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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He concludes his message with this:

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

Murray lauds Dabney to his listeners:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Murray emphasizes this:

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

Murray claims that the issue of slavery was northern propaganda:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism. Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1895. Reprint Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1992. pp. 80.

The year is 1895. Robert Lewis Dabney is 75 years old, and will pass from the earth in just a few years (1898). He had fought his whole life for two main things: Calvinism and white supremacy, and to the last, these topics flow from his pen. His hagio/biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, gives us in two successive paragraphs: “During the year 1895, Dr. Dabney published, through the Presbyterian Committee of Publication, Richmond, Va., his excellent little tract of eighty pages, on the ‘Five Points of Calvinism,’ and contributed occasional articles to the newspapers, notably one or two philippics against the effort to remove Union Theological Seminary from Hampden-Sidney to Richmond” (The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 510–511); “He waged war, by private correspondence, against the removal of Union Theological Seminary. He plead for the retention of the Seminary in Southside Virginia as needed to help the white people in their struggle to prevent their sections being Africanized” (LLD, 511).

Lest anyone object that this is an unfair juxtaposing of two unrelated issues (Calvinism and White Supremacy), note that the man who was a professor of systematic theology and ecclesiastical history at Union Theological Seminary, not only wrote on these two topics at the very same time, but felt that the Theological Seminary would aid in the “struggle” for White Supremacy—theological instruction had an active and constructive role in its maintenance.

Why did I bother reading this book? It came on my radar several years ago, when I saw Desiring God’s post “What are Some Books that DG Recommends?”and Dabney’s book was recommended in the category of “Providence and Predestination.” Recently, it was noticed that the online class on “TULIP: The Five Points of Calvinism” taught by John Piper, and hosted on the TGC website also recommended Dabney’s book on the landing page (it appears that sometime in November 2021, TGC removed this link to Dabney, perhaps in response to this tweet). For awhile now, I’ve been wrestling with this question:“How and why was a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney commended to my generation as a great theologian to read?!?” As I’m working my way through the material, this one was next.

1618 & 1619

Theologically speaking, the book is mostly unremarkable, just Dabney’s articulation of the five points of Calvinism. Historically, though, I find a number of points of interest. On page 2, he refers to “the famous Synod of Dort,” a church council hosted in the Netherlands in 1618, responding to the Arminians, and formulating “The Five Points” for the first time in that particular form. The very next year, 1619, a Dutch ship would deliver twenty enslaved Africans to the shores of the American colony of Virginia (see W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the Slave Trade, 17). Lest you think Dort is a religious affair, and unrelated the “secular” national interests, remember that in the Netherlands had an official state church, and the two were intertwined, so much so that the State persecuted Arminians, even with the death penalty, for dissenting (Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2: 229–33); see also Gerald F. De Jong, “Dutch Reformed Church and Negro Slavery in Colonial America,” Church History 40.4 (1971): 423–36 | on JSTOR).

A “well-bred [white] lady”

Dabney’s work is sprinkled throughout with illustrations, and several of these highlight the fact that so much of the material for our theology is drawn from our circumstances, and the same is true of Dabney. In his explication of the concept of “Total Depravity” or “Original Sin,” he goes on for several pages with an example: “I suppose that a refined and genteelly reared young lady presents the least sinful specimen of unregenerate human nature” (10; he will later refer to her as “the well-bred young lady” (19)). Knowing Dabney’s context (the 19th century South), and his ideology (white supremacy), including his explicit statements regarding Black people (see “What’s So Bad About R. L. Dabney?”), we can reasonably infer that what he means is “a refined and genteelly reared young [white] lady.” Dabney draws on an explicitly gendered, and implicitly racial, conceptions of Southern Womanhood to illustrate his theological point about sin. And his point here is that even this “least sinful specimen” is indeed “totally depraved” unless she is converted.

Master and Servant

In discussing “free will,” Dabney poses this hypothetical: “If a master would require his servant to do a bodily act for which he naturally had not the bodily faculty, as, for instance, the pulling up of a healthy oak tree with his hands, it would be unjust to punish the servant’s failure” (17). Dabney was born in 1820, grew up in a family that enslaved a number of Black people (Johnson, 18, 24), and directly oversaw them later in his life. No doubt, he found the “master and servant” relationship a ready illustration for this theological points, even thirty years after Emancipation.

A “Rural Sanctuary”

a Southern “rural sanctuary”

In the section explaining “Effectual Calling” (what is otherwise known as the I in TULIP “Irresistible Grace”), Dabney explicitly draws our attention to the ante-bellum South: “Let us suppose that fifty years ago [i.e., 1845] the reader had seen me visit his rural sanctuary, when the grand oaks which now shade it were but lithe saplings” (32). What picture does Dabney want in your mind? Where should you imagine yourself? The stereotypical Southern Plantation, with the Big House off in the distance, and the oak trees recently planted. He blesses the site of so much human horror as a “sanctuary,” its rural setting removed from nosy neighbors or other onlookers affording the occasion for so much human violence unwitnessed by the outside world (for a vivid illustration of this, see the final act of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Simon LeGree’s isolated property). Again, the material used to construct and illustrate the theology is thoroughly situated in Dabney’s context, and it is explicitly the context of ante-bellum (1845) enslavement.

A “wise and righteous general”

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

In the section on “God’s Election” Dabney compares God’s foreknowledge with “a wise and righteous general conducting a defensive war to save his country” (40). It’s hard to miss the allusion to the Confederacy and the Civil War here. Dabney served as an officer in the Confederate Army under General Stonewall Jackson, and published Jackson’s first biography, Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson) (1866). Dabney regularly refers to Jackon’s “wisdom” and “righteousness,” and holds him up as a shining example of Christian character (for more on this see Daniel W. Stowell, “Stonewall Jackson and the Providence of God,” in Religion and the American Civil War, edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, Charles Reagan Wilson (1998)). Dabney’s description of “a defensive war to save his country” is exactly how he characterized the Civil War in his A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her of the South (1867).

Dabney’s point is that this “wise and righteous” general may change his plans as the war develops, but God, knowing all, never changes his plans. The material used to illustrate this theological point is reflective of his own Lost Cause narrative of the Confederacy and the Civil War.

“Plausible Pretender”?

There is one point with which I agree with Dabney, and it appears mainly in his discussion of the “Perseverance of the Saints.” Here are a few passages of Scripture to set the stage:

“He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now… he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

1 John 2:9, 11

“In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: whoever does not practice justice (δικαιοσυνην) is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother.”

1 John 3:10

“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”

1 John 4:20

Early on in the book, Dabney notes the hardening effects of sin:

“Now, the soul’s duties towards God are the highest, dearest, and most urgent of all duties; so that wilful disobedience herein is the most express, most guilty, and most hardening of all the sins that the soul commits. God’s perfections and will are the most supreme and perfect standard of moral right and truth. Therefore, he who sets himself obstinately against God’s right is putting himself in the most fatal and deadly opposition to moral goodness.”

“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 12.

The first and greatest commandment is to love God; the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself. Dabney correctly notes that disobedience to these greatest commands is “the most express, most guilty, and most hardening of all the sins that the soul commits.” What is more “directly disobedient” to this command to love, than the sin of white-supremacy?

When distinguishing between genuine and false believers, Dabney notes that “the shepherd knows that it is always the nature of wolves to choose to devour the lambs instead of the grass” (52). What is more wolf-like than Dabney’s venomous explosion in the Synod of Virginia, “The Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes”?

His section on the Perseverance of the Saints is his fullest treatment of this dynamic:

“We do not believe that all professed believers and church members will certainly preserve and reach heaven. It is to be feared that many such, even plausible pretenders, “have but a name to have while they are dead.”

“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 68.

He acknowledges that genuine believers can “backslide,” but asserts that “a covenant-keeping God will recover them by sharp chastisements and deep contrition… if he is a true believer he has to be brought back by grievous and perhaps by terrible afflictions; he had better be alarmed at these!” One would be hard pressed to imagine a more sharp chastisement to White Supremacy than the horrors of the Civil War, yet Dabney was never “alarmed” out of his hatred, indeed, he became even more deeply entrenched in it in the years following.

“the Presbyterian similarly backslidden is taught by his doctrine to say: I thought I was in the right road to heaven, but now I see I was mistaken all the time, because God says, that if I had really been in that right road I could never have left it. Alas! therefore, I must either perish or get back; not to that old deceitful road in which I was, but into a new one, essentially different, narrower and straighter.”

“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 69–70.

Dabney himself sets the alternatives starkly in front of us: either get back, or perish. “No man can be saved in his sins, therefore this man will certainly be made to persevere in grace” (70). What then of the man who does not!

