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

“Those who knew him [Robert Lewis Dabney] best loved him most. His career was a distin­guished one; his contributions to the theological sciences are of the first order; his services to the Presbyterian Churches are inestimable: may not only his memory remain green, but his influence be increased through the coming years!”

Benjamin B. Warfield (1901)

Benjamin Breckinridge has been praised for being an outspoken opponent of racism during his time. How did this alleged “prophetic voice” on race in the Presbyterian churches, also endorse one of the most notorious Presbyterian racists of his time? The answer to that question complicates the popular reputation of Warfield as “a stalwart opposer of racism,” and may require (some of) us to adjust our estimations of him.

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851–1921) was professor of theology at Princeton Seminary from 1887 to 1921. In his lifetime he saw the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, and in a denomination with a long history with race and slavery, Warfield had ample opportunities to speak to issues of racism in the church.

In 2018, Fred Zaspel published an article titled, “Reversing the Gospel: Warfield on Race and Racism,” the abstract of which is that: 

“The giant of Old Princeton, B. B. Warfield, outspokenly condemned the racism and rigid segregation of American society of his day. His views were remarkably ahead of his time with regard to an understanding of the evil of racism and even somewhat prophetic with regard to the further evil that would result from it.”

“Reversing the Gospel,” 25.

Reading Zaspel’s account, one gets a very rosy picture of Warfield: 

“Social causes crop up only very seldom in his works, but one social cause stands out as one holding his particular interest: the cause of the American blacks. His literary output here was not extensive, to be sure, but it was pointed, revealing a deep sense of urgency about the issue.”

“Reversing the Gospel,” 25.

“in his condemning of racial pride Warfield was generations ahead of his time.”

“Reversing the Gospel,” 27.

“The plight of the freedmen and their children as Warfield presents it—as “virtually subjects and not citizens, peasants instead of freedmen,” though seven million of Americas then fifty million souls—is disturbingly revealing. “Wicked caste” was not at all overstating the case, Warfield insisted, and when he took up this cause he must have seemed a voice virtually alone.”

“Reversing the Gospel,” 28.

“Warfield’s convictions were ahead of his time. He was a needed corrective for his day whose voice was certainly not heeded enough. And he serves as a guide for us still today.”

“Reversing the Gospel,” 33.

“A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case”

“Twenty-First Annual Report of the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen” (1886)

Warfield served on the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America’s “Board of Missions for Freedmen” from 1885–1890 (see The Presbyterian Monthly Record of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America(1885), 328; The Presbyterian Monthly Record(1886), 321; Board of Missions for Freedmen twenty-second annual report, presented May 1887, 2). While on the Board, Warfield penned the only article on racial issues that he attached his name to, “A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case” (in The Church At Home and Abroad (1887)). In it he reflects on the condition of Black people (“Freedmen”) in American now twenty years after the Civil War, and ten years after the collapse of Reconstruction. Warfield reflects on slavery, and the duty of Christians to rise to the occasion to help Black people at this time.

James Moorhead calls the article “a curious mixture of paternalism, rationalization, and condescension on the one hand and, on the other, a realization of the evil of slavery’s systemic legacy and a fervent hope for a more egalitarian future” (Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture (2012), 253).

The only hint that Zaspel gives us that all might not be perfectly well with Warfield is this: “some could argue that we find even in Warfield traces of paternalistic sentiments that still bound him to his day” (33). Indeed, the article contains such lines as these:

“The southern slaveholders did what they could to teach a true Christianity to their slaves, and the results attained by them, which, all things considered, are nothing less than marvellous, are the sufficient proof not only of their own vital and yearning piety, but also of the strenuousness of their efforts to indoctrinate the souls which were in their charge with the truths of religion… When we grieve over the odd divorce of religion and morality which is so frequently met with among the blacks, let us not indeed blame the slaveholders for it, as if their Christian teaching was at fault, but let us equally remember that slavery itself is re­sponsible for it. I do not forget what contact with Christian masters of a higher race has done for the thousands of heathen savages which were being continually landed on our shores, up to the very outbreak of the war itself. Let any one simply compare the aver­ age self-respecting negro in America with the naked savage of the African forests, and thank God for the marvellous change.”

“A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case,” 62.

In the article, Warfield does oppose what he called the “spirit of caste” (64, 65), but even here he qualifies it:

“a caste which we cannot call unnatural when all the circumstances are taken into consideration, and which I should be one of the last too sharply to blame the South for entertaining…”

“A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case,”64.

Warfield’s mixed record and paternalism was acknowledged as early as 1983 (see W. Andrew Hoffecker, “Benjamin B. Warfield,” in Reformed Theology in America ed. David F. Wells, 83 n. 35) and Bradley Gundlach’s article, “Wicked Caste”: B. B. Warfield, Biblical Authority, and Jim Crow” (available on JSTOR), does an excellent job of exploring Warfield’s mixed record on race, and his “paternalistic sense of duty” to address Jim Crow in the Presbyterian church.

