As I drive to and from my office each day, I often take a back road that brings me by a home built by the famed Presbyterian divine, Robert Lewis Dabney. It, like Dabney, was built strong—of stone—and built to last. The house still stands sure and serves as a private residence today.
Dabney learned the trade of stone masonry as a boy working on the family farm, and he constructed this sturdy structure with his own hands. No doubt, as Dabney labored building this home, he recalled those days of his youth where he learned that firm foundations were built of stone. He recalled the instruction and guidance of his earthly father, as well as his heavenly one. Many of the Shenandoah Valley Presbyterians built houses of stone, which reveals as much about their theology as it does about their preference for building materials. The two go hand in hand. These Presbyterians took the long view and were not, as so many American Christians are today, looking for an escape. They believed that they and Christ’s Kingdom would prevail and that they would ultimately take dominion. Therefore, they built their lives—down to the dwellings they occupied—accordingly.
Just a mile or two more down the road from this house is the Tinkling Springs Presbyterian Church where Dabney served as pastor from 1847 to 1853. Tinkling Springs is one of the oldest Presbyterian churches west of the Blue Ridge. Within the old stone graveyard of the church rest the dust of so many of the stout Scots-Irish pioneers to whom Dabney ministered, including the grandparents of the legendary Confederate cavalry general, Jeb Stuart.
Best known here in the Shenandoah Valley as Stonewall Jackson’s chief of staff during Jackson’s legendary Valley Campaign, Major Dabney was also Jackson’s original biographer and is, of course, still renowned for his theological works and prolific writing.1
Yet many students of history have misunderstood Dabney. He is most often depicted by moderns as little more than a defender of the Lost Cause and the “old regime.” While Dabney did produce volumes of postbellum writings that defended the old South’s agrarianism, social conservatism, and slavery, there is much more to consider of this deep thinker and theologian.
As noted by Christian History and Biography:
Robert Lewis Dabney (1829 [sic]–1898) was one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 19th century. A Southern Presbyterian, he was a teacher, statesman, writer, and social critic, as well as theologian, and taught at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. In the American Civil War he once served as Chief of Staff to the Confederate general “Stonewall” Jackson. Dabney’s contributions have been dampened partially by his vigorous defense of the pre-Civil War South’s institution of slavery; however, his work, especially his Systematic Theology, has been highly regarded by scholars from Benjamin Warfield to Karl Barth.2
Born on March 5, 1820, to pious parents, Dabney grew up on the family farm and mill on the South Anna River in Louisa County, Virginia. Dabney’s parents, particularly his father, wielded much influence over their young son. In a letter to his own son, Dr. Charles W. Dabney, Robert Dabney wrote these words revealing just how much influence his own father had upon his life:
When I recall what the position of Christian meant, as occupied, for instance, by my parents, it seems to me as if that type of Christianity must have been in another sphere, and before the fall of man almost! With what careful seriousness, self-examination and prayer did they take their religious vows! How regular, deliberate and solemn were family prayers! How did the scriptural instruction of us children take the precedence of all the day, and of all other duties, lessons and amusements. How sacredly was the Sabbath improved! My father went about making the best of the sacred day just as seriously and systematically as any wise business man planning to put in the best work possible on some favorable day in the middle of harvest. He evidently acted on this clear, rational and conscientious conviction, “I have a great and urgent work to do for my own soul and others’; the one day in seven which a kind Heavenly Father has endeavored to secure for me, for this task, is none too much, if improved to the best. So I must make the most of it.” I well remember his deliberate and careful preparation of himself in advance of communion days. It began about Friday, by reducing his concern with farm matters to a minimum; spending the most of the two week-days in a private room, shut up with his Bible, Flavel’s Sacramental Meditations, and such like books. One may know well how much the Lord’s Supper meant to him, and what impulse and nourishment it was to his soul.3
How very foreign this sacrifice and devotion to God would appear to the vast majority of modern professing Christians today. Many would no doubt find such commitment a curious, if not unnecessary thing—even as they rush through their evening meal, skipping family devotions so as not to miss the latest episode of American Idol.
