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.
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.
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 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.
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).
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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:
skeptical about your historical awareness/ignorance;
skeptical about what you have to say about race in the church and/or social justice;
skeptical about your claims regarding the implications of the gospel;
skeptical about your assessment of “good theology”; or
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.”
So far our series has taken us from a footnote in 1979 to a full endorsement of Dabney in 1991, again in 1995, with reprints of those recommendations echoing for decades. We’ve paused to consider Piper’s efforts toward “ethnic harmony” from 1994 to 2015, and are now comparing words with actions, using Dabney as a test case. So far, we’ve only seen continued endorsements in 2002, and 2003, and this post will now consider the crucial years from 2007 to 2014. The question driving this exploration is this: “How and why was a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney recommended to a whole generation of Reformed evangelicals, and what role did John Piper and Desiring God play?”
“What Are Some Books That DG Recommends?“
In 2006 Desiring God published a post What Are Some Books That DG Recommends? By my rough count, the list includes 354 books (or sets of books) in 68 categories, including theology, literature, education, culture, and racial harmony. If Piper’s dream of “a single river” was to start becoming a reality, a massive booklist would be one easy place to start.
It might be useful to pause for a moment to consider the place of the “recommended book list” in Reformed circles. Books are highly prized in this tradition, and the movement has been perpetuated in large part through the publishing of books. Every Desiring God conference included a massive book store, and often a bag full of free books for attendees; Piper himself has devoted himself to a writing ministry and published over 50 books; Justin Taylor graduated from The Bethlehem Institute under Piper and has gone on to become the executive vice president of book publishing at Crossway. In a movement that loves ideas and the books that contain them, a “recommended book list” carries great weight in helping to shape its followers.
So, did this recommended book list move forward the dream of “a single river” articulated just four years earlier? Well, out of those 354 books, there were two written by African American Christians, a whole 0.5% of the list. Both books were relegated to the “racial reconciliation” category, one merely as a co-author. For comparison, a number of white men (D. A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, Iain Murray, R. C. Sproul) are recommended on the list multiple times in a variety of categories. Next to John Piper himself (12x), the most recommended author on the list is Douglas Wilson (9x). Let that sink in—Douglas Wilson alone is recommended more than 4x as many times as all of the African American Christian authors combined [CORRECTION: two of those books were written by Nancy Wilson, Douglas Wilson’s wife. The math should read “3.5x as many …”]. Also featured in the list? Southern Presbyterian white-supremacists Robert Lewis Dabney and Benjamin Morgan Palmer.
I think in some ways this book list encapsulates in one place what is wrong with the Reformed movement. The “single river” was a lofty aspiration, but in the end, was merely wishful thinking detached from any meaningful action, even the simplest act of recommending a book. In this book list we are so far removed from “two strong streams mingling in a single river”—all we have is a tiny trickle mingling with a rushing river full of white water.
And not only has this list done nothing to address the “poison of racist slavery” and white supremacy, the list perpetuates it, by recommending to its readers racist enslavers (like Dabney), and slavery apologists (like Douglas Wilson). While (thankfully?) the list did not recommend Wilson’s recently published book on slavery and the Confederacy (Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America (2005)), or his previously published pamphlet Southern Slavery as it Was (1998), nevertheless, the list demonstrates a remarkable familiarity with the catalog of Wilson’s writings. It would be surprising if they did not know about Black & Tan at the time, and negligent if indeed they did not.
I think the list as whole demonstrates what is wrong with the white Reformed movement, but one recommendation in particular is the quintessential example: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism. Dabney wrote this book at the end of his life (in 1895), at the very same time that he was pleading for the “retention of the [Union Theological] Seminary in Southside Virginia as needed to help the white people in their struggle to prevent their sections being Africanized” (The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 510–11). The book contains allusions to “well bred [white] lady,” to an ante-bellum plantation, to a Confederate General, and to the case of a “master and servant” For a complete review of the book see my “Book Review: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism”). This book, written by this man, at this time, is what is recommended to those who want to learn more about the topic “Providence and Predestination.”
How the dream of “a single river” would play out in reality is further seen in the way Piper and Desiring God gave Douglas Wilson a platform beginning in 2009. It appears that Piper had met Wilson once, at a Ligonier conference in 2000 (see “Mohler, Piper, Sproul, and Wilson: Questions and Answers #1”), but by 2008 still had not met him in person. It was Mark Driscoll who seems to have made the connection (see “John Piper on Doug Wilson”). By 2006, Desiring God was recommending more Douglas Wilson books than any other author than Piper himself (see above), but it was 2009 when Wilson was first invited to share the stage at a Desiring God National Conference.
What is relevant for this series on Robert Lewis Dabney, is that although other Reformed evangelicals (John MacArthur, Iain Murray) have promoted Dabney over the years, Wilson seems to have drunk the most deeply from this southern well and considers Dabney to be one of the men “I am most indebted to philosophically” (see “Doug Wilson on R.L. Dabney”). In his book Black & Tan, Wilson quotes Dabney more than any other figure, and repackages Dabney’s Lost Cause propaganda for slavery and the Confederacy for his contemporary audience. Douglas Wilson, the self-proclaimed “paleo-confederate,” has promoted Robert Lewis Dabney, the actual Confederate, more extensively than anyone else in modern memory. Southern Slavery as it Was was co-authored with Steve Wilkins, long time board member of the neo-Confederate group The League of the South. (For more on Wilson and Wilkins, see William Ramsey and Sean Quinlan, “Southern Slavery As It Wasn’t: Coming to Grips with Neo-Confederate Historical Misinformation” (2004); Euan Hague, Heidi Beirich, and Edward Sebesta, editors, Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction (2005)).
Rather than addressing the “poison” of “racist slavery,” Piper allowed its most prominent contemporary apologist his largest platform at conferences and on the Desiring God website. When Thabiti spilt gallons of digital ink debating Wilson over these issues in 2013, Piper gave Wilson the stage to explain his views (see “A Conversation on Christ and Culture with John Piper and Douglas Wilson”). When Wilson offered a vague and heavily qualified “apology,” and Thabiti carefully explained why it was insufficient, Piper called it “all good,” without ever addressing Thabiti’s unresolved concerns. Observe Piper’s interactions with the Reformed African American Network, a young “Black and Reformed” organization at this time. In an interview with Phillip Holmes, Piper claimed that Thabiti Anyabwile “drew forth appropriate concessions” from Wilson (“What Can the Church Learn from the Doug Wilson and Thabiti Anyabwile dialogue?”). Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns, who were in the room for that RAAN interview, describe Piper’s defense of Wilson as a key turning point in their own realization that white Reformed evangelical institutions were not places they belonged (see “Pass the Mic: Leave LOUD–Jemar Tisby’s Story,” 50:30–57:30). Here’s how I’ve summarized the whole situation:
“Whether or not we intended it, here’s the message that I’m afraid minorities heard: ‘come to the table for hard work on racial reconciliation; then, when extremely racially insensitive statements are made with no (or vague and heavily qualified) apologies, we’re going to call it “a great dialogue” and chastise you for being too thin-skinned.’ Minorities have gotten the message, and they’ve left the table.”
Returning to the theme of this series, as long as the spirit of Dabney was alive and well in Reformed circles, the “soul-dynamic” of the Black church would never truly be welcome. One or the other would have to go, because the poison of white-supremacy cannot remain unchecked forever without manifesting itself and pushing out that which is its opposite. This is exactly what we have seen play out over the last twenty years.
“Lemuel Haynes and Robert Dabney”?
On March 12, 2014, Piper was invited to deliver the annual “Gaffin Lecture on Theology, Culture, and Mission” at Westminster Theological Seminary. Piper chose as his theme “The New Calvinism and the New Community: The Doctrines of Grace and the Meaning of Race” and the message and transcript are available here.