“Drawing the Color Line”

In “A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case,” Warfield addressed the positive role he saw for the church, and he put his name on it. Interestingly, the other article that is usually cited to prove Warfield’s opposition to racism was published anonymously, “Drawing the Color Line: A Fragment of History” by a “Disinterested Spectator” in the Independent (1888) (the original article can be found here). Gundlach gives the backstory to this article:

Warfield’s second anti-segregationist article, “Drawing the Color Line,” appeared in the liberal-tending New York religious newspaper, the Independent in July 1888. A note in one of his scrapbooks indicates that he wrote the piece for the New Princeton Review, but it was rejected there as being too strong… Warfield wrote forcefully against the sin of racism in society and the churches, but this time [in the Independent] chose to do so anonymously.”

“Wicked Caste,” 39.

In “Drawing the Color Line,” Warfield commented on a move to unite the northern and southern Presbyterian churches, a move that was having difficulty because of “the Negro question.”:

The Southern Presbyterian newspapers were practically unanimous in the assertion that the Church which they represented could never consent to reunion unless pledges were given that the colored churches should be organized into a separate denomination… At the recent meeting of the General Assembly at Philadelphia, it declared “its hearty approval of the general principles enunciated in the replies of the Committee to the inquiries propounded by our Southern brethren, as furnishing substantially a reflection of the views of this body touching the several subjects to which they relate.” Thus the whole Presbyterian Church, in both its branches, stands as fully committed to the color line as the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. 

“Drawing the Color Line,” 4.

Bradley Gundlach comments on the dynamic between Warfield and Robert Lewis Dabney. Throughout the 1880s, Dabney advocated strenuously against reunion between the Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches, becauseo f his racist views of Black pastors (see, for example Dabney, “The Atlanta Assembly and Fraternal Relations”). In fact, at the very time that Warfield was writing his articles, Dabney’s biographer Thomas Cary Johnson notes that “he [Dabney] wrote… a famous broadside in the Central Presbyterian, in 1887, against Fraternal Relations” (note: I have been unable to locate this “famous broadside”). Thus from opposite sides, Dabney and Warfield opposed the more “moderate” move toward reunification which entailed “overlooking” the issues of race that still permeated the Presbyteries. Gundlach reflects on this:

“It was bad enough when slaveholders in antebellum days had argued that slavery was necessary to the preservation of Southern (and even Christian) society; now Southern leaders were adding the vitriol of positive hatred for blacks, and cloaking it in a misguided notion of social need. Here Warfield may have had in mind the arguments of Robert Lewis Dabney, a fine ally in matters of conservative religious doctrine, but an outspoken racist and segregationist as well. It is striking that Warfield never took overt notice of the well-publicized social agenda of this otherwise sturdy doctrinal ally in a sister church. Here he impugns Dabney’s cause without confronting him by name, possibly preferring not to get embroiled in a print war on this topic. This may in fact explain his decision to make the article anonymous.”

“Wicked Caste,” 40.

Gundlach notes the cost for Warfield in doctrinal terms:

“That Warfield stood opposed to reunion with the Southern church and the likes of R. L. Dabney, which might be expected to prove staunch allies in the brewing fight with theological liberalism, shows just how strongly he felt about the issue of racism.” 

Wicked Caste,” 41.

So, even while opposing racism in the Presbyterian church, Warfield refrained from calling Dabney out by name. This selective silence would repeat itself again in future decades.

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church

Warfield’s two articles from 1887 and 1888 (plus one short poem, “Wanted–A Samaritan,” again, published anonymously under the pseudonym “Nicholas Worth, Jr.” in 1907) are all that we have from Warfield on race in his voluminous writings. There were many occasions that he could have addressed racism, Jim Crow, and lynching over the years, but the issue hit close to home again in 1904 when the southern Cumberland Presbytery sought union with the PCUSA, but one of the conditions was to allow segregated churches, something the PCUSA had not done before. This was spelled out explicitly in the plan for union, as the very first Recommendation:

“1. It is recommended that such a change be made in the Form of Government of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America as will allow additional or separate Presbyteries and Synods to be organized in exceptional cases, wholly or in part, within the territorial bounds of existing Presbyteries or Synods respectively, for a particular race or nationality, if desired by such a race or nationality.”

Minutes of the General Assembly of the  Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1904), 138.

This particular clause set off a chorus of opposition, particularly from Black pastors in the PCUSA. However, Warfield chose not to speak to this issue. He opposed union with the Cumberland Presbytery, but his reasons were doctrinal—because they were Arminians (see Warfield, “Ecclesiastical Note: The Proposed Union with the Cumberland Presbyterians,” The Princeton Theological Review (1904): 295–316.

Mark Noll comments on this:

“Warfield’s comments on this occasion are poignant because Warfield was one of the few Presbyterian leaders of his age to publish criticisms about the nation’s persistent race prejudice. Yet when Warfield went on record as opposing this reunion with the Cumberland church, his lengthy article addressed only theological issues with no mention of segregated presbyteries.” 

Mark A. Noll, “Theology, Presbyterian History, and the Civil War,” The Journal of Presbyterian History (2011), 13.

