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Reformed Literature

Robert Lewis Dabney – A Southern Presbyterian Life


S. M. Lucas


P&R Publishing, Philipsburg, New Jersey, 2005


The name of Robert Dabney is better known in worldwide Reformed circles today than

during his own lifetime. The modern resurgence of interest in Dabney has largely been due to

the efforts Morton H Smith in the Southern States of America and Iain H Murray and the

Banner of Truth Trust who have re-issued several of his books. Dabney’s life spanned the

years 1820 to 1898. These were years that saw huge social, cultural and theological change.

This book is the first in a new series being published by P&R in the USA under the styling of

American Reformed Biographies and has been written in a scholarly yet popular and readable

style. Its author, Sean Lucas, is one of a group of evangelical historians that includes men like

Mark Noll, Daryl Hart and George Marsden. It is most useful to see academic historical

analysis being applied to some of America’s major Reformed theologians of the nineteenth

century. In this new biography of Dabney the author seeks to explain the man and his legacy

without the closeness that hampered earlier biographers such as Thomas Cary Johnson (a

friend and colleague in his work at the University of Texas in Austin).

Dabney’s grave marker read: ‘Robert Lewis Dabney, Minister of the Gospel, Professor of

Theology at Union Seminary, and of Philosophy at the University of Texas, Major in the

Confederate Army and Chief of Staff to Stonewall Jackson. “Prove all things, hold fast that

which is good”. In unshaken loyalty of devotion to his friends, his country, and his religion,

firm in misfortune, ever active in earnest endeavour, he laboured all his life for what he loved

with a faith in good causes, that was ever one with his faith in God.’

This book does not evade the fact that Robert Dabney was a very complex character. On the

one hand we have essays in his Discussions that are the products of a bewildering grasp of

theology and church history. He was also clearly a gifted preacher who saw revival during his

ministry in Tinkling Spring, Virginia. Yet, on the other hand, he was a Virginian who fought

for the confederates in the American Civil War and never gave up the intellectual battles

provoked by the issues that led to the conflict. The book frankly acknowledges his firm belief

in an agrarian economy and his views on African Americans and slavery that sound a strange

note in today’s environment.

This biography of Robert Dabney is a fascinating account of a theological conservative whose

life saw him rise to be a figurehead of American Presbyterianism in the Southern States and

then fall into a degree of obscurity. He fought to preserve the old paths in both the Church and

society. Dabney died disillusioned with the changes resulting from the Civil War that had

destroyed the Virginia of his youth and with the altered the stance of Union seminary where

he had laboured for most of his adult life. Reflecting his firmly held political views he was

buried in a confederate uniform. Yet Dabney has left the Church a valuable literary heritage

in his Systematic Theology, his Discussions now spanning 5 volumes, his chronicling of the

Life of Stonewall Jackson and his Defence of Virginia and the South. This book would make a

very welcome addition to many Free Presbyterians bookshelves and, besides being a popular

read, will be very thought provoking.