century figure and about how that context should shape [our] understanding of him . . . it would be a failure of imagination if we were to start out by simply judging people of the past for having outlooks that are not like our own. Rather, we must first try to enter sympathetically into an earlier world and to under- stand its people.’”

Burns, “Trusting,” 157, quoting George Marsden’s biography of Edwards, 2). 

However, judging enslavers like Edwards or Dabney is not a matter of importing a present moral judgment onto the past. An anti-slavery witness has existed in North American since as early as 1688 (see “Quaker Protest Against Slavery in the New World, Germantown (Pa.) 1688”), and one of Edwards’s contemporaries, John Woolman (1720–1772), argued vehemently against enslavement, and even for reparations (plus interest!) to the descendants of slaves (see The Journal and Essays of John Woolman, and Woolman, “A Plea for the Poor”). One need not read 21st century sensibilities onto the 18th or 19th centuries in order to condemn slaveholders; one needs only to be better acquainted with those centuries.

Burns demonstrates an awareness of some of the recent scholarship on Dabney in particular when he cites Sean Michael Lucas’s article, “‘He cuts up Edwardsism by the roots’: Robert Lewis Dabney and the Edwardsean Legacy in the Nineteenth-Century South,” (in The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards) which interacts specifically with Dabney’s opposition to the Edwardsean abolitionists. This is important because some might say “we just didn’t know about Dabney’s racism until much recently.” The scholarship has been there for decades, and it was accessible to the staff at Bethlehem at the time.

It is in his concluding section that Burns references Dabney explicitly: 

“’the challenge of the African American within the Reformed context is that we are called to embrace the theology of our oppressors and to reject the theology of our liberators.’ This means that the odd and ironic position of the African American who seeks to be shaped by orthodox theology must reject, in many respects, the theology of a Martin Luther King, Jr., and embrace the theology of a Jonathan Edwards or Robert Dabney. While I admire Dr. King for his work and efforts in fighting for the freedom of African Americans in this country (my freedom), I am not hesitant to note that he will not offer much help in theological precision. While, on the other hand, Edwards never held the mantle as social liberator, his theology will saturate a man in orthodoxy.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 170.

I agree with Burns that it does seem “odd and ironic,” and this sense sharp sense of irony is why I think there is more to see here than what Burns, or Piper, have acknowledged. I would call into question this conclusion that the theology of slaveholders will “saturate a man in orthodoxy.” If our theological calculus results in conclusions like this, we need to re-evaluate what it truly means to be “orthodox.”

Burns thinks that good theology will eradicate racism: 

“the eradication of racism today, as would be the case with slavery then, will not come about through programs, but by means of a God-centered and God-entranced view of reality… Whatever we may think of Edwards, one thing is for certain: He left the American church with the necessary theological truths to kill racism in our hearts and to be conquerors of it in the church.”

“the eradication of racism today, as would be the case with slavery then, will not come about through programs, but by means of a God-centered and God-entranced view of reality… Whatever we may think of Edwards, one thing is for certain: He left the American church with the necessary theological truths to kill racism in our hearts and to be conquerors of it in the church.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 170–71.

Again, I must demur. The “eradication of slavery” did not come through Edwards’s “God-entranced view of reality” — it only finally came as a result of a bloody Civil War. As much as we may wish that “good theology” is all it takes to change the world, we must face the actual historical record: Edwards did not leave the church with the necessary theological truths to end slavery and kill racism, and the evidence is seen a thousandfold on the pages of actual history, in the lives of 18th century Reformed slaveholders, 19th century Reformed white-supremacists, 20th century Reformed segregationists, and their 21st century Reformed admirers. To pretend otherwise is wishful thinking.

Conclusion

Burns had acknowledged up front that this topic is complex and vast: 

“I do not suppose that I will answer every question that will arise from the reading of this chapter. The topic is so vast and varied that it may raise additional questions that, I hope, will compel each of us to dig and find what is there to be explored and attained”

Burns, “Trusting,” 146. 

Indeed, this is what I have felt as I face the issue of Reformed White-Supremacy. In this Burns was successful: I have felt compelled to dig and explore and the more I dig, the more “additional questions” my digging has raised.

This post has not focused directly on John Piper, but is part of the slightly broader circle of people who served with him in ministry at Bethlehem Baptist Church, and were published as part of Desiring God’s efforts. It illustrates the kind of influence that Piper’s ministry had on those around him, including a Black pastor like Sherard Burns. As the “two streams” of the Black “soul dynamic” and the white “Reformed theology” mingled, the Black stream was faced with white-supremacy and forced to wrestle hard with it. I still haven’t found the chapter or article from a white figure entitled “Trusting the Theology of a Liberation Theologian.” It seems like all this work to assimilate into the “single river” was being done from one direction.