Noll’s comments are not quite accurate, but almost. While nearly all of Warfield’s 22 page article is devoted to the fine points of doctrinal and confessional differences between the Calvinist PCUSA and the historically Arminian Cumberland Presbytery, he does make a brief reference, and another (possible) veiled allusion to the issue of race:

Under the head of “ Recommendations” an additional sine qua non seems to be added to those included in the “Concurrent Declarations.” For though the matter here alluded to is put forward merely as a “recommendation,” it is subsequently included in the enumeration of those things which “shall have been adopted in their entirety” before “this entire plan of union shall be operative.” It is not clear what force the adjective “entire” here has. But it is clear that this “ recommendation” involves a matter of some import­ance, which demands careful and prudent handling. Its object is to provide in the united Church for what have been called “race Presby­teries.” Its terms are not mandatory but permissive: though the query may possibly arise whether the permission is intended to be given to the stronger or to the weaker “race..”

Warfield, “The Proposed Union with the Cumberland Presbyterians,” 296–97.

A little later he notes that:

“it is not clear to us that all the differences which have hitherto divided us—or ought still to divide us—reduce to differences of doctrine and polity” (299).

“The Proposed Union with the Cumberland Presbyterians,” 299.

What might some of these differences be? Warfield only hints at them in general terms:

“Similarly it were surely a grave mistake, to use no stronger word, for any two denominations to enter into a union which threatened to handicap either of them in any special mission which seemed to be committed to it in the world. The work of the Lord is more important than any union of Churches.

Are there no differences of this relatively secondary—but nevertheless possibly decisive—sort between the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, such as demand at least the most serious consideration when a union of the two bodies comes up for discussion? Differences, perhaps, in tra­ditions and that spirit which grows out of traditions; differences of training and that adaptation that grows out of training; differences in modes of work and the habits that grow out of long-settled modes of work; differences in theories of conduct and those principles of action in dealing with the problems that face the Churches of our day and land which are the outgrowth of these theories: differences, in fine, of mani­ fest mission, opportunities and facilities for special kinds of work, of providential equipment and call to particular tasks?” (301).

“The Proposed Union with the Cumberland Presbyterians,” 301.

Given Warfield’s work with the Board of Missions to Freedmen, was he referring to this as a “special mission” that would be handicapped by union with a segregationist church? By “traditions and that spirit which grows out of traditions” did he mean the “spirit of caste” he had opposed directly 17 years previously? By “differences in modes of work and habits that grow out of long-settled modes of work” did he mean the difference between cooperation with Black brothers and sisters and the partiality of segregation? If so, we can only wish that he would have said so more plainly. Warfield does give us a clue, because he again references the segregationist “Recommendations”:

“One or two such differences receive some mention, more or less full, in the subsidiary conditions of union, adverted to in the “ Concurrent Declarations” and “ Recommendations.”

But Warfield does not mean to spend any time addressing this issue directly:

We have no intention of entering upon a discussion of them here. Enough if this bare general reference explains and perhaps so far justifies the misgivings we have expressed as to whether a simple adoption of common Standards, doctrinal and ecclesiastical, provides a sufficient basis of union between the two Churches. If any of these differences affect seriously our furnishing for doing the work of the Lord or our well-considered modes of prose­cuting that work, they become obstacles to union of very considerable gravity. It is better that the work of the Lord should be done than that the Churches should unite.”

“The Proposed Union with the Cumberland Presbyterians,” 302.

Indeed, a “bare general reference” is all the treatment segregation would get from Warfield here; the rest of the article is devoted entirely to doctrinal matters, hence Noll’s conclusion that Warfield made “no mention of segregated presbyteries,” or Henry Ferry’s placing Warfield in the group “whose theological scruples centered on the issue of Arminian vs. Calvinistic interpretations of the Gospel,” as opposed to the group “whose concerns focused on… the core issue being segregated vs. integrated judicatories” (Ferry, “Racism and Reunion,” Journal of Presbyterian History (1972), 84). In the end, this opposition lost, and the PCUSA did unite with Cumberland on the racist terms proposed.

Warfield on Dabney

Gundlach notes that in spite of resisting efforts to formally unite with the Southern Presbyterians, Warfield collaborated with them in other ways:

“[Warfield] did, however, work closely with Southern Presbyterians in doctrinal matters through non-ecclesiastical means—namely, theological publications. Warfield founded and ran the Presbyterian and Reformed Review (1890–1902) as an independent effort of men from various denominational bodies, including the PCUS [formerly the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America].”

Gundlach, “Wicked Caste,” 46, n. 51

Mark Noll similarly comments on the Presbyterian and Reformed Review:

The effect of these decisions on theological emphases can be illustrated from the pages of the Presbyterian and Reformed Review, a new journal that began publication in 1890 under the editorship of theological leaders from the PCUSA [chiefly Warfield] and representatives from the German Reformed, Dutch Reformed, and Canadian Presbyterian churches. The journal’s first six years of publication, from 1890 to 1895, coincided with the peak years of race-based lynching and the final implementation in the South of Jim Crow laws, which carried on the Civil War’s entanglements over race… During these years the Presbyterian and Reformed Review published many scholarly studies on theology and church history, including at least forty-two separate articles on questions relating to biblical criticism—many monographic in length and quality—as well as a separate four-part series on the composition of Genesis. During the same period there were no major articles on race, Jim Crow, or the general treatment of African Americans.”

