The Rev. James Hervey, the subject of the following Memoirs, exhibits in his writings a most zealous attachment to the great doctrines of the glorious gospel, and in his life a most eminent example of evangelical holiness
Hervey was a man highly esteemed in his own time, and by generations following him.
If Hervey is as representative and prominent a figure as there was in 18th century evangelicalism, a question naturally arises (for me, at least): what, if anything, did Hervey have to say (or do) regarding the enslavement of Africans in the American colonies?
As far as I can tell, Hervey never visited America (though his works were published, read, and debated there), and never owned any slaves himself (though I am uncertain of the status of the “worthy domestic” cited below). Nevertheless, Hervey’s friendship with George Whitefield resulted in an active participation in slavery that is worth reflecting on.
Though Hervey pastored in Weston Favell, in 1750 he took a trip to London, about 70 miles away, at the behest of some of his friends:
“In June 1750, his health being much impaired by his great attention to duty, and his friends judging that the change of air might be of benefit to him, they formed a design, which they executed, of conveying him to London, under a pretence of riding a few miles in a friend’s post-chaise, who was going thither.”
Brown, Memoirs, 149.
Hervey would remain there nearly two years, until April or May 1752, and during this time he stayed at a few places in London, including his friend George Whitefield’s house:
“One of the winters he staid in London, he lodged at the house of his good friend Mr. Whitefield, in Tottenham-court Road; here he was very happy”
Brown, Memoirs, 152.
Hervey and Whitefield were lifelong friends, and Whitefield had previously visited him up on Weston Favell:
“A worthy domestic, yet alive (in 1811) intimates, his usual visitors were the Rev. Messrs. Whitefield, T. Jones, Cudworth, Doddridge, Ryland, and a pious young man, a stone mason ; these righteous men, their lips fed one another; indeed almost none but religious persons called on him.”
Brown, Memoirs, 156.
Among the things Hervey and Whitefield did was review each others’ manuscripts (though, Hervey being the more literary of the two, this seems to have been a one-sided affair):
“In his friendship to Mr. Whitefield, he also reviewed his manuscripts. So this good man [Whitefield] writes Mr. Hervey; “ I thank you a thousand times for the trouble you have been at in revising my poor compositions, which I am afraid you have not treated with a becoming severity.”
Brown, Memoirs, 263.
Sometime in 1752, Hervey sent some of his own manuscripts to Whitefield for comment (Luke Tyerman thinks these were “Probably “Theron and Aspasio,” now in hand, though not published far three years afterwards” (Tyerman, Oxford Methodists, 277).) Whitefield wrote back:
“London, June 9, 1752.
“My very dear Friend,— I have received and read your manuscripts; but for me to play the critic upon them, would be like holding up a candle to the sun. However, before I leave town, I will just mark a few places as you desire, and then send the manuscripts to your brother. I foretell their fate: nothing but your scenery can screen you. Self will never bear to die, though slain in so genteel a manner, without showing some resentment against its artful murderer.”
“You are resolved not to die in my debt. I think to call your intended purchase Weston, and shall take care to remind him by whose means he was brought under the everlasting Gospel.”
It seems unlikely to me that Whitefield literally thought Hervey was repaying a debt, especially not for his editorial comments on his manuscript. It is more likely that Hervey meant this as a “gift” to his friend, and Whitefield’s response is a courteous reply. Whitefield likely named the enslaved man “Weston” after the town where Hervey was pastor (Weston Favell).
How was this incident received and transmitted by historians and biographers? Luke Tyerman called it an “act … too curious to be omitted” and emphasizes its strangeness like this:
“Every one knows, that, Whitefield believed, that, the keeping of slaves was sanctioned by the Scriptures; that, hot countries could not be cultivated without negroes; and, that, the lives of numbers of white people had been destroyed in Georgia, and large amounts of money wasted, for want of negro labour. Holding such principles, Whitefield, in 1751, bought a number of slaves, partly to cultivate the land attached to his Orphan House, in Georgia: and partly to instruct them, and to make them Christians. Strange to say, the gentle Hervey approved of this procedure; and having, during his residence in London, largely shared in Whitefield’s hospitality, he gave to him, as a souvenir on leaving,—what ? A slave!”
Tyerman, The Oxford Methodists, 277.
However, other biographers of Hervey tried to frame this act in an entirely different light. One of Hervey’s earliest biographers, John Brown, called this an instance of charity:
“Among other instances of his charity, he proposed to buy a slave, to instruct him in the Christian religion.”
Brown, Memoirs, 215.
A whole book was edited in honor of Hervey, called Herveiana; Or, Graphic and Literary Sketches Illustrative of the Life and Writings of the Rev. James Hervey (1822) edited by John Cole. Cole actually attempts to compare Hervey to the great English abolitionist William Wilberforce:
“The following splendid instance of his charity is noticed by Brown, which shews that he possessed alike the spirit that animated Wilberforce, and that which influences Christians of the present day. Mr. Whitefield, being in America, Mr. Hervey proposed to buy a slave, (whom his friend there had opportunity to purchase) to instruct him in the Christian religion…”
““The above account displays that Hervey did as far as was in his power as an individual in the cause of humanity, what Wilberforce as the representative of a body of individuals completely effected in the total overthrow of the cruelty inflicted upon our fellow creatures. Our countrymen of this age are endeavouring with a laudable zeal to convert heathens, and give them the glorious light of the gospel. Hervey used his power to effect the same desirable object in this brilliant and beneficent purchase, which is in every instance worthy of the man.”
To modern eyes, (mine at least), this appears to be a bizarre incident. Yet, in other respects, it is to be expected of evangelicals, who seamlessly wedded enslavement of others with their own evangelical theology (for another example, see “The Edwards of History: A Reply to Douglas Wilson”). In fact, it seems clear that Hervey meant this as a form of evangelism: “may the Lord Jesus Christ give you the precious soul of the poor slave.” For those who believed that God providentially intended the trans-Atlantic slave trade so that enslaved Africans could hear the “gospel,” this is a completely consistent act.
This incident also tells us about how Whitefield was known amongst his friends. Hervey knew that Whitefield would appreciate the “gift” of an enslaved person, and perhaps knew all about the enslaved workers at the Bethesda orphanage in Georgia. When you spend good money on a gift for a friend (£30 was no small sum), you want to be sure they will appreciate it, and whatever Hervey knew of Whitefield, he knew he would appreciate this.
Consider further that Whitefield had said that he would “take care to remind him by whose means he was brought under the everlasting Gospel.” Imagine being Weston, and imagine if Whitefield held true to his promise. Imagine constant reminders to “Reverend Hervey” — another link in the chain of events that brought you from your home in Africa, across the middle passage, to a slave block in London. All along, you are treated as “transferrable property,” such that you could be “given” as a “gift,” from one evangelical preacher to another.
In all, the ethical distortion in the original episode, and the further distortion in the historical reception of it (Tyerman excluded), are illustrative of 18th and 19th century evangelicalism.
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.
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 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.
Over the years, Iain Murray has delivered a number of biographical messages of various Christian theologians and pastors. Among them is a biography of Robert Lewis Dabney. The date of this message is unknown, but seems to be sometime in the 1960s when Banner of Truth had just reprinted two volumes of Dabney’s Discussions (for more on this, including Murray’s partnership with Mississippi segregationists, see ““A Leading Theologian”?: Herman Bavinck on Robert Lewis Dabney“).
Frankly, the message is a hagiography of Dabney, as well as a Lost Cause version of the Civil War, and an apology for Southern slavery.
One of Murray’s purposes in delivering the message coincided with Banner of Truth’s reprinting of Dabney’s Discussions, and Murray makes this explicit:
Dabney’s works have never been printed in this country, I should think practically impossible to buy any Dabney books in our second hand bookshop for that reason.
