Chaplain Robert Lewis Dabney
Eighteenth Virginia Regiment
By Dr. H. Rondel Rumburg
“There were giants in those days, stars of magnitude, and among them all not a greater giant than R. L. Dabney.” Thomas Carey Johnson
Robert Lewis Dabney was born on March 5th, 1820 on the South Anna River in Louisa County, VA. He descended from French Huguenot and English ancestry. On the French side he descended from the D’Aubingne family of which the famous minister and historian Rev. Dr. J. H. Merle D’Aubingne who was President of the Theological Institute of Geneva. Col. Charles Dabney was his father and his mother was Elizabeth Price. His father was a much respected and prominent lawyer in Louisa. Robert Lewis lost his father when he had just begun his teen years and this must have made his life more difficult. God in His providence would use this as well as other difficulties to build the character of this young man.
His early education was to a great extent under his older brother Charles William who gave him a thorough knowledge of Latin. Then there was Caleb Burnley. Robert Lewis wrote his mother (he was a prolific letter writer during his student days including college and seminary) that in his schooling under Burnley “there were good teachers and plenty of birch–the teachers being very strict about our manners.” Then he attended the school of Tom Meredith where he was exposed to Greek and the classics. Next he was under the instruction of a young Baptist minister the Rev. Charles Burnley. From January to June of 1836 he studied under Rev. James Wharey his mother’s minister and an accomplished scholar.
Dabney’s college training was at Hampden-Sydney where he entered the sophomore class half advanced (1836-37). During this time he completed the college courses in mathematics, physics, Latin and Greek. His class notes, which were exceptionally accurate, were sought for copying by other students. He had pursued language studies that included Greek, Latin, French and Italian. This collegian was also an avid student of history. In college he became a friend of fellow students by the names of Moses Drury Hoge, Thomas S. Bocock, and a number of others who were destined to become prominent Southern men. While in college he lived in the home of Mrs. John Holt Rice the widow of the founder of Union Theological Seminary.
A future changing event occurred in September of 1837. The Holy Spirit was pleased to bring him under conviction of his sins and to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This was during an awakening at the college. Dabney described it this way, “The most important event of this period to me was my profession of faith in Christ.” When he returned home at the close of his sojourn at college he received his first communion under the pastoral care of Rev. James Wharey.
After returning home the attentive son sought to help his widowed mother rebuild their mill. He worked hard with his hands at the stone quarry and in transporting stone by boat. On January 15th, 1838 Robert Lewis opened a neighborhood school and put his education to practical use. The young man was about to turn eighteen. The school was in a cabin that he helped construct. His summers were devoted to farming and winters to educating. Mrs. Rice wrote him encouraging his continued study at Hampden-Sydney and in her letter she wrote, “I trust you will make the Bible, and not other professors, your rule and guide.” This was very wise advice.
After two years of labor on the plantation he attended the University of Virginia where he received his MA in 1842. During his time at the university he said the “best professors … are native Virginians.” Upon reaching Charlottesville he began a friendship with Rev. Dr. William S. White who would become “Stonewall” Jackson’s pastor and Dabney’s lifelong mentor. While in Charlottesville he was diligent in Christian work for among other things he started a Bible class among the students.
After teaching a classical school in his mother’s house two years, which included his sister Betty, he studied at Union Seminary then located at Hampden-Sydney. Now he was in preparation for the gospel ministry. While in seminary his health began to deteriorate thus he turned to work and exercise as therapy. Dabney wrote, “Let me say that if I ever had any special intellectual growth and vigor, I owed it to three things, first, to the Master of Arts course in the University of Virginia, second, to Dr. Sampson (his seminary professor), and third, to my subsequent mastery of Turretin (his theology text).” Dabney was licensed to preach May 4th, 1846 by the West Hanover Presbytery at Pittsylvania Courthouse. His first pastorate was the old Tinkling Springs Church in Augusta County, VA. He served the Lord there from 1847 to 1853. While in this pastorate he met and married Margaret Lavinia Morrison on March 28th, 1848. During this pastorate he was often in touch with his mentor Dr. White, now the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Lexington, for advice. In a letter of January 26th, 1849 Dr. White exhorted him,
Remember that it is ‘neither the first blow nor the last that fells the oak’; therefore, strike away, and the tree will fall and the forest be cleared. I know no means of building up and extending the borders of Zion but the truth studied, learned, communicated, and then followed by prayer. Preach as if your preaching was everything, and then pray as if it were nothing. If I could not rest in this view, I should despair.
Dabney’s ministry was blessed with a much coveted season of refreshing. Yes, the Lord was pleased to sent a time of revival as souls were gathered into the kingdom of God’s dear Son.
