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A Review of Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life

Robert Lewis Dabney was a man of his time and culture.

  • Byron Snapp,
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Robert Lewis Dabney was a man of his time and culture. He was born in 1820 in Virginia. He remained a life-long devotee to this state and to the class-oriented culture of the antebellum South. At the death of his father, thirteen-year-old Dabney assumed family leadership. Providentially, this position allowed him to live out his belief in responsible patriarchy. Suffering great hardship, he regained family honor by paying off debts even though he had to interrupt his own education to do so.

He professed faith in Christ as a student at Hampden-Sydney College and was later called to the ministry. He served as a pastor of Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church. As pastor, he initiated a building program for the growing congregation and also added a school. The pastorate prepared him for work as a professor at Union Theological Seminary, which was located in Farmville. These thirty years were pivotal times of influence for Dabney in the Presbyterian Church. Fully committed to the confessional standards of his denomination, he taught a generation of future Southern pastors to maintain confessional truths. He contributed much as an influential writer during these years.

With the outbreak of the War Between the States, Dabney honorably served his country, first as a chaplain and later as Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff. He had to resign this job for health reasons.

The Southern churchman, professor, penman, and patriot found it hard to accept the South’s defeat. He viewed the South as having to go to war to maintain its honor. After the War and the ensuing years of Reconstruction, Dabney continued to view the war actions of the North and much of the ecclesiastical actions of the Northern Presbyterian Church as dishonorable. No repentance from either side was forthcoming. In his final years Dabney labored to maintain the South’s identity through his denomination. He continued to write articles and books as he had during the War.

Although he was stalwart, change did come at Union Seminary and in his denomination. An openness to talks with the Northern church and to reconciliation with the North made Dabney and his views irrelevant to the rising leaders. Few mourned his resignation from Union Seminary in l883. He relocated to Texas, where he had accepted a professorship at Austin Seminary and later at the University of Texas in the mid l890s. He died in Texas in l898, but his body was laid to rest in his beloved Virginia.

This volume concentrates on the intellectual character of Robert Lewis Dabney. More insight into his domestic life would have provided the reader with a better understanding of how his views of patriarchy, class, and race relationships worked themselves out among his own family and slaves during and after the War.

The author, Sean Michael Lucas, provides a good Biblical critique of Dabney’s support of Southern slavery. He goes on to point out that Dabney’s views of the blacks were influential in the Southern Presbyterian Church for the next century. Sadly, he allowed Southern culture to influence his interpretation of Scripture in regard to ecclesiastical and cultural relationships between the races.

In his latter years Dabney had a number of health issues, including blindness. However, in his writings and lectures, he clearly saw dangers that came with the South’s willingness to embrace egalitarianism, public education, and ecclesiastical union with the Northern church. He could see that Biblical, ethical teachings so necessary for the maintenance of a strong society would be gradually swept aside. His insights in these areas make his writings especially relevant and well worth reading in today’s world. Sprinkle Publications (P.O. Box l094, Harrisonburg, Virginia 22803) currently has a number of Dabney’s works in print.

The author concludes with a comparison of Dabney and his Dutch-Calvinist peer Abraham Kuyper.

Like us, Dabney was a complex man and a sinner. He loved his Savior and sought to serve Him in all he did. From our vantage point more than a century later, we can see errors in his thinking. Simultaneously, we can see that many of his fears regarding modernism and cultural change were right on target and have been realized in our day. Dabney remains a theologian from whom we can learn. I am thankful that Lucas has brought him to the attention of our generation in this well-written, useful work.

  • Byron Snapp

Byron Snapp is a graduate of King College (B.A.) and Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div.). He was Associate Pastor at Calvary Reformed Presbyterian Church, Hampton, Virginia, from 1994 until his retirement in December 2014. He is a native of Marion, Virginia.  He has had pastorates in Leakesville, Mississippi, and Gaffney, South Carolina.  He served as Assistant Pastor in Cedar Bluff, Virginia prior to his ministry at Calvary Reformed. He has served as editor of the Presbyterian Witness and was a contributor to A Comprehensive Faith and Election Day Sermons. He is currently a member of Westminster Presbytery in the PCA. He and his wife Janey have 3 children and several grandchildren. 

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