At the time, there was much discussion about the “New Calvinist” movement, (also called “Young, Restless, and Reformed”), and there were intra-mural fights about the boundary lines between “New Calvinism” and “Old Calvinism.” In describing the issue, Piper said this:
I do not mean for these features of the new to be dividing lines between the new and the old. I don’t think there are such lines. I don’t think there is a clear distinction between the new and the old except perhaps in regard to the use of media and technology that didn’t exist 20 years ago. How can there be distinctives unique to the New Calvinism when the Old is as diverse as:
St. Augustine and Adoniram Judson, Francis Turretin and John Bunyan, John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon, John Owen and George Whitefield, John Knox and J. I. Packer, Cotton Mather and R. C. Sproul, Abraham Kuyper and William Carey, Lemuel Hanes [sic] and Robert Dabney, Theodore Beza and James Boice Isaac Backus and Martyn Lloyd-Jones?
If there is such diversity in the Old, can we find dividing lines between the Old and the New? I don’t think so.
This a fascinating list, and in particular, the pairing of Lemuel Haynes and Robert Lewis Dabney shines a glaring spotlight on the issues of race and the poison of white supremacy in the Reformed theological tradition. Dabney explicitly and repeatedly opposed the equality of Black teachers in his Presbyterian denomination for his entire life (see “What’s So Bad About R. L. Dabney?”). His efforts “set the racial orthodoxy” in the PCUS for the next hundred years (Sean Michal Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 148–49). Dabney himself would never have allowed a Black preacher like Lemuel Haynes to exist on equal terms within his own definition of “The Church,” and the idea of a Black preacher to a white congregation enraged Dabney more than anything. Piper lumps together men under the table “Old Calvinism” that are so disparate, they never could have even co-existed in their own time.
Regarding the “New Calvinism” Piper claims this:
“The New Calvinism is international in scope, multi-ethnic in expression, and culturally diverse. There is no single geographic, racial, cultural, or governing center.”
This is massively disputable. While there may have been “outcroppings” of Reformedish theology in many diverse places, the “New Calvinism” very much had institutional centers: Desiring God; The Gospel Coalition; Acts 29. And these spaces did very much have a cultural and racial center: whiteness. Just see the list of “recommended books” above: overwhelminglywhite. A statement like this is wishful thinking, elevating a tiny minority into more than it really was. By overstating the role of the “Black and Reformed” movement, the urgency to deal with White Supremacy was diminished. And by failing to deal with White Supremacy, the powerful figures at the cultural center of New Calvinism pushed the Black and Reformed out, whether they intended to or not.
Piper acknowledged that this diversity was tentative: “It may be short-lived, or it may be deep and wide and long. God will decide.” Notice how he appeals to “providence” rather than his own responsibility: “God will decide.” As if God’s sovereignty did not work through means; the means of conference speaker lineups; the means of book lists; the means of decisions of who to defend and who to critique; the means of decisions to speak or to remain silent in key situations.
The year before this address Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by vigilante George Zimmerman, and this event started to highlight again the already existing differences in the Black and white “streams” even within the “Calvinist community.” Later that year, in August 2014, Michael Brown would be shot and killed in Ferguson, and this would accentuate these differences even more, especially with the creation of Black Lives Matter, and the white backlash to such outspoken advocacy. The racial diversity within the New Calvinism would indeed be short-lived: key leaders at the center of the movement had proved unwilling to deal with the root issues of white supremacy, and thus the community would be unable to withstand the coming storms.
In 2005, the Desiring God National Conference was devoted to the topic “Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.” Once again, the material from the conference was converted into a book: Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. One of the chapters is entitled “Waiting for the Morning during the Long Night of Weeping,” by Dustin Shramek. Shramek is listed in the book as a “cross cultural peacemaker, the Middle East and Minnesota,” and had trained under Piper as part of The Bethlehem Institute’s first class, alongside Matt Perman, Justin Taylor, Stephen Witmer, and others (see the dedication to John Piper Counted Righteous In Christ). Like the last post in this series (“Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner“), while this post does not deal directly with Piper, it does illustrate how Dabney was viewed and recommended in his immediate sphere of influence at Bethlehem and Desiring God.
Shramek opens his chapter with a familiar note: “Good theology is essential if we are going to suffer well” (175). But, Shramek notes, “We also need to delve into the depths of our pain in suffering so that we can be honest” (176). In “the West” we have a particular problem, that “we don’t like to confront grief or suffering” (178). We even prefer our Christian heroes to act like Stoics:
“When we read about great saints of the past, we hear about their suffering, which is immediately followed by their triumph through Christ. Rarely do we truly enter with them into their dark night of the soul, when all around them nothing makes sense” (179).
Immediately after calling our mind to “great saints of the past,” Shramek gives us an example from the life of Robert Lewis Dabney:
“Consider the nineteenth-century theologian, Robert Dabney. In a matter of about a month he lost two of his sons, Jimmy and Bobby. This is what he says: ‘When my Jimmy died, the grief was painfully sharp, but the actings of faith, the embracing of consolation, and all the cheering truths which ministered comfort to me were just as vivid.’ This is what we like to hear. We like to hear that the truths of the gospel encouraged him and that his faith was strong.
But he goes on in the same letter, ‘But when the stroke was repeated, and thereby doubled, I seem to be paralyzed and stunned. I know that my loss is doubled, and I know also that the same cheering truths apply to the second as to the first, but I remain numb, downcast, almost without hope and interest.” When we hear this we get uncomfortable. The great truths of the gospel fell flat after his second son died and he remained “numb, downcast, almost without hope and interest.” It is true that God carried him through and that Dabney proved to be faithful. He did triumph. He experienced the truth of Psalm 34:19, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all.” But let us not so quickly go from the affliction to the deliverance and thus minimize the pain in between. God’s promise of deliverance does not mean that he will immediately deliver us. For many, deliverance only comes with death’” (179).
The rest of the chapter includes the story of Shramek’s own experience of losing a son, a helpful meditation on Psalm 88, and Jesus in Gethsemane and on the cross. Overall, I actually find the chapter to be an honest and helpful encouragement to those suffering difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, I can’t help asking “Why Dabney?” There are countless examples of Christians who have suffered greatly, even the death of their children. Even sticking within the white Reformed community, John Calvin lost his one and only child; Martin Luther and Katerina lost multiple children, one of whom died in his arms. Even Jonathan Edwards and the death of his daughter Jerusha would seem a more likely candidate for a Piperian illustration than a Southern Presbyterian like Dabney. Evidently though, Robert Lewis Dabney was enough of a figure at Bethlehem at the time that his 500+ page biography was being read and cited.
This is good place to pause and consider context. 2005 also saw the publication of Sean Michael Lucas’s Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. Lucas’s work is an excellent starting point for understanding Dabney’s life and theology, and he does not shrink back from facing up to Dabney’s white-supremacy.–I highly recommend it. Until 2005, almost all reference to Dabney’s white-supremacy was limited to discussion in academic journal articles (here is just a sampling):
Overy, David Henry. “Robert Lewis Dabney, Apostle of the Old South.” PhD, University of Wisconsin, 1967.
Pastors and laypeople can be forgiven for not staying up to date on all of the discourse that takes place in the academy. They can reasonably claim “we didn’t know about Dabney’s white-supremacy!” But with the printing of Lucas’s biography by a mainstream evangelical publisher (Presbyterian & Reformed), this excuse begins to evaporate.
Further still, Johnson’s Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney is loaded with references to Dabney’s views on race, slavery, the Confederacy, “the negro,” and Reconstruction. Once this book is on the table, one can legitimately start expecting you to address these deeply troubling facts (or wonder at your silence).
“The Sovereignty of God and Ethnic-Based Suffering”
Also in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God is a chapter by Carl Ellis, Jr. titled “The Sovereignty of God and Ethnic-Based Suffering” (a video of Ellis’s conference message by the same title can be seen here). While Ellis’s chapter makes no reference to Dabney, it does include a very helpful analysis of “Anglo-American” theology, an analysis which could have had a tremendous impact, if only it had been heeded:
“Anglo-Americans without this paradigm [for understanding oppression, which includes personal and systemic elements] tend to view African-American protest against marginalization as “playing the race card.” African-Americans, on the other hand, may view Anglo-Americans’ protest as being in denial. When this happens we will speak past each other, because we do not understand that marginalization is the foundation of ethnic-based suffering. The theology of the Christian community has been weak in that area. If we are going to be a prophetic voice against marginalization, we will need to address it with some serious theology” (131).
