Pictured here is a 19th century flat button (about the size of a dime) I found on the former Robert Lewis Dabney property located in Augusta County, Virginia. The button's backmark reads: "George ????? - Extra Rich - Baltimore" - all in gold gilt. The front is unmarked with no design. Of course, there is no way to confirm this button is in any way related to the man who once served as Stonewall Jackson's Chief of Staff and who was one of the South's most prominent theologians. But the possibility does exist. The button was found near a spring located on the property. I will, at some point in the future, include some video of this dig as well as the property. The house pictured below was built by Dabney in 1852, while he served as Pastor of Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church. I hope to return next week to do some more exploring on this historic property.
My daily drive often includes a back road that takes me by Dabney's home. It, like Dabney, was built strong—of stone—and built to last.
Dabney learned the trade of stone masonry as a boy working on the family farm, and he constructed this sturdy structure with his own hands. Just a mile or two more down the road from this house is the Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church where Dabney served as pastor from 1847 to 1853. Tinkling Springs is one of the oldest Presbyterian churches west of the Blue Ridge. Within the old stone graveyard of the church rest the dust of so many of the stout Scots-Irish pioneers to whom Dabney ministered, including the grandparents of the legendary Confederate cavalry general, Jeb Stuart. Besides serving as Stonewall Jackson’s chief of staff during Jackson’s legendary Valley Campaign, Major Dabney was also Jackson’s original biographer and is, of course, still renowned for his theological works and prolific writing.
Yet many students of history have misunderstood Dabney. He is most often depicted by moderns as little more than a defender of the Lost Cause and the “old regime.” While Dabney did produce volumes of postbellum writings that defended the old South’s agrarianism and slavery, there is quite a bit more to consider of this theologian.
As noted by Christian History and Biography - (“Robert L. Dabney” Christian History and Biography, Issue 19, July 1988.):
Robert Lewis Dabney (1829 [sic]–1898) was one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 19th century. A Southern Presbyterian, he was a teacher, statesman, writer, and social critic, as well as theologian, and taught at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. In the American Civil War he once served as Chief of Staff to the Confederate general “Stonewall” Jackson. Dabney’s contributions have been dampened partially by his vigorous defense of the pre-Civil War South’s institution of slavery; however, his work, especially his Systematic Theology, has been highly regarded by scholars from Benjamin Warfield to Karl Barth.
Born on March 5, 1820, to pious parents, Dabney grew up on the family farm and mill on the South Anna River in Louisa County, Virginia. Dabney’s parents, particularly his father, wielded much influence over their young son. In a letter to his own son, Dr. Charles W. Dabney, Robert Dabney wrote these words revealing just how much influence his own father had upon his life:
When I recall what the position of Christian meant, as occupied, for instance, by my parents, it seems to me as if that type of Christianity must have been in another sphere, and before the fall of man almost! With what careful seriousness, self-examination and prayer did they take their religious vows! How regular, deliberate and solemn were family prayers! How did the scriptural instruction of us children take the precedence of all the day, and of all other duties, lessons and amusements. How sacredly was the Sabbath improved! My father went about making the best of the sacred day just as seriously and systematically as any wise business man planning to put in the best work possible on some favorable day in the middle of harvest. He evidently acted on this clear, rational and conscientious conviction, “I have a great and urgent work to do for my own soul and others’; the one day in seven which a kind Heavenly Father has endeavored to secure for me, for this task, is none too much, if improved to the best. So I must make the most of it.” I well remember his deliberate and careful preparation of himself in advance of communion days. It began about Friday, by reducing his concern with farm matters to a minimum; spending the most of the two week-days in a private room, shut up with his Bible, Flavel’s Sacramental Meditations, and such like books. One may know well how much the Lord’s Supper meant to him, and what impulse and nourishment it was to his soul.
Dabney was only thirteen when his father passed away, leaving a great void in the young man’s life. But the father had left his son well prepared to assume the leadership role of the household. Robert interrupted his own education in order to keep the family’s honor intact and pay off debts. Three years later, in June of 1836, Dabney enrolled at Hampden-Sydney College.4 Dabney was only able to stay until September of 1837 due to a lack of money. Nevertheless, Dabney’s time there proved to be providentially beneficial. During a “religious revival” that swept through the campus the same month that Dabney left, he made a public confession of faith in Christ and “carried home at the close of his collegiate work the affection of his classmates and also a deep religious impression.” (See: Henry Alexander White, Southern Presbyterian Leaders (Neale Publishing Company, 1911), 382.)
Upon his return home he was received as a member of the Providence Presbyterian Church in Louisa County. While Dabney is remembered as an intellectual and a man of letters, it is important to note that he was also accustomed to strenuous manual labor and believed that the dual values of piety and industry, taught him by his father, were essential. Henry Alexander White noted that . . .
. . . the old mill that made flour and meal for the people of the community, forming a part of his mother’s property, must be rebuilt. The tall, slender lad, not yet eighteen years of age, went into the rock quarry and with his own hands helped to give shape to the stones that were needed for the walls of the mill … Then the fields called him again to the plow. Through the long summer days of 1838 and 1839 he was in the cornfields and wheatfields, toiling steadily with his own hands.
