Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life

Article by   December 2005

In 1902, while Rev. Samuel Mills Tenney browsed a second-hand bookshop in Houston, Texas-as many Presbyterian pastors are wont to do-a stack of papers in one corner drew his attention. Upon inquiry, he learned that these manuscripts were destined for destruction. The owner was comforted that the curious parson desired to relieve him of the trouble of disposal. Tenney blew the dust off, tied the packet of papers into a "large armful," and triumphantly carried his prize home. In the study of his manse, he made a startling discovery: the aging papers belonged to the Southern Presbyterian theologian, Robert Lewis Dabney. This revelation troubled Tenney who thought, "Is this the way our Church treats her great men?"

Already rescued from the literal trash bin of history, this once eminent theologian experiences a new recovery in Sean Lucas' biography Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. The first in the Reformed American Biographies series by Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, Lucas' book blends scholarly awareness with ecclesial purpose. Combining chronological and topical approaches to biography, Lucas' eight alliteratively titled chapters recount the life of a churchman whose reputation has fallen on hard times in the post segregation South. Dabney's blatant racism and his stubborn refusal to forgive the North for the conflict that so dramatically altered his life lock him in a time that seems best forgotten.

Not so says Lucas. Rather than dismiss Dabney offhand with the epithet "Racist," or treat him as an icon of Southern perfection, we need to view the man amidst all his complications. His character flaws and his theological insights both instruct. Neither should be used to dismiss the presence of the other. Lucas argues that in this prophetic Virginian voice from the past, the twenty-first century church finds guidance for its present and future. After reading Lucas' biography of Dabney, we may not like him better, but we should see why we need to know him.

Lucas's use of unpublished source materials reveals an unexpected Dabney. An examination of sermons from his pastorate at Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church depicts a Christian minister deeply concerned with the physical and spiritual well-being of his flock. As might be expected, Dabney employed a heavily didactic style in the pulpit, but doctrinal precision was not his sole or even primary aim. In his preaching, Dabney "sought to accomplish a basic twofold goal - to drive sinners from their self-confidence by showing them the depths of their depravity, and to point them to the salvation provided in Jesus Christ."(53) The spiritual needs of his local congregation softened the presentation of his later hard-edged public theology. This pastoral aim displays Dabney's intimate connection to mainstream evangelicalism of the nineteenth century.

Dabney carried this combination of theological certainty with an awareness of human failings into his career as a professional theologian and educator. Lucas emphasizes Dabney's "surprisingly moderate" positions in regard to technical distinctions within dogmatic theology. For example, when James Henley Thornwell and Charles Hodge debated in the 1850s whether or not Presbyterianism was jure divino, Dabney encouraged his students toward a more charitable middle position. While agreeing with Thornwell that the Bible revealed the principles of Presbyterian polity, Dabney hesitated to make church government a matter of divine law that exalted "the eternal form above a part of gospel truth."(71) Lucas rightly grounds this tendency toward theological moderation and charity in Dabney's commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith. As a summary of scriptural truths, the Confession established the boundaries of theological discourse, reminding humanity of its inherent limitations in discerning God's will. For Dabney, confessional commitments protected Christians from themselves, encouraging a necessary humility.

Humanity required a hedge, not only in regard to individual theology, but also in terms of larger economic and political systems. Hence, Dabney was deeply skeptical of laissez-faire capitalism and the social effects of an economy based on excess consumption. Once the relationship between capital and labor became reduced to a monetary wage, employers no longer bore extended responsibilities toward their laborers. Corporate profits necessitated impoverished workers leading to inevitable social upheaval. Opposed to the principles of Christian economy - responsibility, sustenance, and community - capitalism involved an idolatrous acquisition and consumption of wealth. "Such unproductive consumption was a 'waste and perversion of a trust that should have been sacred and to noble and blessed ends.'"(189) Dabney's critique illustrates the central American irony. The capitalist North that had fought the South to achieve equality itself created a corporate oligarchy that possessed greater degrees of power and wealth than the world had ever known.

Against this society revolving around personal greed and false notions of equality, Dabney enmeshed himself in Southern culture founded on conceptions of honor and providentially arranged social relationships. A natural inequality existed. "In every society there had to be a laboring class, 'a social sub-soil to the top soil,' that would work and not read."(30) Yet, sometimes the soil would be turned. While everyone had his or her proper place on the hierarchical social scale, natural ability would always trump seemingly rigid caste divides.

