Appendix V: Jesus’ Justice, Racial Bigotry, and R. L. Dabney

The following articles have been written as a form of extended appendices for Jesus’ Justice –

Appendix V: Jesus’ Justice, Racial Bigotry, and R. L. Dabney

Appendix VI: Jesus’ Justice, OT Slavery, and the Christian’s Warfare

Appendix VII: Jesus’ Justice, R. L. Dabney, and the Bad Inheritance of Racialism

The contents of my most recent book, Jesus’ Justice, represent the culmination of years of research and preaching since 2012 – the 9781935358190_covkindlesame year that I heard Tim Keller advance the heterodoxical doctrine of generational guilt via Social Justice Ideology’s central tenet of “white guilt.” At the time, I was far too busy to address the matter, but I knew that this venomous teaching would eventually spread throughout many professing churches. The reason why I was so confident that this teaching would spread over time is because of the modern church’s grotesque infatuation with Evangelical celebrities in addition to its Athenian craving for novel doctrines, and Keller’s 2012 presentation clearly satiated both appetites. Of course, Keller isn’t the only modern Evangelical promoting such theological wares, but I believe that he has played an important role in the church’s acceptance of this most recent Trojan horse. As such, much of modern-day Christendom is subjecting itself to the secularism of Social Justice Ideology (SJI) rather than to the unmitigated authority of God’s Word, and this dangerous procedure sullies the church’s Gospel witness to a lost and dying world.

Yet, the bulk of my labors that contributed to Jesus’ Justice began in 2019 when I started a sermon series on the book of Philemon. This also marked the 17th anniversary of our family’s move to the South (North Carolina) where one will find some very strong opinions about the history of slavery and the Civil War. As I prepared for my series in Philemon, I consumed a wide variety of books that would aid me, including several works dealing with the transatlantic slave trade. One title that I secured for my studies was Robert Lewis Dabney’s book, In Defense of Virginia. Over the years I had been aware of Dabney’s popular Systematic Theology and had consulted it on several occasions, but I knew nothing about his views on slavery. As I mentioned in Jesus’ Justice, I was surprised and stunned to find Dabney’s derogating treatment of Africans based upon several manipulations of Scripture. Because of this I decided to research his views further. To my surprise, I discovered an odd use of the Golden Rule in his Systematic Theology wherein he sought to justify domestic slavery because of the “low grade of intelligence, virtue and civilization of the African” [1] in America:

Golden Rule: [all are]…equal in their common humanity, and their common share in the obligations and benefits of the golden rule. All men are reciprocally bound to love their neighbors as themselves…Men have by nature, a general equality in this; not a specific one. Hence, the general equality of nature will by no means produce a literal and universal equality of civil condition; for the simple reason that the different classes of citizens have very different specific rights; and this grows out of their differences of sex, virtue, intelligence, civilization, etc., and the demands of the common welfare. 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 (taking the “general run” of cases) 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.[2]

Dabney’s argument bears several contradictions which would demand far more attention than is needed for this article, but it is quite remarkable that he first affirms the common humanity of all, but then concludes that the African has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. Clearly, his conclusion overrides his premise because of his faulty assertion of the natural inferiority of the African; a natural inferiority which results in no natural rights of self-determination.[3]

Some who read this may wonder if the above excerpt represents a momentary shortcoming of Dabney’s, one which fails to represent his overall views concerning Africans. However, it is important to remember that Dabney’s Systematic Theology was first printed in 1871, four years after he publicly confronted the Presbyterian Synod of Virginia on November 9th, 1867, in order to oppose a motion which would allow qualified African-Americans to serve in leadership in the Presbyterian church. His presentation is disturbingly, yet fittingly, titled, Against The Ecclesiastical Equality of Negro Preachers in our Church and their Right to Rule over White Christians:

This overture demands that the Assembly shall declare that “ordination shall be given to all those called of God to, and qualified for the work, without respect of persons.” Now, sir, there is a sense in which every one in this house will assent to this as a general proposition. But in which meaning is it to be taken? Does it imply that we may properly decide that the evidence of God’s call and qualification is fatally defective, where an 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? If so, I adopt it. Or does it mean, that it is right to ordain a black man possessed of the piety, integrity and learning required by our standards, (if we have any such,) to preach to black Presbyterian congregations, if we have any? Then I adopt it. Or, does it ask the General Assembly to enact, that I shall help to ordain a negro to teach and rule white people, and make him a co-equal member with myself in West Hanover Presbytery, to sit in judgment on the affairs of white churches and members? Is this its end? I see one and another boldly and defiantly nod their assent. On this point, gentlemen, I am utterly opposed to you; and I can only account for hearing a proposal so astounding, from such gentlemen as I know you to be, by these two motives; an overstrained and quixotic magnanimity, and the stress of a supposed necessity of logical consistency, under which you have fallen by means of a sophism.[4]

I call the title of Dabney’s presentation fitting because it well summarizes Dabney’s overall argument throughout. Dabney’s use of the possessive pronoun (Against The Ecclesiastical Equality of Negro Preachers in our Church and their Right to Rule over White Christians) exposes a key component of his tragic error and reveals a man-centeredness which belies much of his other writings. However, his grotesque supposition that the African possesses a natural and disqualifying inferiority was clearly asserted in his address to the Synod:

I oppose the entrusting of the destinies of our Church, in any degree whatever, to black rulers, because that race is not trustworthy for such position. There may be a few exceptions; (I do not believe I have ever seen one, though I have known negroes whom I both respected and loved, in their proper position) but I ask emphatically: Do legislatures frame general laws to meet the rare exceptions? or do they adjust them to the general average? Now, who that knows the negro, does not know that his is a subservient race; that he is made to follow, and not to lead; and his temperament, idiosyncrasy, and social relation, make him untrustworthy as a depositary of power? Especially will we weigh this fact now, unless we are madmen; now, when the whole management to which he is subjected is so exciting, so unhealthy, so intoxicating to him; and when the whole drift of the social, political, and religious influences which now sway him, bear him with an irresistible tide, towards a religious faction, which is the deadly and determined enemy of every principle we hold dear. Sir, the wisest masters in Israel, a John Newton, an Alexander, a Whitefield, have told us, that although grace may save a man’s soul, it does not destroy his natural idiosyncrasy, this side of heaven. If you trust any portion of power over your Church to black hands, you will rue it. Have they not done enough recently, to teach us how thoroughly they are untrustworthy? They have, in a body, deserted their true friends, and natural allies, and native land, to follow the beck of the most unmasked and unprincipled set of demagogues on earth, to the most atrocious ends. They have just, in a body, deserted the churches of their fathers. They have usually been prompt to do these things, just in proportion to their religious culture and to our trust in them. Is not this enough to teach us, that if we commit our power to that race, in these times of conflict and stern testimony, possibly of suffering for God’s truth, it will prove the “bruised reed, which when we lean upon it will break, and rend all our side, and cause all our loins to be at a stand?”[5]

One of the reasons why I wrote Jesus’ Justice is because I saw that many within the SJI movement were replicating the grave and unbiblical errors of the Antebellum South. SJI advocates make broad and sweeping judgments against “whites” today in a manner that is similar to those who vilified “blacks” in the past. For Dabney, he commits several errors in the above excerpt, all of which are addressed in Jesus’ Justice:

1. He commits the error of seeing humanity as being comprised of differing races, rather than recognizing the singularity of the human race (Acts 17:16-31).

2. He commits the error of corrupting the universal nature of sin, thereby failing to uphold the reality that no member of the human race has an advantage over the other (whether Jew or Gentile, Romans 3:9).

3. He commits the error of undermining the transforming power of God’s grace in the life of a Christian by asserting that God shows partiality to one “race” of humans over another. This is a clear violation of Scripture (Acts 10:34). Similarly, Emerson and Smith belittle salvation and sanctification, calling it the “miracle motif” and inferring that it is ineffectual for yielding societal change. For Dabney, he believed that the African could be saved, but not adequately sanctified in order to serve in leadership because they were, as he insisted, “a subservient race.”

4. He commits the error of concluding that an entire spectrum of the human race (by any superficial distinction) can be justly derogated and forcefully subjected by human judgment and determination.