Next: 7. “Great Saints of the Past” (Suffering and the Sovereignty of God)

John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney

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

John Piper, The Pleasures of God

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

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

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

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

Piper and Dabney?

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

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

The Digital Age

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

A Note on Indexes

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

Next Post: 2. “Love Your Enemies”?

“Dabney was truly a Caleb”: Iain Murray’s biography of Robert Lewis Dabney

Over the years, Iain Murray has delivered a number of biographical messages of various Christian theologians and pastors. Among them is a biography of Robert Lewis Dabney. The date of this message is unknown, but seems to be sometime in the 1960s when Banner of Truth had just reprinted two volumes of Dabney’s Discussions (for more on this, including Murray’s partnership with Mississippi segregationists, see ““A Leading Theologian”?: Herman Bavinck on Robert Lewis Dabney“).

Murray’s biography of Dabney is available on Youtube as well as on the The Gospel Coalition website.

The message is over an hour long and covers Dabney’s whole life. I have transcribed it, and a pdf of the transcription is available here:

Frankly, the message is a hagiography of Dabney, as well as a Lost Cause version of the Civil War, and an apology for Southern slavery.

One of Murray’s purposes in delivering the message coincided with Banner of Truth’s reprinting of Dabney’s Discussions, and Murray makes this explicit:

Dabney’s works have never been printed in this country, I should think practically impossible to buy any Dabney books in our second hand bookshop for that reason.

I have two reasons why I chose the subject of Robert Lewis Dabney for this morning’s session… The second reason then is that I wanted to say something which perhaps would encourage more reading of Dabney’s theological writing and to that end we brought with us from London quite a number of Dabney’s Discussions

He concludes his message with this:

Let me then commend these precious volumes to you. Two volumes, you who’ve got sons, you should buy copies so that they’ll have them too, and another generation will not forget this man as our fathers forgot him.

Murray lauds Dabney to his listeners:

His life gives us the most impressive example, that I know, of courage and heroism in the Christian ministry. I mean, of course, outside the pages of Scripture, but outside the pages of Scripture, I do not know a life which is more moving in terms of the quality of courage and endurance than the life of Robert Dabney. Dabney was truly a Caleb.

His biographer, speaking of Dabney as a spiritual Christian, comes to this conclusion: “as a holy man, he deserves to be ranked with Augustine and Calvin, Owen and Baxter and Edwards. Dr. Dabney was a great man. We cannot tell just how great yet. One cannot see how great Mount Blanc is while standing at its foot. 100 years from now, men will be able to see him better”

We get the hint early on that Murray intends to downplay the horrors of Southern slavery with euphemism and understatement. He describes Dabney’s childhood like this:

His father was a local magistrate, farmer, colonel of the militia, a man who owned a farm, where there were wheat and corn and tobacco, and in that environment, country environment, Dabney grew up. It was of course, a typical Southern farm, with Negroes in the family, with the structure of society that existed before the civil war still in force.

According to Murray, the enslaved were “in the family,” and the systemic injustice of enslavement is called “the structure of society.” Later on in the message, Murray turns toward a full-throated apology for Southern slavery:

Then one must bear in mind of course that there were great differences and discrepancies in the way that slaves were treated in the South. Slaves in Christian homes, were almost always as much, as it were, a part of the family, as anyone else. They were born in the home, they lived there, they were nursed there, they were cared for, they died there. One of Dabney’s reasons why he could not go to Princeton was that it would break up his family, and by his family of course he included his slaves.

 I am quite convinced that in the hearts of these Christians in the South, I say Christians in the South, there was very great regard and love to their colored slaves and servants.

To rebut this, one needs simply to look at how Dabney treated his own slaves: “transfer some of your own troubles to the backs of the cuffies”; “I have hired a man more whipable than those we had last”; “beat him into good behavior” (“Robert Lewis Dabney Papers, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville”).

Murray gives a double-barrel case for the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War. First, Murray emphasizes the issue of “states rights” in the abstract, without any reference to the fact that it was specifically the states’ rights to enslave Black people. For example, here is a quote from the 1864 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, at which Dabney was present:

“We hesitate not to affirm that it is the peculiar mission of the Southern Church to conserve the institution of slavery, and to make it a blessing both to master and slave

Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, 293.