Dabney later alludes to 2 Peter 2:22 “The sow that was washed returns to her wallowing in the mire.” He expounds that “She is a sow still in her nature, though with the outer surface washed, but never changed into a lamb; for if she had been, she would never have chosen the mire.” I will only note that the “washings of a sow” can, and do, include the theological, the draping of Orthodox Calvinism over a mire-ridden core of white supremacy.

The verdict of the great Judge will sort this all out, but note His warning: “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). No anachronism, or “presentism” is needed to evaluate Dabney—his own words suffice.

Conclusion

In the final paragraph of the book, Dabney notes that Calvinism “corresponds exactly with experience, common sense, and true philosophy” (79). Indeed, Dabney drew repeatedly on his own life experience and notions of “common sense,” both forged deeply in the bellows of White Supremacy and slaveholding. It is not surprising that his explication of Calvinism is woven throughout with these notions; what may initially seem more surprising is the blindness of Dabney’s 20th century admirers as they perpetuated his legacy. Now, in the 21st century, may that Lord grant us all clearer eyes to see.

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

Banner of Truth’s 1967 reprint of Dabney’s, Discussions

In 1967, Banner of Truth rolled out their reprint of Robert Lewis Dabney’s Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967; reprint 1982) with an article by Iain Murray: “Reintroducing ‘The Best Teacher of Theology in the United States’” (Banner of Truth Magazine (Jan/Feb 1967): 16–17). The quote in the title (“the best teacher of theology”) was said to be “the opinion of the eminent Archibald Alexander of Princeton,” and this was our first clue that the historical claims in this piece would need to be read critically. Archibald Alexander was born in 1772, and died in 1851, two full years before Dabney first took a position as a professor at Union Theological Seminary. The quote actually comes from another Princeton theologian, Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823–1886), who is cited correctly by Dabney’s first biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, presumably where Murray mistakenly drew the quote from (The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 534). This misattribution in the very title of the article is illuminating.

Almost the entire article by Murray was reprinted as the “Publisher’s Preface” to Volume 1 of the Discussions and serves as the frame through which they wish the reader to receive this work. The dust jacket and the preface are loaded with endorsements from B. B. Warfield, Archibald Alexander [Hodge], and Dabney’s biographer Thomas Cary Johnson, in addition to Murray’s own glowing recommendation. Murray closes his article with a quote from Albert Freundt, Jr., then professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi:

“Dabney should be restudied today, and to the extent that modern adherents of the Reformed Faith make themselves familiar with the writings of this devout Christian scholar, they will appreciate once again a great segment of their rich heritage”

“Preface,” viii

Bavinck, though?

All of the gushing seemed a bit over the top, but the claim that caught my attention the most was this one:

“He was, as two continental theologians, Bavinck and Lecerf, have recognized, one of the leading theologians of America.”

Murray, “Preface,” v.
Herman Bavinck

Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) was a Dutch theologian, best known for his four volume Reformed Dogmatics. He is one my favorite theologians, and I was surprised, and a bit dismayed to hear that he had so endorsed a pro-slavery white-supremacist like Dabney. I had seen this claim elsewhere as well. Douglas Floyd Kelly also claimed that: “Reformed theologians of Europe such as Lecerf, Bavinck, and Barth spoke of Dabney with appreciation and respect” (Kelly, “Robert Lewis Dabney,” in Reformed Theology in America: A History of its Modern Development, ed. David F. Wells, 208). When I wrote my first ever article on Robert Lewis Dabney, published at DesiringGod, I too passed this along: 

“In his time, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was considered one of the greatest teachers of theology in the United States. Revered theologians such as Hodge, Shedd, Warfield, Bavinck, and Barth viewed him with appreciation and respect.”

Providence Is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist

At the time, I wasn’t able to track down all of the citations, but recently, as I’ve been examining how and why a white-supremacist like Dabney was commended to our generation as a “great theologian,” these kinds of endorsements have come under greater scrutiny. The question of this particular post is this: Did Herman Bavinck really consider Dabney to be “one of the leading theologians in America”? Or is this another historical blunder like the misattribution to Archibald Alexander [Hodge]?

Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics

The only reference to Dabney in Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is in Volume 1: Prolegomena. Chapter 6: “Reformed Dogmatics” (175–204) gives a historical overview of the development of the Reformed theology, starting with Zwingli and ending with the development of “Reformed Theology in North America” (224). In this historical overview, Bavinck notes that “From the outset Reformed theology in North American displayed a variety of very diverse forms” (200), and traces American church history from 1607 to his present (1906). He closes with a section on the Presbyterian churches in America, and describes the split between the New School and Old School Presbyterians. Here is the entire paragraph, including the reference to Dabney:

The Old School found support above all at the theological seminary of Princeton, a school started in 1812 under the auspices of the General Assembly and represented by Dr. Archibald Alexander (1772–1851), Dr. Charles Hodge (1797–1878), author of Systematic Theology, and his son and successor Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823–86), author of Outlines of Theology, and Evangelical Theology. So-called Princeton theology is in the main a reproduction of the Calvinism of the seventeenth century as it was laid down in the Westminster Confession and the Helvetic Consensus and elaborated especially by F. Turretin in his Theology Elenctica. The same system is represented as well by the Southern theologians James H. Thornwell (1812–62), Robert J. Breckinridge (1800–1871), and Robert L. Dabney. One of the youngest representatives of the Old School is W. G. T. Shedd, emeritus professor since 1890 at Union Seminary, New York, and author of the two-volume Dogmatic Theology. However, between Hodge and Shedd there is a remarkable difference. The former is a federalist and creationist, the latter a realist and traducianist. Both, however, agree in taking a very broad view of elections including in it also all the children who die in infancy.”

Reformed Dogmatics, 1:202–203

Regarding the claim that Bavinck considers Dabney a “leading theologian in America” one should note that compared with the other theologians mentioned in this paragraph, Bavinck makes no mention of the seminary where Dabney taught (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia), nor of any of the books Dabney published, nor of any of his theological positions, other than that he was, alongside Thornwell and Breckinridge, one of “the Southern theologians.” Nothing more than this bare description is deemed worthy of mention by Bavinck.

A turn to the index strengthens this assessment. Thornwell, Breckinridge, and Dabney appear just once in all 2000+ pages of the Reformed Dogmatics, in the paragraph just quoted. However, the other figures are referenced and interacted with dozens and dozens of times throughout the work: Archibald Alexander Hodge (13x), Charles Hodge (47x), W. G. T. Shedd (45x), and another American theologian, B. B. Warfield (36x), across all four volumes. If Bavinck’s opinion of a “leading American theologian” is indicated by the amount of interaction with their theological work, Dabney appears to be “leading” the rear of the pack.

Morton H. Smith, Bavinck, and Dabney

Morton H. Smith

How, then, did this claim come to be? Where did Iain Murray get the idea that Bavinck recognized Dabney as “one of the leading theologians in America”? Murray does not offer any footnote or citation for the claim, but it appears that the sentence was lifted almost exactly from Morton H. Smith’s 1962 Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology. Smith’s book (a reprint of his PhD dissertation under G. C. Berkouwer) includes an entire chapter devoted to Robert Lewis Dabney, and he introduces Dabney as a theologian like this:

“Dabney is recognized as one of the greatest of the American Presbyterian theologians of the 19th Century. He is recognized by both Bavinck and Lecerf as one of the leading theologians of America.”

Smith, Studies, 192.

Compare again with Murray:

“He was, as two continental theologians, Bavinck and Lecerf, have recognized, one of the leading theologians of America.”

Smith does give footnotes for both Bavinck and Lecerf, and his footnote for Bavinck points to the single reference we have reproduced above. 

That Smith was directly involved in Banner of Truth’s effort to republish Dabney’s works is indicated just two pages later in Murray’s “Preface” to Discussions; in fact, he is first in the order of thanks: 

“The publishers are grateful to those whose help or advice has contributed to this reprint: Morton H. Smith (whose Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology, 1962, has served to recall attention to Dabney); W. J. Grier, Belfast; John Murray, Westminster Theological Seminary, H. M. Brimm, the Librarian, Union Theological Seminary, Virginia, and Albert H. Freundt, Jr., Professor of Church History and Librarian, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi.”

Discussions, 1:vii
“The Six” directly involved in reprinting Dabney’s Discussions in 1967.

Why would Smith inflate Bavinck’s bare reference to Dabney into a recognition of great status? In Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology, Smith repeatedly expresses the wish for Dabney to become more well known:

Sad to say, that at present, he is largely unknown and forgotten by his own Church today. Certainly, a man such as Dabney is worthy of more serious study than he is usually given. Especially, as there is presently on foot a move toward a Reformed philosophy, it would seem that the writings of such men deserve at least some consideration in the framing of such a system of thought.