I have two reasons why I chose the subject of Robert Lewis Dabney for this morning’s session… The second reason then is that I wanted to say something which perhaps would encourage more reading of Dabney’s theological writing and to that end we brought with us from London quite a number of Dabney’s Discussions
He concludes his message with this:
Let me then commend these precious volumes to you. Two volumes, you who’ve got sons, you should buy copies so that they’ll have them too, and another generation will not forget this man as our fathers forgot him.
Murray lauds Dabney to his listeners:
His life gives us the most impressive example, that I know, of courage and heroism in the Christian ministry. I mean, of course, outside the pages of Scripture, but outside the pages of Scripture, I do not know a life which is more moving in terms of the quality of courage and endurance than the life of Robert Dabney. Dabney was truly a Caleb.
His biographer, speaking of Dabney as a spiritual Christian, comes to this conclusion: “as a holy man, he deserves to be ranked with Augustine and Calvin, Owen and Baxter and Edwards. Dr. Dabney was a great man. We cannot tell just how great yet. One cannot see how great Mount Blanc is while standing at its foot. 100 years from now, men will be able to see him better”
We get the hint early on that Murray intends to downplay the horrors of Southern slavery with euphemism and understatement. He describes Dabney’s childhood like this:
His father was a local magistrate, farmer, colonel of the militia, a man who owned a farm, where there were wheat and corn and tobacco, and in that environment, country environment, Dabney grew up. It was of course, a typical Southern farm, with Negroes in the family, with the structure of society that existed before the civil war still in force.
According to Murray, the enslaved were “in the family,” and the systemic injustice of enslavement is called “the structure of society.” Later on in the message, Murray turns toward a full-throated apology for Southern slavery:
Then one must bear in mind of course that there were great differences and discrepancies in the way that slaves were treated in the South. Slaves in Christian homes, were almost always as much, as it were, a part of the family, as anyone else. They were born in the home, they lived there, they were nursed there, they were cared for, they died there. One of Dabney’s reasons why he could not go to Princeton was that it would break up his family, and by his family of course he included his slaves.
I am quite convinced that in the hearts of these Christians in the South, I say Christians in the South, there was very great regard and love to their colored slaves and servants.
To rebut this, one needs simply to look at how Dabney treated his own slaves: “transfer some of your own troubles to the backs of the cuffies”; “I have hired a man more whipable than those we had last”; “beat him into good behavior” (“Robert Lewis Dabney Papers, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville”).
Murray gives a double-barrel case for the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War. First, Murray emphasizes the issue of “states rights” in the abstract, without any reference to the fact that it was specifically the states’ rights to enslave Black people. For example, here is a quote from the 1864 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, at which Dabney was present:
“We hesitate not to affirm that it is the peculiar mission of the Southern Church to conserve the institution of slavery, and to make it a blessing both to master and slave“
But there existed in the years that followed [the 1780s], considerable tension between their loyalty to their own identity as a state and their loyalty to the union. And this tension was at the heart of the troubles which led up to the civil war in 1861. You, of course, you’ll expect me to enlarge upon that, but that is the heart of the story. There were those who believed that their first loyalty was to their state. There were others who believed that state loyalty had been superseded by loyalty to the union. The southerners adhered to the view that state loyalty was the primary loyalty.
Murray claims that the issue of slavery was northern propaganda:
I had wanted to say something on the attitude of these men to the Negro question and the slavery question because of course it was the great propaganda of the North and propaganda that was accepted by the world that the civil war was fought simply for the abolition of slavery. I think I can give you sufficient evidence to show that that simply cannot be true… They were not fighting to preserve slavery
Murray joins Dabney, and the entire league of the Lost Cause, in praising Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. In fact, in a strange twist, a good portion of Dabney’s biography is actually devoted to Jackson:
Stonewall Jackson was the commander of what became known as the Stonewall Brigade, the army of Northern Virginia, probably the greatest general that the Southern army had. And certainly one of the greatest generals in history.
Murray gets so engaged in describing Jackson’s military “genius,” that he stops partway through and remarks “Well, I’m not here to speak about the battles,” which prompted knowing laughter from his audience. He praises Jackson’s Christian character:
Well, I must say something, however, on the Christianity of Stonewall Jackson. Robert Lee and Jackson were both outstanding Christians. There’s no, I think, there’s no one who questions that.
Murray makes one allusion to Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy:
Some of you are aware that Dabney, like us all, sometimes spoke illadvisedly with his lips, and there are on record certain words spoken on the color issue by Dabney, which had better not have been spoken.
Indeed, see “What’s So Bad About R. L. Dabney?” and see for yourself. “Sometimes” is understating it–this was a major theme of Dabney’s life as a writer and a churchman. Nevertheless, Murray wishes to highlight how white Southern Presbyterians in the south, like Dabney and John L. Girardeau, really did “love” Black people, and did not wish to exclude them from the church. What Murray leaves out, is that these white leaders wanted to keep Black people in the church so that they could maintain their control over them (see this thread for example, which treats both Dabney and Girardeau).
Murray references the fact that Dabney was opposed to reunion with Northern Presbyterians “on two grounds” but says “I’ll mention only one of them,” namely, the issue of new methods in evangelism that Dabney was opposed to. Murray conveniently leaves out the other reason: his white-supremacy. Here’s Dabney himself on the issue in question (warning: it’s vile!):
It means, of course, that we must imitate the church which absorbs us, in the ecclesiastical amalgamation with negroes; accepting negro presbyters to rule white churches and judge white ladies; a step which would seal the moral and doctrinal corruption of our church in the South, and be a direct step towards that final perdition of Southern society, domestic amalgamation… For, let any man look on the negro character calmly, and he will see that the introduction of any, the smallest, element of negro rule in our church, means moral and doctrinal relaxation, and ecclesiastical corruption, poisoning the life-blood of our churches… Merge our churches with the North, and at once we poison the noble Synods of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia with the infusion of the black “Synod of Atlantic;” with the prospect of the similar corruption of our whole Southern church.
Murray would have know about this quote, because it’s contained in Volume 2 of the very books he was selling at the conference.
Murray quotes favorably Dabney’s strong stand “Against a false anti-biblical secularism, a philanthropy which was not Christian,”neglecting to note that by this, Dabney included the “cruelty” of abolitionism (“Crimes of Philanthropy”).
Murray favorably quotes Dabney on his opposition to women’s rights:
If you read him on woman’s rights, for example, you will find a most heart stirring appeal. He believed that it was not only a woman’s duty to be in the home, but that was her highest privilege, and the movement for the vote to be given to woman and for woman’s in society to be equal to man, that movement, he saw, as one of the greatest perils to the United States, and I haven’t time to read from him, but you’ll feel that if you read him. That is a whole area of Dabney, which is very relevant for the present time. There’s an anti-biblical theory of rights and it is that which he is concerned to oppose…
Certain circles of Reformed evangelicalism have held Iain Murray in high esteem, especially for his work at Banner of Truth. It’s time that Murray’s views of Dabney, the Confederacy, and Southern slavery were known.
Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism. Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1895. Reprint Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1992. pp. 80.
The year is 1895. Robert Lewis Dabney is 75 years old, and will pass from the earth in just a few years (1898). He had fought his whole life for two main things: Calvinism and white supremacy, and to the last, these topics flow from his pen. His hagio/biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, gives us in two successive paragraphs: “During the year 1895, Dr. Dabney published, through the Presbyterian Committee of Publication, Richmond, Va., his excellent little tract of eighty pages, on the ‘Five Points of Calvinism,’ and contributed occasional articles to the newspapers, notably one or two philippics against the effort to remove Union Theological Seminary from Hampden-Sidney to Richmond” (The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 510–511); “He waged war, by private correspondence, against the removal of Union Theological Seminary. He plead for the retention of the Seminary in Southside Virginia as needed to help the white people in their struggle to prevent their sections being Africanized” (LLD, 511).
