Robert Lewis Dabney

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Robert Lewis Dabney
Portrait of Robert Lewis Dabney.jpg
Robert Lewis Dabney

March 5, 1820
DiedJanuary 3, 1898(1898-01-03) (aged 77)
Resting placeUnion Theological Seminary Cemetery[1]
Hampden-Sydney, Virginia
EducationHampden-Sydney College
University of Virginia
Union Theological Seminary
OccupationTheologian, educator, architect
Parent(s)Charles Dabney
Elizabeth Randolph Price Dabney.
Robert Lewis Dabney's Signature.jpg

Robert Lewis Dabney (March 5, 1820 – January 3, 1898) was an American Christian theologian, Southern Presbyterian pastor, Confederate States Army chaplain, and architect. He was also chief of staff and biographer to Stonewall Jackson. His biography of Jackson remains in print today.

Dabney and James Henley Thornwell were two of Southern Presbyterianism's most influential scholars. They were both Calvinist, Old School Presbyterians, and social conservatives. Some conservative Presbyterians, particularly within the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, still value their theological writings, although both these churches have repudiated Dabney's and Thornwell's beliefs on race and support of antebellum slavery.[2][3]


Early life[edit]

Robert Lewis Dabney was born on March 5, 1820. He was the sixth child (third son) of Charles William Dabney (1786-1833) and Elizabeth Randolph Price Dabney, and a descendant of Cornelius d'Aubigné from an extended d'Aubigné (Dabney) Huguenot family that settled in Virginia and Massachusetts in the 17th century.[4][5] His brother, Charles William Dabney (1809-1895) was the captain of Company C, 15th Virginia Infantry Regiment.[6]

He graduated from Hampden-Sydney College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1837, and received a master's degree from the University of Virginia in 1842. He graduated from Union Theological Seminary in 1846.[7]


He served as a missionary in Louisa County, Virginia, from 1846 to 1847 and pastor at Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church from 1847 to 1853, being also head master of a classical school for a portion of this time. He is considered a distinguished son of Providence Presbyterian Church.[8] It was at Tinkling Spring that he met Margaret Lavinia Morrison. They were married on March 28, 1848. They had six sons together, three of whom died in childhood from diphtheria (two in 1855, the other in 1862). From 1853 to 1859, he was professor of ecclesiastical history and polity and from 1859 to 1869 adjunct professor of systematic theology in Union Theological Seminary, where he later became full professor of systematics. In 1883, he was appointed professor of mental and moral philosophy in the University of Texas.

Dabney defended the biblical "righteousness" of slavery and opposed public schools. In the 1870s, he wrote that it was unjust to tax "oppressed" white people to provide "pretended education to the brats of black paupers". He rejected "the Yankee theory of popular state education" and democratic government itself, which interfered with the liberty of the South.[9]

By 1894, failing health compelled him to retire from active life, although he still lectured occasionally. He was co-pastor, with his brother-in-law B. M. Smith, of the Hampden-Sydney College Church 1858 to 1874, also serving Hampden-Sydney College in a professorial capacity on occasions of vacancies in its faculty. Dabney, whose wife was a third cousin to Stonewall Jackson's wife, participated in the American Civil War: during the summer of 1861 he was chaplain of the 18th Virginia Infantry in the Confederate army, and in the following year was chief of staff to Jackson during the Valley Campaign and the Seven Days Battles.

College Church at Hampden–Sydney College, c. 1860, designed by Dabney.
Portrait of Dabney.


Dabney's designs for the Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church and for two other churches in Virginia are credited with influencing church architecture in Virginia.[10] Three works associated with Dabney are listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places: Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church; Briery Church, in Briery, Virginia; and New Providence Presbyterian Church, near Brownsburg, Virginia.[11]


He died on January 3, 1898 due to complications from an acute illness.

