John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney

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

John Piper, The Pleasures of God

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

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

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

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

Piper and Dabney?

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

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

The Digital Age

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

A Note on Indexes

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

Next Post: 2. “Love Your Enemies”?

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

In April and May 1851, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898), a Presbyterian pastor in Tinkling Spring, Virginia, published eleven letters in the Richmond Enquirer on “The Moral Character of Slavery.” The letters have been referenced in handful of articles and books, but the letters themselves have never been accessible, other than in newspaper archives. Here, for the first time, is a transcription of nine of these letters, with footnotes added indicating the sources that Dabney interacts with. (Two of the letters, from May 6, 1851, remain elusive):

Originals

PDF files of the original issues of the Richmond Enquirer are available on the Library of Congress’s “Chronicling America” site here: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024735/issues/1851/

Context

Robert Lewis Dabney (1862)

Dabney started pastoring at Tinkling Spring, Virginia, in 1847 at the age of 27. He started writing for newspapers and periodicals, publishing sermons, letters, and articles in 1848. His biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, notes that he “found time for special study along chosen lines” and had been purchasing a number of books for that study (Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 127). Among the books cited in the letters are Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1812), Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution: In a Correspondence Between the Rev. Richard Fuller of Beaufort, S. C., and the Rev. Francis Wayland, of Providence, R. I. (1847), and Moses Stuart, Conscience and the Constitution: With Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster in the Senate of the United States on the Subject of Slavery (1850).

Quite a bit was happening in 1850–51. In September 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act had been passed, which law which had the support of Northern moderates, but which alarmed abolitionists and resulted in intensified activism amongst those engaged in the fight for liberation. In June 1851, a month after Dabney’s letters were published, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin would begin to appear in serialized form in newspapers. 

In January 1851, Dabney wrote a letter to his brother Charles on slavery, feeling that “the ethical character of the relation of slavery ought to be vindicated before the great public” (LLD, 128). Charles shared the letter(s?) with the editor of the Richmond Enquirer, who “expressed his great readiness to have the suggested articles.” In all, eleven articles were published in April and May 1851, signed by the pen name “Chorepiscopus,” a transliteration of the Greek for “Country Bishop.” Johnson notes that this was the name that “most of his contributions in the Watchman and Observer, also, had appeared” (LLD, 128), and Morton Smith includes a nearly complete list of articles and letters written by Dabney, signed “Chorepiscopus,” and notes that these are “identified by a manuscript list of his publications in the Union Seminary Library” (Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology, 340).

I can’t find any evidence of anyone responding directly to Dabney’s articles at the time. The editors of the Enquirer puffed them like this: “We commend these admirable letters to the people of the South as well as the North. The arguments, if circulated and studied, must do much to pierce the film of prejudice and error, and strengthen the bulwarks of Southern Rights” (preface to Letter 1). As the last letter was published, the editors said this: “We today conclude the philosophical and truly able Nos. of our accomplished correspondent. We trust that our readers appreciate, as highly as we do, the force and truth of his lucid arguments and masterly array of facts, which will do more to throw a shield of protection around the institutions of the South than all the schemes of the South Carolina disunionsts” (Letter 11). Johnson credits Dabney’s letters published in these papers as helping to build Dabney’s reputation in Virginia Presbyterian circles: “These articles, and others which he published in this period, gave him a well-deserved reputation for vigor and learning, as well as for sound conservatism. They no doubt served to show the church, and especially the Synods of Virginia and North Carolina, his fitness for service as a professor in the Seminary at Hampden-Sidney” (LLD, 130). Indeed, just two years later Dabney was offered the chair of Ecclesiastical History and Polity at Union Theological Seminary, thus beginning Dabney’s thirty year tenure (1853–1883), serving also as professor of Theology for many of those years.

