Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was a Southern Presbyterian pastor, Confederate soldier, and seminary theology professor. He was also a venomous white-supremacist. Though he died over a century ago, in the 1960s his reputation was rehabilitated when Iain Murray and the Banner of Truth republished his writings and commended him to a new generation of Reformed Evangelicals in America. As a result, a number of leading evangelical figures began to read, cite, and commend Dabney to their followers. Only recently has the problematic elements of his thought, including his white-supremacy, been acknowledged. This page is an index of a number of articles and compilations of sources I’ve written on Dabney and his legacy.
In 1875 and ’76, Bennet Puryear wrote several articles opposing Black education, using some of the most vile white-supremacy I’ve ever seen. Dabney endorsed these articles, and used them as a springboard for his own article “The Negro and the Common School” published in 1876.
In 1891, Robert Lewis Dabney published a short biographical sketch in The Union Seminary Magazine titled “Thomas Carey [sic] Johnson” (available here). Johnson had just been appointed the professor of the English Bible and pastoral theology at Union, and Dabney was giving “the antecedents” to their new professor. After graduating from Hampden-Sidney college, and then Union Theological Seminary, Johnson, “upon the invitation of Dr. Dabney,” went to Texas to teach alongside Dabney in the Austin School of Theology. When Dabney’s illness got much worse in 1890, Johnson shouldered much of the load. Dabney praised Johnson’s scholarship, teaching, work ethic, and preaching, and commended him to Union.
Thirteen years later, Johnson would return the favor for his mentor and friend, first writing a brief sketch of his life and character for The Union Seminary Magazine (“The Rev. Robert Lewis Dabney, D. D., LL. D.” (1898): 157–67) and then greatly expanding this work into The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney.
It is important to understand Johnson’s relationship to Dabney in order to rightly understand this book. On the one hand, it’s important to know that Johnson revered Dabney and agreed with him on almost every single issue he confronted, whether it was the righteousness of slavery, the inferiority of Black people, or Dabney’s side of various theological controversies. Dabney is given to us through the most sympathetic lens possible. This actually serves us well, because Johnson does not feel the need to hide any of the details in these various controversies, because he believes Dabney is right. While many felt that Dabney had too many “crotchets” and was woefully out of step with the times. Johnson, though, was sympathetic to Dabney: “Dr. Dabney has received much criticism as ultra-conservative. Perhaps in some minor matters he was too antagonistic to change, but we confidently await the verdict of history on his conservatism. We do not believe he was too conservative in most matters” (569). Though Johnson had deep sympathies for Dabney, he wanted to give the man “in full,” and not edited to appeal to his contemporaries. In the very first page of the preface, Johnson says this:
“An effort has been made to present, as nearly as possible, the genuine Robert Lewis Dabney in this book. He did not relish the thought of being trimmed to suit the notions of an author or an editor, and thus presented to the public. When his Collected Discussions were being brought out, there was some criticism of one of the articles to be presented in the first volume. The critic made the point that the article objected to would injure Dr. Dabney’s reputation if republished. The Doctor, on hearing this, turned somewhat sharply us, and said: ‘What do you think of this? Do you like the plan of trimming a man, whose life and work you would perpetuate, to suit your notions, and then handing the resultant down as if it were real?’ We made answer, that it seemed to us that, if a man’s works and life are worthy of preservation through the medium of the press, they and he should be handed down as they were, warts and all. He replied emphatically, ‘The truth demands it, sir.’ The memory of this little conversation helps to explain the presence of some features of the book. He was so intensely honest that he would have abhorred any effort to present him sheared to the demands of current moral and religious tastes” (v).
As long as one keeps in mind Johnson’s perspective, this is a very transparent account of Dabney’s life. It is in the conclusion (“Summary View of the Man and His Services”) that Johnson veers toward hagiography, praising Dabney to high heaven in every sphere he touched—“energy and power,” “sense of responsibility,” “Christian character,” “sanctified common sense,” “as preacher,” “as teacher,” “as theologian,” “as a philosopher,” “as a political economist,” “as a statesman,” “as a [Confederate] patriot,” “as a friend,” and “as a servant of God.” In fact, Johnson says: “as a holy man, he deserves to be ranked with Augustine and Calvin, Owen and Baxter and Edwards” (567).
After reading the book, I am convinced that Dabney was a great man; I am not convinced that he was a good man. Dabney was a force of nature and was possibly the strongest leader, teacher, and influence on Southern Presbyterians in the nineteenth century (and beyond). His seminary teaching stamped his views on hundreds of Presbyterian pastors and teachers, and his activity in the various Presbyterian synods often won the argument through sheer force of personality. Johnson gives us all of this. This influence was often in favor of strict Calvinist theology (which some will praise), but his most vehement and strenuous efforts in the church and in society were launched against the equality of Black people, and in these debates, he also made his imprint, and helped to shape the Southern Church for decades (indeed, over a century) to follow. His influence was great; it was not good.
In his Union Seminary Magazine article, Johnson explains why it is impossible to consider Dabney’s theology in abstraction from his embodied historical context:
“To give an adequate account of his life it would he necessary to enter into a discussion of the general current of theological thought during the last forty years and portray him in relation to these currents. It would also be necessary to give an exposition of many contemporary philosophical systems and show how he stood toward those systems. It would be no less needful to refer to many material, political and sociological changes which have occurred in our country during the last fifty years. For Dr. Dabney, while a minister of the gospel, was also a citizen of his commonwealth [Virginia], and a great christian statesman. He took a burning interest in all that vitally concerned the welfare of his country. He held profound views on political economy and statecraft, and set them forth with tremendous vigor. The lives even of most great preachers pass in such quiet that the historian finds little to dwell upon. What he says of one day’s labor and achievements may be said of almost every other day. Such was not the life of Dr. Dabney. His life touched so many points in the common history of church and state and touched them in a way so unusual that it is impossible to give an adequate sketch in a few pages” (159).
What Johnson said was necessary in 1898, he delivered in 1903. This book is essential for understanding Dabney’s life and legacy.
A few odds and ends. Johnson’s references to Dabney’s articles and papers are a treasure trove for more digging, but they aren’t always accurate. For example, Johnson references two papers in “the Christian Intelligencer, which were interesting reading, e. g., “Description of Negro Worship in Richmond and Lynchburg, Ante and Post Bellum,” December 1872; “Description of Negro Theology,” January 1873, et al” (337). Actually, those articles were titled “Two Picture” (November 1872), and “Peculiar Religious Opinions of Southern Freedmen,” (January 1873) (see here for more on these particular articles). Trying to track some of these down will need to do some extra digging on occasion. Also, the indexes in Johnson’s book are incomplete. For example, the entry for “slavery” includes 2 page references; I added eleven more as I worked my way through the book. The book is available for free on Google Books. 600 pages is a lot to read on a screen (I have a hard copy), but is very convenient for searching within the book for specific words, phrases, or references. Finally, beware for some strong racial language, including the use of the n-word in some of Dabney’s letters. It is to be expected, but it is still jarring nonetheless.
Anyone interested in digging deeper into Dabney should read this, but I especially commend this book to white reformed(ish) evangelicals who want (or need!) to grapple more fully with the white-supremacy that has poisoned their theological tradition. I would also recommend that you read a contemporary historian’s take, like Sean Michael Lucas’s masterful Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. Following Dabney’s trail through the 20th and 21st century has been fascinating and revealing for me — this book takes us back to the start of that trail.
It is interesting to see how Johnson’s book has been received and reviewed over the years, from figures like Benjamin B. Warfield, to the Confederate Veterans.
“While the reader may not agree with Professor Johnson’s exaggerated estimate of him as entitled to ‘the first place amongst the theological thinkers and writers of his century,’ he cannot but be impressed with the commanding position he held as a leader in the Presbyterian church for forty years or more… Professor Johnson is prone to put too high an estimate on the intellectual qualities of Dr. Dabney and to give him the palm in every contest he wages.”
Philip P. Wells, from Yale Law School, offered this summary (available here):
“The subject of this eulogistic biography lived from 1820 to 1898 and was a typical Virginian of the upper class; a rigid Calvinist and a theological professor, regarding slavery as divinely ordained and modern science as atheistic; an army chaplain; chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson in 1862 and later his biographer; and in his later life an uncompromising opponent to the union of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches”
A glowing review (and advertisement) appeared in the Confederate Veteran: Published Monthly in the Interest of Confederate Veterans and Kindred Topics. The advertisement concluded like this:
“The book is a notable contribution to the historical literature of the South, and a copy should be in the home of every true Southerner.”
The review appears further in (available here), and concludes with this warm commendation:
“Taken all in all, few books have been produced in recent years of greater interest and value to all classes of readers.”
The review in the Independent and Weekly Review gave this assessment of Johnson and the book (available here):
“The author is not an adorer of Dr. Dabney, but an admirer and a faithful biographer. He has included in his book something which we could wish were not true, but his apology for so doing is a tribute to Dr. Dabney… Students of our national history might do well to read it, in order to see something relating to our Civil War from the Southern standpoint.”
The Union Seminary Magazine offered a glowing review, as is to be expected. It begins like this:
“The Southern Presbyterian Church is to be congratulated upon the appearance of this book. Many of us looked forward with sharp appetite to its coming from the press, and not without some impatience under the delay, after the publishers informed us it was nearly ready for delivery. When it came we sat down to a feast of fat things. We became so much interested as almost to forget that sermons should be prepared for the next Sunday. This book contains many of the burning thoughts of our great teacher, gathered by a loving author fully prepared to appreciate them, who enjoyed special opportunities to learn the character of his great subject.”
It comments on Johnson like this:
“Dr Johnson was a favorite pupil of Dr. Dabney, and engaged by Dr. Dabney to assist him in the theological department of the University of Texas. The mind, the energy and the power of work of these two men were cast in a mould somewhat similar; consequently the men were bound together by a bond of congeniality. It was, therefore, natural and appropriate that Dr. Johnson should be selected by the friends of Dr. Dabney to prepare his Life and Letters; and well has he done his task.”
They acknowledge Dabney’s foundational role in Southern Presbyterianism:
“For he had an ardent love for his Southland and her institutions. He felt called to lend all his mighty powers to the advancement of their welfare in church and State. The Southern Presbyterian Church is largely indebted to him for her foundation and maintenance on solid scriptural principles in both theology and ecclesiology.”
Fundamentally, they are proud of this book:
“It would be an assumption contrary to human observation to expect that every reader will assent to everything in this book; but it is a noble book, of which the Southern Presbyterian Church may be proud.”
B. B. Warfield reviewed the biography in The Princeton Theological Review, and his review contains a mix of praise and critique. Here is Warfield’s opinion of Johnson’s adulation:
“He is set before us in Dr. Johnson’s biography from the point of view of an intense admirer. He was worthy of his biographer’s admiration, but it may be doubted whether the expression of this admiration does not now and again pass the bounds within which it is effective. When speaking of a man like Dr. Dabney extravagance of praise is not necessary: the plainest picture of him, if true to life, will speak for itself… We may regret the element of unmeasured encomium which has been permitted to intrude into the biographer’s pages, especially into his concluding ‘summary view of the man and his services.’”
In 1977, Banner of Truth reprinted Johnson’s book, which stimulated a fresh round of reviews. John Pollock reviewed the book for The Churchman (a British Anglican journal):
“It would be a fair guess that few in England have heard of Robert Lewis Dabney and at first sight the Banner of Truth Trust have made a surprising choice for their admirable series of reprints, of Thomas Johnson’s massive biography of 1893. Nevertheless, the patient reader will be rewarded by entrance into a world worth exploring.”
Pollock comments on the Confederate flavor of the book:
“The modern reader takes for granted that Christianity and slavery are incompatible: Dabney and his biographer would disagree. They never ceased to regret its passing, and one of the charms of this book (however much we may condemn the attitude to slavery) is its unashamed loyalty to the defeated, ravished Confederacy: Yankees are ‘they’, Southerners are ‘we’. And certainly in this old civilization there was a very tine and attractive spirit, which still lingers south of the Mason-Dixon line.”
Finally, the Presbyterian Guardian included a review in their 1978 issue:
“Robert Lewis Dabney, a Southern PResbyterian theologian in the last half of the last century, is one of the outstanding Reformed theologians in American history. The Banner of Truth has done us a great service by republishing the definitive biography by his successor at Union Theological Seminary, Richmond. Those of us in the Presbyterian Church in America stand directly in the tradition of R. L. Dabney, and should be particularly interested in this book; and all those who love the Reformed faith should cherish this volume.”
Probably the most cited piece by Dabney is “Secularized Education” (1879), which has been reprinted by Douglas Wilson’s Canon Press, and was recently included as a chapter in Zachary Garris’s Dabney on Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government. Occasionally, other works on education by Dabney will also be cited, but almost never do any of these admirers acknowledge the white supremacy embedded at the heart of Dabney’s view of education and his opposition to public schools. Rarely, too, do they consider any of the counter arguments in existence in Dabney’s own time, counter arguments made by fellow Christians, and even fellow Presbyterians. In order to better understand Dabney’s views on education, it is necessary to situate them in context and consider all the sources.
“Civis” in the Richmond Religious Herald (1875)
Dabney’s first article on education was titled “The Negro and the Common School” and on the very first page, he says this:
You may conceive, therefore, the satisfaction with which I saw “Civis” take up the cause of truth in the columns of the Religious Herald, and subsequently in the Planter and Farmer, and my admiration for his moral courage, eloquence and invincible logic.
“Civis” was the pen-name for a Baptist professor from Richmond, Bennet Puryear. In 1875, Puryear wrote “a much-discussed series of articles opposing mass education on principle” (Maddex, The Virginia Conservatives, 211). I have not been able to locate these articles (yet!) but they seem to have appeared in the following issues:
Barnas Sears was one of the most influential Baptists of the nineteenth century. After serving as a professor at the Newton Theological Institution, he took over for Horace Mann as Massachusetts Secretary of Education, and during Reconstruction, was General Agent of the Peabody Fund. In 1875, in response to “Civis”’s attack on public schools, Sears delivered an address defending public schools at the Annual Meeting of the Trustees of the Peabody Fund. This piece is important for demonstrating another way to approach Church/State relations and public schools from a Baptist perspective:
“The Public School in its Relations to the Negro” (1875–76)
Bennet Puryear followed up on his earlier articles, which had opposed public schools “on principle,” with three more articles in the Planter and Farmer opposing the education of Black people. The articles are filled with Puryear’s white-supremacist views, and it is not surprising that Dabney expressed his “satisfaction” and “admiration” for them. They originally appeared December 1875, January 1876, and February 1876, and were collected and printed in a pamphlet:
In “The Negro and the Common School,” Dabney also references another set of articles by fellow Presbyterian John Miller. Miller was born in Virginia, the son of Princeton professor Samuel Miller. Like Dabney, Miller too had served in the Confederacy, before moving back to the north to pastor in Princeton, NJ. Here’s what Dabney said:
With equal satisfaction I have seen the Rev. Dr. John Miller, long an honored citizen of Virginia, and a gallant soldier in her army, arguing the same truth in the Tribune, with even more than his wonted terseness, boldness and condensed logic.