Ellis’s uses the categories of “dominant” and “sub-dominant” to articulate the dynamics of oppression:
“An aspect of restraining evil involves seeking to minimize the dominant/sub-dominant dynamics in human relationships in general and within the body of Christ in particular. We may not be able to do a lot about the consequences of sin in the fallen world, but we can certainly do something about it within the household of faith” (137).
Ellis hits the nail right on the head in his diagnosis of Reformed communities:
“We do faith fairly well, but we don’t do works well at all. Why? Because we have lost the doxological motivation in spirituality. Maybe it is time for a new reformation. The first Reformation rediscovered the salvific dimension. The new reformation will rediscover the doxological dimension. Doxology was what distinguished the Reformed movement. But somehow we’ve lost it. This is why our works have become shabby. This is why we have not had a strong prophetic voice regarding issues like ethnic-based suffering. And the world is poorer for it” (139).
Ellis is realistic about the disconnect between the ideal and the reality in the American church:
“As strangers and aliens, we in the body of Christ should have no real vested interest in the world system as it exists. We should be completely focused on our sovereign God and his kingdom. We are called to be change-agents for the kingdom in this world. Thus, to identify with suffering should be as natural as breathing. Ethnic-based suffering should be a rare occurrence within the body of Christ. Indeed, we have a long way to go” (140).
I feel the incongruity when I line up Ellis’s trenchant critique of the church and his assessment of how far we had to go, with yet another uncritical reference to Robert Lewis Dabney in the very same book. I feel the tension that some must have felt in 2005—would the dream of “a single river” become a reality? Could these two deeply inconsistent things hold together? Would Piper ever call out Dabney’s white-supremacy, or just continue to endorse and recommend him, while calling Black brothers and sisters to “cut us some slack”?
We find the answers as we survey instances from the next decade, 2006-2015:
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”
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 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. ”
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.
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.
This post is an interlude in the series on John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney. Here we will step back for a moment for context and look more broadly at Piper’s efforts to address the issue of “racial reconciliation.” What Piper did not say and do in this regard may be as important as the actual actions, words and books we have been considering so far.
Racial Reconciliation: Against the rising spirit of indifference, alienation, and hostility in our land, we will embrace the supremacy of God’s love to take new steps personally and corporately toward racial reconciliation, expressed visibly in our community and in our church.
In January 1998, Piper preached the first “Ethnic Harmony” sermon the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a tradition that would continue every year at Bethlehem until today. In 2000, Piper led a 6-part seminar for the church on “Racial Harmony,” and around that time Bethlehem also formed a “Racial Harmony Task Force” to “assist the elders in assessing our progress and making suggestions and interviewing staff candidates” (“Why Deal With Racial Issues?,” November 29, 2000; Bloodlines, “Appendix 3,” 261).
The Soul Dynamic
All of this effort culminated for Piper in the summer of 2001 when he read Carl Ellis, Jr’s book Free at Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience. Ellis was a Black pastor in the PCA, and his book described the “soul-dynamic” in the African American experience. Piper describes the effect the book had on him:
“I felt, in reading this book about the soul dynamic and the black experience in America, that everything I had ever seen and savored of the sovereignty of God and the centrality of God and the supremacy of God was a preparation for being a part of this reality—that is, a God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated rebuilding of black and white evangelical culture not primarily around color but around the triumphant, sovereign glory of the all-knowing, all-governing, crucified, suffering, and living Christ.”
“my aim is to light a fire in you that would forge a link between the sovereignty of God and God-centered theology, on the one hand, and the soul dynamic and black experience in America, on the other hand. There is, I believe, an explosively powerful coming together of these that I want to advance and be a part of.”
He knew that this seemed unlikely:
“Can a link be forged between such a rich and deep and living reality and the seemingly cerebral conceptuality of Reformed theology? The very terms seem in tension from the outset. The metals out of which I dream of forging such a link seem to be so different that they could never be welded together. The term soul dynamic points to a personal energy and life and deeply felt suffering and human kinship, unshakeable soul-conviction, while the term sovereignty of God, in contrast, points to a divine, objective power outside ourselves imposing itself down from above, not up from within.
The term black experience in America points to the weight of history and tradition and suffering and passion and people and culture and warmth, but the term God-centered theology, in contrast, points to the burden of rationality and reflection and concepts and ideas. So from the outset, the prospect of forging a link between the sovereignty of God and God-centered theology on the one hand, and the soul dynamic and black experience in America on the other hand, looks dim.”
Nevertheless, Piper was not willing to give up without trying:
“I am not willing for the greatness of God and the supremacy of God and the centrality of God and “the preeminence of the glory of God” (which is the essence of the Reformed tradition) to be hijacked by a white, Western, over-rationalized, cool tradition that alienates the black experience which has drunk so deeply at the wells of suffering and scorn.”
The problem for Piper here, in my opinion, is that it was far too late for that. The danger was not that the Reformed tradition might be “hijacked” by a white, Western tradition (indeed, let’s name it, by White Supremacy itself), the problem was that White Supremacy had been deeply entrenched in the Reformed tradition for centuries by this point. The urgent need was not to “watch out for hijackers from outside” but rather “how do we eradicate this cancer from within?” Piper knew this, but it did not shape his overall approach to the subject. A little later he said this: “And, O yes, I know that those white, Reformed, Puritan roots are contaminated with the poison of racist slavery.” But here, Piper attempts a “both-sides” approach that assumes a symmetry of power and influence that has never once existed in 400 years of American history:
“I know that those white, Reformed, Puritan roots are contaminated with the poison of racist slavery; and I know that the deeper roots of black culture are contaminated by African paganism. But if we are willing to cut each other some slack here and see the working of God’s providence in and through the imperfections or our histories, then the ax of Carl Ellis falls not only against the modern black tree of Godlessness, but also against the modern white tree of Godlessness.”
For Piper, the answer to the contamination of “the poison of racist slavery” is inter-personal: “cut each other some slack.” There is no mention of any deeper systemic changes to address; no acknowledgement of the fact that Piper himself had been recommending Reformed racist enslavers in his books for years; in fact, no proposal whatsoever for addressing “the poison” — just a call to overlook it (“cut each other some slack”).
“A Single River”
Piper used the metaphor of “a single river” to illustrate his aspirations:
“Even though there are thousands of whites and thousands of blacks who stumble over the theological systems of dead white men from Geneva and Northampton and Princeton; and even though there are whites and blacks who ridicule the God-rooted soul dynamic of the black experience in America, nevertheless there is an untried vision to see the mountain streams of God’s supremacy and sovereignty and centrality and glory, flowing from the Reformed tradition, on one side, together with the soul dynamic, flowing from the black experience in America, on the other side, to make a river—a single river—that runs deep with life and hope and joy through the valley of pain and death—a river of love that causes all who drink, not to make much of themselves, and not even to make much of others, but to lay down their lives to help others enjoy making much of our God, Jesus Christ. That’s what I am pursuing.”
I have a couple of observations regarding this image. First, it sounds wonderful, and in my mind I picture two streams of equal size and volume blending together on terms of equality, a genuine partnership. But this vision was never actualized, even in the ministry of Piper, both at Bethlehem Baptist Church, or at his Desiring God conferences. For example, one year later, Desiring God honored the 300 year anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards with an entire conference devoted to him (“A God-Entranced Vision of All Things: The Unrivaled Legacy of Jonathan Edwards.” The the plenary speakers feature an all-white cast, which is not surprising given that a slaveholding theologian was the man being honored. Other conferences would often feature a single Black plenary speaker in the midst of an otherwise white cast, more resembling a tiny stream merging with an already swelling river. In at least one prominent area, the dream of “a single river” sounded good in theory, but was never implemented in practice. If Piper really wanted to see “two mountain tributaries becoming a single river” it would take more intentional effort than this. Lest anyone think I am being hyper-critical, Piper himself reflected in 2020 on the lack of progress he saw in this area:
“’One of my biggest battles over the years is not to become jaundiced,’ Piper said. He feels the failures more than the successes. ‘One of my greatest regrets is how little impact we seem to have had in the Native American community.’ Nor is Bethlehem as multiethnic as he hoped it would be.”
