In my previous post I mentioned that Whitefield’s glaring flaw was his purchase of slaves to work his orphanage. The Noll quote I provided shows that his take on slavery was more pragmatic–which is no excuse–and less of a principled view of African Americans as lesser valued. However, many evangelicals did hold to that pernicious view that whites were a superior race and thus slavery was justified along racial terms. Probably the worst example of this out-and-out racism is the Southern Presbyterian Robert Lewis Dabney. He wrote “A Defence of Virginia” which is almost impossible to get through because it is so racially driven. I have his book on sacred rhetoric, but I’ve only skimmed it. Because of his views, as good as a theologian he may have been, I cannot read him with a good conscience.
If you want to learn more about Dabney, read Sean Michael Lucas’ biography of him. I haven’t read it, though I plan to. Lucas was recently interviewed by the Reformed Forum on this book which is worth listening to. Lucas is right to argue that Dabney, or any historical figure, shouldn’t be approached flatly or simplistically. His life and thought is complex and needs to be dealt with carefully and in context. However, the racism displayed in “A Defence of Virginia” is so gross that it can only, at the very basic level, be chalked up to sin. There has to be a willful misreading of the bible to be so horrifically wrong about the question of human dignity. While Whitefield and other great figures in history, including Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers, have to be dealt with properly on the blight of slavery, to me Dabney has been pushed into another category that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.