Lest anyone object that this is an unfair juxtaposing of two unrelated issues (Calvinism and White Supremacy), note that the man who was a professor of systematic theology and ecclesiastical history at Union Theological Seminary, not only wrote on these two topics at the very same time, but felt that the Theological Seminary would aid in the “struggle” for White Supremacy—theological instruction had an active and constructive role in its maintenance.
Recommended by Desiring God and TGC
Why did I bother reading this book? It came on my radar several years ago, when I saw Desiring God’s post “What are Some Books that DG Recommends?”and Dabney’s book was recommended in the category of “Providence and Predestination.” Recently, it was noticed that the online class on “TULIP: The Five Points of Calvinism” taught by John Piper, and hosted on the TGC website also recommended Dabney’s book on the landing page (it appears that sometime in November 2021, TGC removed this link to Dabney, perhaps in response to this tweet). For awhile now, I’ve been wrestling with this question:“How and why was a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney commended to my generation as a great theologian to read?!?” As I’m working my way through the material, this one was next.
1618 & 1619
Theologically speaking, the book is mostly unremarkable, just Dabney’s articulation of the five points of Calvinism. Historically, though, I find a number of points of interest. On page 2, he refers to “the famous Synod of Dort,” a church council hosted in the Netherlands in 1618, responding to the Arminians, and formulating “The Five Points” for the first time in that particular form. The very next year, 1619, a Dutch ship would deliver twenty enslaved Africans to the shores of the American colony of Virginia (see W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the Slave Trade, 17). Lest you think Dort is a religious affair, and unrelated the “secular” national interests, remember that in the Netherlands had an official state church, and the two were intertwined, so much so that the State persecuted Arminians, even with the death penalty, for dissenting (Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2: 229–33); see also Gerald F. De Jong, “Dutch Reformed Church and Negro Slavery in Colonial America,” Church History 40.4 (1971): 423–36 | on JSTOR).
A “well-bred [white] lady”
Dabney’s work is sprinkled throughout with illustrations, and several of these highlight the fact that so much of the material for our theology is drawn from our circumstances, and the same is true of Dabney. In his explication of the concept of “Total Depravity” or “Original Sin,” he goes on for several pages with an example: “I suppose that a refined and genteelly reared young lady presents the least sinful specimen of unregenerate human nature” (10; he will later refer to her as “the well-bred young lady” (19)). Knowing Dabney’s context (the 19th century South), and his ideology (white supremacy), including his explicit statements regarding Black people (see “What’s So Bad About R. L. Dabney?”), we can reasonably infer that what he means is “a refined and genteelly reared young [white] lady.” Dabney draws on an explicitly gendered, and implicitly racial, conceptions of Southern Womanhood to illustrate his theological point about sin. And his point here is that even this “least sinful specimen” is indeed “totally depraved” unless she is converted.
Master and Servant
In discussing “free will,” Dabney poses this hypothetical: “If a master would require his servant to do a bodily act for which he naturally had not the bodily faculty, as, for instance, the pulling up of a healthy oak tree with his hands, it would be unjust to punish the servant’s failure” (17). Dabney was born in 1820, grew up in a family that enslaved a number of Black people (Johnson, 18, 24), and directly oversaw them later in his life. No doubt, he found the “master and servant” relationship a ready illustration for this theological points, even thirty years after Emancipation.
A “Rural Sanctuary”
In the section explaining “Effectual Calling” (what is otherwise known as the I in TULIP “Irresistible Grace”), Dabney explicitly draws our attention to the ante-bellum South: “Let us suppose that fifty years ago [i.e., 1845] the reader had seen me visit his rural sanctuary, when the grand oaks which now shade it were but lithe saplings” (32). What picture does Dabney want in your mind? Where should you imagine yourself? The stereotypical Southern Plantation, with the Big House off in the distance, and the oak trees recently planted. He blesses the site of so much human horror as a “sanctuary,” its rural setting removed from nosy neighbors or other onlookers affording the occasion for so much human violence unwitnessed by the outside world (for a vivid illustration of this, see the final act of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Simon LeGree’s isolated property). Again, the material used to construct and illustrate the theology is thoroughly situated in Dabney’s context, and it is explicitly the context of ante-bellum (1845) enslavement.
A “wise and righteous general”
In the section on “God’s Election” Dabney compares God’s foreknowledge with “a wise and righteous general conducting a defensive war to save his country” (40). It’s hard to miss the allusion to the Confederacy and the Civil War here. Dabney served as an officer in the Confederate Army under General Stonewall Jackson, and published Jackson’s first biography, Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson) (1866). Dabney regularly refers to Jackon’s “wisdom” and “righteousness,” and holds him up as a shining example of Christian character (for more on this see Daniel W. Stowell, “Stonewall Jackson and the Providence of God,” in Religion and the American Civil War, edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, Charles Reagan Wilson (1998)). Dabney’s description of “a defensive war to save his country” is exactly how he characterized the Civil War in his A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her of the South (1867).
Dabney’s point is that this “wise and righteous” general may change his plans as the war develops, but God, knowing all, never changes his plans. The material used to illustrate this theological point is reflective of his own Lost Cause narrative of the Confederacy and the Civil War.
There is one point with which I agree with Dabney, and it appears mainly in his discussion of the “Perseverance of the Saints.” Here are a few passages of Scripture to set the stage:
“He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now… he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
1 John 2:9, 11
“In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: whoever does not practice justice (δικαιοσυνην) is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother.”
1 John 3:10
“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”
1 John 4:20
Early on in the book, Dabney notes the hardening effects of sin:
“Now, the soul’s duties towards God are the highest, dearest, and most urgent of all duties; so that wilful disobedience herein is the most express, most guilty, and most hardening of all the sins that the soul commits. God’s perfections and will are the most supreme and perfect standard of moral right and truth. Therefore, he who sets himself obstinately against God’s right is putting himself in the most fatal and deadly opposition to moral goodness.”
“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 12.
The first and greatest commandment is to love God; the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself. Dabney correctly notes that disobedience to these greatest commands is “the most express, most guilty, and most hardening of all the sins that the soul commits.” What is more “directly disobedient” to this command to love, than the sin of white-supremacy?
When distinguishing between genuine and false believers, Dabney notes that “the shepherd knows that it is always the nature of wolves to choose to devour the lambs instead of the grass” (52). What is more wolf-like than Dabney’s venomous explosion in the Synod of Virginia, “The Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes”?
His section on the Perseverance of the Saints is his fullest treatment of this dynamic:
“We do not believe that all professed believers and church members will certainly preserve and reach heaven. It is to be feared that many such, even plausible pretenders, “have but a name to have while they are dead.”
“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 68.
He acknowledges that genuine believers can “backslide,” but asserts that “a covenant-keeping God will recover them by sharp chastisements and deep contrition… if he is a true believer he has to be brought back by grievous and perhaps by terrible afflictions; he had better be alarmed at these!” One would be hard pressed to imagine a more sharp chastisement to White Supremacy than the horrors of the Civil War, yet Dabney was never “alarmed” out of his hatred, indeed, he became even more deeply entrenched in it in the years following.
“the Presbyterian similarly backslidden is taught by his doctrine to say: I thought I was in the right road to heaven, but now I see I was mistaken all the time, because God says, that if I had really been in that right road I could never have left it. Alas! therefore, I must either perish or get back; not to that old deceitful road in which I was, but into a new one, essentially different, narrower and straighter.”
“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 69–70.