A second observation is this: if one of the mountain streams is, as Piper says, “contaminated with the poison of racist slavery,” how can that stream mingle with another? You must first either deal with the poison, or you must not be surprised if eventually people realize “there is bitterness in the water!” and decide to find another river. Piper’s shallow solution to this poison (“Just cut us some slack!”) meant that the issue would go unresolved, and would remain a lingering infection until it burst forth several years later.
The reason Piper thought that this attempt at racial reconciliation would be more successful than others was because it was not just “Calvinism” it was “Calvinism through the lens of Christian Hedonism.” This reflects the fervent belief in Christian Hedonism as “unique,” as The Fundamental Truth; as The Answer to Everything, including racism. But in the end, Christian Hedonism, for all of its lauded benefits, has proved to be no more effective at addressing racism in the church than the “plain old” Reformed tradition itself.
Piper’s 2002 message was republished in article form as “The Sovereignty of God and the Soul Dynamic: God-Centered Thinking and the Black Experience in America, Past and Future,” in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 8/2 (Summer 2004): 24–33 (pdf available here). This “vision” appealed to broader—though predominantly white—evangelical networks.
A decade later, in 2011, Piper reproduced the article again as “Appendix Two” in his book Bloodlines. Though some had started to taste the bitter waters of unresolved white-supremacy in Reformed circles, the issue had not fully metastasized in Piper’s circles yet. Piper was still optimistic as he reflected on his aspirations from a decade earlier: “In the subsequent years [since the 2002 conference], I have some encouragement to believe that the dream it expresses is becoming a reality” (“Appendix Two,” Bloodlines, 241).
Bloodlines is a book devoted to tackling the issues of “Race, Cross, and the Christian,” and one might expect that Piper would directly deal with the glaring issue of “the poison of racist slavery” here, if anywhere, but while Piper does briefly acknowledge it in one section of the book, he treats it in only the most general terms, and again offers shallow solutions. He does not once, for example, make any specific mention of Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding, nor does he make any reference to Robert Lewis Dabney — a white supremacist he had been quoting and recommending for decades.
He does speak in general terms, though, about slavery and racism:
“The point of bringing up Reformed theology is not that its representatives have always been the best examples in its history of how to pursue racial harmony. I gave up looking for perfect heroes a long time ago. Everyone but Jesus lets you down. There have been good models of racial reconciliation among those who do not embrace all of the Reformed faith. And there have been many who embraced much of the Reformed faith who have fallen short.”
Piper, Bloodlines, 130.
That’s it — “no one is perfect.” The brutal horrors of chattel slavery in America?—“not the best examples.”
Nevertheless, Piper thinks that “the truths themselves, when rightly understood and embraced and cherished with a good heart, cut the legs out from under racist attitudes.” My question is — why then, for centuries, did this not happened with Reformed Christians in America? If this “good theology” will “itself” cut the legs out from under racism, why did it so rarely happen? In fact, to the contrary, the most deeply entrenched White Supremacy in the country was often in those places that held most vigorously to “Calvinist orthodoxy.”
Piper knew this, and does acknowledge “the heavily Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity that coexisted with American slavery and the Dutch Reformed church that coexisted with South African apartheid. These two historical realities have tarnished the Reformed Faith” (Bloodlines, 131). But Piper thinks we need to walk a fine line between “honestly admitting the stain but distinguishing between causation and association” (Bloodlines, 132).
Piper reads American history and finds that “the day came when the very Bible, and the very faith, that had once been used to condone slavery was finally seen to undo it” (131). Frankly, I question the historical accuracy of that claim when compared with reality of the Civil War and Emancipation. It was not the Bible that undid slavery, it was War. In fact, as Lincoln famously recognized, in that very war “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” It was not the Bible, or the belief in the sovereignty of God that undid slavery—hence the “theological crisis” so aptly described by Mark Noll and others (see Noll, “The Bible and Slavery,” in Religion and the American Civil War (1998); Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006); John R. McKivigan, The War Against Proslavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches, 1830–1865 (1984)). For Piper to claim that “the very Bible and the very faith that had once been used to condone slavery “was finally seen to undo it” seems like wishful thinking to me.
So as far as treating the record of slavery and white-supremacy in the Reformed tradition, in a nearly 300 page book, that’s it. “No one is perfect”; enslavers, I suppose, are “not the best examples.” In the entire book there is no acknowledgement of Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding, nor of the legacy of White Supremacy that was built into the DNA of the Southern Presbyterian tradition. Robert Lewis Dabney, who had been recommended by Piper for two decades, is not even mentioned in the book, let alone any attempt to remove his poisonous influence from the stream.
It is also deeply ironic to read what he says about the 1960s and segregation, in light of Iain Murray and Banner of Truth’s collaboration with Mississippi segregationists in the 1960s (though it is almost certain that Piper was completely unaware of these things), given Piper’s own partnership with Murray (see ““A Leading Theologian”?: Herman Bavinck on Robert Lewis Dabney”).
Piper opens his introduction to Bloodlines like this: “A book on race written by a baby boomer, who came of age in the 1960s, has to begin with the civil rights movement. It still grips us, defines us, in so many ways… Things were done and said in those days that need to be known by those who weren’t there” (23). Indeed, things were done and said in those days by Iain Murray and the faculty at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson Mississippi that need to be known. When Piper says in the first chapter that “Those who defend the noble spirit of Southern slaveholders by pointing to how nice they were to their slaves, and how deep the affections were, and how they even attended each other’s personal celebrations, seem to be naïve about what makes a relationship degrading”— he could have been talking directly to Iain Murray (see “Dabney was truly a Caleb”: Iain Murray’s biography of Robert Lewis Dabney”) or Douglas Wilson.
Piper could have started the hard, painful, but necessary work of specifically calling out the poison of white supremacy where it lingered in his own Reformed circles. He did not.
“1. Blacks were excluded from Reformed churches. In history, blacks were excluded from white churches where Reformed theology was articulated, as they were from virtually every other kind of white church. This is to our shame. It is not news. Why it happened is a huge issue for another time, but it is utterly relevant to the question. You can’t exclude a whole people from the rigors of weekly Reformed preaching and expect the doctrines to flourish, at least not in the same way they might if seeds of truth are watered every week in that kind of church. That is number one.”
This phrase is telling: “Why it happened is a huge issue for another time, but it is utterly relevant to the question.” Indeed, this is a “huge issue,” it is “utterly relevant,” and yet I am not aware of “another time” when Piper has addressed this. This very question—“why it happened”—has been a burning question for me.
This post has been different that the others in this series. The other posts analyze how and why Piper recommended Dabney repeatedly for decades, acts of commission. This post is the reverse: why did Piper not make any reference to Dabney in the midst of his most energetic efforts for racial reconciliation, a glaring (non)-act of omission. If the predominantly white Reformed theological stream was going to flow alongside the “soul dynamic” of the Black tradition in “a single river,” more work would need to be done. Would it be?
