In 1894, the perspicacious prophet of the Confederacy, Robert Lewis Dabney, aimed his x-ray vision at a subject which troubled him deeply: the defection of large numbers of Protestants to Rome. His essay, “The Attractions of Popery,” which appeared in the April issue of The Presbyterian Quarterly, made it clear he was no friend of the trend. Dabney regarded “the popish system of ritual and doctrine” to be “the most skillful and pernicious system of error which the world has ever known.”
Yet in setting about to explain why Protestants were becoming Romanists — a trend he predicted would grow — Dabney at times sounded like an apologist for Rome. This is because his Presbyterian convictions were so firmly rooted, he enjoyed the luxury of giving full credit to all the advantages of his opponent. A review of Dabney’s insights concerning Rome’s allure to Protestants has become, if anything, more relevant as we witness in our own time what seems to be an increase in defections from truth to error.
Dabney on Rome
1. Of the important advantages which Dabney saw Rome enjoying over “half-corrupted Protestantism” in America, the list-topper was their resistance to Jacobinism, aka egalitarianism, what van Prinsterer called “the Revolution.” In fact, Dabney was van Prinsterer’s transatlantic brother-in-arms, a lonely voice in warning that “democratic” principles were merely unbelief dressed to kill. “Jacobinism taught the liberty of license — every man’s natural right to indulge his own absolute will; and it set up this fiendish caricature as the object of sacred worship for mankind.” (Compare the twentieth-century mantra of “making the world safe,” not for the gospel, but “for democracy.”)
As egalitarianism had begun to “bear its natural fruits of license, insubordination, communism and anarchy…this bastard democratic Protestantism [did] not know how to rebuke them. It has recognized the parents; how can it consistently condemn the children?” Against this, Rome held herself forth as “the stable advocate of obedience, order and permanent authority throughout the ages.”
2. Dabney admitted what many Protestants still fear to admit: that the Protestant assertion of liberty of conscience had run amok and become innumerable assertions of true, though contradictory, private judgments. “Rationalistic and skeptical Protestantism now claims, instead of that righteous liberty, license to dogmatize at the bidding of every caprice, every impulse of vanity, every false philosophy.… The result has been a diversity and confusion of pretended creeds and theologies among nominal Protestants which perplexes and frightens sincere, but timid, minds.”
Against this creedal chaos, Rome could come forward to say, “You see what Protestantism leads to? We told you so! Come back to the foundation where infallibility extends from Scripture to history!” When an inquirer decides to be a Roman Catholic, his creedal choices have been reduced. When he decides to become a Protestant, his creedal troubles have just begun.
3. Against the growing theological liberalism of the nineteenth century, Rome had remained quite stable. While European and American Protestants were rejecting the inspiration of Scripture, vicarious atonement, the Trinity, and even the idea of the supernatural, Rome maintained all these.
4. The godliness which had been “the best argument” for the Protestant creed was ceasing. “The wealth begotten by her very virtues of industry, thrift and probity [had] debauched many of her children. ‘Jeshurun has waxen fat, and kicked.’” The warnings of Deuteronomy 8 had begun to fall on deaf ears as Protestant America prospered, and the moral decline had begun in earnest. The attraction of godliness was withering.
5. As church discipline was disappearing from Protestant churches, the confessional, for all its abuses and despite its invitation to spiritual tyranny, nevertheless remained “a strong organ of church discipline, and is employed as such in every Romish chapel.”
6. Rather than the holiness of its members, American Protestantism — under the sway of revivalism which relied “upon all species of vulgar claptrap and sensational artifice…instead of the pure word and spirit of God” — became obsessed with the number of its members. Thus, revivalism, just as is the case with its modern daughter-movement called “church growth,” succeeded in destroying churches by substituting body-count for holiness. Scores of thousands of dead souls were stuffed, by trick and trade, into the churches. “Meantime, Rome gets up no spurious revivals; she works her system with the steadiness and perseverance which used to characterize pastoral effort and family religion among Presbyterians.”
7. This led to a very stark contrast between the character of the Romish service — which appeared sober and reverent — and the character of the American Protestant service, which was often flippant, arrogant, proud, and cheap, like a New Orleans whore. This contrast has accelerated over the last 107 years: Rome’s attraction on this score alone is proving irresistible to multitudes. Rather than the beauty of order, God is mocked in American evangelical (and many Reformed!) churches, where every innovation is introduced in an effort to make worship into a live television event, in order to gain audience share. It is nothing less than organized blasphemy. Who can wonder over a movement toward Rome in such an environment?
8. While much could be said against the rote prayers of the papists, the rote prayer of Rome beats the “no prayer” of lapsed Protestantism. While Rome may celebrate too many days, Dabney gave them an advantage over Protestants who did not honor even the Lord’s Day. It’s bad to adore Mary, but it’s worse to adore nothing but self. “The Romanist’s machine prayers and vain repetitions have, at least, this tendency, to sustain in the soul some slight habit of religious reverence, and this is better than mere license of life.”