Mark Noll, “Theology, Presbyterian History, and the Civil War,” 9. 

In 1901, in a (perhaps) surprising move from one who spoke so pointedly against the “spirit of caste” decades before, Warfield took to the pages of the Presbyterian and Reformed Review to praise one of the most conspicuous white-supremacists of his era, Robert Lewis Dabney (for links to all eight of Warfield’s reviews of various books by and about Dabney, see “Benjamin B. Warfield on Robert Lewis Dabney: Eight Reviews (1891–1905)“). Warfield was reviewing the book In Memoriam: Robert Lewis Dabney, born, March 5th, 1820; died, January 3rd, 1898 (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 1899), a collection of addresses and papers written in honor of Dabney after his death in 1898 (Warfield’s review is available here). Warfield briefly surveys Dabney’s life and praises him highly:

Dr. Dabney, who since Dr. Thornwell’s death has been the most conspicuous figure and the leading theological guide of the Southern Presbyterian Church, who was the most prolific theological writer that Church has as yet produced, and who for a period of over forty years was one of the most distinguished and probably the most impressive teacher of its candidates for the ministry. As a preacher, as a teacher and as a writer equally he achieved greatness, and in the counsels of the State and of the Church alike he was a factor of impor­tance.

He credits Dabney for helping maintain orthodoxy:

What the American Presbyterian Churches are theologically to-day is in the largest measure due to their instruction: and together they present a revival and sustained advocacy of the historical Reformed faith which can be surpassed in few lands and epochs. 

He praises Dabney’s Systematic Theology as:

a solid piece of work, able to take its place worthily by the side of the Compendiums which have conserved the traditions of the Reformed Theology from its beginning—Bucanus, Amesius, Marckius—and to breathe into them the new life of our own time.

The only hint of a flaw in Dabney is this:

He is always robust and vigorous, certainly fortiter in re [firm in principle], if not always suaviter in modo [gentle in manner]. His convictions burned hot within him, and it must be confessed that sometimes passion swept him off of his feet, especially in his secular writings: but ordinarily his strong feelings were curbed by his powerful intellectual grasp and only gave force to his expression and carried his conviction home to the hearts he addressed. 

Thus is the only passing reference to Dabney’s lifelong racism, expressed repeatedly, not just in his “secular writings” but in his ecclesiastical and theological as well.

Warfield concludes his own tribute to Dabney like this:

Those who knew him best loved him most. His career was a distin­guished one; his contributions to the theological sciences are of the first order; his services to the Presbyterian Churches are inestimable: may not only his memory remain green, but his influence be increased through the coming years! 

This may seem perplexing—“may his influence be increased through the coming years!”—given that Warfield had directly opposed that influence in his own lifetime. But apparently, the cause of Presbyterian Orthodoxy trumped these considerations, even for Warfield. Warfield had refrained from naming Dabney when addressing racism in 1887–88, and he now refrained from mentioning racism when addressing Dabney’s life. His careful silence is maintained.

This was not the only time Warfield addressed Dabney’s life and legacy. In 1905 (just one year after the Cumberland controversy) Warfield took to the pages of the Princeton Theological Review (the PRR ceased publication in 1902) to review Thomas Cary Johnson’s The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney (1903) (Warfield’s review is available here). Again, he praises Dabney highly, referencing his previous article:

“We have briefly expressed the high value we place upon his services to theological science and to the life of the Presby­terian Churches in The Presbyterian and Reformed Review for August, 1901 

And once again, he dances around Dabney’s racism:

It must be confessed that the robustness of his views and the vigor with which he expressed them have, especially outside of the spheres of philoso­phical and theological matters where his thought was most at home, betrayed him occasionally into extremities of opinion. This will not, however, be permanently remembered against him. When all is said, he was a man of light and leading, who served his own generation well, and if unable to rise wholly above the provincialism powerfully fostered by the circumstances in which his life was passed, yet always worth listening to and always to be learned from. 

And again, Warfield closes with a call to honor Dabney and extend his influence:

Probably Dr. Dabney is at once the most voluminous theological writer and the most influential character which the Pres­byterian Church of the United States (commonly called the Presbyterian Church, South) has yet produced. Not only that Church, but all Presbyterians owe him a debt of gratitude for his distinguished services to the truth we hold in common; and we shall all do well to honor his memory, and to extend the influence of his powerful advocacy of the truth that was to him his very life. 

“Warfield—champion of racial justice” is far too simplistic. “Warfield the paternalistic but well-meaning opposer of segregation” is better, but still misses some of his later development. “Warfield—collaborator with and promoter of racist segregationists” also needs to be considered. “Warfield—silent on racial issues at crucial moments, and reluctant to rebuke racists by name” also necessary.

Francis Grimké: A True Prophet

Fred Zaspel has presented Warfield to us as a “prophetic voice” who was “ahead of his times” and who stood “virtually alone” against racism and segregation in the Presbyterian church. But is that accurate? Or does that assessment betray a very limited scope of comparison, namely, to other white Presbyterians? If you compare Warfield to other white Christians at the time, he looks good by comparison. But what if we compare him with Black Presbyterians? Does he really come out so far “ahead” of his own times? So prophetic? So “alone”? One figure we must bring in for comparison is Warfield’s contemporary Francis J. Grimké (1850–1937).