In 1995, John Piper published Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God. The book was widely praised in the Reformed Evangelical world. The 2012 reprint included four pages of blurbs:
“Of all of John Piper’s ‘big books,’ Future Grace has had the biggest impact on my life and ministry.” – Kevin DeYoung
“Future Grace is one of the fundamental building blocks for John Piper’s distinctive message.” – John Frame
“I’m indebted to John Piper and hope many others will read this new edition of Future Grace and benefit from it.” – Joshua Harris
“This book is deeply biblical, passionately practical, and Christ-centered.” – R. Albert Mohler
“This book provides a much-needed key that will help every Christian understand just how to live a joy-filled life that is pleasing to God.” – Wayne Grudem
“Future Grace is one of John Piper’s most theological works, looking in detail at the nature of saving faith; at the same time it is one of his most practical, serving as a wartime manual for fighting the fight of faith. This combination makes it among his most important books.” – Justin Taylor
“There have been two or three books outside of the Bible that have profoundly shaped how I see and understand my relationship with God. When I first read Future Grace in the summer of 1999, it sent my head spinning and my heart soaring. I couldn’t be more excited about this revision.” – Matt Chandler
“Future Grace changed my life, and it can change yours.” – Russell Moore
The book opened with not one, but two introductions. The first explained “Why and How This Book Was Written,” and is introduced by two quotes, John Piper’s mission statement, and a quote from Charles Spurgeon:
The second introduction is titled “For Theologians,” and it too is introduced with a quote — from Robert L. Dabney:
Piper starts this second introduction by saying “Not everyone needs to be this section. But it may be helpful for some if I orient the book in the history and the categories of more formal theology.” The way this is framed illustrates the dynamic I am exploring, namely, “why and how a white-supremacist was promoted to twentieth century white evangelicals.” The Reformed Evangelical movement greatly prizes theology. Countless hours spent thinking, speaking, and writing about theology, getting every jot and tittle just right. Theology is one of the animating principles in the movement — if your theology is “right,” any number of shortcomings can be overlooked, and Robert L. Dabney is a prime example of this.
Notice how Dabney is presented to the reader. For many, this is the first time they will have encountered his name. How will they be introduced? What will be the first impression? The reader will notice that he is included in the section that is not for “everyone,” but is particularly “For Theologians.” An elite class has been presented—not everyone needs to read this, but if you have the intellectual capacity or interest to dig into the “meat” of history and theology, you will find Robert L. Dabney welcoming you at the door.
This second introduction moves into an overview of some historical confessions, the Augsburg Confession, the the First Helvetic Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Westminster Confession. Piper then points to Dabney:
“Numerous other witnesses could be called in to show that the historic viewpoint of the Reformed confessions is that justifying faith is also sanctifying faith. (Footnote 6: See a more extended list of witnesses in Robert L. Dabney, “The Moral Effects of a Free Justification,” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, vol. 1 (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967, orig. 1890), 73–106.
Piper, Future Grace, 21 (2012 edition).
So after appealing to a select few who may be helped by “the history and categories of more formal theology,” Piper points them to where they can dig deeper: Robert L. Dabney.
The quote that Piper used to introduce “For Theologians” is also reproduced later in Future Grace in Chapter 27: “Faith in Future Grace vs. Lust.”
“Robert L. Dabney, the nineteenth-century southern Presbyterian theologian, expressed it like this: “Is it by the instrumentality of faith we receive Christ as our justification, without the merit of any of our works? Well. But this same faith, if vital enough to embrace Christ, is also vital enough to “work by love,” “to purify our hearts.” This then is the virtue of the free gospel, as a ministry of sanctification, that the very faith which embraces the gift becomes an inevitable and a divinely powerful principle of obedience.”
Piper, Future Grace, 332.
In the footnote, readers are again recommended to go read Dabney:
“This quote comes from Dabney’s compelling essay on the necessity of good works (including sexual purity) in the light of free justification by grace through faith.”
“The Moral Effects of a Free Justification”
This “compelling essay,” is titled “The Moral Effects of a Free Justification” and was originally published as a sort of book review in The Southern Review (April 1873): 369–406, and then reprinted in Dabney’s Discussions, Volume 1. In the article, Dabney spends ten pages briefly reviewing four books, and then turns the last twenty pages toward his own exposition of the theme, which is succinctly summed up in the Westminster Confession (§11.2): “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.”
Again, here is how Dabney expresses it:
“…faith, if vital enough to embrace Christ, is also vital enough to “work by love,” “to purify our hearts.” This then is the virtue of the free gospel, as a ministry of sanctification, that the very faith which embraces the gift becomes an inevitable and a divinely powerful principle of obedience.”
Dabney, “Moral Effects,” in Discussions, 1:96.
A little later he goes on to say it like this:
“Thus faith must perform its vital action in both the spheres of obedience and of trust, or it cannot live.”
Dabney, “Moral Effects,” 97.
I should say that doctrinally speaking, I entirely agree with Dabney (and Piper) on this. Genuine faith in Jesus necessarily produces works of love, or, as James puts it, “faith without works is dead.” What is deeply ironic about Dabney’s article, as well as Piper’s appeal to Dabney in particular, is that his life is the most glaring example of brazen, lifelong, unrepentant hatred, both for Black people (see “What’s so Bad about Robert Lewis Dabney?”) as well as Northern Presbyterians (see “Love Your Enemies”?). This doctrine is a powerful truth, but as Thabiti Anyabwile has said:
“If you can support a theological, biblical or ministry claim… without using writers and leaders who were slaveholders, white supremacists, segregationists, misogynists, etc… then you should.”
In fact, appealing to Dabney on this particular point arguably undermines your position. In Dabney, we see an “impeccable” version of Reformed Orthodox Faith, coupled with venomous hatred. Faith, for Dabney, did not work itself out in love.
Though Dabney’s article is focused on the theological question at hand, it is interesting that even here, he uses a uniquely Southern view of slavery (“property in persons”—a common expression in his day), to illustrate a theological point. In explaining how sinners could never earn favor from God with their works, he says this:
The slave did not deem that he had brought his owner in debt by rendering a service which the owner rightfully claimed as property. Hence we have no “condign merit”on which to claim even a restoration to favor.”
Dabney, “Moral Effects,” 87.
From the irony of appealing to a racist to support the doctrine of “faith working through love,” to an illustration drawn from slavery, Piper’s appeal to Dabney was perhaps ill-advised, but like the illustration of George Washington, this too would be repurposed again and again in the years to come.
The TULIP Seminar
Over the years, John Piper delivered a number of weekend seminars at Bethlehem Baptist Church on a variety of topics, including missions, suffering, complementarity, and Calvinism.
One of the seminars is titled TULIP: The Five Points of Calvinism, and the materials from that seminar have been edited and reprinted as a resource for other churches to use as well. In both the “Instructors Guide” (page 138) and the “Student Workbook (page 144), this passage from Future Grace is reprinted, including the quote from Robert Lewis Dabney. The course was also uploaded to The Gospel Coalition as part of their “TGC Courses.” The original posting included four “Downloadable Resources,” including Dabney:
The link to Dabney has since been taken down from TGC’s page, but this is just another thread in understanding “how and why was Dabney recommended to evangelicals”: Piper’s book was influential in its own right; the teaching spread directly to the congregation at Bethlehem Baptist Church through the seminar; it spread still further to other churches through the curriculum; and even further still on TGC’s platform. All of this is part of “how” Dabney was passed along.
John Piper vs. N. T. Wright
A decade later, John Piper would famously take up a literary debate with N. T. Wright, primarily over the issue of justification, and Piper would cite Dabney’s article once again in support of his position. In 2007 he published The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, and chapter 6 is devoted to “The Place of Our Works in Justification.” Piper thought that Wright was dangerously unclear in saying “something like this” (the following was Piper’s paraphrase of Wright’s position):
“In the future at the final court scene, God the Judge will find in our favor on the basis of the works we have done—the life we have lived—and in the present he anticipates that verdict and declares it to be already true on the basis of our faith in Jesus.”
Piper, The Future of Justification, 103.
He critiques Wright’s interpretation of Romans 2:13, and then moves to address a charge made by Wright against the reformed tradition:
“Wright thinks Reformed pastors and scholars do not pay enough attention to the relationship between justification and works. When he spoke at the 2003 Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, he said that there seemed to be ‘a massive conspiracy of silence about something that was quite clear for Paul (as indeed for Jesus).’”
Piper, The Future of Justification, 111.