9. Dabney saw Rome’s insistence upon religious schools, over against secularized state education, as a strong advantage for the pope. By embracing public schools, the “bulk of Protestants in the United States have betrayed themselves…to an attitude concerning the rearing of youth which must ever be preposterous and untenable for sincere Christians,” which must regard secular education as thoroughly wicked and destructive. Had “the statesmen and divines of the Reformation, the Luthers, Calvins, Knoxes, Winthrops, and Mathers…been asked, What think you of a theory of education which should train the understanding without instructing the religious conscience; which should teach young immortal spirits anything and everything except God; which should thus secularize education, a function essentially spiritual, and should take this parental task from the fathers and mothers, on whom God imposed it, to confer it on the earthly organism, expressly secular and godless? they would have answered with one voice, It is pagan, utterly damnable.”
Against the trend to secularize education, “the chief, the only organized protest heard in America [came] from the Romish Church.” American Protestants who groveled before the state while insisting they were sons of the Reformers, took aim against Rome, which ironically stood alone in being loyal to the very principles of the Reformers! Advantage: Rome.
10. Dabney admitted Rome erred in making marriage a sacrament, but recognized her superiority in maintaining it as a divinely ordered and religious institution, whereas “Protestant laws and debauched Protestant thought tend all over America to degrade it to a mere civil contract.” Compare the ease of divorce in the respective camps.
11. Protestantism increasingly favored the mindset that would limit family size, even to the employment of intrusive measures, while “Romish pastors [stood] almost alone in teaching their people the enormous criminality of those nameless sins against posterity at which fashionable Protestantism connives.…Their houses are peopled with children, while the homes of rich Protestants are too elegant and luxurious for such nuisances.”
Dabney went on to examine other attractions and advantages of Rome, not restricting himself to the favors granted by an increasingly compromising and effete Protestantism. The most dangerous of these may be the human “craving for a more spectacular and ritualistic worship,” a danger which is related to, but not identical with, the entertainment-orientation of modern evangelical “worship.” The latter is merely vapid — it has nothing, offers nothing, yields nothing. The former can be even more deadly because more deceptive.
The Supper vs. the Word
We see this danger already in the increasing number of communions which are seeking to retool the service of worship so as to find its climax in the Supper, rather than in the Word. Even weekly communionists should regard the Supper as a seal to the Word rather than the climax to the service. For many this has become the first step to a greater reliance on symbolic worship over verbal worship.
The danger here is double: while the lust for ritual is distinct from the mere show-business silliness of evangelicalism, both are operating in a post-verbal culture, thus attaining a synergy which threatens to rock whatever remains of soundness, sobriety, and beauty in American, i.e., Western, Christian worship. For we have already produced two television generations that cherish image far above word. And we are seeing the evil fruits which come from peoples not disciplined in “word skills” — listening, reading, speaking, singing, writing. Kiddie church and ten-minute sermons are only the beginnings of the accommodations to be made. The last accommodation is a move to Rome.
For Westerners are now blithely borne about by image rather than argument. When they tire of the banality of modern evangelicalism, North Americans will become the ripest of prey for Romish ritualism. “Rome provides for that tendency in a way the most adroit possible, for an age nominally Christian but practically unbelieving.” Robes, candles, colors, scents, sounds, sight, pomp, ceremony! All this with no spiritual demand. The combination will prove irresistible to a starved Protestantism.
Is there anything that can be done? Yes. And the answer, for those in the Continental Reformed tradition is, interestingly, very little. For the astute reader will have recognized that the grace of God has shielded confessionally Reformed churches (Peter Kreeft’s crossover, after all, marks an exception and not a trend) from most of the ills which made American Presbyterianism so vulnerable. Though we seem intent, in many quarters, to follow them, we need not. What we need to do — what we must do — is come to a full recognition of the Biblical heritage which has, God be praised, protected us.
Against egalitarianism we have answered, “Covenant!” Against private judgments gone crazy we have held our confessions. We have maintained a high view of Scripture and doctrine, of godliness and discipline, of sobriety in worship. We have believed and practiced family devotions, honored the Lord’s Day, insisted upon the necessity of Christian education. We have affirmed the honorableness of marriage, and frowned deeply on divorce. And we have been somewhat peculiar in Protestant-land because of the normalcy of large families among us.
Now, only a Pollyanna would fail to admit that all of these things are jeopardized in our day, more or less. What we must be careful not to do is innovate, to be lead astray by the ephemeral. On the other hand, we must not vegetate. We must continually abide in God’s Word as we grow in all its implications. But it would be ingratitude of the rankest sort if we failed to recognize that God has graciously and largely preserved us from the attractions of popery; and it would be folly if we failed to recognize how He did it: by the allure of Himself and His Truth. It abideth still.
- Steve M. Schlissel
Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.