Dabney himself sets the alternatives starkly in front of us: either get back, or perish. “No man can be saved in his sins, therefore this man will certainly be made to persevere in grace” (70). What then of the man who does not!
Dabney later alludes to 2 Peter 2:22 “The sow that was washed returns to her wallowing in the mire.” He expounds that “She is a sow still in her nature, though with the outer surface washed, but never changed into a lamb; for if she had been, she would never have chosen the mire.” I will only note that the “washings of a sow” can, and do, include the theological, the draping of Orthodox Calvinism over a mire-ridden core of white supremacy.
The verdict of the great Judge will sort this all out, but note His warning: “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). No anachronism, or “presentism” is needed to evaluate Dabney—his own words suffice.
In the final paragraph of the book, Dabney notes that Calvinism “corresponds exactly with experience, common sense, and true philosophy” (79). Indeed, Dabney drew repeatedly on his own life experience and notions of “common sense,” both forged deeply in the bellows of White Supremacy and slaveholding. It is not surprising that his explication of Calvinism is woven throughout with these notions; what may initially seem more surprising is the blindness of Dabney’s 20th century admirers as they perpetuated his legacy. Now, in the 21st century, may that Lord grant us all clearer eyes to see.
The reception of the letters is interesting. The editors of the Enquirer clearly think that Dabney’s arguments, “if circulated and studied, must do much to pierce the film of prejudice and error, and strengthen the bulwarks of Southern Rights.” Dabney was no minor figure in 19th century Virginia, he had influence in both the sacred and the secular sphere. Second, it is interesting that Dabney explicitly repudiates the common Southern sentiment that “slavery is a regrettable but unavoidable necessity” and instead posits a strong and unapologetic “slavery is righteous, just, benevolent, and above all, Biblical.” Dabney saw that arguing for slavery from the Bible was “profitable” and “safe” and would give them a “great advantage.” Nevertheless, it is interesting that even here, he can’t help but acknowledge that things would have to change (which, history demonstrates, they never did):
“but slaveholders must pay something for all these striking advantages of the discussion; and the tribute which they must pay, is to grant to the slave those rights which are inalienable to humanity—a just and humane treatment, the right of serving his Creator, and those domestic privileges which God gave to all men, when he placed them in families. If we represent slavery as a thing which necessarily includes the overthrow of the slave’s right to life, and of his moral, religious, and marital rights, then we make it a thing indefensible; for these things are a part of that essential humanity, of which no human being can be rightfully deprived.—If we make our institution a something which secures these rights to the slave, then it is defensible: and the victory is ours! To secure these inalienable rights of humanity to the slave, we invoke, not so much legislation, though perhaps a prudent legislation might ameliorate some things, as conscience, justice, and mercy.”
Note the conditional “if we make our institution” more just “then it is defensible.” But even here, he shies away from legislating any of these changes. Exactly how the institution would so fundamentally change, Dabney never shows, he merely hypothesizes.
Dabney makes a great point here for “immediate emancipation”: if slavery is sinful, it ought to cease at once, no dabbling around the edges with “gradualism”:
If I did not believe that the bible taught this, I must, in consistency, be a thorough abolitionist. I cannot see how men can say in one breath, that slavery is a malum per se and in the next, that a conscientious man may lawfully continue it for the present, because of the difficulties of emancipation. My conscience and my bible teach me that, if an act is wrong, in its own essential nature, sin, I am to cease it at once. I have no right to look at the supposed evil consequences or difficulties of the reformation. God has not told us that we are to love his law when convenience and safety permit; he has told us that if we do not love it in preference to convenience, profit, and life itself, we cannot be his disciples. Consequences belong to God, duty belongs to us. What would be the thought of the man, who should plead that he ought not to cease living in an adulterous connexion, because a change would be dangerous and inconvenient?—Would not you answer, “unless you cease that connexion at every risk, you are an immoral man?” So, in answer to all the pictures of the mischiefs which emancipation would bring on master and slave, if I believed that slavery were, in its own abstract nature, malum per se, I should be compelled to answer in the words of the well known maxim : Fiat justitia, ruat cælum!
These words could have come from the pen or mouth of William Lloyd Garrison, apart from the very first conditional.
I should note that Dabney’s entire edifice of Old Testament argument hangs on identifying Southern slavery with what is described in the Bible with the Hebrew word עבד (“abad”), an utter lexical fallacy that shows up in his reasoning. Here’s one example:
An attempt has been made to parry this, and other Old Testament arguments for the lawfulness of slavery, by asserting that the slaves of the Hebrews were only hired. This assertion is only good to display the ignorance of those who make it. A truly learned and honest anti-slavery man, such as the venerable Moses Stuart, would blush to employ it.—All antiquity proves that these servants were slaves for life. They were “bought for money.” They were denoted by one certain Hebrew word, while an entirely different word was employed to denote a hired servant, and was never used interchangeably with the former.
Unfortunately for Dabney, this is easily disproved. עבד is the Hebrew word Dabney claims “was never used interchangeably” with the word for a hired servant. However, in Genesis 29 Jacob עבד Laban his uncle. He does not עבד for nothing, but his service includes specific terms and wages (Gen 29:15, 18, 20, 25). When this agreement is broken, Jacob is angry that he has been deceived (Gen 29:25). The terms are updated. When the time period is complete, Jacob demands to leave along with his “wages” (Gen 30:26, 29). (For a thorough outline on the uses of עבד in the Pentateuch, see “עבד: “work/service/slavery” in the Torah”). This foundational error in Dabney’s exegetical framework leaves his entire argument on unsustainable ground.
In this letter, Dabney attempts to draw strong continuity between the Old Covenant laws and the New Covenant Christian. As a Baptist, I already reject much of the fundamental framework of continuity that Dabney starts with. Nevertheless, in terms of the Old Testament ethics, Dabney claims that “if we find any particular thing sanctioned, or enjoined, in these peculiar, civil, or ceremonial institutions of Moses, it does not prove that thing to be binding on us, or necessarily politic and proper for us; but it does prove it to be, in its essential moral character, innocent.” Because God ordained “slavery” (already a fallacy for Dabney), it must not be an evil in itself. However, in all his discussion on this, Dabney never addresses Jesus’s own teaching which does precisely this:
“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31–32).
“The Pharisees said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3–9)
Setting aside an in-depth discussion of “divorce and remarriage” for Christians, it is evident that Jesus has a category for something in the Law of Moses that was there temporarily because of “the hardness of your hearts” but that, if practiced now, would constitute something sinful (“adultery”). I would say that the treatment of Gentiles by the nation of Israel falls completely in this category: no intermarriage; no eating together; on occasion going to war to kill and conquer them; and harsher terms of servitude than for “Hebrew servants” — all of these fall under the temporary, and even the “for the hardness of your hearts,” aspect of the Old Covenant. Dabney does not refute this—he doesn’t even address it.
Dabney continues answering abolitionist objections to Old Testament arguments for slavery. One interesting point to note is the use he makes of “a northern man, and no friend of slavery, Rev. Moses Stuart.” Moses Stuart (1780–1852) was a professor at Andover Theological Seminary (near Boston), and was considered to be one of the leading biblical scholars of the time. He was also a quintessential example of the Northern “moderate,” who claimed to be personally opposed to slavery, but unwilling to actually do anything about it, and actually spent considerable time and energy opposing abolitionists instead for being “too radical.” Stuart himself supported “colonization” (shipping free Black people back to Africa), and discouraged the students at Andover from engaging in abolitionist activism. When George Thompson, an abolitionist from England, came to America in 1835 at the invitation of William Lloyd Garrison, he made a stop in Andover. At chapel, Stuart sounded forth: “”I warn you, young gentlemen, Iwarn you on the peril of your souls, not to go to that meeting tonight” (in Claude M. Fuess, An Old New England School, A History of Phillips Academy, Andover, 226). When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, Stuart publicly supported it, publishing an entire treatise defending it: Conscience and the Constitution with Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster on the Subject of Slavery (Boston, 1850).