Major works[edit]

  • Memoir of Rev. Dr. Francis S. Sampson (1855), whose commentary on Hebrews he 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 chattel slavery.
  • 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)
  • Penal Character of the Atonement of Christ Discussed in the Light of Recent Popular Heresies (1898, posthumous), on the satisfaction view of the atonement.
  • Discussions (1890–1897), Four volumes of his shorter essays, edited by C. R. Vaughan.
  1. Theological and Evangelical (1890)
  2. Evangelical (1891)
  3. Philosophical (1892)
  4. Secular (1897)

Also expanded later into five volumes, with the fifth volume consisting of selected shorter works, edited by J. H. Varner, published by Sprinkle Publications in 1999.[12]


  1. ^ "Robert Lewis Dabney". Find A Grave. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  2. ^ "E-Books". PCA Historical Center. Retrieved 2007-03-11. Any statements in [Thomas Cary Johnson's History of the Southern Presbyterian Church] in support of the institution of slavery or in support of racial supremacy should be clearly and obviously understood to be rejected by the Presbyterian Church in America, by the PCA Historical Center, and by the Center's director.
  3. ^ "Hermeneutics of Women in Ordained Office". Fifty-fourth General Assembly (report). Orthodox Presbyterian Church. 1987. Retrieved 2007-03-11. Slavery is a man-made institution, a sinful one at that, and it is rightfully abolished altogether.
  4. ^ Dabney Smedes, Susan. A Southern Planter: Social life in the Old South. New York: James Pott & Co., 1900, p. 10.
  5. ^ Dabney, William Henry. Sketch of the Dabneys of Virginia, with some of their family records. Chicago, Press of S. D. Childs & Co., 1888.
  6. ^ Charles William Dabney Papers, 1715-1945, The Louis Round Wilson Special Collection Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  7. ^ Johnson, Thomas C. (1909). "Robert L. Dabney," The Kaleidoscope, Vol. VII, p. 27.
  8. ^ Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission (October 1972). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Providence Presbyterian Church" (PDF). Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
  9. ^ What the ‘Government Schools’ Critics Really Mean, By KATHERINE STEWART, New York Times, JULY 31, 2017
  10. ^ Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission Staff (December 1972). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church" (PDF). Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-09-26. Retrieved 2013-04-17. and accompanying photo Archived 2012-09-26 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010.
  12. ^ Sprinkle Publications Complete Set


  • Johnson, Thomas Cary (1903). Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney. Richmond, Va.: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication.
  • Hettle, Wallace (2003). "The Minister, the Martyr, and the Maxim: Robert Lewis Dabney and Stonewall Jackson Biography," Civil War History, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 353–369.
  • Lucas, Sean Michael (2003). "'Old Times There Are Not Forgotten': Robert Lewis Dabney's Public Theology for a Reconstructed South," The Journal of Presbyterian History, Vol. 81, No. 3, pp. 163–177.
  • Lucas, Sean Michael (2005). Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub. See also the review by Iain D Campbell.
  • Nutt, Rick (1984). "Robert Lewis Dabney, Presbyterians and Women's Suffrage," Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985), Vol. 62, No. 4, pp. 339–353.
  • Simkins, Francis B. (1964). "Robert Lewis Dabney, Southern Conservative," The Georgia Review, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 393–407.
  • Smith, Morton H. (1962). Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology. Jackson, Miss.: Presbyterian Reformation Society ISBN 0-87552-449-4
  • Wilson, Charles Reagan (1981). "Robert Lewis Dabney: Religion and the Southern Holocaust," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 89, No. 1, pp. 79–89.
  • White, Henry Alexander (1911). "Robert Lewis Dabney." In: Southern Presbyterian Leaders. New York: The Neale Publishing Company, pp. 382–393.
  • Woods, Henry M. (1936) "Robert Lewis Dabney: Prince Among Theologians and Men", a memorial address delivered at Stonewall Church, Appomattox, Virginia, celebrating the founding of the Southern Presbyterian Church in 1861. (PDF)

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainJackson, Samuel Macauley, ed. (1914). "article name needed". New Schaff–Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (third ed.). London and New York: Funk and Wagnalls.

External links[edit]