While in this pastorate Dabney’s love of farming took the form of the purchase of a little farm which would also provide a home for his family. This place he sold and bought a larger farm called “Stony Point.” During these years God began to bless the Dabney home with children. In 1852 Dabney established a classical school in the area, this venture was very useful. These years were also used in acquiring an excellent library of theology, church history and other disciplines. He also began to write articles for various publications. His accomplishments were rewarded with an LLD and DD degrees.
In May of 1853 Dr. Dabney was proffered the Chair of Ecclesiastical History and Polity at Union Theological Seminary, a position he filled from 1853 to 1859. Then from 1859 to 1883 he was Adjunct Professor of Systematic and Polemic Theology and Sacred Rhetoric. The good doctor filled these positions with distinction for thirty years. He pastored the college church during those years. Dabney had the pen of a ready writer and much ink flowed from his pen in the form of articles and books. During this time the Dabney’s lost two sons. Robert Lewis explained,
When my Jimmy died, grief was pungent, but the actings of faith, the embracing of consolation, the conception of all the cheering truths which ministered consolation were proportionably vivid; but when the stroke was repeated, and thereby doubled, I seemed to be paralyzed and stunned…. When I turned away from Jimmy’s corpse to my lovely infant, my affections and my fears seemed both to flow out towards him with a strength delicious and agonizing. I never tired of folding him in my arms, as the sweet substitute for my loss, nor of trembling for him also, lest the loss should extend to him. But when Bobby was taken, and our little one remained our only hope, it seemed to me, I was both afraid and reluctant to centre my affections on him…. Death has struck me with a dagger of ice. He has not only wounded, but benumbed.
Later Dabney explained, “But thanks to God, I am not moping nor murmuring. If I could see the blows blessed to myself, my kindred and my friends, I should in time be able to bless God for it; and this is my constant prayer.”
Now the war clouds began to gather on the near horizon. The Synod of Virginia met in Lynchburg in October of 1860 and Dr. Dabney was elected Moderator. He declared that the election of Lincoln would twist the Federal government into an oppressive agent against the South. With the spirit of secession in the air he preached in the College Church on the first Lord’s Day in November on “The Christian’s Best Motive for Patriotism,” and his text was, “Because of the house of our Lord thy God, I will seek thy good” (Ps. 122:9). In this sermon he spoke of carrying their faith into every act of their lives. How would they to do that, “Christian conscience, enlightened by God’s Word,” into political duty. In January of 1861 he wrote a paper titled, “A Pacific Appeal to Christians.” A great number of prominent Virginians signed this appeal for peace, but within a few weeks Lincoln’s unconstitutional actions turned all these peace loving men into men of war. Dabney’s writings on the war are clear, accurate and insightful.
However, it was with the coming of the War of Northern Aggression that he sought to do his part. This was realized when he first received a state commission as chaplain of the 18th Virginia Regiment; this was the summer of 1861. Chaplain Dabney wrote, “our camps are places of much prayer, and afford many shining examples of Christian consistency. Let the people of God abound in prayer for the bodies and souls of our citizen-soldiers.” God blessed his ministry with souls converted and saints edified. On the Thursday night after the Battle of Manassas Dabney preached to the delight especially of “Stonewall” Jackson. He had proposed to serve four months and the Directors of the Seminary had ordered that the Seminary be kept open. About this time Dabney was attacked by camp fever and needed to be nursed back to health at home. In February 1862 he visited his sick sister and she died in his arms. Betty had been his mother’s constant companion and his dear sister, but the Lord took her. Oh, the hand of God was drawing him closer as he lost his father, two little boys and now his sister.
Of the Southern Cause he wrote, “One thing is certain, failure will be worse for us than death…. The people must take the war into their own hands, and do as our forefathers did in the Revolution, just turn out with their guns and fight the enemy wherever they venture … till they are worn out of the country.” Dabney sought to return to the chaplaincy by joining Cabell’s Artillery Battalion, but Jackson got wind of it and wrote him, “I have had a strong desire to have you with me ever since I knew you.” Mrs. Jackson was staying with the Dabneys at Hampden-Sydney and she encouraged Dr. Dabney to take the position her husband was offering. He was persuaded by Gen. & Mrs. T. J. “Stonewall” Jackson to become his Chief of Staff. Colonel Andrew Jackson Grigsby complimented Dabney, “Our parson is not afraid of Yankee bullets, and I tell you he preaches like hell.” When Dr. Dabney first came to Jackson’s headquarters he wore a Prince Albert coat, a beaver hat and the usual clothing of a minister accompanied by his umbrella. The men began to cry out on their first march, “Come out from under that umbrella!” “Come out! I know you are under there; I see your feet a-shaking!”