“I do not believe that we ought to rest contented that slavery should exist forever, in its present form. It is, as a system, liable to most erroneous abuses… Do you think that there will be a system of slavery, where the black is punished with death for an offence for which a white man is only imprisoned a year or two; where the black may not resist wanton aggression and injury; where he is liable to have his domestic relations violated in an instant; where the female is not mistress of her own chastity; where the slave is liable to starvation, oppression and cruel punishments from an unprincipled master—that such a system can exist in the millennium? If not then, it is an obstacle to the Prince of Peace, and if we would see his chariot roll on among the prostrate nations it is our duty to remove this obstruction”
Life and Letters of Dabney, 68.
Yet, in 1851, in Letter 7, Dabney has completely reversed course:
But they [anti-slavery men] ask: Must not the spread of the pure and lovely principles of the gospel ultimately extinguish slavery ? Yes, I hope it will; not by making masters too good to be guilty of holding slaves, but by so correcting the ignorance, indolence and thriftlessness of laboring people, that the institution of slavery will be no longer needed.
Here is the first hint of an idea that will be much more elaborately expressed in subsequent letters: slavery is right and just because it is a benevolent way to correct “the ignorance, indolence, and thriftlessness of laboring people” — and by “laboring people,” Dabney was referring specifically to Black people.
In Letter 8 Dabney moves from his scriptural argument to arguments from “reason.” Central to his reasoning is the notion of the “common good” or the “good of the whole” or the “general good of society.” The arbiters of just what constitutes the “general good of society” is, of course, upper class white men like Dabney. Mix in some racism, and Dabney can assert that slavery is justified because it is for the “common good”:
“all men are by nature equal in their rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, except so far as the good of thewhole requires the submission of all to degrees of restraint corresponding to their qualities and circumstances.”
“Now, we assert, that this surrender of individual, savage, independence to the general good of society, is of the essential nature of slavery… If it can be shown that the degree of restraint which amounts to slavery, is necessary for the best condition of ruler and subject, then it is justifiable”
It is here that Dabney’s racism supplies the crucial premise in the argument. Why is slavery good for society as a whole? Why, for the welfare of the inferior Black people:
“And that the necessities of order, social happiness, and the welfare of the slave himself do call for the relation of domestic slavery, is proved by the admissions of all who have any practical knowledge of the African, and by the disasters which have attended his emancipation.”
Only white-supremacy could argue so audaciously that slavery is for “the common good” and especially good for “the welfare of the slave himself.”
In Letter 9, Dabney tries to refute the objection that because American slavery was rooted in kidnapping, “a system which had its origin in wrong cannot become right by the lapse of time; that, if the title of the piratical slave-catcher on the coast of Africa was unrighteous, he cannot sell to the purchaser any better title than he has ; and that an unsound title cannot become sound by the passage of time.” This is a powerful objection, and it should be noted that Dabney doesn’t actually answer it in the letter. Instead, he points the finger back at Northern anti-slavery figures, and says, in effect, “Oh yeah? Well what about the land you stole from the ‘New England Indian’? Are you going to give that back? Didn’t think so. Leave me alone.” He blusters that anti-slavery moderate Francis Wayland had “begged the question” and made a proposition “worse than questionable” but he never actually addresses Wayland’s reasoning, other than those side-stepping assertions. He concludes the letter with a very self-congratulatory justification for the situation: “The relation so iniquitously begun at first, but so fairly and justly transferred to subsequent owners, has resulted in civilization, religious instruction, and untold blessings to the slaves. Its dissolution would be more ruinous to them than to the masters” — indeed, a proposition worse than questionable.
Letter 10 contains the most concentrated dose of Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy:
In considering these supposed evils of slavery, we must remember that the real evil is the presence of three millions of half-civilized foreigners among us; and of this gigantic evil, domestic slavery is the potent and blessed cure… It would have been a curse that would have paralyzed the industry, corrupted the morals, and crushed the development of any nation, thus to have an ignorant, pagan, lazy, uncivilized people intermixed with us, and spread abroad like the frogs of Egypt. The remedy is slavery.
Notice how Dabney’s white-supremacy infuses his Christianity in this pro-slavery argument:
And let us ask, what has slavery done to rescue the South and the Africans in these portentous circumstances? It has civilized and christianized the Africans, and has made them, in the view of all who are practically acquainted with their condition, the most comfortable peasantry in the world… we see that through the civilizing agency of domestic slavery, the much-slandered christianity of the South has done far more for the salvation of heathen men than all the religious enterprise of Protestant christendom!
Dabney’s “common good” argument rests squarely on the foundation of white-supremacy:
Under such circumstances as these, can we avoid concluding that slavery is lawful and righteous? Are not its blessings proofs of its righteousness? Is it wrong to promote the greatest good of all classes?
Reflecting on Dabney’s case for slavery, stretched out over these eleven letters, it seems that it was this white-supremacy that was the heart beat that invigorated both his “literal Biblical” reasoning on slavery and his Scottish “common sense” reasoning on the same topic. What might otherwise be neutral interpretive and rational tools (literalism, common sense) become infused with the racism undergirding it, and it shows in Dabney’s work. In answer, let me just quote Frederick Douglass:
“…the slave master had a direct interest in discrediting the personality of those he held as property. Every man who had a thousand dollars so invested had a thousand reasons for painting the black man as fit only for slavery. Having made him the companion of horses and mules, he naturally sought to justify himself by assuming that the negro was not much better than a mule. The holders of twenty hundred million dollars’ worth of property in human chattels procured the means of influencing press, pulpit, and politician, and through these instrumentalities they belittled our virtues and magnified our vices, and have made us odious in the eyes of the world. Slavery had the power at one time to make and unmake Presidents, to construe the law, dictate the policy, set the fashion in national manners and customs, interpret the Bible, and control the church; and, naturally enough, the old masters set them selves up as much too high as they set the manhood of the negro too low. Out of the depths of slavery has come this prejudice and this color line.” (“The Color Line,” The North American Review (1881), 593.
In Dabney’s final letter, he takes up the objection that slavery is less productive than free labor. This claim had been made most notably by Adam Smith in his 1776 An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Book III, Chapter II), and Dabney feels compelled to try to address it. The letter is an amalgam of ad-hoc arguments, and his own comparisons with conditions in the north, in which he can claim that free labor is more “oppressive” than slavery:
But compared with the hardships, diseases, separations of families, andoppressions, to which free labor is liable, in its poverty and in its severance from a master’s protecting arm, all the oppressions of Southern slavery are trifling.
I think my favorite argument in the letter amounts to this: “I know a guy who lived in Ohio (a very reliable fellow, trust me), and he says that our farms in Virginia are better than theirs.” Evidently, at this point in the argument, it was time to wrap it up. Dabney’s concluding paragraph includes all the core elements in his argument: race, religion, and “common sense reason” — a powerful recipe:
If a slave-holding society is more productive than one possessing free labor, and if the institution of slavery secures to the laboring classes a more comfortable share in the profits of the community, then slavery is a merciful and benevolent institution for a world and a race such as ours. The wisdom and goodness of our Creator are conspicuous in authorizing it. We have not then claimed his sanction to an unjust, cruel and mischievous system; but we have found that, contrary to the confident assertions of the wisdom, falsely so called, of this world, it is a system as accordant to justice and benevolence, as it is to that book whose teachings are unmingled righteousness, and whose spirit is mercy.