Piper responds: “Whether there was a conspiracy of silence in Edinburgh, there surely has not been one in the history of Reformed reflection on Scripture, or in the Reformed confessions” (111), and then he surveys a number of them: the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, the Swiss First Helvetic Confession, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, and finally the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is here that he cites Robert L. Dabney:
“Robert L. Dabney puts it this way: “Since the same faith, if vital enough to embrace Christ, is also vital enough to ‘work by love,’ ‘to purify our hearts.’ This, then is the virtue of the free gospel, as a ministry of sanctification, that the very faith which embraces the gift becomes an inevitable and a divinely powerful principle of obedience” (emphasis added). Robert L. Dabney, “The Moral Effects of a Free Justification,” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (London: Banner of Truth, 1967, orig. 1890), 1:96.
Piper, The Future of Justification, 114.
It is telling to stand back and reflect on this. Piper is debating the relationship of works—“works of love”!—to saving faith, and to defend his position, he appeals to a white-supremacist theologian. In a theological dispute over the “inevitability” of works of love flowing out of justification, N. T. Wright is apparently on the wrong side, but Robert Lewis Dabney is enlisted as an ally. These “battle lines” are bewildering! A generation of evangelicals, following Piper’s lead, was led to believe that Wright was the “bad guy,” and I too bought into this for a time, until I began reading Wright for myself, and found in him a remarkable exegete and theologian with a breathtaking grasp of the breadth and depth of Scripture. It’s strange to look back on this now, and realize that among other things we were being told “Wright = dangerous; Dabney = helpful.”
In conclusion, let me reiterate, I thoroughly believe this doctrine: genuine faith necessarily produces works of love. But, to quote Thabiti again, if you don’t have to quote a white-supremacist to make this point, why would you? And I would only add, if you truly love this doctrine, you won’t.
But again, for decades—from 1995 to 2007 and beyond, Dabney was recommended by Piper as a helpful ally in defending this Reformed doctrine. “How did it happen?” We’re increasingly starting to see.
In 1991, John Piper published The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God. The book has been praised highly: “perhaps the most important book that John Piper has written” (D. A. Carson); “If I were on a desert island and could have only three books, in addition to the Bible, I’d choose Desiring God, and The Pleasures of God by John Piper,” (Sam Storms); “Of all of Pastor John’s books, this is the most radical” (Mark Dever); “A rich feast for the serious believer” (John MacArthur). In 1987 Piper had taken a four-day study leave from preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church, and “went to northern Minnesota with my Bible and a concordance.” There he “looked up all the places in the Bible where God’s delights and pleasures and joys are mentioned” and from that study, preached a series of sermons that would then be expanded (“quadrupled in size”) to become this book (“Preface to Volume 2,” in The Collected Works of John Piper).
The Pleasures of God
Chapter 5 of The Pleasures of God is called “The Pleasure of God in Election,” and is the part of the book where Calvinism is expressed most directly. Piper opens by asking:
“Can controversial teachings nurture Christlikeness? Before you answer this question, ask another one: Are there any significant biblical teachings that have not been controversial? I cannot think of even one, let alone the number we all need for the daily nurture of faith… The teaching of Scripture on election has been controversial. But I believe with all my heart that it is precious beyond words.”
Piper, The Pleasures of God, 121, 122 (citations from the 2000 reprint of the 1991 edition).
After articulating the doctrine, Piper then closes the chapter with “seven reasons why this teaching is precious to me and why I believe God has pleasure in it” (143). Reason number four is that “this truth is the good news of a salvation that is not just offered but effected” (145). But this prompts a question:
“It is perfectly legitimate to ask whether this teaching means that the gospel is a sincere expression of compassion to those whom God has not chosen to convict and call and draw to the Son with effectual grace.”
Piper, The Pleasures of God, 145.
In other words, when Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest”—how can this be a sincere invitation, if Jesus knows that the only people who can and will come, are the ones that he has already chosen? It seems that his invitation is insincere.
It is here that Piper recommends 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. His treatment is very detailed and answers many objections that go beyond the scope of this book. I will simply give the essence of the solution which seems to me to be on the right track, though he, as well as I, would admit we do not ‘furnish an exhaustive explanation of this mystery of the divine will.’”
If God makes proposals of mercy to men, who he foresees will certainly reject them and perish, and whom he immutably purposes to leave without effectual calling, how can his power and wisdom be cleared, save at the expense of his sincerity? or his sincerity at the expense of his wisdom or power? This is obviously the point in the Reformed or Augustinian theology most difficult of adjustment.”
Dabney, “Indiscriminate Proposals,” in Discussions, 1:282.
Dabney’s article is over thirty pages long, but Piper focuses in particular on “an analogy from the life of George Washington,” in which Washington felt genuine reluctance and pity to condemn a man to death, but due to “a complex of superior judgments… of wisdom, duty, patriotism, and moral indignation” made the choice to do so anyway (Piper, 147–148). Piper, citing Dabney, applies the analogy to God:
“there can be, in a noble and great heart (even a divine heart), sincere compassion for a criminal that is nevertheless not set free. Therefore I affirm that God loves the world with a deep compassion that desires their salvation; yet I also affirm that he has chosen from before the foundation of the world whom he will save from sin.”
Piper, The Pleasures of God, 149–50.
Piper heavily cites Dabney throughout this section, including a footnote that takes up nearly the entire page, an editorial decision that draws particular attention to Dabney. In addition to the analogy itself, Piper quotes lengthy excerpts from Dabney, defending the analogy from various objections posed against it. In all, this entire section of the chapter (“Reason #4”) is basically devoted to Robert Lewis Dabney.
George Washington and Major André
I was unfamiliar with the incident cited by Dabney—the story of George Washington and Major André—so I followed Dabney’s reference to “Chief Justice Marshall’s ‘Life of Washington,’” and found Justice John Marshall’s multi-volume biography, Life of George Washington, originally published 1803–1805. The chapter telling the story of Washington and André can be found here. The story is a real life spy thriller, and is fascinating in its own right.
Major John André was “an aid-de-camp of Sir Henry Clinton, and adjutant general of the British army” (Marshall, The Life of George Washington, 3:256). As Benedict Arnold began his efforts to betray the Americans to the British, André “was selected as the person to whom the maturing of Arnold’s treason, and the arrangements for its execution should be entrusted” (Marshall, 256–57). Arnold and André arranged an in-person meeting in order for Arnold to pass along sensitive information regarding West Point, and they would have gotten away with it but for a series of unfortunate events that led to André’s capture. The whole episode is fascinating. Arnold escaped, but André didn’t, and since he was a spy, the verdict was decreed that he “ought to suffer death” (261). Major André wanted to die with honor, but the Americans determined an example needed to be made of this British officer:
André was deeply affected by the mode of execution which the laws of war decree to persons in his situation. He wished to die like a soldier, not as a criminal. To obtain a mitigation of his sentence in this respect, he addressed a letter to General Washington, replete with the feelings of a man of sentiment and honour. But the occasion required that the example should make its full impression, and this request could not be granted.
The general officers lamented the sentence which the usages of war compelled them to pronounce ; and never perhaps did the Commander- in-chief obey with more reluctance the stern mandates of duty and policy. The sympathy excited among the American officers by his fate, was as universal as it is unusual on such occasions; and proclaims alike the merit of him who suffered, and the humanity of those who inflicted the punishment.
Great exertions were made by Sir Henry Clinton, to whom André was particularly dear, first, to have him considered as protected by a flag of truce, and afterwards, as a prisoner of war.
Marshall, Life of Washington, 262–62.
John André was executed October 2, 1780.
Interestingly, the Americans viewed the whole episode as an act of Providence:
When the probable consequences of this plot, had it been successful, were considered, and the combination of apparent accidents by which it was discovered and defeated, was recollected, all were filled with awful astonishment; and the devout perceived in the transaction, the hand of Providence guiding America to independence.
Marshall, Life of Washington, 266.
Dabney on Washington
Marshall’s descriptions of Washington are much more sparse than Dabney’s. Dabney takes Marshall’s sketch and elaborates and expands on what Washington must have been thinking and feeling, and it is these expansions that become the substance of his analogy for God. In understanding what motivated Dabney to do this with Washington, it’s instrutive to take a step back and consider the many occasions that Dabney referred to George Washington in the rest of his writings.