Studies, 192.

He points specifically to the lack of reprints of Dabney’s works:

Again, it is greatly to be lamented that both Dabney and Thornwell have fallen into a secondary place in the estimate of modern day theologians. This may be accounted for, in part, by the fact that their works have not seen the reprinting that the writings of both Shedd and Hodge have enjoyed. We believe that were the writings of Dabney and Thornwell to see republication, that they would again gain a wide degree of acceptance among Reformed theologians.

Studies, 193.

Smith was born and raised in Virginia, and “received  from his father a love for the South and the Confederacy… ‘Dad instilled in us a love for the South and the Confederacy… Both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson became personal heroes of mine’” (Joseph Pipa, Jr., “Morton Howison Smith: A Sketch of His Life,” in Confessing Our Hope: Essays in Honor of Morton Howison Smith on His Eightieth Birthday, 4). This love for the Confederacy manifested itself in his love for the Confederate-theologians, including Dabney, and his remarks in Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology resemble a theological version of “The South Will Rise Again.”

Morton Smith the Segregationist

Given his reverence for a 19th century Presbyterian slave-holder, it may not be surprising to learn that Morton H. Smith was a 20th century Presbyterian segregationist.

Smith’s segregationist views were no secret, and were present around the very time that Banner was reprinting Dabney with Smith’s help. Between the publication of Smith’s Studies (1962) and Banner’s first edition of Dabney’s Discussions (1967), Smith published an article in The Presbyterian Guardian entitled “The Racial Problem Facing America” (1964). The best analysis of this article and the historical context surrounding, that I’ve found, is from Bradly Mason: “Then & Now: The Conservative Presbyterian Race Debate in 1964.” Here are just a few quotes from Smith’s article:

“As a matter of practical consideration in a culture that has been sharply segregated for so long, it seems the point of wisdom to keep a segregated pattern in the sanctuary when there is joint worship” (127).

“The reason that so many see a Communist influence in the present [civil rights] movement is that the goal seems to be the same as that of the Marxist philosophy, namely, the levelling of all to a common uniformity. Even if the American Negro movement has not been started or backed by the Communist Party at first, it certainly plays into the hands of the Communists” (127)

“Again, if diversity is God’s revealed way for mankind, one wonders about any program that advocates the inter-marriage of the diverse races in a way which will eradicate the differences that God has established” (127).

“If, on the other hand, it is necessary to separate large groups of different ethnic groups in order to preserve peace between them, there is no harm in such separation as such” (128).

Albert Freundt, Jr.

Smith was not the only Mississippi segregationist involved in Banner of Truth’s reprinting of Dabney’s Discussions. Albert Freundt, Jr., Smith’s fellow teacher at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, was also an outspoken segregationist. In 1962, when James Meredith became the first Black student to integrate The University of Mississippi, (“Ole Miss”), it sparked violent reactions among white-supremacist segregationists. An Episcopal rector in the state, Duncan Gray, went to the campus to “scold the riotous students” and then afterward “led a petition drive among Oxford’s clergy calling for compliance with desegregation orders. Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian ministers in Oxford called on white Mississippians to acknowledge and repent for their passive acceptance of the conditions that had led to violence.” 

The Citizen

In response, Albert Freundt, Jr., took to the pages of the Citizen’s Council publication The Citizen with an article simply titled: “Oxford Clergy Wrong in Calling for ‘Repentance!’ ” (Citizen, Oct. 1962, 5-6). “It was the federal government and outside agitators, Freundt believed, not white Mississippians, who needed forgiveness for provoking the violence at Ole Miss” (for the above references on Freundt, see Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton University Press, 2007), 70–71). The Citizens Council was an organization founded to oppose “Brown v. Board of Education,” and “its work initiated the private school movement across the South and forged national and international networks of white supremacy that would deeply influence the political and cultural landscape of post-civil rights America” (see Stephanie R. Rolph “The Citizens’ Council”). Freundt was “one of the few PCUS [Presbyterian Church in the United States] clergymen ever to contribute to the Citizens’ Council publications” (Chappell, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, 146).

What is remarkable to me is that, as Bradly Mason notes, all this activity of Smith, Freundt, and Iain Murray—advocating for segregationist positions, and working to retrieve the work of white-supremacist theologians—was taking place “during the height of the Civil Rights movement” (“Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 do NOT Preclude Justice Advocacy”). At this very same time, just a half hour out of Jackson, Mississippi, John Perkins was fighting as a Black evangelical Christian for Civil Rights in Mendenhall, Mississippi (see Perkins, A Quiet Revolution, and Let Justice Roll Down), and yet, these white Reformed pastors, seminary professors, and publishers, were busy at the work of perpetuating the very forces of white supremacy that Meredith, Perkins and many others were fighting against.

Why? Why would Iain Murray and Banner of Truth work so closely with Southern segregationists like Morton Smith and Albert Freundt, Jr. to re-introduce the works of a white-supremacist slaveholder to the reformed community, in the 1960s? This is a question that I am still wrestling with, but the fundamental answer seems to be “Calvinism.” Adherence to so-called “right doctrine” outweighed the ethical considerations of racism, white-supremacy, slavery, and segregationist beliefs, and thus it was “with particular pleasure” that Murray re-introduced Dabney to the Reformed Evangelical world.

Bavinck on American Racism

But what about Bavinck? Thankfully, we don’t have to speculate about what he actually thought of America and American racism. His recent biographer James Eglinton gives us an account of Bavinck’s visit to the U.S. in 1908 in a section subtitled “Tales of a Racist Disaster: A Warning to Would-Be Emigrés” (Note: a version of this section of Eglinton’s book was also published on his blog as “Bavinck on Racism in America”). After returning to the Netherlands, Bavinck gave several public lectures on his “Impressions of America.”

“In an auditorium so full that listeners were also seated on the stage around the speaker, Bavinck went through the usual motions, discussing the majesty of the ocean and Niagara Falls and the historic influence of the Dutch on American society before speaking in apocalyptic tones of the unfolding di­saster that was racialized hatred in America.”

James Eglinton, Bavinck: A Critical Biography, 248
W. E. B. Du Bois

At one point in the trip Bavinck had been told by a Southerner that “‘negroes are not humans. Canaan went to Lod and took a wife. That wife was an ape.’ (Bavinck disagreed, profoundly.)” (Eglinton 248). Eglinton reports that “In his own study notes from this journey, it is clear that Bavinck made a considerable effort to understand race relations in America.” His reading list include a lecture by Booker T. Washington, as well as W. E. B. Du Bois, ““Die Negerfrage in den Vereinigten Staaten.” This article by Du Bois is available in English translation (on JSTOR here), and some of the material is expanded from chapters in The Souls of Black Folk (“Of the Sons of Master and Man” and “Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece”). 

Bavinck was not blind to the issue of American racism, he looked it square in the eye, and he listened directly to Black voices. Overall, Bavinck’s impressions of the U.S. were so “bleak,” that he “warned an audience of young Dutch Christians of ‘a great dan­ger hidden in today’s emigration to America’” (Eglinton, 248). Bavinck thought that America’s deep racial division: 

“could only be over­come by ‘the way of religion.’ Even then, though, he was struck by the segregated reality of American church attendance. Unless it also underwent a profound transformation, the American church could not offer a solution to the problem of race.”

Eglinton, 248

Not only did Bavinck not commend Robert Lewis Dabney, or other white-supremacist theologians like him, had he ever commented directly on them, he is much more likely to have included them in this same bleak assessment.

Morton Smith, Banner of Truth, and those who have relied on their distorted account of Bavinck need to retract this claim regarding Bavinck and Dabney.

And that includes me.

Further Reading:

1976 – John Perkins, A Quiet Revolution.

1998 – David L. Chappel,“Religious Ideas of the Segregationists.” Journal of American Studies 32.2 (1998): 237–62. (Available on JSTOR)

2005 – David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). (Amazon)

2007 – Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution. (Princeton University Press, 2007) (Amazon)

2009 – Peter Slade, Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) (Amazon)

2010 – Anthony Bradley, “Why Didn’t They Tell Us?: The Racist & Pro-Segregation Roots Of The Formation Of RTS, The PCA, And The Role Of First Prez In Jackson, Miss In All Of It.”

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

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”:

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

For a historical (and historiographical) introduction to the letters see Part 1 here: “[Nine of] Eleven Letters by Chorepiscopus [Robert Lewis Dabney] to the Richmond Enquirer, on “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (1851).” This post contains brief commentary on each of the nine letters.