John Miller had written two articles to the New York Tribune opposing public schools. He was responding to a letter by ex-Speaker of the House James G. Blaine that had been published in the Tribune December 3, 1875 advocating for a Constitutional amendment (“The Blaine Amendment”) requiring “non-sectarian schools”:
The piece contains Dabney’s characteristic venomous white supremacy, but goes further and attacks the “satanic” effort to establish public schools to teach Black people in Virginia. Zachary Garris has claimed that William Ruffner, superintendent of public schools in Virginia, “attacked” Dabney after he published this piece. In fact, Dabney was the one who attacked Ruffner, in bitter and vehement terms, as we can see in Ruffner’s response.
“Dr. Dabney Answered by Mr. Ruffner” (1876)
William Henry Ruffner was a fellow Presbyterian minister, and after the Civil War, he “was the designer and first superintendent of Virginia’s public school system,” and served as state superintendent for twelve years (“William Henry Ruffner (1824–1908)“). After Dabney’s attack in “The Negro and the Common School,” Ruffner wrote a four-part series in the Richmond Enquirer and the Dispatch in April 1876, responding to Dabney’s article point by point.
In these letters, Ruffner references a number of articles that had been published in previous years. The first was an article he had written anonymously in The Presbyterial Critic in 1855 criticizing public schools, but he claimed he had given up those views after a rejoinder was published the following year:
Last, in his article addressing the cost of public schools, Ruffner referenced a recent article that had been printed in the Richmond Enquirer, and had been reprinted in The Educational Journal of Virginia
Ruffner responded again to Dabney’s articles with a seven-part series, also in the Richmond Enquirer, throughout May 1876. These were also reprinted in The Educational Journal of Virginia. The seventh article “failed to appear in the Enquirer, because the MS. was lost in the office of that paper; and now, after an interval of three weeks, I must hurriedly reproduce it for the Journal”:
Virginia proceeded with their public school system, and thus Dabney “lost” that particular battle, but he would not give up the war. He continued to publish additional articles in the Princeton Review and the Southern Planter repeating many of his arguments against state involvement in education, though his Princeton Review articles (perhaps because he was publishing in a northern journal?) he left out his tirades against “the negro.” His (now) popular “Secularized Education” is largely a reprint of Letter 4 to Ruffner from 1876. His “Free Schools” article, written for a southern audience in the Southern Planter, again contains a section explicitly opposing educating Black people.
In the 1879 volume of The Educational Journal of Virginia, William N. Nelson responded directly to Dabney’s article on “Free Schools,” and an unknown author responded to his “Secularized Education” in “Christianity in Public Schools.”
The next year there was a meeting of the Department of Superintendents belonging to the National Educational Association in Washington, February 18-20, 1880. In his address, Ruffner made reference to the way the old “defenders of slavery” now denied “the power of common school education” to improve the lives of laborers, especially Black people.
It is interesting to compare Dabney’s views on State involvement in public schools for children, versus his views on State education at the college level. In 1883 Dabney moved to Texas and took a position at the University of Texas. In a letter to E. M. Palmer which was published in the Southwestern Presbyterian in 1884, Dabney defends the State’s involvement with education as not inconsistent with Christianity at all. This directly contradicts some of his earlier positions expressed in Virginia — perhaps the difference here is that State sponsored education is acceptable for well-bred white men, but not for Black children:
First, anyone who wishes to praise Dabney’s insights in education needs to reckon with the white supremacy that was at the heart of his objections to public schools. It is telling that most have not even acknowledged this.
Second, those who think Dabney was “uniquely prophetic” in his stance against public schools, should realize that Dabney was not unique, in fact, this was just one more aspect of Southern resistance to reconstruction. As the Blaine Amendment was being debated in congress in 1875, the whole country was intensely debating these questions. Dabney was just one of many, especially in the south, who opposed public schools in the midst of this debate.
Third, before you swallow Dabney’s “insights” whole, you really need to read Barnas Sear’s perspective, and the various rebuttals, especiall William Ruffner’s. There is not one single “Christian” perspective on public schools, whatever certain very confident voices would have you believe.
Finally, as with every historical inquiry, there is always far more below the surface than you initially realize. When one sees an isolated quote, or a high-profile endorsement of Dabney’s views of “Secularized Education,” it can initially sound compelling until you dig below the surface and see what else is there. As usual, there is quite a bit of context to be reckoned with.
For Further Reading:
1903 – Thomas Cary Johnson, The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 396–399 (available here)
1988 – Thomas C. Hunt and Jennings L. Wagoner, Jr., “Race, Religion, and Redemption: William Henry Ruffner and the Moral Foundations of Education in Virginia,” American Presbyterians 66.1 (1988): 1–9. (on JSTOR)
The role of Robert Lewis Dabney in the Christian Reconstruction movement has been documented by a number of scholars in recent years. In their 2002 article, “The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South,” Edward Sebesta and Euan Hague showed how Rousas J. Rushdoony helped to “revive interest” in Dabney and other Southern Presbyterians (and Confederates) (this article is included in their Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction). Sebesta and Hague note how in addition to reprinting Dabney’s works through his publishing house, Rushdoony also “applauded Dabney’s defense of slavery” in the pages of his Chalcedon Report. The entry for Rushdoony in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (2014) notes that among the “major influences on Rushdoony” were “Southern Presbyterianism (especially Robert Dabney).” Drawing on Sebesta and Hague, Julie Ingersoll’s Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction(2015), 16–19, also highlights Rushdoony’s role in rehabilitating Dabney:
By most accounts, Dabney’s influence had waned when C. Peter Singer and Rushdoony resurrected his work in the middle of the twentieth century. Yet Dabney has been called prophetic by Reconstructionists from Rushdoony to Doug Phillips. While much of Dabney’s work was republished by Lloyd Sprinkle, Rushdoony’s Ross House Books also republished some of it. Rushdoony publicized those books through Chalcedon Foundation newsletters, public lectures, and his very early “podcasts” sent to subscribers on audiotape. According to Edward Sebesta and Euan Hague, “Rushdoony’s promotion of Sprinkle’s reprints brought them to the attention of the wider Christian Reconstructionist movement in the United States [leading] to their discussion and review in magazine articles, books, audio cassettes, videotape sets, and other pro-Confederate theological and political venues.”
However, one source that has been largely unexplored thus far is the Journal of Christian Reconstruction. Nearly every issue from 1974 to 1999 is available online and text-searchable (see Gary North’s repository here, as well as Chalcedon’s site–search “JCR”), and so affords a convenient avenue for sounding out the recurring appearance of Robert Lewis Dabney over the years.
Indeed, the contributors to JCR refer to Dabney on a wide variety of subjects including many of the core themes of the Christian Reconstruction movement: “biblical creationism,” postmillennialism, critiques of “secular education,” theonomy, the atonement, and even textual criticism. But the JCR did not restrict itself to Dabney’s “theological” or social commentary, they self-consciously promoted Dabney the Confederate—both as an officer in the Confederate army, and as an author defending and glorifying the Confederacy in his Defense of Virginia and his Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson). The use of Dabney was not merely circumstantial—Rushdoony had made it a point to republish Dabney’s works in his Ross House Publishers, and you can see these reprints cited in the pages of the Journal. This growing restoration of Dabney’s reputation throughout the 1970s and 1980s was highlighted in the Journal as an encouraging sign for the movement. Many in the Christian Reconstruction movement viewed the ante-bellum south as a model “Christian nation,” and Dabney as a proto-typical Christian Reconstruction patriarch.
Of interest is the role that Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi played in the pages of the Journal. While the brief tenure of Greg Bahnsen at RTS is a well-defined chapter in the story of Christian Reconstruction (see, for example, Michael McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism), the pages of the Journal flesh this out even further. In addition to Bahnsen, a number of students from the seminary also appear in the pages of the Journal, including James B. Jordan, David Chilton, Richard Flinn, and Jack Sawyer. In addition to students (and then alumni), the Journal also included contributions from RTS professors Simon Kistemaker and Douglas Kelly and Kelly would at one point take over as chief editor when Rushdoony fired Gary North from the position in 1981.
Given the role of RTS founding professors Morton H. Smith and Albert Freundt, Jr. in the effort to republish Dabney in the 1960s (see ““A Leading Theologian”?: Herman Bavinck on Robert Lewis Dabney”), and the ongoing work of RTS professor Douglas Kelly to continue promoting Dabney in the 1980s (for example “Robert Lewis Dabney,” in Reformed Theology in America), it shouldn’t be surprising that a movement with significant overlap with RTS (Christian Reconstruction) would also share this enthusiasm for Robert Lewis Dabney.
This post merely documents the numerous times Dabney was cited in the Journalof Christian Reconstruction. Further work could still be done to trace Dabney’s influence through the voluminous writings of Rushdoony, North, Bahnsen, Chilton, and others, as well as its further development in Christian Reconstruction-ish and neo-Confederate-ish figures like Douglas Wilson.
1.1 Symposium on Creation (1974 Summer)
The very first issue of the Journal of Christian Reconstruction was devoted a “Symposium on Creation.” Contributors included Greg Bahnsen, Gary North, Vern Poythress, Rousas J. Rushdoony, and Cornelius Van Til (pdf available here).
Greg Bahnsen’s “Worshipping the Creature Rather than the Creator” (81–127) cites Dabney’s Systematic Theology in support of the idea that there can be no synthesis between Darwinian evolution and biblical creationism:
Robert L. Dabney’s words should ever be kept in mind in this regard:
“Other pretended theologians have been seen advancing, and then as easily retracting, novel schemes of exegesis, to suit new geologic hypotheses. The Bible has often had cause here to cry, ‘Save me from my friends.’ . . . As remarked in a previous lecture, unless the Bible has its own ascertainable and certain law of exposition, it cannot be a rule of faith; our religion is but rationalism. I repeat, if any part of the Bible must wait to have its real mean ing imposed upon it by another, and a human science, that part is at least meaningless and worthless to our souls. It must expound itself independently; making other sciences ancillary, and not dominant over it” [Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House,  1972), p. 257]. (99 n. 68)
The next page, Bahnsen cites Dabney again in the body of his article:
The Presbyterian theologian, Robert L. Dabney, made a similar observation, saying, “If you persist in recognizing nothing but natural forces . . . it will land you, if you are consistent, no where short of absolute atheism.” (100).
“Almost a century ago, Robert L. Dabney concluded that “ ‘Darwinism’ happens just now to be the current manifestation, which the fashion of the day gives to the permanent anti-theistic tendency in sinful man.” (101).
Thus, it is Dabney the “biblical creationist” that is the first version of Dabney cited in the pages of the JCR.
The Winter 1976–77 issue of JCR, a “Symposium on the Millennium,”includes contributions from Reformed Theological Seminary professors Greg Bahnsen and Simon Kistemaker, as well as then student James B. Jordan. The issue also features a heavy dose of Robert Lewis Dabney, by Bahnsen, Jordan, and Kelly (pdf available here).
Greg Bahnsen’s article “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism” (48–105) cites Dabney. In a concluding section of his article, he gives a historical survey to show that “It is recognized on virtually all sides that postmillennialism was a strong position in the nineteenth century” (97). He surveys England, Scotland, the European continent, and then Princeton, before turning to the Southern Presbyterians: “Such was certainly the conviction of the greatest theologians of the Southern Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.), J. H. Thornwell and Robert L. Dabney” (102). Here he cites Dabney’s Systematic Theology in support of postmillennialism (102–103, citing Dabney, ST, 838–40)
The next is James B. Jordan, then a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, “A Survey of Southern Presbyterian Millennial Views Before 1930” (106–122). Jordan gives a brief historical survey of the denomination, and describes the formation of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America this way, conveniently ignoring the explicit role that slavery played in their withdrawal from their Northern brethren:
The Southern Presbyterian church came into existence in 1861 when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. passed a resolution declaring its “obligation to promote and perpetuate, so far as in us lies, the integrity of these United States. . . .” The Southern men had hoped to keep war politics out of the church; having failed, they with drew (107).
After a few pages, his survey reaches the “Positions of the Theologians.” The first of the theologians up for review is Dabney, and Jordan describes him thus:
Doubtless the greatest theologian to serve at Union was Robert Louis Dabney (1820-1898)… Dabney was one of the most brilliant men that American Christianity has ever produced. His Defence of Virginia was called by Richard Weaver “at once the bitterest and the most eloquent” defense of the Southern cause. Dabney’s devastating critique of Northern industrial capitalism has also been assessed recently as remarkable. It is as a theologian of the first rank, however, that Dabney is best known (112, 113).
Jordan gives considerable space to Dabney:
We shall cite Dabney’s views in larger measure than others, both out of respect for his stature and influence (His Lectures in Systematic Theology was reprinted six times from 1878 to 1927) and because Dabney in his writings locked horns with the innovative premillennialism of his day (113).
Jordan then cites two of Dabney’s arguments against pre-millennialism:
Dabney declares that premillennialism is “directly against our standards.” As he saw it, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms ruled out premillennialism by teaching that there is only one physical resurrection at the end of history, not two separated by the millennium. Second, Dabney issued a devastating critique of one of the most common and recurring fallacies of eschatological belief. It is often argued that the New Testament teaches that Christ may return to the earth at any time, and that belief in an “any moment coming” is a great incentive to holiness.
Throughout, Jordan interacts with Dabney’s Systematic Theology, as well as ““The Theology of the Plymouth Brethren,” reprinted in Discussions, Vol. 1, by Banner of Truth (1967), and a scholarly article: David H. Overy, “When the Wicked Beareth Rule: A Southern Critique of Industrial America,” Journal of Presbyterian History 48 (1970): 130-142.
The final article that references Dabney is in the section of the JCR entitled “Defenders of the Faith” (166–77). This issue’s featured “defender” was the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, written by Douglas Kelly, pastor of First Presbyterian Church (U.S.), in Dillon, South Carolina, but soon to become professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi in 1983. Kelly’s portrayal of Jackson is standard Lost Cause hagiography:
Few American leaders, if any, either Southern or Northern, have ever stood so close to the throne of God as Thomas J. Jackson. The humility, purity, tender love of a crucified Saviour, and glorious splendor of a risen Lord are reflected in the attributes of this man (166).
In addition to his “Christian piety,” Jackson was a “military genius”:
he was a military genius of the highest order, who has been considered by experts in the science of war as equal to Napoleon on the European scene, and possibly superior to such American herpes as Generals George Washington, John Pershing, and Douglas MacArthur (166).
Kelly recounts the “Confederate Revival” plank in the story, too:
Jackson’s prayers and active efforts to promulgate the gospel among his troops were answered when a major revival broke out in the Con federate Army, with particular fervency in the regiments under his command. His “unsung” victorious leadership in the spiritual realm has counted for more than the military conquests that made him famous (167).