Thirteen years later, in 1863, these letters would serve as the basis for Dabney’s full-throated A Defence of Virginia: (And Through Her, of the South). Johnson again describes the process: “Securing a copy of his articles on slavery, published in the Enquirer, he revised, recast, and enlarged them” (LLD, 273). Indeed, what amounts to around 50–60 pages of material in 1851 was expanded to over 350 pages. Nevertheless, almost everything found in the letters in 1851 remains as the foundation in 1863 (though the book would not actually be published until 1867).

These letters are significant in studies of Dabney, especially as a slight correction to the portrayal of the development of his thought. Some have pointed to the Civil War as a turning point in Dabney’s life, and Johnson says that the fall of the Confederacy was “epochal in Dr. Dabney’s life” (LLD, 292).  One does indeed note a sharp bitterness in Dabney after the Civil War that never goes away, but without accounting for these letters, a full decade before the war, one can make too much of this. For example, Sean Michael Lucas points out a contradiction in Dabney’s views between 1840 and 1867, noting that Dabney had “willingly recognized” the abuses of slavery at the earlier date (see his letter to Mr. G. Woodson Payne, in LLD, 67), but that “by the time he wrote Defense of Virginia, he saw these abuses as unimportant or generally nonexistent, contradicting his earlier opinions” (Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 125–26). There is certainly a marked contrast between 1840 and 1867. Yet, Lucas groups Dabney’s 1851 views with his earlier views, citing a small section of a letter quoted in the Johnson biography (LLD, 128–29) but not interacting at all with the letters themselves. The full context of the letters published in the Enquirer shows that Dabney’s views in 1851 are fully in line with his views in 1867, and are themselves in sharp contrast with what he says in 1840. In other words, the shift came much earlier than the Civil War.

J. Albert Harrill makes a similar assessment when referencing one of Dabney’s pro-slavery arguments in Defence of Virginia, describing it as tinged with “post-Civil War racism and resentment of the abolition of slavery” (“The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate,” 170). Dabney’s argument is this: “This [abolitionist] hypothesis represents that Saviour who claimed omniscience, as adopting a policy which was as futile as dishonest. He forbore the utterance of any express testimony against the sin of slaveholding, say they [the abolitionists], leaving the church to find it out by deduction from general principles of equity” (Defence of Virginia, 203, in Harrill, “The Use of the New Testament,” 170). Yet, this very argument was used by Dabney in his 1851 letters (Letter 7), a full decade before the Civil War and emancipation. The venomous racism was fully present pre-Civil War, and the resentment over abolitionism grew from a full-hearted opposition to it beforehand.

Dabney’s racism and white-supremacy are on full display in these letters, and in fact, they may be the earliest record of his views that we have. He later puts his white-supremacy on full display in the aftermath of the Civil War as he bitterly fought against the efforts of Reconstruction (see “What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?“), but these letters move the record of his strong racial views up into his earliest chapter of ministry, before even his appointment to professor of theology at Union. Reading through the letters, one can see the breadth of Dabney’s whole-hearted support for slavery, and its roots in venomous white-supremacy. This was no “blind spot” for him—it was foundational to his entire ideology, intellectual, theological, spiritual, philosophical, and political.

(Note: for brief commentary on each of the letters, see Part 2: “Worse than Questionable”: Commentary on Dabney’s 1851 Letters on Slavery.

Additional reading:

Carrigan, William D. “In Defense of the Social Order: Racial Thought among Southern White Presbyterians in the Nineteenth Century.” American Nineteenth Century History 1.2 (2000): 31–52.

Giles, Kevin. “The Biblical Argument for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead? A Case Study in Hermeneutics.” The Evangelical Quarterly 66 (1994): 3–17 (available here).

Harrill, J Albert. “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate.” Religion and American Culture 10.2 (2000): 149–86 (available on JSTOR).

Lucas, Sean Michael. Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005).

Maddex, Jack P. “Proslavery Millennialism: Social Eschatology in Antebellum Southern Calvinism.” American Quarterly 31.1 (1979): 46–62 (available on JSTOR).