Letter 1

The reception of the letters is interesting. The editors of the Enquirer clearly think that Dabney’s arguments, “if circulated and studied, must do much to pierce the film of prejudice and error, and strengthen the bulwarks of Southern Rights.” Dabney was no minor figure in 19th century Virginia, he had influence in both the sacred and the secular sphere. Second, it is interesting that Dabney explicitly repudiates the common Southern sentiment that “slavery is a regrettable but unavoidable necessity” and instead posits a strong and unapologetic “slavery is righteous, just, benevolent, and above all, Biblical.” Dabney saw that arguing for slavery from the Bible was “profitable” and “safe” and would give them a “great advantage.” Nevertheless, it is interesting that even here, he can’t help but acknowledge that things would have to change (which, history demonstrates, they never did): 

“but slaveholders must pay something for all these striking advantages of the discussion; and the tribute which they must pay, is to grant to the slave those rights which are inalienable to humanity—a just and humane treatment, the right of serving his Creator, and those domestic privileges which God gave to all men, when he placed them in families. If we represent slavery as a thing which necessarily includes the overthrow of the slave’s right to life, and of his moral, religious, and marital rights, then we make it a thing indefensible; for these things are a part of that essential humanity, of which no human being can be rightfully deprived.—If we make our institution a something which secures these rights to the slave, then it is defensible: and the victory is ours! To secure these inalienable rights of humanity to the slave, we invoke, not so much legislation, though perhaps a prudent legislation might ameliorate some things, as conscience, justice, and mercy.” 

Note the conditional “if we make our institution” more just “then it is defensible.” But even here, he shies away from legislating any of these changes. Exactly how the institution would so fundamentally change, Dabney never shows, he merely hypothesizes.

Letter 2

Dabney makes a great point here for “immediate emancipation”: if slavery is sinful, it ought to cease at once, no dabbling around the edges with “gradualism”: 

If I did not believe that the bible taught this, I must, in consistency, be a thorough abolitionist. I cannot see how men can say in one breath, that slavery is a malum per se and in the next, that a conscientious man may lawfully continue it for the present, because of the difficulties of emancipation. My conscience and my bible teach me that, if an act is wrong, in its own essential nature, sin, I am to cease it at once. I have no right to look at the supposed evil consequences or difficulties of the reformation. God has not told us that we are to love his law when convenience and safety permit; he has told us that if we do not love it in preference to convenience, profit, and life itself, we cannot be his disciples. Consequences belong to God, duty belongs to us. What would be the thought of the man, who should plead that he ought not to cease living in an adulterous connexion, because a change would be dangerous and inconvenient?—Would not you answer, “unless you cease that connexion at every risk, you are an immoral man?” So, in answer to all the pictures of the mischiefs which emancipation would bring on master and slave, if I believed that slavery were, in its own abstract nature, malum per se, I should be compelled to answer in the words of the well known maxim : Fiat justitia, ruat cælum!

These words could have come from the pen or mouth of William Lloyd Garrison, apart from the very first conditional.

I should note that Dabney’s entire edifice of Old Testament argument hangs on identifying Southern slavery with what is described in the Bible with the Hebrew word עבד (“abad”), an utter lexical fallacy that shows up in his reasoning. Here’s one example: 

An attempt has been made to parry this, and other Old Testament arguments for the lawfulness of slavery, by asserting that the slaves of the Hebrews were only hired. This assertion is only good to display the ignorance of those who make it. A truly learned and honest anti-slavery man, such as the venerable Moses Stuart, would blush to employ it.—All antiquity proves that these servants were slaves for life. They were “bought for money.” They were denoted by one certain Hebrew word, while an entirely different word was employed to denote a hired servant, and was never used interchangeably with the former.

Unfortunately for Dabney, this is easily disproved. עבד is the Hebrew word Dabney claims “was never used interchangeably” with the word for a hired servant. However, in Genesis 29 Jacob עבד Laban his uncle. He does not עבד for nothing, but his service includes specific terms and wages (Gen 29:15, 18, 20, 25). When this agreement is broken, Jacob is angry that he has been deceived (Gen 29:25). The terms are updated. When the time period is complete, Jacob demands to leave along with his “wages” (Gen 30:26, 29). (For a thorough outline on the uses of עבד in the Pentateuch, see “עבד: “work/service/slavery” in the Torah”). This foundational error in Dabney’s exegetical framework leaves his entire argument on unsustainable ground.

Letter 3

In this letter, Dabney attempts to draw strong continuity between the Old Covenant laws and the New Covenant Christian. As a Baptist, I already reject much of the fundamental framework of continuity that Dabney starts with. Nevertheless, in terms of the Old Testament ethics, Dabney claims that “if we find any particular thing sanctioned, or enjoined, in these peculiar, civil, or ceremonial institutions of Moses, it does not prove that thing to be binding on us, or necessarily politic and proper for us; but it does prove it to be, in its essential moral character, innocent.” Because God ordained “slavery” (already a fallacy for Dabney), it must not be an evil in itself. However, in all his discussion on this, Dabney never addresses Jesus’s own teaching which does precisely this:

“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31–32).

“The Pharisees said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3–9)

Setting aside an in-depth discussion of “divorce and remarriage” for Christians, it is evident that Jesus has a category for something in the Law of Moses that was there temporarily because of “the hardness of your hearts” but that, if practiced now, would constitute something sinful (“adultery”). I would say that the treatment of Gentiles by the nation of Israel falls completely in this category: no intermarriage; no eating together; on occasion going to war to kill and conquer them; and harsher terms of servitude than for “Hebrew servants” — all of these fall under the temporary, and even the “for the hardness of your hearts,” aspect of the Old Covenant. Dabney does not refute this—he doesn’t even address it.

Letter 4

Moses Stuart

Dabney continues answering abolitionist objections to Old Testament arguments for slavery. One interesting point to note is the use he makes of “a northern man, and no friend of slavery, Rev. Moses Stuart.” Moses Stuart (1780–1852) was a professor at Andover Theological Seminary (near Boston), and was considered to be one of the leading biblical scholars of the time. He was also a quintessential example of the Northern “moderate,” who claimed to be personally opposed to slavery, but unwilling to actually do anything about it, and actually spent considerable time and energy opposing abolitionists instead for being “too radical.” Stuart himself supported “colonization” (shipping free Black people back to Africa), and discouraged the students at Andover from engaging in abolitionist activism. When George Thompson, an abolitionist from England, came to America in 1835 at the invitation of William Lloyd Garrison, he made a stop in Andover. At chapel, Stuart sounded forth: “”I warn you, young gentlemen, Iwarn you on the peril of your souls, not to go to that meeting tonight” (in Claude M. Fuess, An Old New England School, A History of Phillips Academy, Andover, 226). When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, Stuart publicly supported it, publishing an entire treatise defending it: Conscience and the Constitution with Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster on the Subject of Slavery (Boston, 1850).

Needless to say, abolitionists opposed moderates like Stuart as fiercely as they opposed the “fire-eaters” in the south. The pages of the Liberator frequently critiqued Stuart along with other Christian churches and theologians. Abolitionist William Jay published his own Reply to Remarks of Rev. Moses Stuart, Lately a Professor in the Theological Seminary at Andover, on Hon. John Jay, and an Examination of His Scriptural Exegesis, Contained in His Recent Pamphlet Entitled, “Conscience and the Constitutionin response as did George Perkins in Prof. Stuart and Slave Catching. Remarks on Mr. Stuart’s book “Conscience and the Constitution.” The conflict in the North between abolitionists and moderates is important for understanding these debates (for more on this see: ““We have much theology, but what does it amount to?”: William Lloyd Garrison’s critique of the American Tract Society,” and ““Fraternal” to Whom? White Evangelicalism’s Centuries-long Problem with Race.”) Stuart was the perfect kind of “anti-slavery” figure for Dabney to quote for his own rhetorical purposes.

Letter 7

In letter 7 Dabney directly contradicts himself from just ten years earlier. In a letter sent to Mr. G. Woodson Payne, on January 22, 1840, Dabney admits that 

“I do not believe that we ought to rest contented that slavery should exist forever, in its present form. It is, as a system, liable to most erroneous abuses… Do you think that there will be a system of slavery, where the black is punished with death for an offence for which a white man is only imprisoned a year or two; where the black may not resist wanton aggression and injury; where he is liable to have his domestic rela­tions violated in an instant; where the female is not mistress of her own chastity; where the slave is liable to starvation, oppression and cruel punishments from an unprincipled master—that such a system can exist in the millennium? If not then, it is an obstacle to the Prince of Peace, and if we would see his chariot roll on among the prostrate nations it is our duty to remove this obstruction”

Life and Letters of Dabney, 68. 