Slavery was no “blind spot” for Robert Lewis Dabney — it was a foundational cornerstone in his entire ideology, intellectual, theological, spiritual, philosophical, and political.
Giltner, John H. “Moses Stuart and the Slavery Controversy: A Study in the Failure of Moderation.” Journal of Religious Thought (1961): 27–39.
Harrill, J Albert. “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate.” Religion and American Culture 10.2 (2000): 149–86 (available on JSTOR).
Mullin, Robert Bruce. “Biblical Critics and the Battle Over Slavery.” Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985) 61.2 (1983): 210–26 (available on JSTOR).
In April and May 1851, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898), a Presbyterian pastor in Tinkling Spring, Virginia, published eleven letters in the Richmond Enquirer on “The Moral Character of Slavery.” The letters have been referenced in handful of articles and books, but the letters themselves have never been accessible, other than in newspaper archives. Here, for the first time, is a transcription of nine of these letters, with footnotes added indicating the sources that Dabney interacts with. (Two of the letters, from May 6, 1851, remain elusive):
Dabney started pastoring at Tinkling Spring, Virginia, in 1847 at the age of 27. He started writing for newspapers and periodicals, publishing sermons, letters, and articles in 1848. His biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, notes that he “found time for special study along chosen lines” and had been purchasing a number of books for that study (Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 127). Among the books cited in the letters are Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1812), Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution: In a Correspondence Between the Rev. Richard Fuller of Beaufort, S. C., and the Rev. Francis Wayland, of Providence, R. I. (1847), and Moses Stuart, Conscience and the Constitution: With Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster in the Senate of the United States on the Subject of Slavery (1850).
Quite a bit was happening in 1850–51. In September 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act had been passed, which law which had the support of Northern moderates, but which alarmed abolitionists and resulted in intensified activism amongst those engaged in the fight for liberation. In June 1851, a month after Dabney’s letters were published, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin would begin to appear in serialized form in newspapers.
In January 1851, Dabney wrote a letter to his brother Charles on slavery, feeling that “the ethical character of the relation of slavery ought to be vindicated before the great public” (LLD, 128). Charles shared the letter(s?) with the editor of the Richmond Enquirer, who “expressed his great readiness to have the suggested articles.” In all, eleven articles were published in April and May 1851, signed by the pen name “Chorepiscopus,” a transliteration of the Greek for “Country Bishop.” Johnson notes that this was the name that “most of his contributions in the Watchman and Observer, also, had appeared” (LLD, 128), and Morton Smith includes a nearly complete list of articles and letters written by Dabney, signed “Chorepiscopus,” and notes that these are “identified by a manuscript list of his publications in the Union Seminary Library” (Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology, 340).
I can’t find any evidence of anyone responding directly to Dabney’s articles at the time. The editors of the Enquirer puffed them like this: “We commend these admirable letters to the people of the South as well as the North. The arguments, if circulated and studied, must do much to pierce the film of prejudice and error, and strengthen the bulwarks of Southern Rights” (preface to Letter 1). As the last letter was published, the editors said this: “We today conclude the philosophical and truly able Nos. of our accomplished correspondent. We trust that our readers appreciate, as highly as we do, the force and truth of his lucid arguments and masterly array of facts, which will do more to throw a shield of protection around the institutions of the South than all the schemes of the South Carolina disunionsts” (Letter 11). Johnson credits Dabney’s letters published in these papers as helping to build Dabney’s reputation in Virginia Presbyterian circles: “These articles, and others which he published in this period, gave him a well-deserved reputation for vigor and learning, as well as for sound conservatism. They no doubt served to show the church, and especially the Synods of Virginia and North Carolina, his fitness for service as a professor in the Seminary at Hampden-Sidney” (LLD, 130). Indeed, just two years later Dabney was offered the chair of Ecclesiastical History and Polity at Union Theological Seminary, thus beginning Dabney’s thirty year tenure (1853–1883), serving also as professor of Theology for many of those years.
Thirteen years later, in 1863, these letters would serve as the basis for Dabney’s full-throated A Defence of Virginia: (And Through Her, of the South). Johnson again describes the process: “Securing a copy of his articles on slavery, published in the Enquirer, he revised, recast, and enlarged them” (LLD, 273). Indeed, what amounts to around 50–60 pages of material in 1851 was expanded to over 350 pages. Nevertheless, almost everything found in the letters in 1851 remains as the foundation in 1863 (though the book would not actually be published until 1867).
These letters are significant in studies of Dabney, especially as a slight correction to the portrayal of the development of his thought. Some have pointed to the Civil War as a turning point in Dabney’s life, and Johnson says that the fall of the Confederacy was “epochal in Dr. Dabney’s life” (LLD, 292). One does indeed note a sharp bitterness in Dabney after the Civil War that never goes away, but without accounting for these letters, a full decade before the war, one can make too much of this. For example, Sean Michael Lucas points out a contradiction in Dabney’s views between 1840 and 1867, noting that Dabney had “willingly recognized” the abuses of slavery at the earlier date (see his letter to Mr. G. Woodson Payne, in LLD, 67), but that “by the time he wrote Defense of Virginia, he saw these abuses as unimportant or generally nonexistent, contradicting his earlier opinions” (Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 125–26). There is certainly a marked contrast between 1840 and 1867. Yet, Lucas groups Dabney’s 1851 views with his earlier views, citing a small section of a letter quoted in the Johnson biography (LLD, 128–29) but not interacting at all with the letters themselves. The full context of the letters published in the Enquirer shows that Dabney’s views in 1851 are fully in line with his views in 1867, and are themselves in sharp contrast with what he says in 1840. In other words, the shift came much earlier than the Civil War.
J. Albert Harrill makes a similar assessment when referencing one of Dabney’s pro-slavery arguments in Defence of Virginia, describing it as tinged with “post-Civil War racism and resentment of the abolition of slavery” (“The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate,” 170). Dabney’s argument is this: “This [abolitionist] hypothesis represents that Saviour who claimed omniscience, as adopting a policy which was as futile as dishonest. He forbore the utterance of any express testimony against the sin of slaveholding, say they [the abolitionists], leaving the church to find it out by deduction from general principles of equity” (Defence of Virginia, 203, in Harrill, “The Use of the New Testament,” 170). Yet, this very argument was used by Dabney in his 1851 letters (Letter 7), a full decade before the Civil War and emancipation. The venomous racism was fully present pre-Civil War, and the resentment over abolitionism grew from a full-hearted opposition to it beforehand.
Dabney’s racism and white-supremacy are on full display in these letters, and in fact, they may be the earliest record of his views that we have. He later puts his white-supremacy on full display in the aftermath of the Civil War as he bitterly fought against the efforts of Reconstruction (see “What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?“), but these letters move the record of his strong racial views up into his earliest chapter of ministry, before even his appointment to professor of theology at Union. Reading through the letters, one can see the breadth of Dabney’s whole-hearted support for slavery, and its roots in venomous white-supremacy. This was no “blind spot” for him—it was foundational to his entire ideology, intellectual, theological, spiritual, philosophical, and political.
Carrigan, William D. “In Defense of the Social Order: Racial Thought among Southern White Presbyterians in the Nineteenth Century.” American Nineteenth Century History 1.2 (2000): 31–52.
Giles, Kevin. “The Biblical Argument for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead? A Case Study in Hermeneutics.” The Evangelical Quarterly 66 (1994): 3–17 (available here).
Harrill, J Albert. “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate.” Religion and American Culture 10.2 (2000): 149–86 (available on JSTOR).