Throughout the short piece, Dabney relies heavily (almost, but not quite, exclusively) on Dabney’s Life of General Jackson, specifically, the 1976 Sprinkle Publications reprint of the 1865 edition. Kelly, relying on Dabney, white-washes Jackson’s life as a slave-owner:
Family worship was near and dear to him. Twice daily he kept the flame of devotion high on the family altar, requiring black servants as well as family to be present. Though he was part of a slaveholding society, the constraining love of Christ in him knew no social or racial bounds. “He was indeed the black man’s friend,” writes Dabney. “His prayers were so attractive to them, that a number of those living in his quarter of the town petitioned to be admitted on Sabbath nights, along with his own servants, to his evening domestic worship.” Later he established a sabbath school for the black people, which he personally organized, taught, disciplined, and prayed over. Manifold and lovely were the fruits of this endeavor in the black community. Many were converted, and characters were morally (171).
Kelly, again relying on Dabney, paints Jackson in literally glowing terms (“beams of divine light”):
To make a long story short, soon after the onslaught of this ghastly war (the first war in which truly modern weaponry was widely used), Jackson’s merits as an exceptionally brilliant, courageous leader— an officer’s officer—were recognized on every hand, and he rapidly rose to power. Here was a man God could trust with authority. The higher he rose, the humbler he became. Dabney notes how his pre-regenerate ambition had been transmuted into the sincerest, burning desire that Christ should have all the glory. “In place of harbouring Cromwell’s selfish ambition . . . Jackson crucified the not ignoble thirst for glory which animated his youth, until his abnegation of self became as pure and magnanimous as that of Washington. . . . The piety of Jackson continually repaired its benignant beams at the fountain of divine light and purity, becoming brighter and brighter unto the perfect day. His nature grew more unselfish, his aims more noble, his spirit more heavenly. . .” (172–73).
Kelly praises Jackson’s “heaven sent piety”:
The heaven-sent piety of Jackson made him one of finest generals of both armies, and caused him to consecrate all the efforts he legitimately could for the reformation of society and glorifying of God in political life (175).
Appropriate for the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Kelly finds in Jackson a proto-model of reconstructionism:
Beyond that, he had a vision for Constitutional reformation, or at least reinterpretation. Jackson felt that the popular American doctrine of separation of church and state had gone too far by the mid-nineteenth century. He astutely foresaw that this “separation” was coming to mean not a friendly independence of church and state, but a practical disestablishment of orthodox Christianity, and in its place a grow ing establishment of secular materialism and humanism. Jackson hoped that after a Southern victory he would see congressional action that would clearly establish biblical Christianity (though of course non-sectarian) as the officially encouraged religion of the land (175).
Kelly adds his own historical interpretation to the events of the Civil War, an interpretation deeply influenced by the Lost Cause. First, the “Christian Army” component:
One wonders if, with the exception of the Scottish covenanter regiments and Cromwell’s English army, there has ever been such an evangelical Christian army as that of the Confederacy after this revival (176).
Second, the “infidel North” versus the “Christian South” framing:
Secondly, through the influence of those who survived—a great company of converted veterans, who returned home after the war—the Southern States became more evangelical than ever. A defeated land became known as the “Bible belt.” The victorious Northern States (whose army was often manned with Unitarian chaplains alongside true believers) experienced no revival, and with all their material prosperity and power were increasingly deluged with soulless secular humanism (Footnote 23: This is not to obscure the fact that there have always been large numbers of the finest evangelicals in the North. Nevertheless, as a generalized historical tendency, it is true that the North has tended to secularism, while the South has held on to a Christian world and life view.) (177).
Thus, Dabney is established in the pages of the Journal as “the greatest theologian to serve at Union,” “one of the most brilliant men that American Christianity has ever produced,” and a reliable source on the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. Southern Presbyterianism and Christian Reconstruction overlap in their love for the Confederacy and the Southern Presbyterians of a former era.
the 1977 issue was a “Symposium on Education” (pdf available here). It was not just Southern Presbyterians in the PCA who loved Dabney and worked for Christian Reconstruction. Reformed Baptists were also involved (consider also how Banner of Truth and Iain Murray were connected both with the Reformed Baptists in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the Southern Presbyterians in Jackson, Mississippi). Trinity Baptist Church was pastored by Albert Martin, and they were starting a new training program, the “Trinity Ministerial Academy.” They announced this in the pages of the Journal of Christian Reconstruction in “Trinity Ministerial Academy: Prospectus” (100–107). The Prospectus begins with “The Nature of the Ministry”:
One’s understanding of the nature of the Christian ministry, both as to its origin and its function, will pervasively influence his attitude to the matter of training men for that ministry.
An understanding of the “ministry” will affect the understanding of the “minister”:
Furthermore, we believe that God has designated the essential function of the ministerial office (wherever that office is exercised, whether at home or abroad) as shepherding “the flock of God” (Acts 20:28; I Pet. 5:2). This work of shepherding (“feeding,” “tending”) is accomplished by means of the authoritative preaching and teaching of “the whole counsel of God,” together with loving guidance, encouragement, and admonition of the people of God, and wise rule in the house of God. Moreover, these activi ties must be given credibility and acceptance by the consistent godly ex ample of the minister himself (I Tim. 4:12; Titus 2:7).
And here, these Reformed Baptists appeal to Robert Lewis Dabney:
Thus we believe that the only sure indication that a man is being formed by Christ into an able minister of the New Covenant is his growing con formity to the clear standard of graces and gifts set forth in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. This truth was excellently set forth by R. L. Dabney more than a century ago in his essay entitled, “What Is a Call to the Ministry?” Dabney wrote:
“This leads us to add another important class of texts by which the Holy Spirit will inform the judgment, both of the candidate and his brethren, as to his call. It is that class in which God defines the qualifications of a minister of the Gospel. Let every reader consult, as the fullest specimens, 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9. The inquirer is to study these passages, seeking the light of God’s Spirit to purge his mind from all clouds of vanity, self-love, prejudice, in order to see whether he has or can possibly acquire the qualifications here set down. And his brethren, under the influence of the same Spirit, must candidly decide by the same standard whether they shall call him to preach or not” (in Discussions, Vol. 1, reprinted by Banner of Truth, 1967).
Obviously, our hearty acceptance of this view of the Christian ministry so ably set forth by Dabney means that we have been guided by it in all the planning of Trinity Ministerial Academy, both as to the subject matter and the method of instruction (101–102).
The Summer 1978 issue was a “Symposium on Politics” (pdf available here). Gary North, in his introductory “Editorial,” made a passing reference to Dabney and the other southern leaders:
(It should be understood that the majority of the pre-war leaders had been pro-Union, not secessionists, especially the military men like Lee, Jackson, and Jackson’s chaplain, Robert L. Dabney. The radical secessionists of South Carolina forced them into the Confederacy, once Lincoln took the calculated risk of reinforcing Fort Sumter.) (2).
Winter 1978–79 was a “Symposium on Puritanism and Law” (pdf available here). Reformed Theological Seminary is still heavily represented in terms of professors, graduates, and students (Bahnsen, Chilton, Flint, Jordan, Sawyer). James Jordan contributed an article titled “Calvinism and the ‘Judicial Law of Moses’” (17–48). He begins by addressing some “Criticisms of Theonomic Ethics,” and then considers “John Calvin and Martin Bucer,” “The Sixteenth Century,” “The Rise of Puritanism,” “The Era of the Westminster Assembly,” and “The Later Colonial Period in America,” before arriving at “The Southern Presbyterian Writers.” Here, as in his previous article, Jordan again appeals to “the thought of the two most excellent theologians of Southern Presbyterianism: James H. Thornwell and Robert L. Dabney” (46). Jordan paints the Confederacy as a “Christian nation”:
When the Confederate States of America were formed, in response to a perceived economic and atheistic threat from the Northern States, it was widely hoped that the new nation would be explicitly Christian. A petition was sent to the Congress of the CSA from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the CSA, authored by Thornwell, to that end. The proposed amendment to the CSA Constitution, to be added to the section providing for liberty of conscience, read:
Nevertheless we, the people of these Confederate States, directly ac knowledge our responsibility to God, and the supremacy of His Son, Jesus Christ, as King of kings and Lord of lords; and hereby ordain that no law shall be passed by the Congress of these Confederate States inconsistent with the will of God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.
Thornwell argued that though “the will of God, as revealed in the Scriptures, is not a positive Constitution for the State,” yet the State must believe the Scriptures “to be true, and regulate its own conduct and legislation in conformity with their teachings.” (Note that this is the position of Bahnsen and Rushdoony.) (46).
Jordan then turns to Dabney, and these two pages are worth reproducing in full, as an example of how and why the Christian Reconstruction movement looked to Dabney as a theological source for their views:
Robert L. Dabney, like Ridgeley, nowhere in his works explicitly states that the judicial law of God is binding, yet seems to assume it as a principle in his writings. In his Lectures in Systematic Theology he cites the Older Testament capital punishments for murder, striking parents, adultery, and religious imposture, without any hint that he thought these had ceased to bind nations (Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,  1972), pp. 402f.). With respect to adultery, his statement is explicit:
The law of Moses, therefore, very properly made adultery a capital crime; nor does our Saviour, in the incident of the woman taken in adultery, repeal that statute, or disallow its justice. The legislation of modern, nominally Christian nations, is drawn rather from the gross ness of Pagan sources than from Bible principles (Ibid., pp. 407f. See also his The Practical Philosophy (Mexico, Mo.: Crescent Book House, 1896), pp. 362f.)
This statement, especially its reference to “nominally Christian nations,” makes it evident that, in Dabney’s view, a genuinely Christian nation would draw its legislation from the law of God, including the penal particulars, rather than from pagan sources. Dabney here explicitly disagrees with Calvin’s notion of a “common law of nations.” Pagan sources are contrasted with Biblical law.
Dabney’s view is further elaborated and brought into sharper focus in his discussion of the lex talionis.
The application of the lex talionis made by Moses against false wit nesses was the most appropriate and equitable ever invented. What ever pain or penalty the false swearing would have brought on the innocent man maligned had the law followed the false witness un protected, that penalty must be visited on the perjurer maligning him.
Let the student compare the admirable symmetry of Moses’ provision with the bungling operation of our statute against perjury. He discriminates the different grades of guilt with exact justice. We punish the perjurer who swears away his neighbor’s cow with imprisonment, and the perjurer who swears away his neighbor’s honor and life, still with imprisonment (The Practical Philosophy, p. 513f.) (Jordan, “Calvinism,” 46–47).
Winter 1980–81 was devoted to a “Symposium on Evangelism” (pdf available here). Herbert Bowsher, pastor of a Presbyterian church in Birmingham, Alabama, submitted “Will Christ Return ‘At Any Moment’ ?” (48–60), and near the end of the article, Bowsher appeals to Dabney to support one of his points:
The church is very important to Christ. Scripture teaches that He loves it and gave Himself for it. He desires that it not have spot or wrinkle or any such thing (Eph. 5:25, 27). To this end, Christ gives officers for edification of the body (Eph. 4:11-12). Teaching is to be carried out and discipline maintained. But an “ any-moment” scheme has implications that seriously undermine this Scriptural view. Dabney has seen this problem clearly:
If no visible church, however orthodox, is to be Christ’s instrument for overthrowing Satan’s kingdom here; if Christ is to sweep the best of them away as so much rubbish, along with all “world powers” at his advent; if it is our duty to expect and desire this catastrophe daily, who does not see that we shall feel very slight value for ecclesiastical ties and duties? And should we differ unpleasantly from our church courts, we shall be tempted to feel that it is pious to spurn them. Are we not daily praying for an event which will render them useless lumber? (Robert L. Dabney, Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (2 vols.; London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), I, 208.)
Regardless of one’s ecclesiology, none would deny that an inadequately low view of the church prevails today among Christians. Could this emphasis on an “ any-moment” return be a contributing factor? (59).
1981 featured a “Symposium on Social Action” (pdf available here). Gary North could now speak of a “revival of interest” in men like Dabney:
“The 1980’s have brought a revival of interest in the older conservative tradition of the nineteenth century within fundamentalist circles. Ideas and political programs somewhat reminiscent of the older Presbyterianism- the Hodges and Alexanders in the North, and men like Dabney in the South have begun to gain attention” (17).
In the same issue, Archie Jones wrote about “The Imperative of Christian Action: Getting Involved as a Biblical Duty” (86–131). He starts off by framing all of life as war:
It should be manifest to Bible-believing Christians that we are involved in a war. It is a spiritual war between the forces of Satan and the forces of Christ, a war fought within man as well as between men. It is a multi- faceted war, involving every dimension o f life and thought, every sphere o f human activity (86).
Jones describes the “Attack on the Family” and then the “attack on Christian Education.” Here, he says
The humanistic attack on the family extends beyond the family to the attack ·on Christianity in education, for humanism is a religion, and a militantly anti-Christian and intolerant religion at that, and as such aims to extinguish God’s truth in every sphere of thought and life (98–99).
Jones goes all the way back to the 19th century and contrasts Horace Mann with Robert Lewis Dabney:
The whole concept and motivation of “free public education” since Horace Mann and James G. Carter has been fundamentally humanistic and radically anti-Christian. The movement for “free” government-controlled education in Massachusetts and New England was led by Mann and other Unitarians who sought to eliminate the previously dominant Christian influence on society and to eliminate all social problems via education. The movement to impose state-controlled education on the states of the South after the “Civil War” was motivated by a similar philosophy, and was seen by perceptive Christian theologians as a continuation of the same ”practical atheism” which had motivated abolitionism (Note 22: See the perceptive essays on government education by Robert L. Dabney, in his Discussions, Vol. IV (Ross House Books, P.O. Box 67, Vallecito, Calif. 95251: 1979 reprint of 1897 ed.). In fact, the philosophy of “public” (read: government-controlled) education in America has always been humanistic, messianic, and anti-Christian (99).
Notice the reference to the “atheism which had motivated abolitionism” and the appeal to Dabney’s views on education, in an edition of Dabney’s Discussions that Rushdoony had recently issued. Jones goes on:
The deliberate divorce of Christianity from education in the government schools inherent in the philosophy of “public school” education has proceeded from government control in an increasingly humanistic society, organizational humanism in the bureaucracies and the teachers’ unions, and ever present humanistic judicial fiats. As R. L. Dabney noted long ago, the combination of the (misunderstood) doctrine of “separation of church and state” in America and the religious and anti-Christian views among our population results in “a practical atheism” taught, of practical necessity (non-Christians often resent the preaching of Christianity) in government schools. (Note 26: Dabney, Discussions, pp. 176-247 [“The Negro and the Common School,” “The State Free School System Imposed upon Virginia by the Underwood Constitution,” and “Secularized Education”], provides a tremendously insightful discussion of this phenomenon, and of the historic and philosophical inner dynamic of government-controlled, secularized education. His essays, though penned a century ago,·are so timely that they deserve a separate reprinting) (100).
Winter 1982 was a “Symposium on the Atonement” (available here). This is the first issue edited by soon-to-be Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson) professor Douglas Kelly, and contained contributions from RTS graduate Kenneth Gentry, as well as R. J. Rushdoony, and Cornelius Van Til. Rushdoony kicks off the Symposium with an article titled “The Atonement Analyzed and Applied.” In his section on “4. Imputation” Rushdoony says this:
In the atonement by Jesus Christ, this fallen man dies in Christ and is made a new creation in Him. His actual sins are atoned for, and his old life and nature are sentenced to death and then made a new creation (Footnote 12: See Robert L. Dabney, Christ our Penal Substitute (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, reprint, 1978).
