It is essential to your own future that you shall learn the history of the past truly. –Robert Lewis Dabney
History teaches us that proper thought does not necessarily lead to proper action — even when those thoughts align with God’s. In numerous glaring instances, humans have been subjugated to brutal oppression by those who, by their own teachings and sermons, should have known better. Orthodoxy alone is not enough to ensure that we will live as God requires.
The history of racism in America is a clear example. Within some of our lifetimes, schools were segregated, African Americans denied full citizenship, and many of those created in the image of God were repeatedly treated as less than human. In the midst of this moral failure, many Bible-believing Christian churches wanted nothing to do with their bleeding black brother lying on the other side of the road. Though we celebrate Dr. King’s work now, few orthodox Christian churches did then. In many cases, members of these Bible-believing churches were the first to scold his efforts.
Today we rightfully celebrate the social justice work of Dr. King; but for those of us who are white, Reformed, American Christians, eulogies to King sound hollow while the echoes of white supremacy still haunt our halls. Just because we embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean we have not afflicted atrocious injustice on our fellow human beings.
A sobering reminder of this is a champion of Reformed theology who was a white supremacist and vehemently defended the cause of slavery — a man who can teach us that “good theology” and “sinful blind spots” cannot always be so easily disentangled.
Reformed White Supremacist
In his time, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was considered one of the greatest teachers of theology in the United States. Revered theologians such as Hodge, Shedd, Warfield, Bavinck, and Barth viewed him with appreciation and respect. Dabney was a thoroughly Reformed, five-point Calvinist who believed in the supremacy of God in all things. However, his view of God’s sovereignty, a true and beautiful doctrine, tragically became interwoven with his racism, as he consistently used the doctrine of “providence” to reinforce his white supremacy.
In his Systematic Theology (1879), Dabney includes the standard Reformed doctrines but also includes a lecture on “The Civil Magistrate” in which he considers in what sense “all men are by nature free and equal” (868). He asks, “Are all men naturally equal in strength, in virtue, in capacity, or in rights? The thought is preposterous.” Dabney believed that even “a general equality of nature will by no means produce a literal and universal equality of civil condition” (869). Then, lest he be misunderstood, he applies it specifically:
Thus, if the low grade of intelligence, virtue, and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare, and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. (869)
Slavery as Providence?
In 1867, Dabney wrote a lengthy defense of slavery entitled A Defense of Virginia and the South. Here he directly applies his doctrine of providence to slavery: “for the African race, such as Providence has made it, and where he has placed it in America, slavery was the righteous, the best, yea, the only tolerable relation” (25).
After the Civil War, in the midst of reconstruction, Dabney fought hard against the changes taking place in his beloved Southern society. Among the things he opposed was universal education in a series of articles called “The State Free School System.” For Dabney, “this theory of universal education in letters by the State involves the absurd and impossible idea of the Leveller, as though it were possible for all men to have equal destinies in human society.” On the contrary, he insisted,
The system supposes and fosters a universal discontent with the allotments of Providence and the inevitable gradations of rank, possessions, and privilege. It is too obvious to need many words, that this temper is anti-Christian; the Bible, in its whole tone inculcates the opposite spirit of modest contentment with our sphere, and directs the honorable aspiration of the good man to the faithful performance of its duties, rather than to the ambitious purpose to get out of it and above it. (247)
For Dabney, to attempt to “level the playing field” and to give everyone an “even start” in the race of life is “wicked, mischievous, and futile” (248). God himself has structured society in this way — “the utopian cannot unmake it” (249). Those who would attempt to teach “the Negro” to read were guilty of resisting God.
Equality in the Church?
Not surprisingly, Dabney’s view of providential white supremacy also affected the church.
In 1867 the Synod of Virginia was considering whether “colored men . . . should not be ordained to the full work of the gospel ministry, simply because they belong to the negro race.” Dabney gave an impassioned address to the Synod on the “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes,” pleading with his fellow presbyters not to approve it.
In the address, he claims that a providential, “insuperable difference of race, made by God and not by man, and of character and social condition, makes it plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification” (201). For Dabney, the stakes were high: “Every hope of the existence of church and of state, and of civilization itself, hangs upon our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of negro suffrage” (205). In fact, “when the party of the white man’s supremacy is gathering in such resistless might . . . why attach our Presbyterianism to a doomed cause?” (208).
Echoes in Our Day
It’s hard to look racism in the face, especially when that face is one of a champion of Reformed orthodoxy. It’s harder still to see one of our most treasured doctrines, God’s providence, used to defend one of the most heinous sins in our nation’s history. However, we will have no real justice without truth. White Reformed Christians should acknowledge, lament, and repudiate such toxic and deadly doctrinal distortions.
Robert Dabney’s influence has not disappeared in Reformed circles. His books are still being repackaged, reprinted, and sold. He is still quoted in our own books without caveat or qualification. We cannot turn a blind eye to the sins of Dabney. Those of us who would trumpet “the supremacy of God in all things” need to be sure we aren’t also trumpeting “the supremacy of white culture in all things,” even if unwittingly.
The providence of God is not an excuse to passively leave oppressive structures standing. Our good theology does not necessarily protect us from sin or hypocrisy. A true understanding of providence should lead us to act the miracle of change in pursuing justice.
Martin Luther King came closer to this in regard to racial justice than did Robert Lewis Dabney.