For starters, Washington, like Dabney, was a Virginian, and Virginians had great pride in their heritage. Thomas Cary Johnson, Dabney’s biographer, notes this connection:
“Robert Lewis Dabney was the product of a phase of our Southern civilization peculiarly fitted for the development of many-sided and great men… It was no accident that Washington was the preëminent man of Revolutionary times in military talent, nor that the Colony of Virginia furnished so many of the civil leaders of distinguished prowess in the same period.”
When Dabney was writing his Lost Cause biography of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson (published 1867), he frequently compared him to Washington as a way of illustrating what he considered to be Jackson’s highest virtues. In one passage he considers Jackson, Oliver Cromwell, and George Washington:
To liken Jackson to Cromwell is far more incorrect… In place of harboring Cromwell’s selfish ambition, which, under a veil of a religiousness that perhaps concealed it from himself, grew to the end, and fixed the foulest stain upon his memory, Jackson crucified the not ignoble thirst for glory which animated his youth, until his abnegation of self became as pure and magnanimous as that of Washington.
Dabney’s biography of Jackson is littered with these kinds of phrases:
“the ability of his [Jackson’s] mind displayed itself, as in Washington, by the practical skill with which he handled everything which claimed his attention.”
“the Federal Government ought to continue what it was in the purer days of Washington and Jefferson.”
“Washington, and his illustrious associates of the Convention of 1787.”
Dabney, Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson), 118, 126, 132.
Even Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy calls upon the figure of George Washington. In his “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes” (1867), he argues against Black pastors being granted equal status in his Presbyterian denomination because of the horror of racial “amalgamation”:
“He must be ‘innocent’ indeed who does not see whither all this tends, as it is designed by our oppressors to terminate. It is (shall I pronounce the abhorred word?) to amalgamation !Yes, sir, these tyrants [“the negro and his allies”] 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.”
Later, Dabney appeals to George Washington in his appeal for Christian nationalism in his essay on “Secularized Education” (1878):
“Last, let Washington be heard, in his farewell address, where he teaches that the virtue of the citizens is the only basis for social safety, and that the Christian religion is the only adequate basis for virtue.”
Dabney, in Discussions, 4:283.
Dabney revered George Washington, his fellow slave-holding Virginian, as a model of American Christianity, patriotism, and virtue. It makes sense that he would appeal to this episode from Washington’s life, and expand upon it to create an illustration of the character of God.
Back to Dabney’s essay “Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” here are his descriptions of George Washington in full:
We have seen how wisdom, justice, and patriotism in Washington’s breast strove with and mastered the pity which pleaded for the life of the spy who had nearly ruined America. But the majestic calmness of that great man did not desert him. Had a weaker nature been called upon to perform the painful duty of signing that death-warrant he would have shown far more agitation… But this would not have proved a deeper compassion than Washington’s The cause of the difference would have been in this, that Washington’s was a grander and wiser as well as a more feeling soul.”
“Who does not perceive these good ends: that the virtue and philanthropy of him who was to be the great pattern of American manhood might have their appropriate manifestation; that the claims of the divine attribute of pity might be illustrated for us all in our provocations by the homage of a Washington; that the unavoidable rigors of war might be mitigated so far as justice allowed”.
Dabney, “Indiscriminate Proposals,” 298, 305.
George Washington—“the great pattern of American manhood.” Even the most abstract of theological questions like the one Dabney is considering cannot be separated from one’s historical context, including notions of patriotism, masculinity, and virtue, and the national heroes that are deemed representatives of these ideals. It was because Dabney revered his fellow Virginian Washington that he found in him a fitting analogy to attempt to illustrate the very character of God.
One other interesting feature of “Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” is the illustration that Dabney draws from his experience as a Confederate soldier:
“This truth should be familiar to the Calvinist, but it may not be amiss to make it clear. A wise commander has his army in the presence of the invader. He has been regularly guarding his approaches by keeping one regiment from each five out as pickets of twenty-four hours. The duty is full of hardship and danger…”
Dabney, “Indiscriminate Proposals,” 299–300.
I can’t find an episode in Dabney’s biography of Jackson that fits this description, so perhaps it is completely fictional, drawn from the common experience of Civil War soldiers out on “the pickets” awaiting the approach of the enemy. Even an incidental illustration like this shows how the life experience of a Confederate soldier and seminary professor is not separate from, but is indeed drawnmaterially into the articulation of his theology.
Reprinted Again, and Again, and Again, and Again
This reference to Dabney is (by my count) the most often repeated in all of Piper’s works. This section of The Pleasures of God (published in 1991) was reprinted in a blog post on Desiring God’s website in 1995 (“Are There Two Wills in God?: Divine Election and God’s Desire for All to Be Saved“). In 1995, Piper also reprinted this material as his contribution to the edited volume Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, edited by Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware. Piper’s chapter “Are There Two Wills in God?” appeared alongside contributions by Robert Yarbrough, Tom Schreiner, Wayne Grudem, D.A. Carson, J. I. Packer, Jerry Bridges, and Edmund Clowney, and includes everything from this section of The Pleasures of God, including the page-length Dabney footnote.
In 2013, the material was reprinted yet again as a standalone booklet (John Piper, Does God Desire All to be Saved?) with the Dabney material appearing on 48–53. The material for this edition was slightly revised, and the lengthy footnote was edited to become part of the body of the text, with a short paragraph on Calvin inserted into the middle.
Is George Washington a fitting analogy for God? I’m not so sure. To get there, you must join Dabney in his deep love and reverence for George Washington, that “great pattern of American manhood,” loading all of your ideals of virtue and manhood into this national figure. Should John Piper have known more about Dabney before quoting his article in 1991? Perhaps: Piper knew enough about Dabney to introduce him to his readers as “a Presbyterian minister and theological professor whose writings have proved helpful for over a century.” For me, any time I know an American theologian lived through slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, I am immediately interested to know where they stood on those issues. Apparently, Piper didn’t feel the same way. To see Dabney’s portrayal of Washington in full, Piper would have needed to read widely in Dabney, including his biography of Stonewall Jackson, and his “Ecclesiastical Equality” to see just how much freight Dabney was loading onto his portrayal of Washington. And in the end, historical context wasn’t the point, the point was to defend Calvinism, and Dabney was the best he could find.
From 1991 to 2013, Piper commended this article of Dabney’s as “the most helpful explanation I know of.” Who can tell what this consistent endorsement did for Dabney’s reputation among reformed evangelicals?
The first reference to Robert Lewis Dabney in the works of John Piper appears in his dissertation Love Your Enemies: Jesus’s Love Command in the Synoptic Gospels and the Early Christian Paraenesis. Published in 1979 by Cambridge University Press, it was originally written between 1972 and 1974 in Germany (The Collected Works of John Piper Vol. 1, 11). As in many dissertations, this reference is contained in a passing footnote that appears to be a result of a “survey of the literature.” Piper had been reviewing what the Dead Sea Scrolls had to say about “enemies.” The Qumran community seems to have developed a “side of the Old Testament seen in Psalms 69:21–28; 109; 139:19–22,” the “imprecatory Psalms.” This could have been a result of their view of “election”: “From God’s absolute election follows the clear division of those to be loved and those to be hated.” The footnote falls in this section and reads as follows:
The early Christian teachers would probably have disputed that such a development from these psalms was necessary or proper. Both Paul (rom. 11:9, 10 = Ps. 69:22, 23) and Luke (Acts 1:20 = Ps. 69:25) are able to see in the imprecatory psalms the decrees of God rather than the mere vindictiveness of an individual. Cf. J. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2:74; R. L. Dabney, Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (London: Banner of Truth, 1967), 1:706–21; C Martin, “Imprecations in the Psalms,” PTR 1 (1903): 537–53.
John Piper, Love Your Enemies, in The Collected Works of John Piper, 1:93.
Banner of Truth had just reprinted Dabney’s Discussions (see Dabney’s article here) five years prior (in 1967), and apparently it was accessible and part of the literature review required in Piper’s dissertation.The bare reference is all there is, with no discussion, and no commentary.