The Summer 1986–87 issue was a “Symposium on the Education of the Core Group” (available here). In his “Introduction,” Rushdoony explained the “central duty” of Christian education for children:
“We cannot turn our children over to the humanistic state schools without serious consequences. If it is wrong for a Christian to join ungodly churches, or to become a worshipper in pagan cults and religions, is it not at least equally wrong to turn our children over to schools which refuse to acknowledge Christ as Lord or Sovereign over all men and nations?
It is a grim and ugly fact that most pastors do NOT have their children in Christian schools, or in home schooling.”
Rushdoony also contributed a full article, titled “Education: Today’s Crisis and Dilemma.” The article is focused on the “crisis” in “statist education.” In the brief (6 page) article, Rushdoony cites Dabney several times in articulating his position:
The early promoters of state control of education had a slogan, “It costs less money to build school-houses than jails.” To this Robert L. Dabney in 1876 responded, “But what if it turns out that the state’s expenditure in school-houses is one of the things which necessitates the expenditure in jails?” (Footnote 3: Robert L. Dabney, Discussions (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, , 1979), 195.)
This was Rushdoony’s own reprint (Ross House Books) of Dabney. A little further, Rushdoony returns to Dabney:
Who should control education? Historically, we have seen church and state contend for that power. Dabney held that the Christian position should be parental control, the family as the determining power. The mistake in control by the church is that education becomes ecclesiastical and institutional. State control means politicization and secularization. Dabney rejected the concept of secularized education as both impossible and inadmissible, since education is inescapably a religious discipline. (Footnote 5: Dabney, [“Secularized Education,” in] Discussions [Vol. 4], 225-47). All education is the transmission of the values and skills of a culture to its children, and this is a religious task.
Rushdoony cites Dabney to the effect that public schools are a form of communism:
Dabney saw also the premise of communism in taxing all people to provide schools for some. This was a radical innovation which did not exist under the previous common-school system (Footnote 6: Dabney, [“Review of ‘Wilson’s Slave Power in America,” and “State Free Schools,” in] Discussions [Vol. 4], 248–80).
And finally, Rushdoony cites the Sprinkle Publications reprint of Dabney’s Practical Philosophy:
But this is not all. As Dabney wrote in 1897, “A state religion [is] logically involved in state education” (Footnote 7: Robert L. Dabney, The Practical Philosophy (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications,  1987), 339). Because education is the importation of values, it is inescapably religious, because values are religiously determined.
1988 saw a “Symposium on the Constitution and Political Theology” (available here). Jean-Marc Berthoud was now on “Chalcedon’s European staﬀ,” and contributed an article titled “Historical Reality of the Christian Cultural Consensus in Europe and America.” Berthoud opens his article lamenting historical suppression:
The impact of the liberal humanist historiography on the schools and the universities of our nations has been so thorough that our whole culture suffers from historical amnesia. In communist countries this transformation of history is undertaken by blatantly suppressing all witness of the past which is contrary to the ideological interpretation in favor amongst the ruling party elite. In the West, the change in our historical self-consciousness has been more gradual, but no less thorough.
However, Berthoud saw some encouraging signs, including the reprinting of some specific works of Robert Lewis Dabney:
From a distance it would seem that this state of affairs is changing for the better in the United States. For many years work has quietly been going on to restore to the Church and nation the memory of their past. Amongst other works, the historical writing of Dr. R.J. Rushdoony, those of Frederik Nymeyer, the re-editions of the exceptional historical writings of Southern scholars such as Robert L Dabney — of the d’Aubigne family — (Defense of Virginia and Life of Stonewall Jackson, Sprinkle, (1977)) and the pioneering volumes by Verna M. Hall and Rosalie J. Slater have certainly contributed much to the revival of awareness of America’s Christian past.
It is interesting that these reprinting were seen as part of the overall work of Christian Reconstruction, by Rushdoony (who reprinted Dabney with his Ross House Books), and by others in the movement.
1989 was devoted to a “Symposium on the Biblical Text and Literature” (available here). It was, in part, a defense of the traditional King James Version and the Greek text (the Textus Receptus) underlying it. The bulk of this Journal was devoted to reprinting Theodore P. Letis’s Master’s Thesis from Emory University, “Edward Freer Hills’s Contribution to the Revival of the Ecclesiastical Text” (1987). In the thesis, Letis claims that there was once a unified view of textual criticism (“The Reformed View”), as seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith, John Owen, Francis Turretin, and the Helvetic Consensus Formula (a claim that does not hold up to scrutiny; see my “‘Kept Pure in All Ages’: Textual Criticism and the Seventeenth-Century Protestant Orthodox”). From this faulty premise, Letis then claims that B. B. Warfield introduced enlightenment rationalism into the handling of the Biblical text, and puts forth Robert Lewis Dabney as a counter-example of someone who “more generally reflected the scholastic confessional stance” (81). Letis devotes a whole 4 page section to Dabney and interacts with several of his articles (“The Doctrinal Various Readings of the New Testament Greek” (1872); “The Revised Version of the New Testament” (1881); “The Influence of the German University System on Theological Literature” (1881); “The Doctrinal Contents of the [Westminster] Confession—Its Fundamental and Regulative Ideas and the Necessity and Value of Creed” (1897)). He sums up like this:
So with the passing of A. Alexander and Charles Hodge, the view of Scripture held by the Reformed scholastics no longer played any role at Princeton. Dabney kept it alive for a time in the south—but in the person of Warfield, the Enlightenment had arrived at Princeton (89).
An in-depth critique of Letis’s thesis, in particular his treatment of Dabney and the Southern Presbyterians, is beyond the scope of this survey. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that even when the Christian Reconstruction movement addressed textual criticism, Robert Lewis Dabney was promoted as a faithful model.
1994 featured a “Symposium on the Decline and Fall of the West and the Return of Christendom” (available here). Richard Bostan contributed an article titled “Religion, Abolition, and Proslavery Arguments in Pre-Civil War America.” The thesis of the somewhat florid article isn’t exactly clear, but along the way he references “Dabney, illustrious theologian and pastor,” and cites two articles of his (“Wilson’s Slave Power in America,” and “Liberty and Slavery”).
The real highlight, though, was that this issue’s featured “Man of Faith and Courage” was Robert Lewis Dabney. F. W. Schnitzler wrote the short (5 page) profile, and started off with a reference to “The War for Southern Independence” (i.e., the Civil War). “Many of those who participated,” Schnitzler said, “became very famous…,” but “Most participants remain virtually unknown, however, lost in the pages of history. While the men were very brave, very gallant, very determined and fearless, some deserve wider recognition as well as a second look.” Dabney, apparently, was one who deserved wider recognition. Schnitzler spends a significant portion of the article highlighting Dabney’s participation in the Confederacy as chief-of-staff (briefly) to Stonewall Jackson. After the war, Schnitzler recounts what has become a common description of Dabney amongst his admirers:
Dabney’s perception and foresight were remarkably prophetic (so much so that he considered himself “predestined to prophesy truth and never to be believed until too late”). Dabney commented on developments that were then only in their infancy, but we now know that Dabney accurately assessed those developments and the consequences they were likely to produce. Darwinism, labor unions, strikes, secular education, the abandonment of the gold standard and modernism were all accurately assessed by Dabney while they were yet fledgling movements. So as not to think such praise is undeserved, consider Dabney’s comments on communism. “Communism is slavery! Moreover, all history teaches us, that the more paternalistic any government becomes, be its form either impersonal, monarchical, aristocratic or democratic, the more will its officials engross the powers of the State, and the earnings of the citizens to themselves.” It reads like something from yesterday’s editorial page, but was written well over one hundred years ago!
Schnitzler closes by recommending some of Dabney’s works for further study. Interestingly, none of them are specifically theological, but his most stringent pro-Confederate material is endorsed:
Robert Lewis Dabney was truly a remarkable man and is worthy of greater recognition. For those interested in reading more of his work, the following books are recommended: A Defense of Virginia and the South, The Practical Philosophy, Selected Discussions, and the Life and Campaigns of Lt. Gen. T. J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
1997 featured a “Symposium on the Reformation” (available here), and this final reference to Robert Lewis Dabney brings us full circle. Jean-Marc Berthoud, listed as “editor of the review Résister et Construire [“Resist and Build”], President of the Association vaudoise de Parents chretiens in Switzerland,” contributed an article titled “Why Is the Biblical Doctrine of Creation So Important?” the topic of the very first Journal of Christian Reconstruction (1974). Berthoud takes aim at any compromise with evolution:
Theistic evolution, which accepts a form of evolution, directed by God, diminishes the Creator’s power and wisdom in order to attribute a portion of his power and wisdom to the laws of evolution supposedly contained in nature. It is a lack of faith that leads one to uphold such a position.
And here, he cites Dabney in support:
Robert Lewis Dabney, an American theologian of the latter half of the nineteenth century, wrote on the subject of Christian thinkers who adhered to a theistic vision of evolution:
Why are theistic philosophers so eager to push God’s creative act as far back in time as possible and reduce His action as much as possible, as they are constantly doing in their speculations?… What is the use, unless one is aspiring towards atheism? (R. L. Dabney: Lectures in Systematic Theology, 261)
The last time John Piper or Desiring God referenced Robert Lewis Dabney was in 2018, on three separate occasions. These included the first explicit acknowledgement of Dabney’s white-supremacy, but also included continued recommendations, and finally, a call from Piper to do just what I have attempted to do in this series.
Providence is No Excuse
In some ways this whole “Dabney project” started for me in January 2018. I was in my second year of the MDiv program at Bethlehem College & Seminary, and we were taking a J-Term course taught by John Piper titled “Sightings of the Sovereignty of God: Issues and Applications of Divine Providence.” There were two textbooks for this one-week course: John Piper, The Pleasures of God and Roger Olson, Against Calvinism. As I read The Pleasures of God I noticed the references to Dabney (see “The Great Pattern of American Manhood”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 3).
I should back up a little. In October 2017 I had picked up Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s Theology of Prayer because it had been recommended by Desiring God (“What Are Some Books DG Recommends?”). I wanted to know who Palmer was, so I googled his name, and learned that he was a Presbyterian pastor who used the doctrine of providence to justify slavery (see my thoughts from that time here). I learned from this to always look up an author to get context for their book.
So I was curious—did Dabney do the same thing? Did he also use “providence” to justify racism and slavery? I did a little searching, and started finding things like “Ecclesiastical Equality of the Negro,” and was stunned. I asked Piper after class one day, “Will we be discussing the way the doctrine of ‘providence’ has been used by Christians to justify evil?”
“Like Dabney, racism, and slavery.”
After hearing me out a little, he asked, “Would you be willing to write an article on this for Desiring God?”
So I did, and it was published the following week: “Providence Is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist.” The point of the article was not that Dabney was a theologian who just happened to be a white-supremacist, as if those were two separate things, but that the two were intertwined: his racism actually infected his theology, and his theology reinforced his racism.
The reactions were interesting. Many people were appreciative, and since then, it’s been gratifying to know that others have continued to find it helpful. I think I was a little näive, however, to think that all people needed was to see the truth, and of course they would begin to see things rightly. The reactions were initially surprising to me. I was called all kinds of names on social media (see: “Social Justice Dung,” and other thoughts on Dabney“); I was accused of denying the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” (see “On Censoring Dabney and Denying “Sola Fide”); I found myself on a “side” when I didn’t know there were sides—“isn’t everyone opposed to white-supremacy?,” I thought.
This was 2018, and things were heating to a boiling point in evangelicalism more broadly. Later that year we would see the MLK50 conference in Memphis on one side, and then The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel on the other, and the chasm widened.
“Leave Your Century for a While”
A few months later, Piper published an article titled “Leave Your Century for a While: Why I Read Christian Biographies,” as part of the promotion for his new book. As a young pastor, Piper says that “one of the ways I pursued wisdom for the pastoral work in front of me was the reading of pastoral biographies.” He enjoyed reading Warren Wiersbe’s short biographies, but found Iain Murray’s particularly helpful:
But one of the most enjoyable and inspiring things I did to deepen my grasp of the pastoral calling was to listen to a master life-storyteller, Iain Murray. Murray had been a pastoral assistant with Martyn Lloyd-Jones in London and had served as a pastor in two churches in England and Australia. He is a co-founder of the Banner of Truth Trust, and has devoted a great part of his life to biographical writing.
He is well known for his biographies of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Jonathan Edwards, to mention only two. But not as many people know that Iain Murray is a master at taking an hour in a ministerial conference and telling the story of a great Christian in a way that instructs and inspires. For example, even today you can go online and find the (forty-plus-year-old) audio stories of Charles Spurgeon, Robert Dabney, William Tyndale, Ashbel Green, George Whitefield, John Knox, John Newton, William Jay, Thomas Hooker, and more.
The latest technology in the early 1980s was the Walkman — a small cassette player that let me take Murray with me on my morning jogs or in the car. I listened to everything biographical I could get. This stoked the embers of my affections for biography.
Piper provides links to each of these biographical messages, including Robert Lewis Dabney’s. The Dabney biography can be found on Youtube (“Iain Murray – Life of Robert L. Dabney (Christian biography)”) and was also hosted on The Gospel Coalition website until recently pulled from the website (as of December 6, 2021).
“His life gives us the most impressive example, that I know, of courage and heroism in the Christian ministry. I mean, of course, outside the pages of Scripture, but outside the pages of Scripture, I do not know a life which is more moving in terms of the quality of courage and endurance than the life of Robert Dabney. Dabney was truly a Caleb.”
“ I am quite convinced that in the hearts of these Christians in the South, I say Christians in the South, there was very great regard and love to their colored slaves and servants.”
“I had wanted to say something on the attitude of these men to the Negro question and the slavery question because of course it was the great propaganda of the North and propaganda that was accepted by the world that the civil war was fought simply for the abolition of slavery. I think I can give you sufficient evidence to show that that simply cannot be true… They were not fighting to preserve slavery.”
Is this where Piper was first exposed to Dabney in a meaningful way? If this happened early in Piper’s ministry, as he says, then it is Iain Murray’s version of Dabney that Piper inherited, and Piper would have had to actively work against the “hero-worship” in order to see the true Dabney.
Regardless, in 2018 there was no caveat in Piper’s recommendation of Murray’s biographies, not even of Dabney. And, consistent with the list of “Books that Desiring God Recommends,” there is not a single link to a biography of a Black Christian — no Lemuel Haynes, no Daniel Payne, no Francis Grimké. In part, this is because Piper is simply passing along Murray’s biographies, and Murray, as far as I can tell, never considered a Black Christian worthy of biographical treatment in this long list of biographies. But Piper himself never delivered any biographies of Black Christians for the “encouragement” of his own conference attendees and readers. His own book, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy, which collects all of Piper’s biographical messages over the years, does not include a single African American Christian. Once again, Piper’s dream of “a single stream” proves to be just a dream, not a reality, even in his own work.