Francis J. Grimké

Warfield and Grimké overlapped often throughout their lifetimes. Warfield attended Princeton Seminary at the same time (1873–76) as Grimké (1874–78). At the time that Warfield was serving on the Board of Missions for Freedmen (1885–1890), Grimké was serving as a “missionary” in that organization in Jacksonville, Florida (1885–1889) (see The Presbyterian Monthly Record (1886), 118–119). Warfield’s “A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case” appears side by side with Grimké’s, “Earnest Words from a Colored Missionary,” in The Church At Home and Abroad (Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1887). And later, as Warfield was protesting the Cumberland union over doctrinal issues, Grimké was opposing it because it would formally codify the “color line” in the PCUSA.

Just a survey of Grimké’s works during the era we have considered here paints a start contrast to Warfield’s halting, compromised, and anonymous “prophetic stance.”

In 1888 Warfield critiqued the proposed union with Southern segregationists anonymously. In “It is Drawing the Color Line,” Grimké took to the pages of the New-York Evangelist and wrote over his name and church address in Florida. In 1904, Warfield would only vaguely allude to racism; Grimké spoke at the General Assembly in opposition, again in his own Washington Presbytery (alongside Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan), and published his opposition in pamphlet form as “An Argument Against the Union of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.”

In addition to these two specifically Presbyterian occasions to speak, Grimké wrote on numerous occasions, including opposing lynching, the Atlanta Race Massacre, and many many more.

Grimké’s biographer, Henry Justin Ferry, concludes that Grimké was a “a prophet without honor in his own country” ( Ferry, “Racism and Reunion: A Black Protest by Francis J. Grimké,” Journal of Presbyterian History (1972), 88). Indeed, Grimke’s repeated, public stance against racism earns him the title “prophet.” Zaspel’s lauding of Warfield only makes sense within an entirely white frame of reference. In fact, the dismissal (by omission) of the powerful witness of Black voices is frankly astonishing. If you compare Warfield with Dabney, Warfield looks like a saint. If you compare Warfield with Grimké, his silence and anonymity is deafening. It’s time we recalibrated our criteria for “prophetic” and it’s time we elevated some new figures into the pantheon. Contrary to Warfield’s opinion, that’ does not include Dabney. It might include Warfield himself. It certainly needs to include Grimké.

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What’s So Bad About Robert Lewis Dabney?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

(updated 10/20/2021)

John MacArthur on Robert Lewis Dabney

“Dabney is a very helpful writer” – John MacArthur (here)

“One of the wonderful old past generation American preachers was a man named R.L. Dabney. And reading him is always refreshing. He’s like a Puritan out of his time and out of his place.” – John MacArthur (here)

John MacArthur has quoted and recommended R.L. Dabney regularly over the years, both in his preaching and at various conferences, without ever mentioning Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy (see “What’s so Bad about Robert Lewis Dabney?“).

(UPDATE: 2022-06-22 — The original 2018 post only included references to Dabney in MacArthur’s sermons. I have since updated it to include references in MacArthur’s print books, and Phil Johnson’s web page devoted to Dabney’s writings. I will not be including much analysis of these references, merely documenting them (for the most part). For more extensive thoughts on Dabney’s life and legacy among reformed evangelicals, see “Robert Lewis Dabney: An Index.”)

The Love of God (1977)

The first reference to Robert Lewis Dabney in John MacArthur’s works is in The Love of God (1977). MacArthur calls Dabney one of the “Reformed stalwarts” and cites from his essay “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” later in the book:

“These same truths have been vigorously defended by a host of Reformed stalwarts, including Thomas Boston, John Brown, Andrew Fuller, W. G. T. Shedd, R. L. Dabney, B. B. Warfield, John Murray, R. B Kuiper. and many others. In no sense does belief in divine sovereignly rule out the love of God for all humanity” (18).

The Love of God, 18.

“About this [John 3:17–18], Robert L. Dabney wrote, ‘A fair logical connection between verse 17 and verse 18 shows that “the world” of verse 17 is inclusive of “him that believeth” and “him that believeth not” of verse 18. . . . It is hard to see how, if [Christs coming into the world) is in no sense a true manifestation of divine benevolence to that part of “the world” which “believeth not,” their choosing to slight it is the just ground of a deeper condemnation, as is express­ly stated in verse 19.’

The Love of God, 106; citing R. L. Dabney, “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982 reprint), 1:312.

(For my extended thoughts on Dabney’s essay “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” see “The Great Pattern of American Manhood”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 3).

The Vanishing Conscience (1994)

The next reference in print is found in The Vanishing Conscience: Drawing the Line in a No-Fault, Guilt-Free World (1994). The chapter on “Sin and Its Cure” includes a section entitled “The Theological Problem Posed By Evil,” and here MacArthuc quotes Dabney:

“The most satisfying theodicy is implied in the cross of Christ. As R. L. Dabney wrote, “The doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice, coupled with His proper divinity, enables us to complete our ’theodicy’ of the permission of evil. . . . For had there been in God the least defect of [holiness or benevolence], He certainly would never have found it in His heart to send His infinite Son, more great and important than all worlds, to redeem anyone.’”