Yet, in 1851, in Letter 7, Dabney has completely reversed course:

But they [anti-slavery men] ask: Must not the spread of the pure and lovely principles of the gospel ultimately extinguish slavery ? Yes, I hope it will; not by making masters too good to be guilty of holding slaves, but by so correcting the ignorance, indolence and thriftlessness of laboring people, that the institution of slavery will be no longer needed.

Here is the first hint of an idea that will be much more elaborately expressed in subsequent letters: slavery is right and just because it is a benevolent way to correct “the ignorance, indolence, and thriftlessness of laboring people” — and by “laboring people,” Dabney was referring specifically to Black people.

Letter 8

In Letter 8 Dabney moves from his scriptural argument to arguments from “reason.” Central to his reasoning is the notion of the “common good” or the “good of the whole” or the “general good of society.” The arbiters of just what constitutes the “general good of society” is, of course, upper class white men like Dabney. Mix in some racism, and Dabney can assert that slavery is justified because it is for the “common good”:

“all men are by nature equal in their rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, except so far as the good of the whole requires the submission of all to degrees of restraint corresponding to their qualities and circumstances.”

“Now, we assert, that this surrender of individual, savage, independence to the general good of society, is of the essential nature of slavery… If it can be shown that the degree of restraint which amounts to slavery, is necessary for the best condition of ruler and subject, then it is justifiable”

It is here that Dabney’s racism supplies the crucial premise in the argument. Why is slavery good for society as a whole? Why, for the welfare of the inferior Black people:

“And that the necessities of order, social happiness, and the welfare of the slave himself do call for the relation of domestic slavery, is proved by the admissions of all who have any practical knowledge of the African, and by the disasters which have attended his emancipation.”

Only white-supremacy could argue so audaciously that slavery is for “the common good” and especially good for “the welfare of the slave himself.”

Letter 9

Francis Wayland

In Letter 9, Dabney tries to refute the objection that because American slavery was rooted in kidnapping, “a system which had its origin in wrong cannot become right by the lapse of time; that, if the title of the piratical slave-catcher on the coast of Africa was unrighteous, he cannot sell to the purchaser any better title than he has ; and that an unsound title cannot become sound by the passage of time.” This is a powerful objection, and it should be noted that Dabney doesn’t actually answer it in the letter. Instead, he points the finger back at Northern anti-slavery figures, and says, in effect, “Oh yeah? Well what about the land you stole from the ‘New England Indian’? Are you going to give that back? Didn’t think so. Leave me alone.” He blusters that anti-slavery moderate Francis Wayland had “begged the question” and made a proposition “worse than questionable” but he never actually addresses Wayland’s reasoning, other than those side-stepping assertions. He concludes the letter with a very self-congratulatory justification for the situation: “The relation so iniquitously begun at first, but so fairly and justly transferred to subsequent owners, has resulted in civilization, religious instruction, and untold blessings to the slaves. Its dissolution would be more ruinous to them than to the masters” — indeed, a proposition worse than questionable.

Letter 10

Letter 10 contains the most concentrated dose of Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy:

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… 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.

Notice how Dabney’s white-supremacy infuses his Christianity in this pro-slavery argument:

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… 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!

Dabney’s “common good” argument rests squarely on the foundation of white-supremacy:

Under such circumstances as these, can we avoid conclu­ding that slavery is lawful and righteous? Are not its bless­ings proofs of its righteousness? Is it wrong to promote the greatest good of all classes?

Frederick Douglass

Reflecting on Dabney’s case for slavery, stretched out over these eleven letters, it seems that it was this white-supremacy that was the heart beat that invigorated both his “literal Biblical” reasoning on slavery and his Scottish “common sense” reasoning on the same topic. What might otherwise be neutral interpretive and rational tools (literalism, common sense) become infused with the racism undergirding it, and it shows in Dabney’s work. In answer, let me just quote Frederick Douglass: 

“…the slave master had a direct interest in discrediting the personality of those he held as property. Every man who had a thousand dollars so invested had a thousand reasons for painting the black man as fit only for slavery. Having made him the companion of horses and mules, he naturally sought to justify himself by assuming that the negro was not much better than a mule. The holders of twenty hundred million dollars’ worth of property in human chattels procured the means of influencing press, pulpit, and politician, and through these instrumentalities they belittled our virtues and magnified our vices, and have made us odious in the eyes of the world. Slavery had the power at one time to make and unmake Presidents, to construe the law, dictate the policy, set the fashion in national manners and customs, interpret the Bible, and control the church; and, naturally enough, the old masters set them selves up as much too high as they set the manhood of the negro too low. Out of the depths of slavery has come this prejudice and this color line.” (“The Color Line,” The North American Review (1881), 593.

Letter 11

Adam Smith

In Dabney’s final letter, he takes up the objection that slavery is less productive than free labor. This claim had been made most notably by Adam Smith in his 1776 An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Book  III, Chapter II), and Dabney feels compelled to try to address it. The letter is an amalgam of ad-hoc arguments, and his own comparisons with conditions in the north, in which he can claim that  free labor is more “oppressive” than slavery:

But compared with the hardships, diseases, separations of families, and op­pressions, to which free labor is liable, in its poverty and in its severance from a master’s protecting arm, all the oppres­sions of Southern slavery are trifling. 

I think my favorite argument in the letter amounts to this: “I know a guy who lived in Ohio (a very reliable fellow, trust me), and he says that our farms in Virginia are better than theirs.” Evidently, at this point in the argument, it was time to wrap it up. Dabney’s concluding paragraph includes all the core elements in his argument: race, religion, and “common sense reason” — a powerful recipe: 

If a slave-holding society is more productive than one pos­sessing free labor, and if the institution of slavery secures to the laboring classes a more comfortable share in the profits of the community, then slavery is a merciful and benev­olent institution for a world and a race such as ours. The wisdom and goodness of our Creator are conspicuous in au­thorizing it. We have not then claimed his sanction to an unjust, cruel and mischievous system; but we have found that, contrary to the confident assertions of the wisdom, falsely so called, of this world, it is a system as accordant to justice and benevolence, as it is to that book whose teachings are unmingled righteousness, and whose spirit is mercy.

Slavery was no “blind spot” for Robert Lewis Dabney — it was a foundational cornerstone in his entire ideology, intellectual, theological, spiritual, philosophical, and political.

Further Reading

Giltner, John H. “Moses Stuart and the Slavery Controversy: A Study in the Failure of Moderation.” Journal of Religious Thought (1961): 27–39.

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).

Mullin, Robert Bruce. “Biblical Critics and the Battle Over Slavery.” Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985) 61.2 (1983): 210–26 (available on JSTOR).

Noll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006), Chapter 3: “The Crisis over the Bible.”

[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).

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

In December 1861, at their General Assembly, Presbyterians in the South separated from their brethren in the North, and formed a new denomination: The Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (Morton Smith, Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology, 37). State presbyteries already approved this move, as had, for example, the Synod of Virginia in October 1861, under the leadership of Robert Lewis Dabney (Thomas Cary Johnson, Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 244). In 1865, after the fall of the Confederacy, they adopted the name The Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), still separate from the Northern PCUSA (the PCA would later form out of the PCUS in 1973).

But in 1861, the PCCSA, formed over the issue of slavery and “states rights,” was also interested in “foreign missions.” Morton Smith notes that “The new-born Church was especially interested in missions as the supreme work of the Church. Among the resolutions of that first Assembly regarding missions is this classic statement regarding the place of missionary work in the life of the Church”:

“Finally, the General Assembly desires distinctly and deliberately to inscribe on our church’s banner, as she now unfurls it to the world, in immediate connection with the headship of our Lord, his last command: ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature’; regarding this as the great end of her organization, and obedience to it as the indispensible condition of her Lord’s promised presence, and as one great comprehensive object, a proper conception of whose vast magnitude and grandeur is the only thing which, in connection with the love of Christ, can ever sufficiently arouse her energies and develop her resources so as to cause her to carry on, with the vigor and efficiency which true fealty to her Lord demands, those other agencies necessary to her internal growth and home prosperity.”

(Minutes, PCCSA, 1861, p. 17 — in Smith, Studies, 41).

In fact, Smith concludes that “this Assembly considered herself primarily as a witnessing instrument, a mission society” (Studies, 40).

With this context, it is fascinating to look at the man who would eventually become the Secretary of Foreign Missions for the PCUS, Samuel Hall Chester. His Memories of Four-Score Years: An Autobiography by Samuel Hall Chester, D.D. Secretary Emeritus of Foreign Missions of the Southern Presbyterian Church (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1934) is a fascinating picture of Southern Presbyterian life.