“The first thing I would say is that no one is helped by whitewashing our heroes, your heroes. No one has been helped by it… you don’t benefit by whitewashing your heroes. You won’t ever ask yourself the hardest questions about life if the people you love are whitewashed and you don’t ever come to terms with their sinfulness.”
Then Piper said this, and referenced Dabney specifically:
“And another thought comes to my mind, namely, that if you see in Edwards, Luther, Dabney, if you see sin, you should flag it, wave it, acknowledge it. That’s why the book, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy has the subtitle Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful. “Flawed” — put that right on the cover. If you see it, you should wave the flag and then be alert. Where might that have infected the theology I love, right? So I love Jonathan Edwards’s theology, but his theology didn’t keep him from having blind spots. So why not? Is there something about his theology I could discern where it needs to be tweaked so that if he would have had that right, then he would have had this right? That’s a huge benefit from acknowledging the sins. It makes us intensify our vigilance over our appropriation of their theology.”
I think this is right, and in some ways, this is what this “Dabney project” has been, an effort to “flag it, wave it, acknowledge it” and then to ask “where might that have infected the theology I love?” But in addition, I’ve been driven to take a step back even further and ask “How did we get here? How did a white-supremacist become one of our theological heroes in the first place? How and why did that happen?” And that has driven me to further historical and historiographical questions, because understanding how and why we got here tells us something out ourselves.
As we conclude this series, I want to go back again for some insights that cast light on the Reformed movement as whole. In 1985 George Marsden offered an insightful analysis of what it meant to be “Reformed and American,” (in Reformed Theology in America, edited by David F. Wells). The book as a whole is consistent with the pattern we have seen, in that while there are chapters devoted to Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, James Henry Thornwell, and Robert Lewis Dabney, there is not a single chapter devoted to Black Presbyterians, and the index contains not even a single reference to a figure like Francis Grimké.
Nevertheless, Marsden’s chapter is insightful for understanding what it means to be “[White,] Reformed and American” as we take a step back and reflect on this series as a whole. Marsden described how even in the 1980s, “within most of the larger Reformed denominations, conservatives and progressives are locked in intense struggles over the true meaning of the faith” (1). He described three main types: the “doctrinalist,” the “culturalist,” and the “pietist,” acknowledging that there are spectrums and mixtures of each. Marsden then gave a historical survey of the various streams which is fascinating, and well worth looking up. His conclusion, though, is telling:
“Perhaps the greatest fault of American Reformed communities since Puritan times is that they have cultivated an elitism. Ironically, the doctrine of election has been unwittingly construed as meaning that Reformed people have been endowed with superior theological, spiritual, or moral merit by God himself… The great irony is that … the doctrine of grace ought to cultivate humility as a conspicuous trait of Reformed spirituality… Yet too often Reformed people have been so totally confident of their own spiritual insights that they have been unable to accept or work with fellow Reformed Christians whose emphases may vary slightly.”
Marsden, “Reformed and American,” 11.
This rings true to me. The white American Reformed tradition has been so proud of its theological precision, that it was unwilling to learn from other Christians, especially the Black church. The dream of “a single river” will never become a reality until this theological pride is repented of. Further, this confident elitism blinds us to the glaring sins in the tradition, like racism, and chattel slavery. They result in a movement with enslavers enshrined as “heroes” and a reluctance to look those realities squarely in the face.
It’s interesting to me that over the years, on some issues, Piper has been willing to name names and battle publicly for a position. When the Sovereignty of God was at stake, Piper publicly disputed with Greg Boyd and advocated for his removal from Bethel Seminary. Over the doctrine of hell, Piper famously said “Farewell, Rob Bell.” But he has not been willing to do this over racism. Piper has never been willing to publicly critique Douglas Wilson, and my article is the only time Desiring God has done this with Robert Lewis Dabney.
What we choose to say (and not to say) affects the streams of history. What Mark Noll said of Dabney’s fellow Southern Presbyterian James Henry Thornwell applies equally to Dabney: “To an uncomfortably large degree, Thornwell’s reputation rested on the accidents of American social development” (“The Bible and Slavery,” 69). Noll offers this as a corrective to Eugene Genovese’s claim that “Thornwell was ‘arguably, second to none [among theologians] in the United States.’” In other words, is their theology actually “so intrinsically good” that it necessarily rises to the top? Or are there historical processes that explain how a person’s reputation is created, maintained, and passed along to others? I think Mark Noll’s corrective is also warranted in the case of Dabney. His vaunted reputation rests on historical accidents, both in his time, and for a century and a half to follow.
But such is true of all of history. Value-laden judgments of historical figures (“the ‘best’ theologian”; “the ‘greatest’ preacher”), are inescapably the product of historical accident, as reputations are formed, deconstructed, books are published, go out of print, are rediscovered and republished, passed along from hand to hand, by word of mouth, and “Recommended Reading” lists. We were told to esteem and read and emulate Jonathan Edwards and Robert Lewis Dabney, as much because of the these historical accidents, as because of any intrinsic worth in their theology. Other authors, theologians, and faithful Christians whose lives were more worthy of our attention and emulation have been lost (or erased) from the pages of history, and ignored in the “Recommended Reading” lists. As Thabiti Anyabwile has said, “we should actually imagine and pursue a different canon for a different future.”
“The Truth Demands It”
Someone told me recently that I had “reduced Dabney to his sins” which was “un-neighborly.” Have I been unfair to Dabney in this process? Have I been uncharitable? On the contrary, I believe I have treated Dabney exactly as he would have wished to be treated. Here’s how his first biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, opens up the preface to his book:
“An effort has been made to present, as nearly as possible, the genuine Robert Lewis Dabney in this book. He did not relish the thought of being trimmed to suit the notions of an author or an editor, and thus presented to the public. When his Collected Discussions were being brought out, there was some criticism of one of the articles to be presented in the first volume. The critic made the point that the article objected to would injure Dr. Dabney’s reputation if republished. The Doctor, on hearing this, turned somewhat sharply us, and said: ‘What do you think of this? Do you like the plan of trimming a man, whose life and work you would perpetuate, to suit your notions, and then handing the resultant down as if it were real?’ We made answer, that it seemed to us that, if a man’s works and life are worthy of preservation through the medium of the press, they and he should be handed down as they were, warts and all. He replied emphatically, ‘The truth demands it, sir.’ The memory of this little conversation helps to explain the presence of some features of the book. He was so intensely honest that he would have abhorred any effort to present him sheared to the demands of current moral and religious tastes.”
I think that Dabney would similarly bristle at the idea that his support of slavery and white-supremacy was merely a “blind spot.” White supremacy was something he believed in to the core of his being, and fought for to the end of his life. I think he would have considered it dishonorable to treat him otherwise. “Oh Robert, you didn’t really mean to say that, did you?” — “Oh yes! And let me say it again! and again! and again!” In fact, I imagine that if Dabney is indeed in heaven right now, he is looking down on my project and grateful that some of the damage of his sins is being undone. In fact, I wonder if he would applaud this project, and join the chorus encouraging us to read Francis Grimké instead.
Dabney as a Case Study and a Litmus Test
As American evangelicals continue to struggle to make progress on issues of racial justice and reconciliation, I think that Robert Lewis Dabney makes for an instructive case study, as we have seen throughout this series. If we can figure out what went happened here, we might start to make the tiniest bit of progress on the larger issues of race and justice and the church.
Dabney certainly is a litmus test for me — if you offer unqualified praise for Dabney, my response is to be:
skeptical about your historical awareness/ignorance;
skeptical about what you have to say about race in the church and/or social justice;
skeptical about your claims regarding the implications of the gospel;
skeptical about your assessment of “good theology”; or
all of the above.
If you consider the entire scope of John Piper and Desiring God’s work, he/they have not offered “unqualified praise” of Dabney, at least when you consider my article and his comments in 2018. I am thankful that he was willing to publish my article, and has encouraged others to “flag it, wave it, acknowledge it.” But when I also consider the decades long span of his work, for most of those years he repeatedly commended a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney to thousands of pastors, church leaders, and readers. When I consider the question “how and why was Robert Lewis Dabney commended to a generation of reformed evangelicals?” John Piper has played a significant role.
Rivers in the Desert
When I consider “what happened to the vision of ‘a single river’ and the ‘Black and Reformed’ movement of the 2000s?” the case of Robert Lewis Dabney is one piece of that puzzle. We’re in a different place in 2021 than we were in 2001 or 2011. Is there still hope for that “single river” to materialize this side of eternity? As things stand, white Reformed evangelicalism has shown little interest in changing, finding ever ready reasons to resist “social justice”; fear-mongering around Critical Race Theory; “anti-wokeness”; and who knows what so-called “threats to the gospel” 2022 might bring?. But there are also some encouraging signs of white evangelicals leaving behind those streams and seeking others. That single river might still happen, though probably not from “the mountain stream of Reformed theology,” but from elsewhere. As many feel lost as their familiar institutions fracture and crumble around them, who have tasted bitterness in the streams they looked to for refreshing water, and now feel like they are wandering in the wilderness, we should remember that we serve a liberating God who “makes a way in the sea, and a path through the mighty waters,” who makes “a road in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.”
So far our series has taken us from a footnote in 1979 to a full endorsement of Dabney in 1991, again in 1995, with reprints of those recommendations echoing for decades. We’ve paused to consider Piper’s efforts toward “ethnic harmony” from 1994 to 2015, and are now comparing words with actions, using Dabney as a test case. So far, we’ve only seen continued endorsements in 2002, and 2003, and this post will now consider the crucial years from 2007 to 2014. The question driving this exploration is this: “How and why was a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney recommended to a whole generation of Reformed evangelicals, and what role did John Piper and Desiring God play?”
“What Are Some Books That DG Recommends?“
In 2006 Desiring God published a post What Are Some Books That DG Recommends? By my rough count, the list includes 354 books (or sets of books) in 68 categories, including theology, literature, education, culture, and racial harmony. If Piper’s dream of “a single river” was to start becoming a reality, a massive booklist would be one easy place to start.
It might be useful to pause for a moment to consider the place of the “recommended book list” in Reformed circles. Books are highly prized in this tradition, and the movement has been perpetuated in large part through the publishing of books. Every Desiring God conference included a massive book store, and often a bag full of free books for attendees; Piper himself has devoted himself to a writing ministry and published over 50 books; Justin Taylor graduated from The Bethlehem Institute under Piper and has gone on to become the executive vice president of book publishing at Crossway. In a movement that loves ideas and the books that contain them, a “recommended book list” carries great weight in helping to shape its followers.
So, did this recommended book list move forward the dream of “a single river” articulated just four years earlier? Well, out of those 354 books, there were two written by African American Christians, a whole 0.5% of the list. Both books were relegated to the “racial reconciliation” category, one merely as a co-author. For comparison, a number of white men (D. A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, Iain Murray, R. C. Sproul) are recommended on the list multiple times in a variety of categories. Next to John Piper himself (12x), the most recommended author on the list is Douglas Wilson (9x). Let that sink in—Douglas Wilson alone is recommended more than 4x as many times as all of the African American Christian authors combined [CORRECTION: two of those books were written by Nancy Wilson, Douglas Wilson’s wife. The math should read “3.5x as many …”]. Also featured in the list? Southern Presbyterian white-supremacists Robert Lewis Dabney and Benjamin Morgan Palmer.
I think in some ways this book list encapsulates in one place what is wrong with the Reformed movement. The “single river” was a lofty aspiration, but in the end, was merely wishful thinking detached from any meaningful action, even the simplest act of recommending a book. In this book list we are so far removed from “two strong streams mingling in a single river”—all we have is a tiny trickle mingling with a rushing river full of white water.
And not only has this list done nothing to address the “poison of racist slavery” and white supremacy, the list perpetuates it, by recommending to its readers racist enslavers (like Dabney), and slavery apologists (like Douglas Wilson). While (thankfully?) the list did not recommend Wilson’s recently published book on slavery and the Confederacy (Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America (2005)), or his previously published pamphlet Southern Slavery as it Was (1998), nevertheless, the list demonstrates a remarkable familiarity with the catalog of Wilson’s writings. It would be surprising if they did not know about Black & Tan at the time, and negligent if indeed they did not.
I think the list as whole demonstrates what is wrong with the white Reformed movement, but one recommendation in particular is the quintessential example: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism. Dabney wrote this book at the end of his life (in 1895), at the very same time that he was pleading for the “retention of the [Union Theological] Seminary in Southside Virginia as needed to help the white people in their struggle to prevent their sections being Africanized” (The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 510–11). The book contains allusions to “well bred [white] lady,” to an ante-bellum plantation, to a Confederate General, and to the case of a “master and servant” For a complete review of the book see my “Book Review: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism”). This book, written by this man, at this time, is what is recommended to those who want to learn more about the topic “Providence and Predestination.”
How the dream of “a single river” would play out in reality is further seen in the way Piper and Desiring God gave Douglas Wilson a platform beginning in 2009. It appears that Piper had met Wilson once, at a Ligonier conference in 2000 (see “Mohler, Piper, Sproul, and Wilson: Questions and Answers #1”), but by 2008 still had not met him in person. It was Mark Driscoll who seems to have made the connection (see “John Piper on Doug Wilson”). By 2006, Desiring God was recommending more Douglas Wilson books than any other author than Piper himself (see above), but it was 2009 when Wilson was first invited to share the stage at a Desiring God National Conference.
What is relevant for this series on Robert Lewis Dabney, is that although other Reformed evangelicals (John MacArthur, Iain Murray) have promoted Dabney over the years, Wilson seems to have drunk the most deeply from this southern well and considers Dabney to be one of the men “I am most indebted to philosophically” (see “Doug Wilson on R.L. Dabney”). In his book Black & Tan, Wilson quotes Dabney more than any other figure, and repackages Dabney’s Lost Cause propaganda for slavery and the Confederacy for his contemporary audience. Douglas Wilson, the self-proclaimed “paleo-confederate,” has promoted Robert Lewis Dabney, the actual Confederate, more extensively than anyone else in modern memory. Southern Slavery as it Was was co-authored with Steve Wilkins, long time board member of the neo-Confederate group The League of the South. (For more on Wilson and Wilkins, see William Ramsey and Sean Quinlan, “Southern Slavery As It Wasn’t: Coming to Grips with Neo-Confederate Historical Misinformation” (2004); Euan Hague, Heidi Beirich, and Edward Sebesta, editors, Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction (2005)).