Vanishing Conscience, 114–15, citing Dabney, Systematic Theology, 537–38.

MacArthur cites Dabney again in “Appendix 1: Gaining Victory over Sin, a Closer Look at Romans 6”:

“R. L. Dabney argued against an early form of the two-nature view more than a century ago. He noted the doctrine’s “antinomian tendencies”: 

‘If one believes that he has two “real men,” or “two natures” in him, he will be tempted to argue that the new man is in no way responsible for the perversity of the old. Here is a perilous deduction. . . . |And if) the old nature never loses any of its strength until death; then the presence, and even the flagrancy of indwelling sin need suggest to the believer no doubts whatever, whether his faith is spurious. How can it be denied that there is here terrible danger of carnal se­curity in sin? How different this from the Bible which says Jas. ii: 18, “Show me thy faith without thy works; and I will show thee my faith by my works.” If then any professed believer finds the “old man” in undiminished strength, this is proof that he has never “put on the new man.” ‘

Vanishing Conscience, 218–19, citing Dabney, Systematic Theology 677)

MacArthur New Testament Commentary (1995)

MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary series Index cites a reference to his commentary on Titus, page 110 (I don’t have access to this volume).

MacArthur’s commentary on 1 Timothy cites Dabney on the phrase in 1 Timothy 2:6 “gave himself a ransom for all”:

“That does not mean that all will be saved. Again, “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). Christ’s death was sufficient to cover the sins of all people, but it is applied to the elect alone. The price paid was infinite. If billions more had been added to the number of the elect, Christ would not have been required to suffer one more stroke of divine wrath to pay the price for their sin. On the other hand, “had there been but one sinner, Seth, elected of God, this whole divine sacrifice would have been needed to expiate His guilt.”

So the infinite price our Savior paid was certainly sufficient for all. “Christ’s expiation . . . is a divine act. It is indivisible, inexhaustible, sufficient in itself to cover the guilt of all the sins that will ever be committed on earth.”

MacArthur Commentary on 1 Timothy, 72–73; citing R. L. Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism [reprint; Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle, 1992], 61. 

(For my thoughts on Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism, see my “Book Review: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism“).

Fool’s Gold (2005)

The year 2005 also saw the publication of Fool’s Gold: Discerning Truth in an Age of Error, edited by John MacArthur, with contributions from multiple authors. Included is a chapter by Carey Hardey, “Just As I Am: A Closer Look at Invitations and Altar Calls.” Hardey includes a quote from Dabney:

“those who look honestly at statistics related to crusade altar calls know that a minority of those who have made decisions display any signs of conversion even a few weeks after their altar call experience. With this in mind, R. L. Dabney once commented that most people in his day had come “to coolly accept the fact that forty-five out of fifty, or even a higher ratio, will eventually apostatize”

Fool’s Gold, 137–38.

I have searched for, and cannot find the quote in Dabney’s works. The citation in the endnotes is to Jim Ehrhard, Dangers of the Invitation System, 15. Whether this is indeed an accurate citation of Dabney, I can’t tell.

Preaching: How to Preach Biblically 2005

In 2005 another multi-author volume was published by “John MacArthur and the MAsters Seminary Faculty”: Preaching: How to Preach Biblically. Chapter 1 is by Richard Mayhue, “Rediscovering Expository Preaching,” and the chapter closes with a quote from Dabney:

“Although R. L. Dabney wrote over a century ago, we join him today in urging that the expository method . . . be restored to that equal place which it held in the primitive and Reformed Churches; for, first, this is obviously the only natural and efficient way to do that which is the sole legitimate end of preaching, convey the whole message of God to the people.”

citing Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric.

Alone With God (2006)

In 2006, MacArthur published Alone With God: Rediscovering the Power and Passion of Prayer. The chapter on “Praying for the Lost” includes what is basically a “copy/paste” from the commentary on 1 Timothy 2:6, including the quote from Dabney:

“The phrase ‘gave himself a ransom for all’ is a comment on the sufficiency of the atonement, not its design

Christ’s death was sufficient to cover the sins of all men, but it is applied to the elect alone. The price paid was infinite—it was sufficient for all. “Christ’s expiation … is a divine act. It is indivisible, inexhaustible, sufficient in itself to cover the guilt of all the sins that will ever be committed on earth.” 

Alone with God, 174, 175; citing Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism.

Strange Fire (2013)

In 2013 MacArthur held a conference on the gifts of the Holy Spirit and followed up with a book: Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship. At the end of the book is an“Appendix: Voices from Church History,” a list of quotes that MacArthur believes supports his position. In the list of quotes is one by Dabney:

“Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898) 

“After the early church had been established, the same necessity for super­ natural signs now no longer existed, and God, Who is never wasteful in His expedients, withdrew them. . . . Miracles, if they became ordinary, would cease to be miracles, and would be referred by men to customary law.”

Strange Fire, 257–58); citing Robert L. Dabney, “Prelacy a Blunder,” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1891), 2:236-37.