In January of 1861 Massachusetts governor John Andrew issued a call for volunteers to serve in the Union Army and recruiters began gather troops in various towns in the state. Baptist pastor H.L. Wayland of Worcester resigned his pastorate to become the chaplain of the 7th Connecticut Volunteers, serving from 1861–64. Other graduates of Newton Theological Institution also served including George Henderson as a chaplain, and Daniel Litchfield in the United States Christian Commission (The Newton Theological Institution General Catalogue 1835–1912). Albert Arnold, in his 1861 report for the Worcester Baptist Association, noted that “almost all our churches have representatives in the armies that have been assembled to put down a rebellious conspiracy against the lawfully constituted authority of the land” (Fifty-Ninth Annual Report of the Massachusetts Baptist Convention).
The Massachusetts Baptist Convention met in November 1861 in Boston and approved a series of resolutions on the war:
Resolved, That we regard the existing revolt against our National Government, not only as a breach of human law, but as a wanton rebellion against the authority of God; and whether we consider the sovereignty which it spurns, or the iniquity which it seeks to enthrone, it must be contemplated with execration and loathing by all unprejudiced and God-fearing men.
Resolved, That inasmuch as this unrighteous war against a good and beneficent government, is waged avowedly in the interest of African Slavery, which has been authoritatively set forth as the corner-stone of the so-called Southern Confederacy, the fact ought to open the eye of all loyal men as to the character and tendencies of that system of abominations, and to lead the public authorities to avail themselves of every measure justified by the spirit of the Constitution, and demanded by the political or military exigencies of the time, for its eradication from the land…
Resolved, That we recognize in the present mournful state of our country, the righteous visitation of a jealous God; and that we can look for salvation only by turning away from our vain boastings, by repairing the wrongs which we have practiced against the weak, by renouncing the greed of our avarice, and by dealing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.
A official copy of these “strong and patriotic resolutions” was sent to President Lincoln and to his cabinet. William Seward, the Secretary of State, replied, noting that he had given them to Lincoln. The President had received “with pleasure and gratitude the assurance of the Massachusetts Baptist Convention that its intentions and influence will be unanimously given in favor of the efforts which the government shall make for the public safety in the crisis to staying and so important” (“Response from the Government,” Christian Watchman and Reflector, January 23, 1862).
If many of these establishment Baptists had previously been only moderately anti-slavery, and unwilling to break fellowship with their southern brethren over the issue, the precipitation of war had pushed them over the edge, and they whole-heartedly supported the war effort. Baptists who had hesitated to condemn slavery too strongly now called it an “abomination” and called for it to be eradicated (though Lincoln would not emancipate the slaves until 1863). The federal government welcomed their support, and recognized the importance that ministers, even Baptists, could play in encouraging widespread support for the war efforts.
As the war continued, so did Baptist pronouncements in support of it. On August 20 and 21 of 1862, J.L.A. Fish was appointed the moderator of the Worcester Baptist Association, filling the role left by H.L. Wayland. Besides the usual activities, the war was on everyone’s mind, and “strong union resolutions were passed respecting the state of our country” (“Worcester Association,” Christian Era, August 29, 1862). A letter was read on “the Necessity and Encouragement to Special Prayer for the Holy Spirit in this time of trial. Free utterance was given against ‘the sum of all villainies’ now casting its shadow over us, and confidence urged in God alone” (Christian Watchman and Reflector, September 4, 1862).
The 1862 American Baptist Missionary Union met in Providence, Rhode Island. They noted that one year previously, “everything without and around wore an aspect portentous of evil to our people, our government, and our missionary operations. No man could tell what a day would bring forth, and all were shut up to hope and faith in Him who ‘alone doest wondrous things.’” Now everything had changed: “In a year, we have lived a generation, if we reckon time by the number and magnitude of the events it brings forth… You may thank God and take courage. You may thank Him for placing you in a position where you might learn lessons never received in a day of material and outward prosperity.” The ABMU passed the following resolutions on the war, a remarkable expression from the largest Baptist society in America:
The officers and members composing the American Baptist Missionary Union, assembled at their annual meeting in the city of Providence, May 27th and 28th, 1862, deem it incumbent on them as patriots, and not foreign to their sphere as a religious Association, to give this public expression of sentiment in reference to the present stupendous crisis through which the nation is passing.
Resolved, That we regard the war now waged by the National Government to put down the unprovoked and wicked rebellion that has risen against it, and to establish anew the reign of order and of law, as a most righteous and holy one, sanctioned alike by God and by all right-thinking men, involving our very life as a nation, and every thing precious depend ing on that life, and related most intimately to the progress of civilization, freedom and Christianity throughout the earth.
Resolved, That we believe the institution of slavery to have been the principal cause and origin of this attempt to destroy the government, and that a safe, solid and lasting peace cannot be expected short of its complete overthrow.
Resolved, That we tender to the President of the United States and his associates in the government our hearty confidence, sympathy and support, with the assurance of our fervent prayer that the same Divine Hand which has so manifestly guided them in the past may lead them on to the full and triumphant establishment of union, justice and liberty over the whole country and among all ranks and conditions of its people.
Resolved, That a copy of this preamble and these resolutions be sent to the Secretary of State, signed by the President and Secretary of this meeting.
thought it might be a grateful service to the friends of our brave solders, as well as an act of justice to the soldiers themselves, and because I felt a hearty interest in the work. Facts like those here spread before us are adapted to give us our strongest impression of the intelligence, the earnestness, the Christian principle and heroism of so large a class of men, who have come forward to support the Government in this great emergency.
Hackett, Memorials of the War, (vi).
In 1866 the Boston South Baptist Association approved several striking resolutions on the aftermath of the war and the initial stages of Reconstruction:
Whereas, The nation is evidently passing through an exceedingly critical juncture in its history, the judgment of civil war having been succeeded by the only less heavy judgment of official recreancy and dereliction, and the struggle with open treason by a bitter struggle with the pseudo-loyalty of those in the high places of power; and
Whereas, The peace and victory for which we gave devout thanks at our last meeting have been so far frittered away that treason is again asserting its sway; reenacting the worst horrors and outrages of the barbarities of slavery, driving loyal pastors from their pulpits, burning the churches of the freedmen and massacreing Union citizens for the simple offence of loving liberty and praying for its triumph, therefore
Resolved, That in these sad and painful events we recognize a clear warning of God against the folly and crime of suspending the appointed penalties of law, and substituting a weak, sentimental leniency for a wholesome, rigorous punishment of civil crime.
Resolved, That while as Christian citizens we are bound to accord all due respect to the Chief-Magistrate of the nation, we nevertheless cherish profound aversion for his plan of reconstruction, whose only issue thus far has been the reconstruction of an exploded rebellion and the rehabilitation of perjured rebels.
Resolved, That we extend our warmest sympathy to our Union brethren in the South who are reaping the bitter fruits of this policy, some of whom are now exiles and wanderers in consequence of it.
Resolved, That in this exigency it is meet that all Christians, with a firm reliance on Almighty God, should constantly beseech him for his gracious assistance and succor, that harmony and brotherly love may be restored, that the sundered portions of our country may be again united, and that perfect civil and religious equality may prevail throughout the length and breadth of our country.
Resolved. That we regard the assassination of our late beloved fellow-patriot and Christian brother, Rev. Jotham W. Horton, at the hands of the police of New Orleans, as one of the natural results of that “policy” In its restoration by the executive pardon of conquered but unrepentant traitors to all their former power of mischief:—and that we recognize in the deliberate murder of that faithful minister of Christ at his post of duty, a sign of the times that proves the still unabated bitterness of the hatred to free institutions which cost our country the calamities of war, and that speaks with a trumpet warning to all loyal citizens to guard the future peace and liberties of the nation by choosing for their leaders men who will rule in righteousness.