Dabney was with Jackson through the difficult marches and the battles of the Valley Campaign of April, May and June of 1862 which covered the battles of McDowell, Franklin, Front Royal, Winchester and back to Harrisonburg and Port Republic. Major Dabney had a part in saving Jackson’s ammunition trains by commanding a battle. After the strenuous Valley Campaign he was forced, by his health, to resign this duty in July of 1862. He was overwhelmed by a bout of camp fever and was near death and after showing improvement he had a relapse. Jackson considered Major Dabney “the most efficient officer he knew.” The recovery time was slow and while in this state his children were attacked with diphtheria taking the life of another son. Dabney returned to the seminary and his pastoral work at the College Church. A very excellent book came from his pen during this time called the Defense of Virginia and the South. He continued to preach to soldiers as he could and upon the death of Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson was requested by his widow to write a biography of the great general. Dabney also continued with his seminary work during the last years of the war. The Seminary session of 1863 to1864 was with only three students, but Dabney was busy with the biography of Jackson. Mrs. Dabney became very ill at the end of the summer of 1864 and she was sent for treatment while he kept the home and family going. The session of 1864 to1865 was virtually nonexistent and Dabney felt compelled to serve as a missionary in the Confederate Army.
Dabney wrote on December 12th, 1864 of his missionary labors, “I came to the army week before last, to assist the chaplains for a while, in preaching to the soldiers.” The weather made life difficult for a man weakened by illness for it was very cold and snowy. During this time he was also trying to find food for his family. In January of 1865 he was on another trip to preach to the army at Petersburg. In the spring of 1865 he was preaching to the Tabb Street Presbyterian Church in Petersburg. During this time his home was opened to wounded and sick soldiers. After Appomattox he escaped being imprisoned in the North. When he returned home he found it had been pillaged by the Yankees.
Reconstruction’s horrible consequences had been foreseen by Dabney as the scourge it became. He labored as a field hand to try to provide for his family during this dark era. He was financially ruined as a result of the war. He picked up his pen as a sword to vindicate the truth and the beloved Southland. He wrote a friend on the 27th of January 1868, “As for me, I am in the happy category of the Irishman’s addition to Matthew 5: ‘Blessed are they that have expected nothing; for verily I say unto you, they are not disappointed.’ I always knew what was coming, and am not the least surprised.”
For a time he contemplated leaving the country as a result of the destruction of the Constitution of the Founding Fathers. “I have no idea of removing to settle again anywhere under Yankee despotism,” he wrote. His final conclusion was “that the only way to save Virginia is to take her out of Virginia.” He began to correspond with those sympathetic with emigrating. Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury, Gen. Jubal A. Early and others were his correspondents.
Dr. William S. White wrote him on March 4th, 1868 that he had sold seven copies of the Defense of Virginia at Christiansburg along with three others. All he had was ten. He noted, “This book … will not be fully appreciated until you and I are dead…. the truth will prevail.” White went on discussing the war that had been raging since 1865 which “is worse than that which ended then…. I have little or no confidence in any part at the North, political or religious; but I have boundless confidence in the Yankee’s love of money.”
Dabney’s literary works of this period were many and formidable, such as: Sacred Rhetoric, Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology, and his constant contributions to periodicals, newspapers and reviews. He was a speaker at numerous events. In the summer of 1874 Dr. Dabney resigned his ministry at the College Church. He continued to teach at the seminary and preach as his health permitted. In 1875 his book The Sensualistic Philosophy of the Nineteenth Century Considered was first published. Dabney much like Patrick Henry was able to look at philosophical theory and know its ultimate destructive force. He predicted that a State effort at providing a common education would lead to compulsory education. He believed, on Biblical principle, that the duty of education resided in the parents. The public school he asserted would ban the Bible for it was “infidel in tendency.”
The latter part of his ministry was as professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy and Political Economy at the University of Texas where he taught from 1883 to 1894. Many protested his leaving Union Theological Seminary which had disregarded his advice. He also helped found Austin Theological Seminary. He donated the cream of his private library for the new institution. Preaching was something God had called him to do and he preached as long as he was able. Total blindness and failing health caused his resignation from teaching. The last kind of ministry of Dabney was his lectures at Davidson College and Columbia Seminary.
Soon he would be headed home. His final promotion to glory occurred on January 3rd, 1898 in Victoria, Texas. His body was returned to Virginia and he was buried beside his namesake at Hampden-Sydney. On January 30th, 1898, a Sunday afternoon, a memorial service was held in the Opera House at Sherman, Texas by the Mildred Lee Camp of United Confederate Veterans to commemorate the patriotism and virtue of Major R. L. Dabney. This was very fitting for an unreconstructed Southern Christian Gentleman who served God faithfully till called to glory.
The preeminent biography is The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, by Thomas Cary Johnson. His rich and compelling writings are in print today by the kindness of Sprinkle Publications of Harrisonburg, VA.