Rather than addressing the “poison” of “racist slavery,” Piper allowed its most prominent contemporary apologist his largest platform at conferences and on the Desiring God website. When Thabiti spilt gallons of digital ink debating Wilson over these issues in 2013, Piper gave Wilson the stage to explain his views (see “A Conversation on Christ and Culture with John Piper and Douglas Wilson”). When Wilson offered a vague and heavily qualified “apology,” and Thabiti carefully explained why it was insufficient, Piper called it “all good,” without ever addressing Thabiti’s unresolved concerns. Observe Piper’s interactions with the Reformed African American Network, a young “Black and Reformed” organization at this time. In an interview with Phillip Holmes, Piper claimed that Thabiti Anyabwile “drew forth appropriate concessions” from Wilson (“What Can the Church Learn from the Doug Wilson and Thabiti Anyabwile dialogue?”). Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns, who were in the room for that RAAN interview, describe Piper’s defense of Wilson as a key turning point in their own realization that white Reformed evangelical institutions were not places they belonged (see “Pass the Mic: Leave LOUD–Jemar Tisby’s Story,” 50:30–57:30). Here’s how I’ve summarized the whole situation:
“Whether or not we intended it, here’s the message that I’m afraid minorities heard: ‘come to the table for hard work on racial reconciliation; then, when extremely racially insensitive statements are made with no (or vague and heavily qualified) apologies, we’re going to call it “a great dialogue” and chastise you for being too thin-skinned.’ Minorities have gotten the message, and they’ve left the table.”
Returning to the theme of this series, as long as the spirit of Dabney was alive and well in Reformed circles, the “soul-dynamic” of the Black church would never truly be welcome. One or the other would have to go, because the poison of white-supremacy cannot remain unchecked forever without manifesting itself and pushing out that which is its opposite. This is exactly what we have seen play out over the last twenty years.
“Lemuel Haynes and Robert Dabney”?
On March 12, 2014, Piper was invited to deliver the annual “Gaffin Lecture on Theology, Culture, and Mission” at Westminster Theological Seminary. Piper chose as his theme “The New Calvinism and the New Community: The Doctrines of Grace and the Meaning of Race” and the message and transcript are available here.
At the time, there was much discussion about the “New Calvinist” movement, (also called “Young, Restless, and Reformed”), and there were intra-mural fights about the boundary lines between “New Calvinism” and “Old Calvinism.” In describing the issue, Piper said this:
I do not mean for these features of the new to be dividing lines between the new and the old. I don’t think there are such lines. I don’t think there is a clear distinction between the new and the old except perhaps in regard to the use of media and technology that didn’t exist 20 years ago. How can there be distinctives unique to the New Calvinism when the Old is as diverse as:
St. Augustine and Adoniram Judson, Francis Turretin and John Bunyan, John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon, John Owen and George Whitefield, John Knox and J. I. Packer, Cotton Mather and R. C. Sproul, Abraham Kuyper and William Carey, Lemuel Hanes [sic] and Robert Dabney, Theodore Beza and James Boice Isaac Backus and Martyn Lloyd-Jones?
If there is such diversity in the Old, can we find dividing lines between the Old and the New? I don’t think so.
This a fascinating list, and in particular, the pairing of Lemuel Haynes and Robert Lewis Dabney shines a glaring spotlight on the issues of race and the poison of white supremacy in the Reformed theological tradition. Dabney explicitly and repeatedly opposed the equality of Black teachers in his Presbyterian denomination for his entire life (see “What’s So Bad About R. L. Dabney?”). His efforts “set the racial orthodoxy” in the PCUS for the next hundred years (Sean Michal Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 148–49). Dabney himself would never have allowed a Black preacher like Lemuel Haynes to exist on equal terms within his own definition of “The Church,” and the idea of a Black preacher to a white congregation enraged Dabney more than anything. Piper lumps together men under the table “Old Calvinism” that are so disparate, they never could have even co-existed in their own time.
Regarding the “New Calvinism” Piper claims this:
“The New Calvinism is international in scope, multi-ethnic in expression, and culturally diverse. There is no single geographic, racial, cultural, or governing center.”
This is massively disputable. While there may have been “outcroppings” of Reformedish theology in many diverse places, the “New Calvinism” very much had institutional centers: Desiring God; The Gospel Coalition; Acts 29. And these spaces did very much have a cultural and racial center: whiteness. Just see the list of “recommended books” above: overwhelminglywhite. A statement like this is wishful thinking, elevating a tiny minority into more than it really was. By overstating the role of the “Black and Reformed” movement, the urgency to deal with White Supremacy was diminished. And by failing to deal with White Supremacy, the powerful figures at the cultural center of New Calvinism pushed the Black and Reformed out, whether they intended to or not.
Piper acknowledged that this diversity was tentative: “It may be short-lived, or it may be deep and wide and long. God will decide.” Notice how he appeals to “providence” rather than his own responsibility: “God will decide.” As if God’s sovereignty did not work through means; the means of conference speaker lineups; the means of book lists; the means of decisions of who to defend and who to critique; the means of decisions to speak or to remain silent in key situations.
The year before this address Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by vigilante George Zimmerman, and this event started to highlight again the already existing differences in the Black and white “streams” even within the “Calvinist community.” Later that year, in August 2014, Michael Brown would be shot and killed in Ferguson, and this would accentuate these differences even more, especially with the creation of Black Lives Matter, and the white backlash to such outspoken advocacy. The racial diversity within the New Calvinism would indeed be short-lived: key leaders at the center of the movement had proved unwilling to deal with the root issues of white supremacy, and thus the community would be unable to withstand the coming storms.
In 2005, the Desiring God National Conference was devoted to the topic “Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.” Once again, the material from the conference was converted into a book: Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. One of the chapters is entitled “Waiting for the Morning during the Long Night of Weeping,” by Dustin Shramek. Shramek is listed in the book as a “cross cultural peacemaker, the Middle East and Minnesota,” and had trained under Piper as part of The Bethlehem Institute’s first class, alongside Matt Perman, Justin Taylor, Stephen Witmer, and others (see the dedication to John Piper Counted Righteous In Christ). Like the last post in this series (“Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner“), while this post does not deal directly with Piper, it does illustrate how Dabney was viewed and recommended in his immediate sphere of influence at Bethlehem and Desiring God.
Shramek opens his chapter with a familiar note: “Good theology is essential if we are going to suffer well” (175). But, Shramek notes, “We also need to delve into the depths of our pain in suffering so that we can be honest” (176). In “the West” we have a particular problem, that “we don’t like to confront grief or suffering” (178). We even prefer our Christian heroes to act like Stoics:
“When we read about great saints of the past, we hear about their suffering, which is immediately followed by their triumph through Christ. Rarely do we truly enter with them into their dark night of the soul, when all around them nothing makes sense” (179).
Immediately after calling our mind to “great saints of the past,” Shramek gives us an example from the life of Robert Lewis Dabney:
“Consider the nineteenth-century theologian, Robert Dabney. In a matter of about a month he lost two of his sons, Jimmy and Bobby. This is what he says: ‘When my Jimmy died, the grief was painfully sharp, but the actings of faith, the embracing of consolation, and all the cheering truths which ministered comfort to me were just as vivid.’ This is what we like to hear. We like to hear that the truths of the gospel encouraged him and that his faith was strong.
But he goes on in the same letter, ‘But when the stroke was repeated, and thereby doubled, I seem to be paralyzed and stunned. I know that my loss is doubled, and I know also that the same cheering truths apply to the second as to the first, but I remain numb, downcast, almost without hope and interest.” When we hear this we get uncomfortable. The great truths of the gospel fell flat after his second son died and he remained “numb, downcast, almost without hope and interest.” It is true that God carried him through and that Dabney proved to be faithful. He did triumph. He experienced the truth of Psalm 34:19, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all.” But let us not so quickly go from the affliction to the deliverance and thus minimize the pain in between. God’s promise of deliverance does not mean that he will immediately deliver us. For many, deliverance only comes with death’” (179).
The rest of the chapter includes the story of Shramek’s own experience of losing a son, a helpful meditation on Psalm 88, and Jesus in Gethsemane and on the cross. Overall, I actually find the chapter to be an honest and helpful encouragement to those suffering difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, I can’t help asking “Why Dabney?” There are countless examples of Christians who have suffered greatly, even the death of their children. Even sticking within the white Reformed community, John Calvin lost his one and only child; Martin Luther and Katerina lost multiple children, one of whom died in his arms. Even Jonathan Edwards and the death of his daughter Jerusha would seem a more likely candidate for a Piperian illustration than a Southern Presbyterian like Dabney. Evidently though, Robert Lewis Dabney was enough of a figure at Bethlehem at the time that his 500+ page biography was being read and cited.
This is good place to pause and consider context. 2005 also saw the publication of Sean Michael Lucas’s Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. Lucas’s work is an excellent starting point for understanding Dabney’s life and theology, and he does not shrink back from facing up to Dabney’s white-supremacy.–I highly recommend it. Until 2005, almost all reference to Dabney’s white-supremacy was limited to discussion in academic journal articles (here is just a sampling):
Overy, David Henry. “Robert Lewis Dabney, Apostle of the Old South.” PhD, University of Wisconsin, 1967.
Pastors and laypeople can be forgiven for not staying up to date on all of the discourse that takes place in the academy. They can reasonably claim “we didn’t know about Dabney’s white-supremacy!” But with the printing of Lucas’s biography by a mainstream evangelical publisher (Presbyterian & Reformed), this excuse begins to evaporate.
Further still, Johnson’s Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney is loaded with references to Dabney’s views on race, slavery, the Confederacy, “the negro,” and Reconstruction. Once this book is on the table, one can legitimately start expecting you to address these deeply troubling facts (or wonder at your silence).
“The Sovereignty of God and Ethnic-Based Suffering”
Also in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God is a chapter by Carl Ellis, Jr. titled “The Sovereignty of God and Ethnic-Based Suffering” (a video of Ellis’s conference message by the same title can be seen here). While Ellis’s chapter makes no reference to Dabney, it does include a very helpful analysis of “Anglo-American” theology, an analysis which could have had a tremendous impact, if only it had been heeded:
“Anglo-Americans without this paradigm [for understanding oppression, which includes personal and systemic elements] tend to view African-American protest against marginalization as “playing the race card.” African-Americans, on the other hand, may view Anglo-Americans’ protest as being in denial. When this happens we will speak past each other, because we do not understand that marginalization is the foundation of ethnic-based suffering. The theology of the Christian community has been weak in that area. If we are going to be a prophetic voice against marginalization, we will need to address it with some serious theology” (131).
Ellis’s uses the categories of “dominant” and “sub-dominant” to articulate the dynamics of oppression:
“An aspect of restraining evil involves seeking to minimize the dominant/sub-dominant dynamics in human relationships in general and within the body of Christ in particular. We may not be able to do a lot about the consequences of sin in the fallen world, but we can certainly do something about it within the household of faith” (137).
Ellis hits the nail right on the head in his diagnosis of Reformed communities:
“We do faith fairly well, but we don’t do works well at all. Why? Because we have lost the doxological motivation in spirituality. Maybe it is time for a new reformation. The first Reformation rediscovered the salvific dimension. The new reformation will rediscover the doxological dimension. Doxology was what distinguished the Reformed movement. But somehow we’ve lost it. This is why our works have become shabby. This is why we have not had a strong prophetic voice regarding issues like ethnic-based suffering. And the world is poorer for it” (139).
Ellis is realistic about the disconnect between the ideal and the reality in the American church:
“As strangers and aliens, we in the body of Christ should have no real vested interest in the world system as it exists. We should be completely focused on our sovereign God and his kingdom. We are called to be change-agents for the kingdom in this world. Thus, to identify with suffering should be as natural as breathing. Ethnic-based suffering should be a rare occurrence within the body of Christ. Indeed, we have a long way to go” (140).
I feel the incongruity when I line up Ellis’s trenchant critique of the church and his assessment of how far we had to go, with yet another uncritical reference to Robert Lewis Dabney in the very same book. I feel the tension that some must have felt in 2005—would the dream of “a single river” become a reality? Could these two deeply inconsistent things hold together? Would Piper ever call out Dabney’s white-supremacy, or just continue to endorse and recommend him, while calling Black brothers and sisters to “cut us some slack”?
We find the answers as we survey instances from the next decade, 2006-2015:
In 2003, Desiring God devoted their entire National Conference to the 300 year anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards. The conference was entitled “A God-Entranced Vision of All Things: The Unrivaled Legacy of Jonathan Edwards,” and featured an all-white cast of plenary speakers: John Piper, Iain Murray, J. I. Packer, Mark Dever, Sam Storms, and Noël Piper. The following year, Crossway published a book, A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (2004), edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. The book was “a continuation and expansion of that tercentenary celebration” and the whole effort had a specific purpose: “the aim of introducing readers to Edwards, and more importantly to his ‘God-entranced vision of all things’” (Justin Taylor, “Introduction,” in A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 13). The book was dedicated “To Iain H. Murray whose life and labors proclaim a God-entranced vision of all things” (A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 5).
“Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner”
The book contains some chapters that are not available as conference messages on desiringgod.org, including one by Sherard Burns, then the “Associate Pastor of Evangelism, Discipleship, and Assimilation, Bethlehem Baptist Church,” entitled “Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner.” The fact that Edwards had been a slaveowner had recently been re-discovered in the Yale archives, and historians, theologians, and admirers were forced to take this into consideration (for more on this see “John Piper, Desiring God, Jonathan Edwards, and Slavery”).
While the chapter, like the conference, is focused on Edwards, Burns references Dabney near the end, and several portions of the chapter apply generally to both Edwards and Dabney.
Burns begins by acknowledging that
“Nothing has been more of a stain on our history than the institution and cruelty of slavery in America… what formed the very heart of slavery was the belief that some had the authority to impose their rights on others in such a way that stealing men, women, and children from their native land, tearing families apart, and systematically dehumanizing them was condoned and rewarded. Hence merchandise was made of oppression.”
Burns then highlights the issue of Christian enslavers:
“One of the most troubling facts concerning slavery was its association with Christianity. Not only those who were deemed unregenerate and heathen owned slaves; those who professed to have met the true Liberator, Christ, also refused such liberty to men… In preparing this chapter I wanted to understand how Edwards, with his intellect and theological understanding and love for God, could own slaves and do so till the day of his death. ”
Later he articulates the central question this way:
“Slavery was and still is a blemish upon America. Even after its abolition the residual effects are evident in the culture at large and regrettably within the church. As an African American who loves Reformed theology and Jonathan Edwards and who desires to see these truths embraced by all, especially those within the African-American context, I have to make sense of this hypocrisy.”
Burns, “Trusting,” 162.
This effort to “make sense of this hypocrisy” is what I have been trying to do as well.
“Giants of the Christian Faith”?
Burns offers a caveat early on:
“R. C. Sproul has said that when he disagrees with the giants of the Christian faith, he does so with fear and trembling. I feel the same way as I write this concerning Edwards. It is a difficult thing to posit that Edwards compromised theologically when what we have known of him in virtually every other case is theological precision and conviction. Yet the facts remain. However, though such compromise happened, we must be careful to remember that, though he was a brilliant thinker, he, like all of us, still fought against the remaining effects of sin.”
Burns, “Trusting,” 148.
Here I need to pause and ask a question: who gets to decide who the “giants of the Christian faith” are? What are the qualifications for such an elevation of status? Here, it appears to be “theological precision” and being “a brilliant thinker,” “a man of great learning and religion” (148). This, to me, is part of the problem. Our criteria for “giant of the Christian faith” is ethically anemic; it elevates intellect, and ignores the obedience of love and justice. We elevate “heroes” based on their “theology,” and then find ourselves in a conundrum: “Now what do we do with their glaring inconsistencies?” Maybe we need to go all the way back to square one, and re-evaluate what makes a “giant,” and only hold those in esteem who are actually worthy of imitation, not just those who intellectually stimulate us through their books.