Robert was only thirteen when his father passed away, leaving a great void in the young man’s life. But the father had left his son well prepared to assume the leadership role of the household. Robert interrupted his own education in order to keep the family’s honor intact and pay off debts. Three years later, in June of 1836, Dabney enrolled at Hampden-Sydney College.4 Dabney was only able to stay until September of 1837 due to a lack of money. Nevertheless, Dabney’s time there proved to be providentially beneficial. Though his parents had laid a sure foundation for their son’s Christianity, Dabney had not yet come to true faith in Christ. But during a “religious revival” that swept through the campus the same month that Dabney left, he made a public confession of faith in Christ and “carried home at the close of his collegiate work the affection of his classmates and also a deep religious impression.”5
Upon his return home he was received as a member of the Providence Presbyterian Church in Louisa County. While Dabney is remembered as an intellectual and a man of letters, it is important to note that he was also accustomed to strenuous manual labor and believed that the dual values of piety and industry, taught him by his father, were essential to the dominion mandate:
Young Dabney now went to work on the plantation, for his widowed mother needed help. Some negro slaves belonged to the estate left by his father, but these were unable to carry all the burdens connected with farming operations. Moreover, the old mill that made flour and meal for the people of the community, forming a part of his mother’s property, must be rebuilt. The tall, slender lad, not yet eighteen years of age, went into the rock quarry and with his own hands helped to give shape to the stones that were needed for the walls of the mill … Then the fields called him again to the plow. Through the long summer days of 1838 and 1839 he was in the cornfields and wheatfields, toiling steadily with his own hands.6
Dabney continued to work on the family farm and supplemented his income with teaching in the community. By the autumn of 1839 he was once again ready to pursue his education and enrolled at the University of Virginia. Dabney often found himself looking with disdain at Virginia’s privileged sons at the university, many of whom thought the physical labor that Dabney cherished was beneath them. Despite these conflicts and his abhorrence of some of the “decadence” he witnessed while in Charlottesville, Dabney earned a Master of Arts from Mr. Jefferson’s University in 1842.
In 1844 Dabney returned to Hampden-Sydney and the school’s Union Theological Seminary where he would complete his studies in May of 1846.7 A year later, he was pastoring at Tinkling Springs but would, once again, return to Hampden-Sydney to complete his theological studies and where he would also teach in the seminary and pastor in the campus church. It was here and during this time that Dabney’s pen became increasingly busy and where he honed his prolific writing abilities. Dabney’s reputation grew quickly and, “He was soon to become one of the most efficient expounders of the Calvinistic system of theology that our country has ever known.”8 So well respected was Dabney that, in 1860, he was offered the chair of church history at Princeton Seminary. He declined, seeing “his place of duty in Virginia.”9
With war looming, Dabney wrote a widely publicized pamphlet titled “A Pacific Appeal to Christians” in January of 1861, which argued for preserving a state of peace. Though he sought peace, he unhesitatingly served the Confederate Army in whatever role his country needed him and by the summer was a chaplain with the 18th Virginia regiment. Stonewall Jackson often attended some of the services conducted by Chaplain Dabney, and the two soon became friends. This friendship led to Dabney’s service on Jackson’s staff.
Anyone familiar with Dabney knows of his fervent belief in the doctrine of providence and that it was a frequent topic of his sermons. This coupled with Dabney’s service in the Confederacy provided for an illustration of Dabney’s practical belief in “a special providence” as well as his sense of humor. Major Hugh Nelson was present during a service where Dabney exhorted the soldiers to face death fearlessly as providence had already determined the time and place of their deaths. Some time after that service, Nelson was present at the Battle of Malvern Hill and found himself “under one of the heaviest fires he had ever experienced.” Jackson was also in the vicinity, and as the fire became heavy, ordered his staff to dismount and find shelter. Dabney “found a place behind a large and very thick oak gate post, where he sat bolt upright with his back against the post.” About that time, Nelson, whose views on providence did not completely agree with Dabney’s, rode up and galloped directly toward Dabney where he coolly saluted the nervous chaplain and said:
“Dr. Dabney, every shot, and shell, and bullet is directed by the God of battles, and you must pardon me for expressing my surprise that you should want to put a gate post between you and special Providence.”
