Providence Is No Excuse

Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist

Article by Daniel Kleven

It is essential to your own future that you shall learn the history of the past truly. –Robert Lewis Dabney

History teaches us that proper thought does not necessarily lead to proper action — even when those thoughts align with God’s. In numerous glaring instances, humans have been subjugated to brutal oppression by those who, by their own teachings and sermons, should have known better. Orthodoxy alone is not enough to ensure that we will live as God requires.

The history of racism in America is a clear example. Within some of our lifetimes, schools were segregated, African Americans denied full citizenship, and and many of those created in the image of God were repeatedly treated as less than human. In the midst of this moral failure, many Bible-believing Christian churches wanted nothing to do with their bleeding black brother lying on the other side of the road. Though we celebrate Dr. King’s work now, few orthodox Christian churches did then. In many cases, members of these Bible-believing churches were the first to scold his efforts.

Today we rightfully celebrate the social justice work of Dr. King; but for those of us who are white, Reformed, American Christians, eulogies to King sound hollow while the echoes of white supremacy still haunt our halls. Just because we embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean we have not afflicted atrocious injustice on our fellow human beings.

A sobering reminder of this is a champion of Reformed theology who was a white supremacist and vehemently defended the cause of slavery — a man who can teach us that “good theology” and “sinful blind spots” cannot always be so easily disentangled.

Reformed White Supremacist

 In his time, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was considered one of the greatest teachers of theology in the United States. Revered theologians such as Hodge, Shedd, Warfield, Bavinck, and Barth viewed him with appreciation and respect. Dabney was a thoroughly Reformed, five-point Calvinist who believed in the supremacy of God in all things. However, his view of God’s sovereignty, a true and beautiful doctrine, tragically became interwoven with his racism, as he consistently used the doctrine of “providence” to reinforce his white supremacy.

In his Systematic Theology (1879), Dabney includes the standard Reformed doctrines but also includes a lecture on “The Civil Magistrate” in which he considers in what sense “all men are by nature free and equal” (868). He asks, “Are all men naturally equal in strength, in virtue, in capacity, or in rights? The thought is preposterous.” Dabney believed that even “a general equality of nature will by no means produce a literal and universal equality of civil condition” (869). Then, lest he be misunderstood, he applies it specifically:

Thus, if the low grade of intelligence, virtue, and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare, and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. (869)

Slavery as Providence?

In 1867, Dabney wrote a lengthy defense of slavery entitled A Defense of Virginia and the South. Here he directly applies his doctrine of providence to slavery: “for the African race, such as Providence has made it, and where he has placed it in America, slavery was the righteous, the best, yea, the only tolerable relation” (25).

After the Civil War, in the midst of reconstruction, Dabney fought hard against the changes taking place in his beloved Southern society. Among the things he opposed was universal education in a series of articles called “The State Free School System.” For Dabney, “this theory of universal education in letters by the State involves the absurd and impossible idea of the Leveller, as though it were possible for all men to have equal destinies in human society.” On the contrary, he insisted,

The system supposes and fosters a universal discontent with the allotments of Providence and the inevitable gradations of rank, possessions and privilege. It is too obvious to need many words, that this temper is anti-Christian; the Bible, in its whole tone inculcates the opposite spirit of modest contentment with our sphere, and directs the honorable aspiration of the good man to the faithful performance of its duties, rather than to the ambitious purpose to get out of it and above it. (247)

For Dabney, to attempt to “level the playing field” and to give everyone an “even start” in the race of life is “wicked, mischievous, and futile” (248). God himself has structured society in this way — “the utopian cannot unmake it” (249). Those who would attempt to teach “the Negro” to read were guilty of resisting God.

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