Chester was born in 1851 in the “border state” (between slave and free) of Arkansas. His family enslaved Black laborers, and Chester describes the situation through the typical “benevolent master” lens: 

“The institution as we knew it in the South was perhaps the mildest form of slavery the world has ever seen. Our slaves were the best fed and clothed and housed, and the least oppressed peasantry int he world, and the relation between good masters and good slaves was in many instances very happy and very beautiful”

(Memories, 39).

Chester experienced a typical socialization for a white son: “My special friend and playmate was a Negro boy of my own age, with whom I boxed and wrestled and roamed the fields in search of mischief and adventure” (39). Nevertheless, Chester acknowledged the harmful effects of slavery:

“Practically all intelligent southerners are now glad that the institution of slavery is seventy years behind us; even more for the slaveholders sake than for that of his former slaves. Only a small minority of mankind in any age or country have ever been good enough to be safely entrusted with the personal ownership of their fellow man. And in my opinion there is no sound reasoning and no sound interpretation of the Scriptures that can justify an institution that makes it possible under the law for men of small minds and cruel hearts, of whom there is always an oversupply in the world, to wreak their bad temper on the naked back of a helpless and unresisting fellow man, whether he be black or white.”

Memories, 41.

When the Civil War came, Chester’s brothers fought for the Confederacy, and Chester blamed the horrors of war on politicians and abolitionists:

“the unspeakable wickedness of that fratricidal strife into which the nation was dragged by selfish politicians representing supposedly clashing interests on both sides, and by fanatical moral crusaders seeking to destroy what they regarded as a criminal institution by the perpetration of one of the greatest crimes of all history.”

Memories, 45.

After the war, even as a teenage, Chester joined in the Southern hatred of Reconstruction. He complained that Black laborers were less productive (50), and that Yankees were intruding where they were unwanted. He describes the response in the form of secret white societies: 

“The response to these measures all over the south was the Ku-Klux Klan, the Pale Faces, the Knights of the White Camelia, all of them secret oath-bound organizations, differing in minor features, but with the same general character and purpose. This was to ‘protect our people from indignity and wrongs; to succor the suffering, particularly the families of dead Confederate soldiers and from trial otherwise than by jury.’”

Memories, 52.

Chester joined as a teenager:

“Our community adopted the Knights of the White Camelia, and into that order I was initiated at the age of sixteen by the pastor of our church. When the ceremony of initiation was finished and my blindfold removed, I looked around and saw all the elders and deacons of the church and every important member of the community standing around the walls of the room. Certain passwords and signs were adopted, but was understood that no meetings were to be called, except to meet an emergency.”

Memories, 52.

Chester was never aware of “costumes or raids” because “none were ever necessary” but it is possible that the Knights didn’t invite the sixteen year old to every activity. Chester does describe intimidating people to leave the community with typical Southern euphemism: 

“Messages were sent to leading Negroes assuring them that we were their friends as we had always been, and warning them against being deceived and led into any movement against being deceived and led into any movement against he white people by their false friends, the carpet baggers. A few of those who may themselves especially obnoxious received messages posted on their doors to the effect that for a certain number of days they would not be disturbed, in order that they might have an opportunity to arrange their business affairs; but that after a fixed date they were likely to find living conditions in that part of the country neither pleasant nor safe.”

Memories, 53.

As remarkable as the story itself is the fact that Chester could so casually recount these facts in his autobiography, which tells us something about the state of the country and the PCUS in 1934.

From 1869–1872 he attended Washington College which was then under the presidency of Robert E. Lee, “our greatest southern hero” (55). He was a student there when Lee died in 1870 and describes several encounters with him before then in reverential terms.

After college, he entered Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, where he studied under Benjamin M. Smith  (Hebrew and Old Testament), Thomas E. Peck (Church History), Henry C. Alexander (New Testament), and Robert Lewis Dabney (Systematic Theology). His anecdotes about Dabney are interesting. Here is his assessment of Dabney as a theologian:

“Dr. Dabney, our professor of theology, had such insatiable curiosity on all subjects, both sacred and secular, and such a phenomenal memory that he came to know more things and to know them more thoroughly than any man I ever knew. I am satisfied he could have filled a chair in history or chemistry or biology or English literature in any university. He planned and largely built his own houses. He played no mean part in the Civil War as Stonewall Jackson’s chief of staff, serving much of the time also as brigade chaplain. He filled successively several of the chairs in Union Seminary. His great work, how- ever, was done in the Chair of Theology. His contemporary, Dr. Wm. G. T. Shedd, of Union Seminary, New York, once told me that he regarded Dr. Dabney as the greatest of our American theologians. His theological views on some of the higher points of Calvinism were broader and more liberal than those of Dr. Hodge or Dr. Warfield.”

Memories, 77.

Chester recounts an interesting incident which shows Dabney’s deep-seated animosity toward the North which stayed with him his entire life:

“In one matter only did he finally become narrow and, one might say, implacable. During the war and its aftermath of reconstruction, he became so embittered by the ruthless meth- ods 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?”

Memories, 77.

Despite the interest in foreign missions indicated by Smith above, Chester describes the state of things while he was in seminary:

“In the years 1872-75 the foreign missionary work of our church had hardly more than made a beginning, and the missionary spirit was largely undeveloped. Since the close of the war our people’s attention had been too much taken up with carpet- baggers and Freedman’s Bureau agents and armies of occupation to give much thought to things in foreign lands. There were two missionary volunteers in the senior class of 1872. There were none in either the middle or junior classes of that year. Our course in church history, under which the study of missions would have fallen, was largely concerned with questions of creed and church polity and the ancient heresies that had vexed the church. Missionary interest among the students was represented by a band of about a dozen of our student body of sixty-five, which we called “The Society of Missionary Inquiry,” which met every two weeks at nine o’clock Saturday” (78–79).

Memories, 78–79.

Dabney himself was deeply interested in “foreign missions”:

“Dr. Dabney became deeply interested in the opening of our mission to Brazil, and was instrumental in raising a special fund for sending Rev. Edward Lane and Rev. G. Nash Morton as our first missionaries to that field. Mission work had made a small beginning in Greece and in Mexico, but it was not until years afterward that our great missions to Japan, Korea and Africa were opened.”

Memories, 79.

Chester pastored Presbyterian churches for nearly two decades in North Carolina and Tennessee. In 1884 he was married, and in 1893 he was named secretary of Foreign Missions of the PCUS. He continued in this role for thirty years and saw the work of Southern Presbyterian missionaries grow from 143 missionaries with a budget of $143,000 to 517 and $1,400,000. 

Interestingly, the autobiography includes a number of letters, and Chester recounts one from Robert E. Lee’s daughter, Mildred, in October 1894: “We were then living in Nashville, Tennessee, and Mrs. Chester invited her to visit us and attend a United Daughters of the Confederacy Convention that was expected to be held in Nashville” (62). Active participation in Lost Cause organizations was part and parcel of Southern life for those in high levels of leadership, even (or especially), ecclesiastical.

In 1923, he was granted “optional retirement,” until the Committee of Foreign Missions could find a replacement. “What happened was that I went right on for the full three-years term conducting the foreign correspondence, and also filling Dr. Smith’s place as Executive Secretary during his visit of nearly a year to our missions in the far east” (Memories, 231). He actually retired in 1926.

Observations

A few things are noteworthy here. One is an observation of the type of racial sensibilities found in the highest levels of Southern Presbyterian leadership. A man who was a member of the Knights of White Camelia was Secretary of Foreign Missions over 500+ foreign missionaries. That he speaks so candidly about these things shows how normal they were in the institution.

Second, this shows how these things were not relegated to the ancient past of 1860, but demonstrates how they carried on to the next generation, and generations after that. Chester brings the legacy of Robert Lewis Dabney (and Southern Presbyterianism as a whole) all the way into the 1930s. When Sean Michal Lucas claims that Dabney “set the racial orthodoxy for the church for the next hundred years” (Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 148–49), this is a concrete example of how that worked.

Third, Chester is an example of a first-hand source for Dabney’s teaching. The anecdote about preaching “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee?” is only found, so far as I can tell, here in Chester.

Finally, Chester, and the Southern Presbyterians as a whole, are just one example of white American Christianity’s unceasing ability to hold the grand ideals of “foreign missions” at the very same time as holding deep seated white-supremacy. In fact, the white supremacy can even serve as a motivation for missions, to “civilize” the barbarous non-white heathen. “From Knights of the White Camelia, to Secretary of Foreign Missions” may sound strange to our ears, but it was the established norm at the time.