“The only remedy is just vengeance”
The piece by Dabney, though, is interesting in its own right. It was an article entitled “The Christian’s Duty Towards His Enemies,” and had been originally published in The Southern Presbyterian Review in December 1866, shortly after the Civil War. Dabney had himself fought in the Civil War alongside Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and the fall of the Confederacy “was epochal” in Dabney’s life. Thomas Cary Johnson, Dabney’s biographer, describes how bitterly Dabney resented this loss and the subsequent Reconstruction. In a letter apparently written July 1864, Dabney (ironically) expresses that the Federal government had reduced the South to the status of “slaves,” and that the answer is “vengeance”:
The [Virginia state] government, by its non-retaliatory and defensive system, is permitting the person at Washington to educate the Southern people into Oriental slaves. A little more such suffering unavenged, and their hearts, once so heroic, will be tamed for the yoke. The only remedy is to give the people just vengeance. They must be permitted and encouraged to react against their aggressors, with an active resistance as fiery and intense as their wrongs are aggravated.”
For Dabney, this sense of “oppression” and “injustice” had specifically racialized terms:
In 1865, and on into the seventies [note: the eighties as well], he loathed with all the strength of an honest man whose very life it was to love the good and hate the wrong, as he saw it. To be governed and to know that his beloved country was governed by aliens, was as the bitterness of death. To be governed by the semi-civilized freemen, which his prophetic soul saw was to follow on the cessation of the government by the army of invaders, was worse.”
Particularly horrid was the prospect of Black people voting:
“Universal suffrage, which he had always hated and fought, is coming, he sees. And slaves, of an inferior race, under the leadership of the vilest men, are to have the power of voting, till, in the words of another strong man, ‘that dirty chimney shall be burnt out.’ The seats of power once graced by Virginia’s noblest sons are to be trampled through by these. They are to dispense justice! In this hour of awful stress some of Virginia’s sons will go over to the oppressors.”
Johnson describes this period as setting the tone for the rest of Dabney’s life:
He thought of the invaders of the South as he had always thought of them; he thought of her subjugators and new sovereigns according to the truth. Henceforth, for long years, he is to be a grimmer man, with less in the world to love. The iron had entered his soul.
There is no measuring his sense of chagrin and indignation, degradation and woe, at the issue. His spirit was unconquerable. He believed that infidelity, usurpation and oppression had triumphed.”
One of Dabney’s students at Union Theological Seminary gives an illustration of this:
During the war and its aftermath of reconstruction, he became so embittered by the ruthless methods of Federal officers like Sheridan and Sherman, and the efforts of Congress to impose Negro rule on the South that he almost went off his mental balance. Being once taken to task for the violence of his denunciation of these leaders, he made no reply, but preached the following Sunday on the text, “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee?”
Samuel Hall Chester, Memories of Four-Score Years (1934), 77.
“The Christian’s Duty Towards His Enemies”
This is the context for Dabney’s article, and as such, it reads as a theological expression of his bitterness and hatred for the North. He starts the article by saying that the “Christian’s duty towards his enemies” is “a duty whose ‘metes and bounds’ are ill understood by many of the people of God.” Specifically, some “afflict themselves with compunctions for and vain endeavors against feelings which are both proper and natural to us as rational beings” (706). This “embarrassment is increased by the current opinion that there is an inconsistency between the teachings and examples of the Old Testament and the New upon this subject.” Some read the imprecatory Psalms, for example (Psalm 35, 39, 109, 137, 139) but then turn to the Sermon on the Mount, and “thereupon imagine a discrepancy, if not a contradiction between them, and adopt the mischievous conclusion that the two Testaments contain different codes of Christian ethics.” He admits that the Old Testament “stops short of that fulness of detail to which the New Testament afterwards proceeded. But while there is a difference in degrees of fulness, there can be no contrariety” (707). For Dabney, to downplay the Old Testament treatment of “enemies” in favor of the New, is to move dangerously toward rejecting the authority and inspiration of Scripture.
Dabney ridicules his modern age, which had “witnessed a whole spawn of religionists, very rife and rampant in some parts of the church, who pretentiously declared themselves the apostles of a lovelier Christianity than that of the sweet Psalmist of Israel. His ethics were entirely too vindictive and barbarous for them, forsooth; and they, with their Peace Societies, and new lights, would teach the world a milder and more beneficent code!” (709).
Dabney then moves to a scholastic discussion of the distinctions between resentment, moral indignation, moral disapprobation, the judgment of demerit, and when each is warranted. He distinguishes “three elements of offence”: personal loss, guilt, and moral defilement, and the remedy for each. For moral defilement, the remedy is repentance; for guilt, the cross of Christ; the remedy for personal loss is “reparation” (717–18). Interestingly, this demand for “repentance” would be made by Dabney in 1874 as a requirement for reunion with Northern Presbyterians—they must repent of saying that slavery was a sin and that the Confederacy was rebellion, or else he would not forgive (Johnson, LLD, 374).
Dabney concludes the article by asserting this: “To resist wrong within the lawful limits, or to evade the power of the oppressor when resistance is no longer feasible, may be the first obligation which man owes to his own virtue” (721). This language of “oppressor” is consistent with Dabney’s regular use of the terms oppressor and oppression when describing the United States federal government, and it seems clear that these are the “enemies” that he has in mind in this article (see for example Johnson, LLD, 212, 226, 229, 288, 293, 294, 300, 301, 302, 305, etc.)
What Dabney expressed in this article in 1866 set the stage for for decades of bitter resistance to any fellowship with Northern Christians well into the 1880s. For example, in 1870 Dabney would wield his influence in his Southern Presbyterian General Assembly to oppose “fraternal relations” with Presbyterians from the North. He had been appointed Moderator of the General Assembly, and several representatives from the North were visiting with the “olive branch” extended. After a number of speeches that seemed amenable to the idea, Dabney finally took the floor and reflected later that “I felt that I must just let myself loose. It was a fight for life or death” Dabney expressed his opposition like this:
“I do not profess to be as good as some people; I hear brethren saying it is time to forgive. Mr. Chairman, I do not forgive. I do not try to forgive. What! forgive these people, who have invaded our country, burned our cities, destroyed our homes, slain our young men, and spread desolation and ruin over our land! No, I do not forgive them.”
Interestingly, just a few sections later in Piper’s dissertation, he comments on Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:15: “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Piper elaborates further:
“the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23–35) makes explicit a principle which underlies Jesus’ command to forgive and love: the forgiveness and love of God precedes the servant’s forgiveness of his brother. Therefore loving one’s enemies is not the test by which one proves to God that he is worthy to be forgiven and accepted into the Kingdom; the reverse is the case: God first forgives and accepts in order that a man through faith in his acceptance may pass the test of loving his enemies. When Jesus calls for a man to love those who do not love him, he is not calling for heroes who, by the sheer will to self-surrender, act for the good of others. He is calling for insecure and self-indulgent children to trust their Father and thus find the security and gladness which will enable them to take patiently whatever pain or humiliation may come from loving their enemies. Having his own longings satisfied in God’s acceptance, the disciple is freed to satisfy the longings even of his enemy. But a man who does not love his enemy will not enter into the Kingdom of God: a good tree cannot bear evil fruit (Matt 7:18; cf. 24:12–13).
Piper, Love Your Enemies, 122–23.
One can only wonder what Piper would say of Dabney in light of Jesus’s words, and this analysis of them.
Dabney’s article on “The Christian’s Duty Toward His Enemies” is not an abstract theological treatise—it relates directly to his life and the context of his hatred for Northern Presbyterians. Let me say again, that I am not saying that Piper is at fault for not knowing this context and for not including it in his dissertation. It was a single reference in a footnote, after all! But this instance does illustrate the way that historical context is crucial to interpreting an author. When you ignore historical context, and focus only on the abstract theological ideas presented, you will miss information that is important for properly understanding a person’s work and the role that it played in their context.
“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:
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.