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

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


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


Robert Lewis Dabney (1862)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Memories, 39).

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

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

Memories, 41.

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

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

Memories, 45.

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

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

Memories, 52.

Chester joined as a teenager:

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

Memories, 52.

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

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

Memories, 53.

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

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

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

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

Memories, 77.

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

“In one matter only did he finally become narrow and, one might say, implacable. During the war and its aftermath of reconstruction, he became so embittered by the ruthless meth- ods of Federal officers like Sheridan and Sherman, and the efforts of Congress to impose Negro rule on the South that he almost went off his mental balance. Being once taken to task for the violence of his denunciation of these leaders, he made no reply, but preached the following Sunday on the text, “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee?”

Memories, 77.

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

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

Memories, 78–79.

Dabney himself was deeply interested in “foreign missions”:

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

Memories, 79.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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