Robert Lewis Dabney: Hold Fast That Which Is Good
Prove All Things
Hold Fast That Which Is Good
So reads a tombstone of one of the most splendid “mighty men” the continent of North America has ever produced. Before we reveal his name, let us consider his influence. This elegant epitaph, drawn from I Thessalonians 5:21, accurately sums up the life of this man. The Greek word translated “prove” here is δοκιμάζω and means “to test” as an assayer or a metallurgist examines the quality of the metal of a coin. Our hero spent his long and useful life “testing” and “examining” the various trends of his day. He sounded warnings that anticipated some of the greatest disasters that befell the Christian world in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Yet, our hero was misunderstood and largely hated in his own lifetime, which was lived in the latter two-thirds of the 1800’s. He bore all sorts of hateful labels. Called an old fogey, a kill-joy, a racist, a critic, and a complainer, our hero ignored all the mud-slinging of his antagonists. Most of these angry labels were piled on him near the end of his long and useful life, and an ungrateful people hated the man who was trying to warn them of dangers lurking within their own homes and churches.
Born in Virginia in 1820, our hero was one of the most eloquent and lucid writers of his age. His background fully prepared him to handle the many areas of life and culture he addressed. He was a pastor, a farmer, a husband, a father, a university professor, an army officer, a lawyer, a scientist, an author, and a world traveler. Nothing escaped his penetrating gaze, and when his eyes were fixed upon something he considered a threat to the cause of Christ, woe be to that man who stood in his way. His pen cut deep. His arguments carried with them a cultivated and keen mind. He drew his authority from the Scripture, and wielded it with sharp and cutting precision. Here are some of the things that fell before his pen.
He discerned the early dangers that feminism would bring upon a patriarchal society. He loved the Biblical role of the wife and mother, being deeply devoted to the wife of his youth. He feared that feminism would destroy not only Biblical femininity, but Biblical manhood as well. He attacked it ferociously and defended the Biblical, time-honored role of a wife and mother as the crowning virtue of womanhood.
Long before the rise of Nazi-Germany, he asserted that the autocratic policies of men like Abraham Lincoln in the United States and Otto von Bismarck in Germany, as popular as these men were and still are in large parts of the modern world, would eventually lead to tyranny and centralized control of banking, education of children, farming, food production, religion, and local affairs. His views were not popular in his day, and the cause for which he fought was eventually suppressed by the brutal heel of Federal power, but our hero did not cease to warn that centralized power would become a major problem both in Europe and in America in the coming decades.
He also decried against Darwinian science. Long before the modern Creation science movement, he ferociously asserted the authority of God’s Word and the futility of any system of Christian synthesis with Darwinian evolution.
He also asserted that the new “higher textual criticism” coming out of the German rationalistic schools of thought would have a huge impact upon the honor that Christians gave to the Bible. He feared that men applying their depraved reasoning to the Bible would try to “explain away” its Divine origins. He feared that the rationalistic questioning of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch would lead to the undermining of the very authority of Scripture, and give so-called “scholars” a loop-hole to live as they chose, and take or leave the passages of Scripture they found.
But, closer to home, he also attacked things inside the church. He warned against worldliness in Christian families. He wrote a long and scathing paper against Christians engaging in popular amusements such as dancing and theatre. He wrote against innovation in church music. He asserted that novels, even “Christian novels,” and historical novels, were dangerous reading and should have no place in a Christian home.
For all these things, he was bitterly hated by many. He was viewed as out-dated, cynical, and overly harsh. But he labored on, his copious pen producing thousands of pages in his long and useful lifetime.
Though hated, our stalwart hero remained convinced of the Biblical truth of the positions he so firmly maintained. He closed one of his books with these words,
Let the arrogant and successful wrongdoers flout our defense with disdain. We will meet them with it again, when it shall be heard in the day of their calamity, in the day of impartial history, and in the Day of Judgment.
The name of our stalwart hero was Robert Lewis Dabney. The words quoted above were the words with which he concluded his Defense of Virginia and the South.
Dabney’s life was full of heartaches. He lost two of his sons to a malignant fever. He was stricken with malaria at the same time which led to his eventual blindness. He saw bitter feuds divide the churches over which he presided. He fought on the losing side of a war, and saw the cause which he loved trampled into the dust by the strong arm of centralized power. He lived the last of his life an exile from the university where he had taught so long, despised, ridiculed, and only enjoying the domestic comforts of the loyal love of his wife and children. He was blind and he suffered from severe pain, but he labored on, preaching and writing whenever he had the opportunity.
Dabney delivered a series of lectures shortly before his death. The elderly saint of God had to be led into the pulpit, where he lifted his sightless eyes to heaven and implored God’s blessing upon the young men and women of a new generation, that they might learn from the mistakes of the past, and be discerning in their time, “proving all things and holding fast that which is good.”
Shortly before his death, Dabney wrote to a friend,
Have I not written? My arguments, founded on Scripture and facts, are as impregnable as the everlasting hills. But who reads it? The self-satisfied insolence of the pharisaical slanders makes them disdain my work – they never condescend to hear of it. I have no audience.
Although relatively few in his own generation gave heed to his warnings, it is encouraging that there is a rising interest in the writings of Robert Lewis Dabney, and a number of his works have been republished by several publishing companies. His warnings against feminism, Unitarianism, rationalism, statist control of education, centralized national power, national banking, and the worldliness of the church have been fully realized, and we can stand amazed at his prophetic insight into the creeping errors of his own generation.
There are those that say to men like Dabney, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” But the same Christ that said this in Matthew 7:1, went on to call men swine and dogs in just a few verses, and to urge His disciples to beware of “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Dabney was not being critical or judgmental in the harmful sense that Jesus warned against. He was being discerning, warning all who would listen that wolves in sheep’s clothing were creeping into the Church and State.
Finally, the day came when the mortal remains of Robert Lewis Dabney were laid to rest in the soil of his native State, Virginia. It was 1898. He was buried on the grounds of Hampden-Sydney College, where he had spent the majority of his life warning against the innovations of his era. Dabney was buried in the old Confederate uniform he had worn serving on the staff of Stonewall Jackson. The words said in the book of Hebrews concerning the first martyr, Abel, apply well to the life of R. L. Dabney, “He, being dead, yet speaketh.” As long as men shall read the writings of R. L. Dabney, his life of careful discernment will not be in vain. As long as lovers of truth shall make their pilgrimage to this quiet spot in central Virginia, they will read the motto of his life inscribed in stone, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
Dabney’s Best Works
Defense of Virginia and the South,
Life and Campaigns of Lt. Gen. T. J. Jackson,
Five volumes of his published Discussions