But not if the person was black. In Lucas' description of Dabney, his racism always emerges as the great exception, the major inconsistency, in an otherwise potent expression of Christianity. Dabney's understanding of slavery as "the best possible social relation between white and black Americans" (31) presupposed the inherent inferiority of blacks. They were always servants, never masters. Although Dabney's public theology prophetically engaged wider culture in matters of economics, education, and politics, in regards to slavery, the church took its cues from the culture. Racial codes trumped Christian gospel. The church under-girded and replicated social inequality rather than challenging it. Regardless of abilities or calling, Dabney strenuously opposed attempts to form a biracial church community that placed black men in authority over white men and women. Even in the Kingdom of God, they were always inferior.

While openly acknowledging and critiquing this racism, Lucas seeks to complicate Dabney's general racial views by juxtaposing his acts of kindness to particular servants. However, the personal Dabney is unfortunately often lacking in this volume. In regard to slavery, Dabney often appears as the stern master, happy to acquire a younger servant because he would be "more whip-able."(47) In contrast to Dabney's sometimes bucolic description of Christian slaveholding in the abstract, his personal relationship to slaves seems to confirm Frederick Douglass' assertion that Christians were among the most brutal slaveholders.

This lack of charity toward those of other races or classes carried over into Dabney's polemical debates regarding reunion with the North. Dabney's assertion that "the times demand 'good haters'"(221) negated any possibility of cordial compromise. The confessionally based moderation and humility Dabney displayed in his dogmatic theology is entirely absent from his public theology. In Lucas' narrative, the Civil War functioned as the turning point in Dabney's personality and career. It created a sense of alienation in Dabney, placing distance between him and his country, his church, his theological school, and, ultimately, his beloved Virginian home. In the New South Dabney found more to hate than love, and thus found himself increasingly isolated.

While the book displays an awareness of scholarly debates regarding Dabney's life and legacy in the South, the central explicit argument of the book - "that Dabney was a representative Southern conservative and provides a window into the postbellum Southern Presbyterian mind" - does not really engage the central issues of dispute. In particular, Lucas mentions Donald Mathews's current theory regarding the relationship between penal substitutionary views of the atonement and the culture of lynching in the late nineteenth century American South. Although Mathews clearly dislikes Dabney, he does not "write-off" the Presbyterian theologian or push him to the margins. Rather, Mathews thrusts the spotlight on Dabney precisely because he represents the Southern conservative tradition. Mathews' argument represents a potential indictment of conservative theology, not a dismissal of it. Because Lucas does not address Mathews's theory adequately, it is not clear what this biography adds to our understanding of the role of theology and conservatism in Southern culture.

The real benefit of the biography resides in an implicit argument directed more particularly to Christians, which emerges only explicitly in the final pages of the book. Evangelicals approach their past with a strong tendency toward denial and repression. Those who continue to champion Dabney downplay the reality of slavery as practiced in the nineteenth century South and the harm that bondage wrought on African-Americans. They bring Dabney's cultural context under the protective umbrella of the church. Other evangelicals seek to distance themselves completely from troubling figures like Dabney purging him from the pantheon of heroes of the faith. They push Dabney out of the church placing him fully in his alien culture. Lucas reminds us of the problems produced by either path of forgetfulness. "Dabney should be remembered because the past is parent of the present, because many of the public stances of evangelical Christians either fail to maintain the spiritual nature of the church or fail to provide room for humility and self-criticism, and because recognizing Dabney's failures can help point evangelicals in a different direction to 'a more excellent way.'"(245) Thus, Lucas ends the book by making history a spiritual discipline and has produced a biography for which the church should be thankful.

It is a lesson we need, because I fear that we have combined the worst of Dabney's fears and faults. For the majority of evangelicals, we still comfortably reside in a church where people of color are always servants, never leaders. If Dabney's explicit racism makes us uneasy, it is because we are only too complicit in maintaining such inequalities in our church communities. Worse still, we often fail to achieve even the basic social responsibility and engagement that Dabney practiced and preached. Few social obligations exist to check our economic greed. Nevertheless, an examination of Dabney also points us to the solution. Our common union with Christ creates responsibilities for the members of his church. When we bow before Christ we are forced humbly to acknowledge our sins and to seek redemption in the Son of God and his unchanging message. Robert Lewis Dabney reminds us where our identity ought to reside, and that it is only in our faithfulness to Christ that we will escape the dustbin of history.

Sean Michael Lucas / New Jersey: P&R, 2005
Review by Stephen Berry





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