Jotham Horton was a graduate of Newton, and his death in the New Orleans Massacre of 1866 outraged Baptists in Massachusetts (See also J. Ellen Foster, Jotham Warren Horton). Baptists in Massachusetts remained concerned about the state of the country, particularly the condition of the Freedmen in the South. This would spur a number of northern Baptists to go and serve directly in the efforts of Reconstruction through the American Baptist Home Mission Society as well as other agencies.
Records like these form an important counterpoint to Lost Cause depictions of religion in the Confederate Army. After trying so hard for decades to maintain “fraternal” relations with their southern brethren, the tensions proved too much. Once the breach was made, Massachusetts Baptists became ardent supporters of the Union cause. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, both sides “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other,” and Baptists in Massachusetts were as fervent in this as anyone.
In 1854 Stephen Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have permitted the expansion of slavery into the western territories, breaking the compromises over slavery between north and south that had been enshrined in the U.S. Constitution (1787) and the Missouri Compromise (1820). As the proposed Act made its way through Congress, previously moderate clergy began to speak out, some for the first time. They had been silent when anti-slavery activists began organizing in the 1830s; they had resisted attempts to break fellowship with the slaveholders in the 1840s; but now in the 1850s, they realized that “the Slave Power” of the south intended to expand its reach through the entire country, and they finally began to speak out against the evils of slavery.
On March 7 a group of clergy in Providence, Rhode Island organized a meeting to protest “the Nebraska Bill,” to memorialize their opposition in a series of resolutions, to publish them, and to send them to Congress (“Nebraska Meeting in Providence,” Christian Watchman and Reflector, March 23, 1854). The meeting included addresses by several clergy, including Baptist pastor and educator Francis Wayland (“Dr. Wayland on the moral and religious aspects of the Nebraska bill. Speech at Providence, R. I., March 7“). A writer for The Liberator seemed pleasantly surprised that those who had previously “done what they could to put a stop to the agitation of the subject of Slavery, and have never been known as sympathizing with the movement against Slavery,” were now giving speeches “as radical Anti-Slavery as could be wished” (“Nebraska Meeting in Providence, Rhode Island,” The Liberator, March 17, 1854).
3,000 of the New England clergy signed the resolutions, and they were presented on the Senate floor. Douglas and others responded vociferously, declaring that the memorial was “disrespectful to the Senate, an atrocious slander” and that these New England clergy were “slanderers and demagogues” (“Congress,” Christian Watchman and Reflector, March 23, 1854).
The following week, the Baptist newspaper Christian Watchmanand Reflector published a response titled “What Have the Clergy to do with Politics?” The piece is excellent is quoted here in full:
“We alluded cursorily, in our last week’s congressional summary, to the greeting which the protest of the New England clergy against the Nebraska bill received in the Senate. Except as an indication of the soreness which the striking manifestations of public sentiment have produced in the minds of those who are most responsible for the measure, the affair would hardly be worth a second reference. If the fathers and sponsors of that most audacious iniquity think that they will help it, or help themselves, by their intemperate abuse of men who represent the all but unanimous feeling of the ministers of religion in six States,—if they suppose that the moral and religious sentiment of the people will thus be more easily conciliated or subdued—they will not have to live many years to discover their error.
Whether the document was sufficiently respectful to the Senate, the first issue raised in the debate, is not now a material question, as the point was waived by the reception of the memorial. We are willing to concede that it might have been better expressed, not because there was anything intrinsically objectionable in its phraseology, but from its liability to misconstruction.
But since this incident has been made the occasion for reproducing, in and out of the Senate, the old and mischievous notion that ministers transcend their proper sphere whenever they interest themselves in political questions, we can do no less than endeavor to expose it, more especially as it has been countenanced by many excellent people, for very different reasons, however, from those that we believe actuate politicians.
We do not care to insist on the right of ministers of the gospel, as citizens equally with others interested in the welfare of the state, to have a voice in the discussion of public measures, nor on their ability to do this as intelligently, to say the least, as some who aspire to be thought statesmen. We assert their duty, as ministers, charged to “ declare the whole counsel of God,” in certain circumstances to weigh schemes of public policy in the balance of the sanctuary.
There are questions frequently arising, and always liable to arise, in the sphere of political action, over which the conscience asserts a clear and express jurisdiction, and the ministers of Him who is lord of the conscience cannot refuse to speak in his name with out faithlessness to their mission.
There may be those who are atheistical enough to deny that any moral responsibility attaches to their political action. But all who believe that there are such things as political duties, we suppose, will agree that there is also a moral obligation in respect of the manner in which they are discharged. Is there any species of moral obligation to which the sanctions of religion do not apply? And by what process are ministers exempted, or prohibited, from applying the sanctions of religion to any subject within the appointed limits of its application? If it be admitted that men may do wrong in their political capacity, who can rebuke the wrong more fitly than those who are commissioned for the very purpose of “ warning every man, and teaching every man,” that they “may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus?”
The truth is, as we have had occasion more than once to observe, what is commonly called the interference of clergymen with politics is generally an interference of politicians with religion, and ministers are only defending their proper domain, against intruders. Questions of policy and expediency, merely as of political economy, and what are called in general public interests, do not concern the clergy as such. As citizens, having a common stake in the general welfare, they have a right to entertain and express opinions on these matters. But when politicians concoct any project at war with morality and the precepts of religion, it is no longer a question of right; it is their manifest duty to denounce it. It is their duty to the country, placed in peril;—to our public men, who are in danger of staining their own souls; —to the whole people, whom these political schemers are leading into temptation. Iniquity proposed in the capital cannot generally be executed without support at the ballot box. Every man who so votes as to further it, makes himself a consenting party to the wrong. Yet we are told that a minister must not warn the people of his own charge from the pulpit, nor remonstrate with others through the press, against acts of public wickedness. An ambitious aspirant for power tempts them to evil, and their spiritual guide must hold his peace. He must not interfere.
Many very worthy people reason that as the gospel is to renovate society, ministers must content themselves with preaching that, and thus “ leaven” the whole community. That is to say, they must aim exclusively at the conversion of men, in the confidence that, being made the subjects of regeneration, they will not fail of grace to do everything uprightly. Just as if the Bible were not full of instances in which good men committed grave errors! Nathan did not preach to David, generally, the duties of faith and piety, but charged his conscience with the sin that had awakened the divine displeasure. Now, the American people possess the attribute of sovereignty. As the prophet before the king, as the apostle before the procurator Felix, so the American minister before the American people, should fearlessly rebuke the abuses of, their power.
It should be remembered that piety and its fruits require cultivation, and that there is nothing so injurious to it as inattention to the claims and distinctions of moral duty. Tenderness of conscience, a quick susceptibility that shrinks from the least contamination of evil, is essential to Christian virtue. Men are peculiarly liable to fail in this respect when they act in masses. It is very easy to lose the sense of individual accountability in matters of co-operative action. This is an age of combinations and associations, that invite men to cast their resources and their ability into common stock, and the temptation is strong to allow themselves, their minds and hearts and consciences, to be lost on the crowd. Political parties are the most extensive and powerful combinations known among us, for they embrace between them, nearly the whole people. Interest, prejudice, patriotism, combine to swell the tide of excitement. Men are hurried along with such speed that it requires more than common steadiness of mind to pause long enough to consider whither they are going. Moral thoughtlessness leads to moral blindness, and those who think to promote “spirituality,” while, careless of moral impressions, will find their work drive heavily. Ministers need great discretion as to how they shall exert their influence; undue zeal in political questions is to be avoided; but to require that, for whatever motives, they should withdraw from their consideration, is to require them to neglect the souls of men just where they are in peculiar danger.”
What Have the Clergy to Do with Politics?” Christian Watchman and Reflector, March 30, 1854 (2).
(Image: “Reynolds’s Political Map of the United States” (1856) from the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Public Domain, Link)