The Civil War and the Failure of White American Christianity

Robert Lewis Dabney

The American Civil War was a crisis on a number of levels, including, as Mark Noll has explored, a theological crisis (see Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis). As Abraham Lincoln noted in his second inaugural address, both sides, “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” Among the various lenses available for exploring this crisis is that of Robert Lewis Dabney, a Reformed Presbyterian seminary professor (at Union Seminary), and a pro-slavery, white-supremacist. Dabney had seen war coming years before the fateful events of 1860 and 1861, and he warned against what he feared would be its destructive results. In particular, Dabney’s concerns highlight a deep deficiency in white American Christianity, one that Dabney himself was unable to see, but which may be instructive for white American Christians today.

“Shame on the boasted Christianity of America” — March 29, 1856

On March 29, 1856, Dabney published an editorial in the Central Presbyterian titled “Christians, Pray for Your Country” (in Discussions, Vol. 2, 393–400). He  lamented: “what a war that will be? Civil feud has ever been known as the most bitter of all.” He described, “the conflagration of battle which will rage along this narrow line across the whole breadth of a continent!” (396). He especially feared for the state of religion: “Christianity will sicken and droop amidst the crimes of national convulsion and the license of camps” (398). “Christian America” would be wasting time fighting with each other, “and meantime, the redemption of the race is by so many ages postponed; and sin and hell pray [sic] upon so many more of the teeming generations!”

Dabney then exposes a deep inability at the heart of white American Christianity, an inability which would prove itself in the country as a whole, and in Dabney’s own life in particular, as he later fought for the Confederacy:

Christians of America, will ye suffer this ? If such a crime against God and man be wrought in this land of thirty thou­sand evangelical ministers and four millions of Christians, how burning the sarcasm which it will contain against your Chris­tianity ! What, was there not enough of the oil of love in all these four millions of the servants of the God of love to soothe the surging billows of party strife? Was there not enough of the majesty of moral weight in these four millions of Christians to say to the angry waters, “ Peace, be still ?” ”Were not all these strong enough to throw the arms of their love around their fellow-citizens, keep down the hands that sought each others’ throats, and constrain them by a sweet compulsion to be brethren? Did this mighty church stand idly by and see phrenzy immolate so many of the dearest hopes of man and so much of the glory of God on her hellish altar, and not rather rush between and receive the sword in its own breast? And this church knew, too, that the fiend had borrowed the torch of discord from the altar of Christianity, and that therefore Chris­tians were doubly bound to arrest her murderous hand before the precious sacrifice was lost in the conflagration! If this be suffered, then shame on the boasted Christianity of America, and of the nineteenth century! With all its parade of light and evangelism, wherein will it be less impotent and spurious than the false Christianity which permitted and sanctioned the butcheries of the Crusades, the torture of the Inquisition, or any other great iniquity of the dark ages ?

(“Christians, Pray,” 398–99)

Dabney’s questions are perceptive: “was there not enough of the oil of love in all these four millions of the servants of the God of love to soother the surging billows of party strife?” No, among white American Christians, there was not enough of the “oil of love,” first to love their Black brothers and sisters (which Dabney did not have in mind here), and then, out of those deeds of love and justice, eliminating entirely the need for war.

“Was there not enough fo the majesty of moral weight in these four millions of Christians to say ‘peace be still’?” No—there was not enough moral weight in 4,000,000 white Christians to do what was morally right and just, let alone work for peace.

I agree with Dabney on this point: “shame on the boasted Christianity of [white] America, and of the nineteenth century.” For all of her evangelism and revivals, it proved “impotent and spurious.”

November 1, 1860

Four years later, on November 1, 1860, Dabney preached a sermon on a special “fast-day” appointed by the Synod of Virginia (“The Christian’s Best Motive for Patriotism,” in Discussions, Vol. 2, 401–412). Five days later, Lincoln would be elected and in December, South Carolina would secede from the Union, but for now, Presbyterians in Virginia were gathering to “pray for escape from national convulsions” (401). The sermon includes many of the same themes, but includes some new elements as well:

Now, in view of this picture of possible crime and misery, would to God that I could reach the ear of every professed servant of Jesus Christ in the whole land! I would cry to them : Christians of America—brothers—shall all this be ? Shall this church of thirty thousand evangelical ministers, and four millions of Christian adults—this church, so boastful of its influence and power; so respected and reverenced by nearly all; so crowned with the honors of literature, of station, of secular office, of riches; this church, which moulds the thought of three- fourths of our educated men through her schools, and of all, by her pulpit and her press; this church, which glories in having just received a fresh baptism of the Spirit of heaven in a na­tional revival—permit the tremendous picture to become reality ? Nay, shall they aid in precipitating the dreaded consummation, by traitorously inflaming the animosities which they should have allayed, and thus leave the work of their Master to do the devil’s ? Then, how burning the sarcasm which this result will contain upon your Christianity in the eyes of posterity! Why, they will say, was there not enough of the majesty of moral weight in these four millions of Christians to say to the angry waves, “ Peace be still ” ? Why did not these four millions rise, with a love so Christ-like, so beautiful, so strong, that strife should be paralyzed by it into reverential admiration ? Why did they not speak for their country, and for the house of the Lord their God which was in it, with a wisdom before whose firm mod­eration, righteousness, and clear light, passion and folly should scatter like the mist ? Were not all these strong enough to throw the arms of their loving mediation around their fellow citizens, and keep down the weapons that sought each other’s hearts; or rather to receive them into their own bosoms than permit their mother-country to be slain ? Did this mighty church stand idly by, and see phrenzy immolate so many of the dearest hopes of man, and of the rights of the Redeemer, on her hellish altar ? And this church knew, too, that the fiend had borrowed the torch of discord from the altar of Christianity, and that therefore Christians were bound, by a peculiar tie, to arrest her insane hand before the precious sacrifice was wrapped in flames. Then shame on the boasted Christianity of America, and of the nine­teenth century! With all its parade of evangelism, power, and light, wherein has it been less impotent and spurious than the effete religion of declining Rome, which betrayed Christendom into the dark ages; or than the baptized superstitions which in those ages sanctioned the Crusades and the Inquisition? In the sight of heaven’s righteous Judge, I believe that if the Chris­tianity of America now betrays the interests of men and God to the criminal hands which threaten them, its guilt will be second only to that of the apostate church which betrayed the Saviour of the world ; and its judgment will be rendered in calamities second only to those which avenged the divine blood invoked by Jerusalem on herself and her children.

“Patriotism,” (405–406).

In addition to what he had observed four years previously, Dabney also lays potential (soon to be actual) blame specifically upon the seminaries and churches (“this church, which moulds the thought of three- fourths of our educated men through her schools, and of all, by her pulpit and her press”). He highlights a deep incongruity (via his own anti-Catholicism): “With all its parade of evangelism, power, and light, wherein has it been less impotent and spurious than the effete religion of declining Rome, which betrayed Christendom into the dark ages.” 

He also poses a good question: “Why did not these four millions rise, with a love so Christ-like, so beautiful, so strong, that strife should be paralyzed by it into reverential admiration ?” The answer, which Dabney could not grasp, was that these four millions would not rise with such a love because they did not have it in them. Had a “Christ-like love” actually inhabited white Christians, it would have been evident in their lives long before the eve of Civil War in their treatment of Black brothers and sisters. That horse had not merely “left the barn,” before November 1860—it had never resided there in the first place.

The 1858 “Revival”?

Interestingly, Dabney calls attention to the “revival” of 1858: “this church, which glories in having just received a fresh baptism of the Spirit of heaven in a na­tional revival—permit the tremendous picture to become reality ?” (“Patriotism,” 405). 

This event has sometimes been called the “Businessman’s Revival,” the “1858 Prayer Revival,” or the “Awakening of 1858.” Historians have noted how difficult it is to know how to assess this revival, given how widespread it was, and how short-term its effects. Indeed, it is “so haphazardly interpreted that there exists little unanimity on what even to call it.” (See Leonard I. Sweet, “A Nation Born Again: The Union Prayer Meeting Revival and Cultural Revitalization,” in In the Great Tradition: In Honor of Winthrop S. Hudson: Essays on Pluralism, Voluntarism and Revivalism, ed. Joseph D. Ban and Paul R. Dekar (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1982), 193–221; cited in Kathryn Long, “The Power of Interpretation: The Revival of 1857-58 and the Historiography of Revivalism in America,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 4.1 (1994), 77; Baptist historian William McGloughlin concluded that it was not “any kind of national awakening but merely a response to financial insecurity and newspaper publicity”; William G. McGloughlin, Modern Revivalism, Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (New York: Ronald Press Company, 1959), 164.)

Frederick Douglass

As you might expect, the spuriousness of white Christianity is see in her so-called revivals too. As Frederick Douglass said, “revivals in religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand together” (“American Slavery: Report of a Public Meeting, May 22, 1846,”).