Burns then explores Edwards’s own words and actions regarding enslavement, and since the topic of this post is Robert Lewis Dabney, we won’t dig into that here (for my own reflections on Edwards and slavery, see: “The Edwards of History: A Reply to Doug Wilson”). However, in the middle of this section, Burns offers an assessment of the sin of owning slaves, which applies to Dabney as well:
“In the cosmic sense of reality, owning slaves is no different from any other sin, in that all sin is against God, and all of us are capable of the greatest of evils were God to release his restraining hand for his eternal purposes. What is interesting, however, is that while we must see sin as the cause of Edwards’s behavior, Edwards himself never called what he and his other colonists were doing “sin.” To Edwards, slavery was a necessary evil that served some positive good in the natural order that God had decreed—a thought his disciples would take up some years following his death. Yet if Edwards was wrong, it is not his God or his theology that is to blame—only his sin (footnote 34: I am grateful to John Piper for this insight.) Reformed theology did not produce a heart to own slavery.”
Burns, “Trusting,” 156.
Here, again, I must take issue with this “insight” which Burns credits to Piper “it is not his theology that is to blame—only his sin. Reformed theology did not produce a heart to own slavery.” Unfortunately, I don’t think it is this simple. Reformed theology fit perfectly with the hierarchical view of the world that both Edwards and Dabney shared (i.e., “God has sovereignly appointed each his ‘proper place’”). It was just this intertwining of Reformed theology and White supremacy that started me on this project (“Providence is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist”). The more I have dug into this, the less I am convinced that “it is not their theology that is to blame”—I fear that it is indeed their theology that bears at least some of the blame. Whether the theology actively contributed to white-supremacy and enslavement (which it did at times) or passively failed to produce the necessary works of love or the impetus to dismantle enslavement and racism, the theology seems very much to blame.
“Men of their times”?
On the next page, Burns repeats an oft-heard warning:
“Marsden cautions us against the natural inclination to view men of history from our own contexts, stating that we should think ‘about Edwards as an eighteenth-century figure and about how that context should shape [our] understanding of him . . . it would be a failure of imagination if we were to start out by simply judging people of the past for having outlooks that are not like our own. Rather, we must first try to enter sympathetically into an earlier world and to under- stand its people.’”
Burns, “Trusting,” 157, quoting George Marsden’s biography of Edwards, 2).
However, judging enslavers like Edwards or Dabney is not a matter of importing a present moral judgment onto the past. An anti-slavery witness has existed in North American since as early as 1688 (see “Quaker Protest Against Slavery in the New World, Germantown (Pa.) 1688”), and one of Edwards’s contemporaries, John Woolman (1720–1772), argued vehemently against enslavement, and even for reparations (plus interest!) to the descendants of slaves (see The Journal and Essays of John Woolman, and Woolman, “A Plea for the Poor”). One need not read 21st century sensibilities onto the 18th or 19th centuries in order to condemn slaveholders; one needs only to be better acquainted with those centuries.
Burns demonstrates an awareness of some of the recent scholarship on Dabney in particular when he cites Sean Michael Lucas’s article, “‘He cuts up Edwardsism by the roots’: Robert Lewis Dabney and the Edwardsean Legacy in the Nineteenth-Century South,” (in The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards) which interacts specifically with Dabney’s opposition to the Edwardsean abolitionists. This is important because some might say “we just didn’t know about Dabney’s racism until much recently.” The scholarship has been there for decades, and it was accessible to the staff at Bethlehem at the time.
It is in his concluding section that Burns references Dabney explicitly:
“’the challenge of the African American within the Reformed context is that we are called to embrace the theology of our oppressors and to reject the theology of our liberators.’ This means that the odd and ironic position of the African American who seeks to be shaped by orthodox theology must reject, in many respects, the theology of a Martin Luther King, Jr., and embrace the theology of a Jonathan Edwards or Robert Dabney. While I admire Dr. King for his work and efforts in fighting for the freedom of African Americans in this country (my freedom), I am not hesitant to note that he will not offer much help in theological precision. While, on the other hand, Edwards never held the mantle as social liberator, his theology will saturate a man in orthodoxy.”
Burns, “Trusting,” 170.
I agree with Burns that it does seem “odd and ironic,” and this sense sharp sense of irony is why I think there is more to see here than what Burns, or Piper, have acknowledged. I would call into question this conclusion that the theology of slaveholders will “saturate a man in orthodoxy.” If our theological calculus results in conclusions like this, we need to re-evaluate what it truly means to be “orthodox.”
Burns thinks that good theology will eradicate racism:
“the eradication of racism today, as would be the case with slavery then, will not come about through programs, but by means of a God-centered and God-entranced view of reality… Whatever we may think of Edwards, one thing is for certain: He left the American church with the necessary theological truths to kill racism in our hearts and to be conquerors of it in the church.”
“the eradication of racism today, as would be the case with slavery then, will not come about through programs, but by means of a God-centered and God-entranced view of reality… Whatever we may think of Edwards, one thing is for certain: He left the American church with the necessary theological truths to kill racism in our hearts and to be conquerors of it in the church.”
Burns, “Trusting,” 170–71.
Again, I must demur. The “eradication of slavery” did not come through Edwards’s “God-entranced view of reality” — it only finally came as a result of a bloody Civil War. As much as we may wish that “good theology” is all it takes to change the world, we must face the actual historical record: Edwards did not leave the church with the necessary theological truths to end slavery and kill racism, and the evidence is seen a thousandfold on the pages of actual history, in the lives of 18th century Reformed slaveholders, 19th century Reformed white-supremacists, 20th century Reformed segregationists, and their 21st century Reformed admirers. To pretend otherwise is wishful thinking.
Burns had acknowledged up front that this topic is complex and vast:
“I do not suppose that I will answer every question that will arise from the reading of this chapter. The topic is so vast and varied that it may raise additional questions that, I hope, will compel each of us to dig and find what is there to be explored and attained”
Burns, “Trusting,” 146.
Indeed, this is what I have felt as I face the issue of Reformed White-Supremacy. In this Burns was successful: I have felt compelled to dig and explore and the more I dig, the more “additional questions” my digging has raised.
This post has not focused directly on John Piper, but is part of the slightly broader circle of people who served with him in ministry at Bethlehem Baptist Church, and were published as part of Desiring God’s efforts. It illustrates the kind of influence that Piper’s ministry had on those around him, including a Black pastor like Sherard Burns. As the “two streams” of the Black “soul dynamic” and the white “Reformed theology” mingled, the Black stream was faced with white-supremacy and forced to wrestle hard with it. I still haven’t found the chapter or article from a white figure entitled “Trusting the Theology of a Liberation Theologian.” It seems like all this work to assimilate into the “single river” was being done from one direction.
This post is an interlude in the series on John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney. Here we will step back for a moment for context and look more broadly at Piper’s efforts to address the issue of “racial reconciliation.” What Piper did not say and do in this regard may be as important as the actual actions, words and books we have been considering so far.
Racial Reconciliation: Against the rising spirit of indifference, alienation, and hostility in our land, we will embrace the supremacy of God’s love to take new steps personally and corporately toward racial reconciliation, expressed visibly in our community and in our church.
In January 1998, Piper preached the first “Ethnic Harmony” sermon the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a tradition that would continue every year at Bethlehem until today. In 2000, Piper led a 6-part seminar for the church on “Racial Harmony,” and around that time Bethlehem also formed a “Racial Harmony Task Force” to “assist the elders in assessing our progress and making suggestions and interviewing staff candidates” (“Why Deal With Racial Issues?,” November 29, 2000; Bloodlines, “Appendix 3,” 261).
The Soul Dynamic
All of this effort culminated for Piper in the summer of 2001 when he read Carl Ellis, Jr’s book Free at Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience. Ellis was a Black pastor in the PCA, and his book described the “soul-dynamic” in the African American experience. Piper describes the effect the book had on him:
“I felt, in reading this book about the soul dynamic and the black experience in America, that everything I had ever seen and savored of the sovereignty of God and the centrality of God and the supremacy of God was a preparation for being a part of this reality—that is, a God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated rebuilding of black and white evangelical culture not primarily around color but around the triumphant, sovereign glory of the all-knowing, all-governing, crucified, suffering, and living Christ.”
“my aim is to light a fire in you that would forge a link between the sovereignty of God and God-centered theology, on the one hand, and the soul dynamic and black experience in America, on the other hand. There is, I believe, an explosively powerful coming together of these that I want to advance and be a part of.”
He knew that this seemed unlikely:
“Can a link be forged between such a rich and deep and living reality and the seemingly cerebral conceptuality of Reformed theology? The very terms seem in tension from the outset. The metals out of which I dream of forging such a link seem to be so different that they could never be welded together. The term soul dynamic points to a personal energy and life and deeply felt suffering and human kinship, unshakeable soul-conviction, while the term sovereignty of God, in contrast, points to a divine, objective power outside ourselves imposing itself down from above, not up from within.
The term black experience in America points to the weight of history and tradition and suffering and passion and people and culture and warmth, but the term God-centered theology, in contrast, points to the burden of rationality and reflection and concepts and ideas. So from the outset, the prospect of forging a link between the sovereignty of God and God-centered theology on the one hand, and the soul dynamic and black experience in America on the other hand, looks dim.”
Nevertheless, Piper was not willing to give up without trying:
“I am not willing for the greatness of God and the supremacy of God and the centrality of God and “the preeminence of the glory of God” (which is the essence of the Reformed tradition) to be hijacked by a white, Western, over-rationalized, cool tradition that alienates the black experience which has drunk so deeply at the wells of suffering and scorn.”
The problem for Piper here, in my opinion, is that it was far too late for that. The danger was not that the Reformed tradition might be “hijacked” by a white, Western tradition (indeed, let’s name it, by White Supremacy itself), the problem was that White Supremacy had been deeply entrenched in the Reformed tradition for centuries by this point. The urgent need was not to “watch out for hijackers from outside” but rather “how do we eradicate this cancer from within?” Piper knew this, but it did not shape his overall approach to the subject. A little later he said this: “And, O yes, I know that those white, Reformed, Puritan roots are contaminated with the poison of racist slavery.” But here, Piper attempts a “both-sides” approach that assumes a symmetry of power and influence that has never once existed in 400 years of American history:
“I know that those white, Reformed, Puritan roots are contaminated with the poison of racist slavery; and I know that the deeper roots of black culture are contaminated by African paganism. But if we are willing to cut each other some slack here and see the working of God’s providence in and through the imperfections or our histories, then the ax of Carl Ellis falls not only against the modern black tree of Godlessness, but also against the modern white tree of Godlessness.”
For Piper, the answer to the contamination of “the poison of racist slavery” is inter-personal: “cut each other some slack.” There is no mention of any deeper systemic changes to address; no acknowledgement of the fact that Piper himself had been recommending Reformed racist enslavers in his books for years; in fact, no proposal whatsoever for addressing “the poison” — just a call to overlook it (“cut each other some slack”).
“A Single River”
Piper used the metaphor of “a single river” to illustrate his aspirations:
“Even though there are thousands of whites and thousands of blacks who stumble over the theological systems of dead white men from Geneva and Northampton and Princeton; and even though there are whites and blacks who ridicule the God-rooted soul dynamic of the black experience in America, nevertheless there is an untried vision to see the mountain streams of God’s supremacy and sovereignty and centrality and glory, flowing from the Reformed tradition, on one side, together with the soul dynamic, flowing from the black experience in America, on the other side, to make a river—a single river—that runs deep with life and hope and joy through the valley of pain and death—a river of love that causes all who drink, not to make much of themselves, and not even to make much of others, but to lay down their lives to help others enjoy making much of our God, Jesus Christ. That’s what I am pursuing.”
I have a couple of observations regarding this image. First, it sounds wonderful, and in my mind I picture two streams of equal size and volume blending together on terms of equality, a genuine partnership. But this vision was never actualized, even in the ministry of Piper, both at Bethlehem Baptist Church, or at his Desiring God conferences. For example, one year later, Desiring God honored the 300 year anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards with an entire conference devoted to him (“A God-Entranced Vision of All Things: The Unrivaled Legacy of Jonathan Edwards.” The the plenary speakers feature an all-white cast, which is not surprising given that a slaveholding theologian was the man being honored. Other conferences would often feature a single Black plenary speaker in the midst of an otherwise white cast, more resembling a tiny stream merging with an already swelling river. In at least one prominent area, the dream of “a single river” sounded good in theory, but was never implemented in practice. If Piper really wanted to see “two mountain tributaries becoming a single river” it would take more intentional effort than this. Lest anyone think I am being hyper-critical, Piper himself reflected in 2020 on the lack of progress he saw in this area:
“’One of my biggest battles over the years is not to become jaundiced,’ Piper said. He feels the failures more than the successes. ‘One of my greatest regrets is how little impact we seem to have had in the Native American community.’ Nor is Bethlehem as multiethnic as he hoped it would be.”
A second observation is this: if one of the mountain streams is, as Piper says, “contaminated with the poison of racist slavery,” how can that stream mingle with another? You must first either deal with the poison, or you must not be surprised if eventually people realize “there is bitterness in the water!” and decide to find another river. Piper’s shallow solution to this poison (“Just cut us some slack!”) meant that the issue would go unresolved, and would remain a lingering infection until it burst forth several years later.
The reason Piper thought that this attempt at racial reconciliation would be more successful than others was because it was not just “Calvinism” it was “Calvinism through the lens of Christian Hedonism.” This reflects the fervent belief in Christian Hedonism as “unique,” as The Fundamental Truth; as The Answer to Everything, including racism. But in the end, Christian Hedonism, for all of its lauded benefits, has proved to be no more effective at addressing racism in the church than the “plain old” Reformed tradition itself.
Piper’s 2002 message was republished in article form as “The Sovereignty of God and the Soul Dynamic: God-Centered Thinking and the Black Experience in America, Past and Future,” in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 8/2 (Summer 2004): 24–33 (pdf available here). This “vision” appealed to broader—though predominantly white—evangelical networks.
A decade later, in 2011, Piper reproduced the article again as “Appendix Two” in his book Bloodlines. Though some had started to taste the bitter waters of unresolved white-supremacy in Reformed circles, the issue had not fully metastasized in Piper’s circles yet. Piper was still optimistic as he reflected on his aspirations from a decade earlier: “In the subsequent years [since the 2002 conference], I have some encouragement to believe that the dream it expresses is becoming a reality” (“Appendix Two,” Bloodlines, 241).
Bloodlines is a book devoted to tackling the issues of “Race, Cross, and the Christian,” and one might expect that Piper would directly deal with the glaring issue of “the poison of racist slavery” here, if anywhere, but while Piper does briefly acknowledge it in one section of the book, he treats it in only the most general terms, and again offers shallow solutions. He does not once, for example, make any specific mention of Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding, nor does he make any reference to Robert Lewis Dabney — a white supremacist he had been quoting and recommending for decades.
