I read with interest the article by Zachary Garris on Robert Lewis Dabney (“Remembering R. L. Dabney,” December 2019). Having myself graduated from Hampden-Sydney College, where he taught, and being Presbyterian, I have had some interest in his views. The article mentions hierarchal views of biblically sanctioned authority. It does not mention the extension of this to his racist views.
In 1867, the Synod of Virginia was considering whether “coloured people…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 Negro Preachers in Our Church.” 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.” For Dabney, the stakes were high: “[E]very 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.” This blatant blind spot of Dabney’s was worth mentioning in Garris’s article. It also makes one question just how far the Bible goes, and how far one construes the Bible as going in this area.
Mr. Garris replies:
Mr. Whealton notes that my article does not mention the “extension” of biblical hierarchy to Dabney’s “racist views,” specifically citing Dabney’s opposition to black suffrage and the ordination of blacks as ministers in white churches. There are two issues raised in Mr. Whealton’s response. The first is whether biblical hierarchy extends to racial hierarchy. The Bible does not specifically address this. Though the Bible affirms that all humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and that Jesus redeems people from every nation (Revelation 5:9), there is nothing in Scripture that teaches that all men are created equal. Dabney’s opinions about blacks reflect the thought of his time, but they are not rooted in Scripture as something like male headship in marriage is.
The second issue raised in Mr. Whealton’s response is whether we should judge dead men by current political standards. The establishment gatekeepers seek to impose such standards and thus prevent us from learning from genuine conservative figures like Dabney. But will they be consistent and attack America’s anti-egalitarian Founders? If we are to condemn Dabney for his opposition to black suffrage, then consistency demands that we also condemn everyone who did not support black suffrage, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. None of these men supported extending the vote to blacks. Even the 19th-century feminist and social democrat John Stuart Mill opposed extending suffrage to the illiterate or those who lived on public assistance, a standard that would have included almost all the blacks to whom Dabney refused to extend the vote. Moreover, Dabney opposed black suffrage in the South for the same reason his Northern occupants favored it, as black suffrage would have had serious political consequences for many Southern states.