In 1858 at least one anti-slavery figure instantly criticized the “revival” precisely because of what he saw as its pro-slavery features. Isaac Nelson was an Irish evangelical minister who worked with Douglass and Garrison in the 1840s to oppose slavery (see Daniel Ritchie, “Transatlantic Delusions and Pro-Slavery Religion: Isaac Nelson’s Evangelical Abolitionist Critique of Revivalism in America and Ulster,” Journal of American Studies 48.03 (2014), 761).  Nelson critiqued the revival because “it had not led to emancipation or even to the American churches disciplining slaveholders” (“Delusions,” 764). He believed that “a genuine spiritual awakening would have led to an increased interest in anti-slavery,” and that absent this, any so-called revival was “spurious” (“Delusions,” 765). He noted that in some parts of America experiencing this revival, leaders had forbidden prayer on behalf of emancipation. At the epicenter of the revival, the Fulton Street prayer meetings in New York, it was reported that they segregated the meetings and made Black people pray by themselves on a separate floor removed from the main meetings. “This is the first time I have ever been to any of these meetings, and this shall be the last,” said one Black woman. “I told her that these things were a part of the American Religion,” replied a Black man who had also visited the meetings that day (“Letter from a Colored Man,” New York Tribune, March 27, 1858).

Daniel Ritchie makes an acute observation regarding the revival: “when one considers that American quickly fell into the most destructive Civil War, Nelson’s argument about the specious nature of the 1857–58 revival appears accurate… If 1857–58 had been a true revival, then, according to Nelson’s reasoning, it is not likely that the American states would have been plunged into a brutal war only a few years later in 1861” (“Delusions,” 776). Indeed—if 1857–58 had been a true revival, genuine Christianity would have been manifest long before the brutal war in their treatment of Black brothers and sisters in Christ.

“Humble Confession of Our Sins, Individual and Social”

Back to Dabney’s 1860 sermon—the remedy to this dire danger includes, first, “Christians should everywhere begin to pray for their country” (“Patriotism,” 406). Next, Dabney turns to confession: “And along with this should go humble confession of our sins, individual and social.” Dabney understands the connection between individual sin and its social and systemic aspect as well: 

It is for our own sins alone that we are responsible to God. It is our own sins alone that we have the means of reforming, by the help of his grace. Let each man, then, consider and forsake his personal transgressions; for as your persons help to swell the aggregate of this great people, so your individual sins have gone to form that black cloud of guilt which threatens to hide from us the favorable light of our heavenly Father’s face But let us remem­ber, and confess also, our social sins: that general worldliness which hath set up the high places of its covetous idolatries all over the good land God hath given us; that selfish profusion and luxury which have squandered on the pride of life so much of the goods of our stewardship; that heaven-daring profanity and blasphemy by reason of which the land mourneth. And let me not forget faithfully to protest, on such a day as this, against that peculiar sin of the southern country, the passion for bloody retaliation of personal wrong, which has been so often professed and indulged among us, unwhipped of justice. You have allowed too often the man of violence, the duelist, profess­ ing his pretended “ code of honor ”—most hateful and deceitful pretence of that father of lies, who was a murderer from the beginning—to stalk through the land with wrongs upon his angry tongue and blood upon his hand, while his crime was winked at by justice, and almost applauded by a corrupt public opinion. “ So ye have polluted the land wherein ye are; for blood, it defileth the land, and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.’”

Dabney acknowledges a number of sins that characterize the South, but though he names “worldliness and covetous idolatry; selfish profusion and luxury” he refuses to see white-supremacy and chattel enslavement as the foundation of such covetousness and the source of that luxury. Especially interesting is his calling out of the “duelist,” that “peculiar sin of the southern country, the passion for bloody retaliation of personal wrong, which has been so often professed and indulged among us,” driven by their honor/shame culture, “professing his pretended ‘code of honor.’”

Dabney had many of the resources at hand to combat the deep sickness in his country, and in particular, in white American Christianity. He had his Bible, and he knew deeply of its teachings of “Christ-like love”; he had categories for not just individual, but social sins; he knew that seminaries, churches, and printing presses despite their “vaunted successes” could prove utterly impotent in the face of a real call for moral weight; and yet, this form of Christianity—his form of Christianity—proved impotent. 

What was missing? More theology wouldn’t fix it (Dabney himself was a theology professor at Union Seminary); more printing of books, more preaching of sermons (see also “We have much theology, but what does it amount to?”: William Lloyd Garrison’s critique of the American Tract Society“). What was needed was repentance at such a deep level that the entire society would be changed from the bottom up. Even preaching on “Christ-like love” remains impotent when that love is only intended for fellow white people. 

White American Christianity needed to be born again. I think it still does.

“The Problem of Evil and its Relation to the Ministry to an Underprivileged Minority”

Fall 2020 I took a class on “the problem of evil,” and decided to write a paper exploring Richard Ishmael McKinney’s work on the problem of evil from a Black perspective.

McKinney earned his Bachelor of Divinity at Newton Theological Institution in 1934 and wrote a thesis paper on “The Problem of Evil and its Relation to the Ministry to an Underprivileged Minority.” McKinney would go on to a PhD at Yale, and then a lifelong academic career in philosophy in Historically Black Colleges and Universities. McKinney’s life spans nearly the entire range of the 20th Century as a Black academic serving in Black schools, though unfortunately his academic career would essentially remain behind the shadow of ‘The Color Line’ of segregation and Jim Crow.

Here’s the introduction to the paper:

All of the work on the problem of evil that I have been exposed to has been written by white theologians and philosophers, either Christian or otherwise. Often their examples and reflections betray their status from the highest of upper classes, those afforded the opportunity to pursue PhD level education at elite universities, and then to go on to academic and publishing careers. Yet an important voice seems missing, the voice of the marginalized. Interestingly, there are identifiable traditions of Black Theology and Black Philosophy that have wrestled with the problem of evil from within the context of the Black experience in the United States. This paper will explore one vein within these traditions, that provided by Richard I. McKinney (1906–2005), and the thinkers he engaged with, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Thurman, seeking to discover what unique contribution this tradition has to offer to our thinking on this topic.  We find that Black theologians have a unique perspective on the Problem of Evil from their perspective within a marginalized community, a perspective that is vital to hear when engaging this subject.

The bibliography includes as nearly a complete c.v. for McKinney as I could construct.

You can read the whole thing here:

Here are a few quotes:

These peoples voice their experience thus: “Why must I or my people suffer? Is my kind cursed of God? Why, if God is good, does he let injustice go on? Is not God himself partial to certain races? What about these inequalities in human life?” In the face of these questions, McKinney asks: “What in view of these facts, are the resources of religion for such suffering?”

McKinney would later suggest that “Doubtless Jesus himself would be outraged if he were to witness in the flesh some of the un-Christian and undemocratic practices of the institution and people which bear his name.”

McKinney claims that “In general, the Negro spirituals represent one of the most significant aspects of Negro life in America.” Here it is worth pausing to make an observation regarding theological method. Normally, students of theology focus our attention on written texts, great works of systematic theology or philosophical theology. One thinks of the “Great Books,” including works by Jonathan Edwards or (for some traditions) the great Reformed Theologian Robert Lewis Dabney. Why is it that we don’t have works of theology from the same time period written by Black Christians and thinkers? Individual theologians like Jonathan Edwards or Robert Lewis Dabney were afforded the luxury of time and energy to think and to write, in part, because they owned African slaves. Theological institutions like the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary were sustained, in part, by the labor of slaves and the financial support of slave-owners. What could the enslaved produce? Songs. And a case could be made that the source material for a more genuine form of Christianity will be found in these spirituals, than in the books that were written on the backs of those who sang them.

Howard Thurman captures the deep paradox and opportunity seen in Black Christianity: “the slave took over the religion of the master and became a traditional Christian. In many ways this fact is amazing as well as ironical. It was a fateful moment in the life of the new world when the African slave was brought face to face with the Christian religion. It may be that then, as now, this black minority was called upon to redeem a religion that the master and his posterity disgraced in their midst.”

In facing the problem, McKinney does not want us to pull any punches: “he would be Christian in this world must not close his eyes to any of its facts. The problem of evil and suffering is a fact, and a very immediate one for many people; and as such it cannot be lightly explained away. We must not be afraid to look at life with open eyes.”

McKinney regularly referred to a quote from Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History: “the noted historian Arnold Toynbee asserted that it is likely that a revitalization of Christianity, if it comes at all, will come as a result of the religion of the Black people.”

Christians seeking to find a more authentic expression of Christianity, the family of those who follow the crucified and risen Lord, would do well to look to the Black church tradition, and will find there abundant resources for engaging the problem of evil, and numerous other situations as well.