But Murray emphasizes this:

But there existed in the years that followed [the 1780s], considerable tension between their loyalty to their own identity as a state and their loyalty to the union. And this tension was at the heart of the troubles which led up to the civil war in 1861. You, of course, you’ll expect me to enlarge upon that, but that is the heart of the story. There were those who believed that their first loyalty was to their state. There were others who believed that state loyalty had been superseded by loyalty to the union. The southerners adhered to the view that state loyalty was the primary loyalty.

Murray claims that the issue of slavery was northern propaganda:

I had wanted to say something on the attitude of these men to the Negro question and the slavery question because of course it was the great propaganda of the North and propaganda that was accepted by the world that the civil war was fought simply for the abolition of slavery. I think I can give you sufficient evidence to show that that simply cannot be true… They were not fighting to preserve slavery

Murray joins Dabney, and the entire league of the Lost Cause, in praising Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. In fact, in a strange twist, a good portion of Dabney’s biography is actually devoted to Jackson:

Stonewall Jackson was the commander of what became known as the Stonewall Brigade, the army of Northern Virginia, probably the greatest general that the Southern army had. And certainly one of the greatest generals in history.

Murray gets so engaged in describing Jackson’s military “genius,” that he stops partway through and remarks “Well, I’m not here to speak about the battles,” which prompted knowing laughter from his audience. He praises Jackson’s Christian character:

Well, I must say something, however, on the Christianity of Stonewall Jackson. Robert Lee and Jackson were both outstanding Christians. There’s no, I think, there’s no one who questions that.

Murray makes one allusion to Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy:

Some of you are aware that Dabney, like us all, sometimes spoke illadvisedly with his lips, and there are on record certain words spoken on the color issue by Dabney, which had better not have been spoken.

Indeed, see “What’s So Bad About R. L. Dabney?” and see for yourself. “Sometimes” is understating it–this was a major theme of Dabney’s life as a writer and a churchman. Nevertheless, Murray wishes to highlight how white Southern Presbyterians in the south, like Dabney and John L. Girardeau, really did “love” Black people, and did not wish to exclude them from the church. What Murray leaves out, is that these white leaders wanted to keep Black people in the church so that they could maintain their control over them (see this thread for example, which treats both Dabney and Girardeau).

Murray references the fact that Dabney was opposed to reunion with Northern Presbyterians “on two grounds” but says “I’ll mention only one of them,” namely, the issue of new methods in evangelism that Dabney was opposed to. Murray conveniently leaves out the other reason: his white-supremacy. Here’s Dabney himself on the issue in question (warning: it’s vile!):

It means, of course, that we must imitate the church which absorbs us, in the ecclesiastical amalgamation with negroes; accepting negro presbyters to rule white churches and judge white ladies; a step which would seal the moral and doctrinal corruption of our church in the South, and be a direct step towards that final perdition of Southern society, domestic amalgamation… For, let any man look on the negro character calmly, and he will see that the introduction of any, the smallest, element of negro rule in our church, means moral and doctrinal relaxation, and ecclesiastical corruption, poisoning the life-blood of our churches… Merge our churches with the North, and at once we poison the noble Synods of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia with the infusion of the black “Synod of Atlantic;” with the prospect of the similar corruption of our whole Southern church.

“The Atlanta Assembly and Fraternal Relations,” (1882) in Discussions, Volume 2, 524–25

Murray would have know about this quote, because it’s contained in Volume 2 of the very books he was selling at the conference.

Murray quotes favorably Dabney’s strong stand “Against a false anti-biblical secularism, a philanthropy which was not Christian,”neglecting to note that by this, Dabney included the “cruelty” of abolitionism (“Crimes of Philanthropy”).

Murray favorably quotes Dabney on his opposition to women’s rights:

If you read him on woman’s rights, for example, you will find a most heart stirring appeal. He believed that it was not only a woman’s duty to be in the home, but that was her highest privilege, and the movement for the vote to be given to woman and for woman’s in society to be equal to man, that movement, he saw, as one of the greatest perils to the United States, and I haven’t time to read from him, but you’ll feel that if you read him. That is a whole area of Dabney, which is very relevant for the present time. There’s an anti-biblical theory of rights and it is that which he is concerned to oppose…

Certain circles of Reformed evangelicalism have held Iain Murray in high esteem, especially for his work at Banner of Truth. It’s time that Murray’s views of Dabney, the Confederacy, and Southern slavery were known.

“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 Douglas 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, Douglas 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.

Douglas 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 Robert Lewis Dabney?

Robert Lewis 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.