Dabney, without hesitation, replied: “No! Major, you misunderstand the doctrine I teach. And the truth is that I regard this gate post as a special providence, under present circumstances.”10
Dabney’s service with Jackson was short-lived as sickness and fatigue forced him to return to Hampden-Sydney. Dabney continued to write, teach, and preach after the war and became one of the South’s most unrepentant ex-Confederates. Dabney’s last years were spent in Texas where he taught at Austin Seminary and later at the University of Texas. He was gathered home to his fathers and his Savior on January 3, 1898.
In eulogizing Dr. Dabney, B. M. Palmer described him as “a pillar of strength in the house of our God. How we shall miss him for defense in the great battle for truth! He was mentally and morally constituted a great polemic, with a massive intellect capable of searching into the foundations of truth, and with an intellectual as well as moral indignation against every form of falsehood.”
Dabney knew that the foundation of truth was Christ—the Chief Cornerstone of his faith. He was taught this from his youth and had the blessing of seeing it lived out in the life of his parents, especially his father. Dabney demonstrated this truth in his own life—from the materials of which he built his home, to the way he lived his life, and the testimony he left. May our house of faith be as rock-solid as his.
The following is a list of some of Dabney’s major works:
• Memoir of Rev. Dr. Francis S. Sampson (1855), whose commentary on Hebrews Dabney edited (1857)
• Life of General Thomas J. Jackson (1866)
• A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her, of the South, in Recent and Pending Contests Against the Sectional Party (1867), an apologia for the Confederacy
• Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric (1870)
• Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology (1871; 2nd ed. 1878), later republished as Systematic Theology
• Systematic Theology (1878)
• Sensualistic Philosophy of the Nineteenth Century Examined (1875; 2nd ed. 1887)
• Practical Philosophy (1897)
• Discussions (1890–1897), four volumes of his shorter essays, edited by C. R. Vaughan
• Penal Character of the Atonement of Christ Discussed in the Light of Recent Popular Heresies (1898, posthumous), on the satisfaction view of the atonement
Many of these books are available from Sprinkle Publications, 320 Loewner Lane, Hinton, VA 22831. (540) 867-9618.
© 2008 Richard G. Williams, Jr., is the descendant of three Confederate soldiers and a ninth-generation grandson of the Reverend Roger Williams. His published works include The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen (Pelican, 2005), Christian Business Legends (Business Reform Foundation, 2004), and Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend (Cumberland House Publishing, 2006). His most recent book is the basis for the recently released documentary about Stonewall Jackson: Still Standing: The Stonewall Jackson Story (see www.stonewallfilm.com). Visit his website at www.SouthRiverBooks.com.
1. Dabney’s wife and Jackson’s second wife were first cousins.
2. “Robert L. Dabney” Christian History and Biography, Issue 19, July 1988.
3. R. L. Dabney in a letter to his son, Dr. Charles W. Dabney, on February 8, 1885. Charles Dabney served as President of the University of Tennessee from 1887–1904.
4. Founded in 1775, Hampden-Sydney is the tenth oldest college in the United States and one of only two four-year, all-men’s liberal arts colleges in the United States.
5. Henry Alexander White, Southern Presbyterian Leaders (Neale Publishing Company, 1911), 382.
6. Ibid., 383.
7. The seminary was later moved to Richmond, Virginia, and is currently the Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education.
8. White, 385.
10. “Seven Days Around Richmond.” Reminiscences of The Army of Northern Virginia by J. William Jones. Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. IX. Richmond, Va., Oct., Nov., and Dec. 1881. Nos. 10, 11, & 12.