He does speak in general terms, though, about slavery and racism:
“The point of bringing up Reformed theology is not that its representatives have always been the best examples in its history of how to pursue racial harmony. I gave up looking for perfect heroes a long time ago. Everyone but Jesus lets you down. There have been good models of racial reconciliation among those who do not embrace all of the Reformed faith. And there have been many who embraced much of the Reformed faith who have fallen short.”
Piper, Bloodlines, 130.
That’s it — “no one is perfect.” The brutal horrors of chattel slavery in America?—“not the best examples.”
Nevertheless, Piper thinks that “the truths themselves, when rightly understood and embraced and cherished with a good heart, cut the legs out from under racist attitudes.” My question is — why then, for centuries, did this not happened with Reformed Christians in America? If this “good theology” will “itself” cut the legs out from under racism, why did it so rarely happen? In fact, to the contrary, the most deeply entrenched White Supremacy in the country was often in those places that held most vigorously to “Calvinist orthodoxy.”
Piper knew this, and does acknowledge “the heavily Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity that coexisted with American slavery and the Dutch Reformed church that coexisted with South African apartheid. These two historical realities have tarnished the Reformed Faith” (Bloodlines, 131). But Piper thinks we need to walk a fine line between “honestly admitting the stain but distinguishing between causation and association” (Bloodlines, 132).
Piper reads American history and finds that “the day came when the very Bible, and the very faith, that had once been used to condone slavery was finally seen to undo it” (131). Frankly, I question the historical accuracy of that claim when compared with reality of the Civil War and Emancipation. It was not the Bible that undid slavery, it was War. In fact, as Lincoln famously recognized, in that very war “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” It was not the Bible, or the belief in the sovereignty of God that undid slavery—hence the “theological crisis” so aptly described by Mark Noll and others (see Noll, “The Bible and Slavery,” in Religion and the American Civil War (1998); Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006); John R. McKivigan, The War Against Proslavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches, 1830–1865 (1984)). For Piper to claim that “the very Bible and the very faith that had once been used to condone slavery “was finally seen to undo it” seems like wishful thinking to me.
So as far as treating the record of slavery and white-supremacy in the Reformed tradition, in a nearly 300 page book, that’s it. “No one is perfect”; enslavers, I suppose, are “not the best examples.” In the entire book there is no acknowledgement of Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding, nor of the legacy of White Supremacy that was built into the DNA of the Southern Presbyterian tradition. Robert Lewis Dabney, who had been recommended by Piper for two decades, is not even mentioned in the book, let alone any attempt to remove his poisonous influence from the stream.
It is also deeply ironic to read what he says about the 1960s and segregation, in light of Iain Murray and Banner of Truth’s collaboration with Mississippi segregationists in the 1960s (though it is almost certain that Piper was completely unaware of these things), given Piper’s own partnership with Murray (see ““A Leading Theologian”?: Herman Bavinck on Robert Lewis Dabney”).
Piper opens his introduction to Bloodlines like this: “A book on race written by a baby boomer, who came of age in the 1960s, has to begin with the civil rights movement. It still grips us, defines us, in so many ways… Things were done and said in those days that need to be known by those who weren’t there” (23). Indeed, things were done and said in those days by Iain Murray and the faculty at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson Mississippi that need to be known. When Piper says in the first chapter that “Those who defend the noble spirit of Southern slaveholders by pointing to how nice they were to their slaves, and how deep the affections were, and how they even attended each other’s personal celebrations, seem to be naïve about what makes a relationship degrading”— he could have been talking directly to Iain Murray (see “Dabney was truly a Caleb”: Iain Murray’s biography of Robert Lewis Dabney”) or Douglas Wilson.
Piper could have started the hard, painful, but necessary work of specifically calling out the poison of white supremacy where it lingered in his own Reformed circles. He did not.
“1. Blacks were excluded from Reformed churches. In history, blacks were excluded from white churches where Reformed theology was articulated, as they were from virtually every other kind of white church. This is to our shame. It is not news. Why it happened is a huge issue for another time, but it is utterly relevant to the question. You can’t exclude a whole people from the rigors of weekly Reformed preaching and expect the doctrines to flourish, at least not in the same way they might if seeds of truth are watered every week in that kind of church. That is number one.”
This phrase is telling: “Why it happened is a huge issue for another time, but it is utterly relevant to the question.” Indeed, this is a “huge issue,” it is “utterly relevant,” and yet I am not aware of “another time” when Piper has addressed this. This very question—“why it happened”—has been a burning question for me.
This post has been different that the others in this series. The other posts analyze how and why Piper recommended Dabney repeatedly for decades, acts of commission. This post is the reverse: why did Piper not make any reference to Dabney in the midst of his most energetic efforts for racial reconciliation, a glaring (non)-act of omission. If the predominantly white Reformed theological stream was going to flow alongside the “soul dynamic” of the Black tradition in “a single river,” more work would need to be done. Would it be?
In 1995, John Piper published Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God. The book was widely praised in the Reformed Evangelical world. The 2012 reprint included four pages of blurbs:
“Of all of John Piper’s ‘big books,’ Future Grace has had the biggest impact on my life and ministry.” – Kevin DeYoung
“Future Grace is one of the fundamental building blocks for John Piper’s distinctive message.” – John Frame
“I’m indebted to John Piper and hope many others will read this new edition of Future Grace and benefit from it.” – Joshua Harris
“This book is deeply biblical, passionately practical, and Christ-centered.” – R. Albert Mohler
“This book provides a much-needed key that will help every Christian understand just how to live a joy-filled life that is pleasing to God.” – Wayne Grudem
“Future Grace is one of John Piper’s most theological works, looking in detail at the nature of saving faith; at the same time it is one of his most practical, serving as a wartime manual for fighting the fight of faith. This combination makes it among his most important books.” – Justin Taylor
“There have been two or three books outside of the Bible that have profoundly shaped how I see and understand my relationship with God. When I first read Future Grace in the summer of 1999, it sent my head spinning and my heart soaring. I couldn’t be more excited about this revision.” – Matt Chandler
“Future Grace changed my life, and it can change yours.” – Russell Moore
The book opened with not one, but two introductions. The first explained “Why and How This Book Was Written,” and is introduced by two quotes, John Piper’s mission statement, and a quote from Charles Spurgeon:
The second introduction is titled “For Theologians,” and it too is introduced with a quote — from Robert L. Dabney:
Piper starts this second introduction by saying “Not everyone needs to be this section. But it may be helpful for some if I orient the book in the history and the categories of more formal theology.” The way this is framed illustrates the dynamic I am exploring, namely, “why and how a white-supremacist was promoted to twentieth century white evangelicals.” The Reformed Evangelical movement greatly prizes theology. Countless hours spent thinking, speaking, and writing about theology, getting every jot and tittle just right. Theology is one of the animating principles in the movement — if your theology is “right,” any number of shortcomings can be overlooked, and Robert L. Dabney is a prime example of this.
Notice how Dabney is presented to the reader. For many, this is the first time they will have encountered his name. How will they be introduced? What will be the first impression? The reader will notice that he is included in the section that is not for “everyone,” but is particularly “For Theologians.” An elite class has been presented—not everyone needs to read this, but if you have the intellectual capacity or interest to dig into the “meat” of history and theology, you will find Robert L. Dabney welcoming you at the door.
This second introduction moves into an overview of some historical confessions, the Augsburg Confession, the the First Helvetic Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Westminster Confession. Piper then points to Dabney:
“Numerous other witnesses could be called in to show that the historic viewpoint of the Reformed confessions is that justifying faith is also sanctifying faith. (Footnote 6: See a more extended list of witnesses in Robert L. Dabney, “The Moral Effects of a Free Justification,” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, vol. 1 (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967, orig. 1890), 73–106.
Piper, Future Grace, 21 (2012 edition).
So after appealing to a select few who may be helped by “the history and categories of more formal theology,” Piper points them to where they can dig deeper: Robert L. Dabney.
The quote that Piper used to introduce “For Theologians” is also reproduced later in Future Grace in Chapter 27: “Faith in Future Grace vs. Lust.”
“Robert L. Dabney, the nineteenth-century southern Presbyterian theologian, expressed it like this: “Is it by the instrumentality of faith we receive Christ as our justification, without the merit of any of our works? Well. But this same faith, if vital enough to embrace Christ, is also vital enough to “work by love,” “to purify our hearts.” This then is the virtue of the free gospel, as a ministry of sanctification, that the very faith which embraces the gift becomes an inevitable and a divinely powerful principle of obedience.”
Piper, Future Grace, 332.
In the footnote, readers are again recommended to go read Dabney:
“This quote comes from Dabney’s compelling essay on the necessity of good works (including sexual purity) in the light of free justification by grace through faith.”
“The Moral Effects of a Free Justification”
This “compelling essay,” is titled “The Moral Effects of a Free Justification” and was originally published as a sort of book review in The Southern Review (April 1873): 369–406, and then reprinted in Dabney’s Discussions, Volume 1. In the article, Dabney spends ten pages briefly reviewing four books, and then turns the last twenty pages toward his own exposition of the theme, which is succinctly summed up in the Westminster Confession (§11.2): “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.”
Again, here is how Dabney expresses it:
“…faith, if vital enough to embrace Christ, is also vital enough to “work by love,” “to purify our hearts.” This then is the virtue of the free gospel, as a ministry of sanctification, that the very faith which embraces the gift becomes an inevitable and a divinely powerful principle of obedience.”
Dabney, “Moral Effects,” in Discussions, 1:96.
A little later he goes on to say it like this:
“Thus faith must perform its vital action in both the spheres of obedience and of trust, or it cannot live.”
Dabney, “Moral Effects,” 97.
I should say that doctrinally speaking, I entirely agree with Dabney (and Piper) on this. Genuine faith in Jesus necessarily produces works of love, or, as James puts it, “faith without works is dead.” What is deeply ironic about Dabney’s article, as well as Piper’s appeal to Dabney in particular, is that his life is the most glaring example of brazen, lifelong, unrepentant hatred, both for Black people (see “What’s so Bad about Robert Lewis Dabney?”) as well as Northern Presbyterians (see “Love Your Enemies”?). This doctrine is a powerful truth, but as Thabiti Anyabwile has said:
“If you can support a theological, biblical or ministry claim… without using writers and leaders who were slaveholders, white supremacists, segregationists, misogynists, etc… then you should.”
In fact, appealing to Dabney on this particular point arguably undermines your position. In Dabney, we see an “impeccable” version of Reformed Orthodox Faith, coupled with venomous hatred. Faith, for Dabney, did not work itself out in love.
Though Dabney’s article is focused on the theological question at hand, it is interesting that even here, he uses a uniquely Southern view of slavery (“property in persons”—a common expression in his day), to illustrate a theological point. In explaining how sinners could never earn favor from God with their works, he says this:
The slave did not deem that he had brought his owner in debt by rendering a service which the owner rightfully claimed as property. Hence we have no “condign merit”on which to claim even a restoration to favor.”
Dabney, “Moral Effects,” 87.
From the irony of appealing to a racist to support the doctrine of “faith working through love,” to an illustration drawn from slavery, Piper’s appeal to Dabney was perhaps ill-advised, but like the illustration of George Washington, this too would be repurposed again and again in the years to come.
The TULIP Seminar
Over the years, John Piper delivered a number of weekend seminars at Bethlehem Baptist Church on a variety of topics, including missions, suffering, complementarity, and Calvinism.
One of the seminars is titled TULIP: The Five Points of Calvinism, and the materials from that seminar have been edited and reprinted as a resource for other churches to use as well. In both the “Instructors Guide” (page 138) and the “Student Workbook (page 144), this passage from Future Grace is reprinted, including the quote from Robert Lewis Dabney. The course was also uploaded to The Gospel Coalition as part of their “TGC Courses.” The original posting included four “Downloadable Resources,” including Dabney:
The link to Dabney has since been taken down from TGC’s page, but this is just another thread in understanding “how and why was Dabney recommended to evangelicals”: Piper’s book was influential in its own right; the teaching spread directly to the congregation at Bethlehem Baptist Church through the seminar; it spread still further to other churches through the curriculum; and even further still on TGC’s platform. All of this is part of “how” Dabney was passed along.
John Piper vs. N. T. Wright
A decade later, John Piper would famously take up a literary debate with N. T. Wright, primarily over the issue of justification, and Piper would cite Dabney’s article once again in support of his position. In 2007 he published The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, and chapter 6 is devoted to “The Place of Our Works in Justification.” Piper thought that Wright was dangerously unclear in saying “something like this” (the following was Piper’s paraphrase of Wright’s position):
“In the future at the final court scene, God the Judge will find in our favor on the basis of the works we have done—the life we have lived—and in the present he anticipates that verdict and declares it to be already true on the basis of our faith in Jesus.”
Piper, The Future of Justification, 103.
He critiques Wright’s interpretation of Romans 2:13, and then moves to address a charge made by Wright against the reformed tradition:
“Wright thinks Reformed pastors and scholars do not pay enough attention to the relationship between justification and works. When he spoke at the 2003 Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, he said that there seemed to be ‘a massive conspiracy of silence about something that was quite clear for Paul (as indeed for Jesus).’”
Piper, The Future of Justification, 111.
Piper responds: “Whether there was a conspiracy of silence in Edinburgh, there surely has not been one in the history of Reformed reflection on Scripture, or in the Reformed confessions” (111), and then he surveys a number of them: the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, the Swiss First Helvetic Confession, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, and finally the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is here that he cites Robert L. Dabney:
“Robert L. Dabney puts it this way: “Since the same faith, if vital enough to embrace Christ, is also vital enough to ‘work by love,’ ‘to purify our hearts.’ This, then is the virtue of the free gospel, as a ministry of sanctification, that the very faith which embraces the gift becomes an inevitable and a divinely powerful principle of obedience” (emphasis added). Robert L. Dabney, “The Moral Effects of a Free Justification,” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (London: Banner of Truth, 1967, orig. 1890), 1:96.
Piper, The Future of Justification, 114.
It is telling to stand back and reflect on this. Piper is debating the relationship of works—“works of love”!—to saving faith, and to defend his position, he appeals to a white-supremacist theologian. In a theological dispute over the “inevitability” of works of love flowing out of justification, N. T. Wright is apparently on the wrong side, but Robert Lewis Dabney is enlisted as an ally. These “battle lines” are bewildering! A generation of evangelicals, following Piper’s lead, was led to believe that Wright was the “bad guy,” and I too bought into this for a time, until I began reading Wright for myself, and found in him a remarkable exegete and theologian with a breathtaking grasp of the breadth and depth of Scripture. It’s strange to look back on this now, and realize that among other things we were being told “Wright = dangerous; Dabney = helpful.”
In conclusion, let me reiterate, I thoroughly believe this doctrine: genuine faith necessarily produces works of love. But, to quote Thabiti again, if you don’t have to quote a white-supremacist to make this point, why would you? And I would only add, if you truly love this doctrine, you won’t.
But again, for decades—from 1995 to 2007 and beyond, Dabney was recommended by Piper as a helpful ally in defending this Reformed doctrine. “How did it happen?” We’re increasingly starting to see.