Ironically, Dabney (a slaveholder)’s quote is immediately followed by one from Charles Spurgeon who famously said “I do from my inmost soul detest slavery anywhere and everywhere, and although I commune at the Lord’s table with men of all creeds, yet with a slaveholder I have no fellowship of any sort or kind” (see “Spurgeon’s “Red-Hot Letter” on American Slavery“).

The Shepherd as Theologian (2017)

In 2017, MacArthur edited another multi-author volume The Shepherd as Theologian. The chapter by Phil Johnson on “The Extent of the Atonement” includes a reference to Dabney in a list of “mainstream Calvinist writers”

“If you want to sample some moderate opinions on the extent of the atonement from leading mainstream Calvinist writers, read what Andrew Fuller, Thomas Boston, Robert L. Dabney, William G.T. Shedd, B.B. Warfield, and Charles Hodge wrote on the subject. They may surprise you.”

The Shepherd as Theologian, 128.

Biblical Doctrine (2017)

In 2017 MacArthur published his own “Systematic Theology”: Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth. Each chapter in the book contains a “Select Bibliography,” a list of “prominent theologies from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries ” (35). Nearly every chapter in the MacArthur’s book includes Dabney in these bibliographies The only chapter that that does not reference Dabney is the one on “Bibliology.” This is because the way theology courses were structured at Union Seminary, the doctrine of the Bible was covered in a separate class, and thus Dabney’s Systematic Theology does not have a chapter on it. Every other chapter includes a recommendation:

  • “God the Father: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 5–193.” (231).
  • “God the Son: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 182—193, 500–553” (329).
  • “God the Holy Spirit: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 193–201.” (394).
  • “Man: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 292–305.” (480).
  • “Sin: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 306–51.” (481).
  • “The Application of Redemption: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 553–713.” (662).
  • “Angels: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 264–75.” (736).
  • “The Church: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 758–817.” (822).
  • “Eschatology: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 817–862.” (916).

In a section in the book itself on “The Nature of Sanctification,” MacArthur cites Dabney:

“Dabney says, “Sanctification, in the gospel sense, means then, not only cleansing from guilt, though it presupposes this, nor only consecration, though it includes this, nor only reformation of morals and life, though it produces this; but, essentially the moral purification of the soul.”

Biblical Doctrine, 639 n. 139; citing R. L. Dabney, Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology, 2nd ed. (St. Louis, MO: Presbyterian Publishing Company of St. Louis, 1878), 661.

MacArthur’s Sermons

The first reference to Dabney that I can find in MacArthur’s is also MacArthur’s favorite: Dabney on the “three stages through which preaching has repeatedly passed with the same results.” He found this in Dabney’s, Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures of Preaching:

Dabney says, “And it is exceedingly instructive to note that there are three stages through which preaching has repeatedly passed with the same results. The first is that in which scriptural truth is faithfully presented in scriptural garb. That is to say, not only are all the doctrines asserted which truly belong to the revealed system of redemption, but they are presented in that dress and connection in which the Holy Spirit has presented them without seeking any other from human science. This state of the pulpit marks the golden age of the church. The second is the transition stage. In this, the doctrines taught are still those of the Scriptures, but their relations are molded into conformity with the prevalent human dialectics.” That’s a hundred-year-old book.

“God’s truth is now shorn of a part of its power over the soul. A third stage is then near in which not only are the methods and explanations conformed to the philosophy of the day, but the doctrines themselves contradict the truth of the Word. Again and again have the clergy traveled this descending scale and always with the same disastrous result.” So he says, “May we ever be content to exhibit Bible doctrine in its own Bible dress.” You can’t improve on it because that’s the way God chose to communicate it. Now, we’re in that transition, aren’t we, evangelicals? There’s still some Christian doctrine but nobody wants to put it in the Bible dress.

([Feb 3, 1980?] – Insight into a Pastor’s Heart, Part 1)

Dabney on preaching–the need for expositional preaching, and the three stages–is MacArthur’s most often cited reference, all the way up to 2017.

— Feb 10, 1980 –  Insight into a Pastor’s Heart, Part 2

— Oct 29, 2000 – Deliverance: From Sin to Righteousness, Part 2

— Feb 22, 2009 – The Consequences of Non-expositional Preaching, Part 1

— Oct 23, 2011 – Exposition: The Heart of Biblical Ministry

— Nov 6, 2011 – Modeling Bible Study Through Preaching

— Aug 1, 2017 – Answering Contemporary Challenges to Scripture: John MacArthur with Phil Johnson

Dabney on Other Doctrines

MacArthur did not just quote Dabney on preaching, but on a number of other subjects as well:

— May 9, 1993 – Saving Grace, Part 2 – quotes three times from Dabney’s, The Five Points of Calvinism.

— Jan 1, 1995 –  The Love of God, Part 4 – quotes Dabney giving the example of George Washington signing the death warrant of Major Andre.

— Mar 14, 2004 –  Divine Holiness in Human Flesh – “R. L. Dabney said, “‘Holiness is to be regarded, not as a distinct attribute, but as the sum of all God’s moral perfection.'” (repeated at the 2004 Ligonier conference).