Dabney continued to work on the family farm and supplemented his income with teaching in the community. By the autumn of 1839 he was once again ready to pursue his education and enrolled at the University of Virginia. Dabney often found himself looking with disdain at Virginia’s privileged sons at the university, many of whom thought the physical labor that Dabney cherished was beneath them. Despite these conflicts and his abhorrence of some of the “decadence” he witnessed while in Charlottesville, Dabney earned a Master of Arts from Mr. Jefferson’s University in 1842.
In 1844 Dabney returned to Hampden-Sydney and the school’s Union Theological Seminary where he would complete his studies in May of 1846. A year later, he was pastoring at Tinkling Springs but would, once again, return to Hampden-Sydney to complete his theological studies and where he would also teach in the seminary and pastor in the campus church. It was here and during this time that Dabney’s pen became increasingly busy and where he honed his prolific writing abilities. Dabney’s reputation grew quickly and, “He was soon to become one of the most efficient expounders of the Calvinistic system of theology that our country has ever known.” So well respected was Dabney that, in 1860, he was offered the chair of church history at Princeton Seminary. He declined, seeing “his place of duty in Virginia.”
With war looming, Dabney wrote a widely publicized pamphlet titled “A Pacific Appeal to Christians” in January of 1861, which argued for preserving a state of peace. Though he sought peace, he unhesitatingly served the Confederate Army in whatever role his country needed him and by the summer was a chaplain with the 18th Virginia regiment. Stonewall Jackson often attended some of the services conducted by Chaplain Dabney, and the two soon became friends. This friendship led to Dabney’s service on Jackson’s staff.
Anyone familiar with Dabney knows of his fervent belief in the doctrine of providence and that it was a frequent topic of his sermons. This coupled with Dabney’s service in the Confederacy provided for an illustration of Dabney’s practical belief in “a special providence” as well as his sense of humor. Major Hugh Nelson was present during a service where Dabney exhorted the soldiers to face death fearlessly as providence had already determined the time and place of their deaths. Some time after that service, Nelson was present at the Battle of Malvern Hill and found himself “under one of the heaviest fires he had ever experienced.” Jackson was also in the vicinity, and as the fire became heavy, ordered his staff to dismount and find shelter. Dabney “found a place behind a large and very thick oak gate post, where he sat bolt upright with his back against the post.” About that time, Nelson, whose views on providence did not completely agree with Dabney’s, rode up and galloped directly toward Dabney where he coolly saluted the nervous chaplain and said: “Dr. Dabney, every shot, and shell, and bullet is directed by the God of battles, and you must pardon me for expressing my surprise that you should want to put a gate post between you and special Providence.” Dabney, without hesitation, replied: “No! Major, you misunderstand the doctrine I teach. And the truth is that I regard this gate post as a special providence, under present circumstances.” (See: Seven Days Around Richmond. Reminiscences of The Army of Northern Virginia by J. William Jones. Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. IX. Richmond, Va., Oct., Nov., and Dec. 1881. Nos. 10, 11, & 12.)
Dabney’s service with Jackson was short-lived as sickness and fatigue forced him to return to Hampden-Sydney. Dabney continued to write, teach, and preach after the war and became one of the South’s most unrepentant ex-Confederates. Dabney’s last years were spent in Texas where he taught at Austin Seminary and later at the University of Texas. He died on January 3, 1898.
In eulogizing Dr. Dabney, B. M. Palmer described him as “a pillar of strength in the house of our God. How we shall miss him for defense in the great battle for truth! He was mentally and morally constituted a great polemic, with a massive intellect capable of searching into the foundations of truth, and with an intellectual as well as moral indignation against every form of falsehood.”
The following is a list of some of Dabney’s major works:
- Memoir of Rev. Dr. Francis S. Sampson (1855), whose commentary on Hebrews Dabney edited (1857)
- Life of General Thomas J. Jackson (1866)
- A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her, of the South, in Recent and Pending Contests Against the Sectional Party (1867), an apologia for the Confederacy
- Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric (1870)
- Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology (1871; 2nd ed. 1878), later republished as Systematic Theology
- Systematic Theology (1878)
- Sensualistic Philosophy of the Nineteenth Century Examined (1875; 2nd ed. 1887)
- Practical Philosophy (1897)
- Discussions (1890–1897), four volumes of his shorter essays, edited by C. R. Vaughan
- Penal Character of the Atonement of Christ Discussed in the Light of Recent Popular Heresies (1898, posthumous), on the satisfaction view of the atonement
*I have several promised posts on which I'm working. A post on heroes and distorted history and another on the Tea Party - both of these are rebuttals to fellow history blogger, Michael Aubrecht. I also have some interesting photos and stories from my recent adventures relic hunting near Brandy Station. And, I'm working on the new book, an essay which will be published on another website, several book reviews, and some videos. I've suddenly become quite busy. Hopefully, I can catch up some of these posts by next week.