Dabney, Robert Lewis
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Time Period
3/5/1820  - 1/3/1898
Description
Robert Lewis Dabney served as a professor, Presbyterian pastor, missionary, Confederate States Army chaplain, and author. Starting in 1853, Dabney served 30 years at Union Theological (Presbyterian) Seminary in Virginia. Over his career, he wrote numerous books, including Sacred Rhetoric (1870) and Systematic Theology (1878).

Robert Dabney’s service to Union Theological Seminary contributed to the theological education of Presbyterians in the South. When other seminaries in the South closed because of Reconstruction, Union remained open, in part because of Dabney’s work there.

As a southern Presbyterian, he also was a vocal proponent of slavery and the Confederacy during the Civil War period. Dabney wrote Defense of Virginia and the South (1867), in which he attempted to show biblical support for slavery while arguing against its abuses. He also volunteered as a Confederate Army chaplain and served as General "Stonewall" Jackson’s chief of staff for a brief period.

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Narrative
Considered by many church historians as the most influential Southern theologian of the 19th century, Robert Lewis Dabney served as a professor, Presbyterian pastor, missionary, Confederate States Army chaplain, and author.

Dabney was born on March 5, 1820, in Louisa County, Virginia. He began school at the age of seven and possessed a grasp of Latin and Greek by the time he enrolled as a 16-year-old at Hampton-Sidney College. Dabney became a Christian during a period of spiritual awakening on campus. He left to enroll in the University of Virginia, where he earned a master of arts in 1842.

Dabney enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in 1844 and graduated with distinction in 1846. The Presbyterian Church licensed him to preach and assigned him as a missionary to Louisa County. Two years later, Dabney received his ordination, became the pastor of Tinkling Spring, and married Lavina Morrison.

In 1853, Union Theological Seminary elected him as Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Polity and bestowed upon him an honorary doctor of divinity. Dabney served thirty years at Union and eventually became chair of theology as professor of systematic and polemic theology. His reputation as a theologian was so great that Charles Hodge offered him a professorship at Princeton, which Dabney declined. While at Union, he also served as a co-pastor of College Church.

He initially opposed secession; however, in opposition to Lincoln’s call for volunteers, Dabney volunteered as a Confederate Army chaplain. He then served as General "Stonewall" Jackson’s chief of staff; however, illness forced him to resign after only four months.

Upon returning to Union Seminary, Dabney wrote Defense of Virginia and the South (1867), in which he attempted to show biblical support for slavery while arguing against its abuses. He also helped create the Synod of the South and the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, bringing new school and old school Presbyterians together.

After the war, Dabney became very embittered against the North, even considering emigration to South America at one time. When Northern Presbyterians attempted to reunite with Southern Presbyterians, he fought the decision with his words and his pen.

Dabney spent his remaining years as a professor, pastor, and author. His health declined, causing him to resign as the pastor of College Church. In 1883, these same health issues caused him to leave Union for the University of Texas. His health issues eventually led to total blindness, forcing him to resign from teaching in 1894. He died on January 3, 1898, in Victoria, Texas.

Significant Contributions to Christianity in the United States

Robert Dabney’s loyalty and service to Union Theological Seminary contributed to the theological education of Presbyterians in the South. His support of the seminary helped ensure that southern Presbyterians could attend a seminary that was close to them geographically, while at the same time studying under a reputable theology professor. When other seminaries in the South closed because of Reconstruction, Union remained open, in part because of Dabney’s work there.

With the exception of his work regarding slavery, Dabney’s other written work contributed to Christianity in the United States. His Sacred Rhetoric (1870) provided students a guide for preparing and preaching sermons. He covers various aspects of homiletics in this work, including the text, parts of the sermon, rules of argument, the audience, persuasion, and preaching style. His systematic theology, initially entitled Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology, resulted from his students having his notes edited and published for general circulation. His students found Dabney’s lectures on theology so helpful that they spearheaded their publication.

Notable Publications

Some of Dabney’s other notable publications are: The Life and Campaigns of Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson (1866); The Sensualistic Philosophy of the Nineteenth Century (1876); Discussions (1890-1897); and The Practical Philosophy (1897).
Religious Groups
Presbyterian-Reformed Family: Other ARDA Links

Events
Civil War
Photographs

Robert Dabney portrait- Internet Archive- The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney by Thomas Carey Johnson

Robert Dabney portrait- Internet Archive- from Discussions by Robert L. Dabney

Robert Dabney portrait- Internet Archive- from In Memoriam, Robert Lewis Dabney by Charles W. Dabney
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442244320/The-Encyclopedia-of-Christianity-in-the-United-States-5-Volumes
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Timothy R. McKnight

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