Dabney’s lack of restraint, when belittling Africans as an inferior and hostile race, is difficult to fathom from a man who had so much knowledge of Scripture:

But our brethren, turning heartsore and indignant from their secular affairs, where nothing met their eye but a melancholy ruin, polluted by the intrusion of this inferior and hostile race, looked to their beloved Church for a little repose. [6]

Like Thomas Jefferson, who was more informed by secular ideology than the Bible, Dabney warned the Synod against the dangers of mixing the blood of the inferior and superior “races” of mankind:

Yes, sir, these tyrants know that if they can mix the race of Washington, and Lee, and Jackson, with this base herd which they brought from the pens of Africa; if they can taint the blood which hallowed the plains of Manassas, with this sordid stream, the adulterous current will never again swell a Virginian’s heart with a throb noble enough to make a despot tremble. But they will then have, for all time, a race supple and grovelling enough for all the purposes of oppression. We have before our eyes, in Mexico, the proof and illustration of the satanic wisdom of their plan. There we saw a splendid colonial empire, first blighted by abolition; then a frantic spirit of levelling, declaring the equality of the coloured races with the Spaniard; and last, the mixture of the Castilian blood—the grandest of all the Gothic—resulting in the mongrel rabble which is now the shame and plague of that wretched land.[7]

Only recently did I discover Dabney’s address, Against The Ecclesiastical Equality of Negro Preachers in our Church and their Right to Rule over White Christians. But having already completed Jesus’ Justice, it seemed most fitting to include it here in order to underscore the importance of addressing the realities of history: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Having spent much time and energy combating the grave errors of SJI, I have become convinced that those who choose to whitewash the errors of the past are inadvertently shoveling fodder into the cannons of the Gospel’s sworn enemies within the SJI movement. What Dabney taught concerning the enslavement of Africans in America is disturbing, to say the least, and the fact that he has supporters and advocates in the present day is difficult to grasp. When I began writing Jesus’ Justice I didn’t know that I would have to address and expose a someone such as Dabney, but this became necessary when I discovered his degrading judgments against fellow members of the human race. Yet, there was a strange trade-off in all this. Not only did I lose my previous regard for Dabney, but I also discovered valiant servants like Granville Sharp. Additionally, my respect for C.H. Spurgeon grew further in light of his uncompromising stand on this issue: “…although I commune at the Lord’s table with men of all creeds, yet with a slave-holder I have no fellowship of any sort or kind. Whenever one has called upon me, I have considered it my duty to express my detestation of his wickedness, and I would as soon think of receiving a murderer into my church….as a man stealer.”[8]

Finally, there is more that needs to be said in view of my critique of Dabney in Jesus’ Justice, especially in light of his attempt to justify domestic slavery based upon Exodus 21.[9] In a subsequent article, I will address the unique prescriptions and commands given to the nation of Israel and how this differs from the mandates given to the New Testament church.[10] In a sense, Dabney over-ruled the prescriptions of the New Covenant via the Mosaic Law, which is a grave error that some repeat in the modern day.

[1] Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, electronic ed. based on the Banner of Truth 1985 ed. (Simpsonville SC: Christian Classics Foundation, 1996), 721, italics mine.

[2] Ibid.

[3] It is interesting that Dabney felt the license to issue his broad generalizations, qualifying his comments with this parenthetical: “taking the ‘general run’ of cases.” This seems to suggest that there might be exceptions to what he believes is a viable determination of the “low grade of intelligence” of the African. However, he transitions to a conclusion that offers no such exceptions, saying “the African has no natural right to his self control.” Such a conclusion, without qualification, yields a universal judgment on what he called Remarkably, Dabney’s apparent effort to offer some measure of nuance of judgment against Africans is finally destroyed by his universal pronouncement against all Africans in general.

[4] Dabney, Robert. Ecclesiastical Relation of Negroes (pp. 5-6). Storied Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[5] Ibid., 9-10.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Ibid., 14.

[8] Godfrey Holden Pike, The Life and Work of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, (UK: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 333

[9] Robert Lewis Dabney, In Defence of Virginia (Kindle Locations 1318-31). E. J. Hale and Son. Kindle Edition.

[10] In his book, In Defense of Virginia, Dabney expends significant energy trying to justify slavery in America. He attempts to distance himself from the charge of kidnapping through a number of arguments, including that of domestic slavery. A more detailed analysis of his efforts is covered in the eighth chapter of Jesus’ Justice.

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