— Mar 17, 2013 – Usurping the Seat of Christ:

“R.L. Dabney, who was an American Reformed theologian from two centuries earlier, said, “Our decadent, half-corrupted Protestantism in action, blindly and criminally betraying her own interests and duties.” That’s what we do. Even then he could say that. Our decadent, half-corrupted Protestantism is in action.” quoting from Dabney, The Attractions of Popery.” [Note: in the immediate context of the quote, Dabney launches directly into a critique of “The Jacobin theory of political rights,” which, for Dabney, included all forms of abolitionism. It’s a strange article to quote from, in my opinion.]

–March 10, 2019 – MacArthur preached another sermon, calling him “an American Puritan of sorts,” and citing Dabney’s quote: “holiness is not to be regarded as a distinct attribute…” (The Lord’s Vengeance, Part 4) Thanks to Erin Harding for pointing this out.

MacArthur at Larger Conferences

In 2002 he expounded on the “three stages of preaching” at his Shepherd’s conference message (March 8, 2002 –  The Sufficiency of God’s Grace), recommending Dabney to a large gathering of other pastors. “Dabney is a very helpful writer” he says at the 27:25 mark and speaks on him until 32:00.

MacArthur quoted Dabney in his message at the 2004 Ligonier Conference (Mar 12, 2004 – There Is No Other: The Holiness of God): “R. L. Dabney wrote, ‘Holiness is to be regarded not as a distinct attribute, but as the result of all God’s moral perfection together.'”

At his own Strange Fire conference in 2013, MacArthur includes Dabney in a list alongside Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, and others (Jul 14, 2013 – Strange Fire Q&A, Part 2):

“You’ve got twenty centuries when nobody was affirming that except aberrant groups. Voices from church history, we have John Chrysostom, the fourth century, Augustine, Theodoret of Cyrus in the fifth century, Martin Luther in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, John Calvin, John Owen, Thomas Watson, Matthew Henry, John Gill, Jonathan Edwards, James Buchanan, Robert Dabney in the nineteenth century, Charles Spurgeon in the nineteenth century, George Smeaten in the nineteenth century, the great Abraham Kuyper in the nineteenth and a little into the twentieth, William Shedd in the nineteenth, Benjamin Warfield in the twentieth century, Arthur Pink, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, they all are cessationists. They all declare that these things have ceased. So to say that there has been a continual stream of legitimate, biblical scholarship conviction and confidence in the sign gifts is just not the case.”

“An R. L. Dabney Anthology”

Phil Johnson is “the executive director of Grace to You. He has been closely associated with John MacArthur since 1981 and edits most of Pastor MacArthur’s major books” (“Phil Johnson“). He edits a number of websites and pages, including one devoted to Robert Lewis Dabney:

An R. L. Dabney Anthology Featuring: Writings of Robert Lewis Dabney

The page contains links to thirteen of Dabney’s works, as well as a biographical sketch from the Banner of Truth magazine. Among the pieces linked are “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” of which Johnson says:

My all-time favorite Dabney piece, one I have wanted to post on this Web site for years… This article overhauled and revitalized my understanding of the doctrines of grace.

(For my thoughts on Dabney’s essay see “The Great Pattern of American Manhood”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 3).

Johnson also links to “Against Musical Instruments in Public Worship,” and “The Public Preaching of Women.” (see here for my critique of another Dabney essay where he connects his opposition to women’s rights with white-supremacy).

MacArthur’s Unqualified Endorsement of Dabney

In books and messages spanning over four decades of ministry, MacArthur and his colleagues at Grace to You and the Master’s Seminary, have repeatedly quoted and recommended Dabney to both his own church and to the broader evangelical world through conferences. After searching his site (gty.org) I have been unable to find a single qualification or caveat, let alone a warning or caution regarding Dabney’s racism, white supremacy, and views on slavery. The only words have been words of explicit commendation or tacit endorsement by way of citation.

(Note: if any reader can point me to a place where he has made such qualification, I would gladly include it here).

“The crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching”

The lynching tree–so strikingly similar to the cross on G71TL6ZHN0zLolgotha–should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’ death. But it does not. In fact, the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections about Jesus’ cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly 5,000 black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.

As Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence, many African-Americans were innocent victims of white mobs, thirsting for blood in the name of God and in defense of segregation, white supremacy, and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race. Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists—the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, and tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.

The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection.”

James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree30-31

“Bringing Up the End of the Pack”

81sHqHE9VGLDon Carson on racial reconciliation from his book Love in Hard Places. The entire section (pp. 87-108) is a classic Carsonian treatment of the subject–historically informed, logically thought through, with deference to multiple perspectives, and willingness to say true things–all reasons why Carson is so great to read on so many subjects. Anyway:

Although the ways in which we will live out the gospel mandate of becoming one new humanity may take somewhat different shapes in different subcultures, we must be doing something to realize that gospel goal; certainly we must not be perceived to be knee-jerk reactionaries who are dragged into racial reconciliation kicking an screaming, bringing up the end of the pack, the last to be persuaded. For we constitute a new humanity under the Lord who insisted, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

p. 108