Was Dabney a Prophet?

The writings of Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) often read like prophecy. After the War Between the States, Dabney wrote essays on a variety of cultural and political issues, both in defense of the South and as an assault on progressivism. Along the way, he made predictions regarding the secularization of public schools, the future of feminism, and the decline of religious freedom.

Dabney on Schools and Religion

Dabney wrote several essays on education, with the greatest being “Secularized Education” for Libbey’s Princeton Review in 1879. (Dabney’s essays were collected in his four-volume Discussions.) Dabney opposed the public school movement taking place in Virginia for several reasons. First and foremost, he argued that education belongs to parents and the private sector, not the state. He further argued that true education has the Bible as its foundation and moral formation as its end, and he knew public schools would inevitably become secularized.

The logic was that public schools would be educating children from a variety of religious persuasions (including different Christian denominations), and only the least common denominator would be allowed, namely atheism. The Supreme Court prohibited Bible reading and prayer from public schools in the 1960s, yet Dabney predicted this almost a century prior:

But nearly all public men and divines declare that the State schools are the glory of America, that they are a finality, and in no event to be surrendered. And we have seen that their complete secularization is logically inevitable. Christians must prepare themselves then, for the following results: All prayers, catechisms, and Bibles will ultimately be driven out of the schools.

Dabney not only predicted the secularization of public schools, but he added that this would corrupt the youth and harm the Christian church:

. . . humanity always finds out, sooner or later, that it cannot get on without a religion, and it will take a false one in preference to none. Infidelity and practical ungodliness will become increasingly prevalent among Protestant youth, and our churches will have a more arduous contest for growth if not for existence.

Dabney later followed this up with his proclaimed “prophecy” that religious freedom in America would also decline. This was originally written in the chapter titled “Civic Ethics” of his 1897 book The Practical Philosophy (and collected in volume three of the Discussions):

You may deem it a strange prophecy, but I predict that the time will come in this once free America, when the battle for religious liberty will have to be fought over again, and will probably be lost, because the people are already ignorant of its true basis and condition.

Dabney on Feminism and Marriage

Dabney made several predictions regarding the direction of the women’s rights movement of the 19th century. He argued that the movement had anti-Christian roots and adopted the egalitarian views of the Jacobins of the French Revolution. In his 1888 essay for the Presbyterian Quarterly Review, “Anti-Biblical Theories of Rights,” Dabney predicted this egalitarian spirit would push women into all areas of life, including the military:

If the Jacobin theory be true, then woman must be allowed access to every male avocation, including government, and war if she wishes it, to suffrage, to every political office, to as absolute freedom from her husband in the marriage relation as she enjoyed before her union to him, and to as absolute control of her own property and earnings as that claimed by the single gentleman, as against her own husband.

His concern was that women would trade the glorious role of motherhood for careers and other male-dominated fields. As he said in his 1867 book, A Defence of Virginia:

when America has had a generation of women who were politicians, instead of mothers, how fundamental must be the destruction of society, and how distant and difficult must be the remedy!

The entire 1871 essay, “Women’s Rights Women,” was dedicated to opposing this first wave of feminism. Dabney thought this movement would completely undermine marriage and the relationship between the sexes:

“Women’s Rights” mean the abolition of all permanent marriage ties. We are told that Mrs. Cady Stanton avowed this result, proclaiming it at the invitation of the Young Men’s Christian Association of New York. She holds that woman’s bondage is not truly dissolved until the marriage bond is annulled. She is thoroughly consistent. Some hoodwinked advocates of her revolution may be blind to the sequence; but it is inevitable. It must follow by this cause, if for no other, that the unsexed politicating woman can never inspire in man that true affection on which marriage should be founded. Men will doubtless be still sensual; but it is simply impossible that they can desire them for the pure and sacred sphere of the wife. Let every woman ask herself: will she choose for the lord of her affections an unsexed effeminate man? No more can man be drawn to the masculine woman. The mutual attraction of the two complementary halves is gone forever.

Dabney further added that the women’s rights movement would introduce strife between men and women, to the point that relationships would be reduced to “cohabitation” and “concubinage.” Dabney foresaw our day of commonplace divorce and the dissolution of marriage:  

The abolition of marriage would follow again by another cause. The divergent interests and the rival independence of the two equal wills would be irreconcilable with domestic government, or union, or peace. Shall the children of this monstrous no-union be held responsible to two variant co-ordinate and supreme wills at once? Heaven pity the children! Shall the two parties to this perpetual co-partnership have neither the power to secure the performance of the mutual duties nor to dissolve it? It is a self-contradiction, an impossible absurdity. Such a co-partnership of equals with independent interests must be separable at will, as all other such co-partnerships are. The only relation between the sexes which will remain will be a cohabitation continuing so long as the convenience or caprice of both parties may suggest; and this, with most, will amount to a vagrant concubinage.

Was Dabney a Prophet?

The accuracy of these predictions raises the question—was Dabney a prophet? In some sense he was. Dabney was a man of God who possessed keen insight into the changes taking place in postbellum America, and his razor-sharp logic led him to predict where the progressive train was headed.

However, if Dabney was a prophet, he was a rejected one. As he said of himself in a July 1, 1894 letter to Thomas Cary Johnson (his later biographer), “I am the Cassandra of Yankeedom, predestined to prophesy truth and never to be believed by her country until too late.”

In some ways we are too late. Many of Dabney’s prophecies have already come to pass. However, instead of ignoring the man, we should consider the arguments of this intellectual giant. Time has vindicated Robert Lewis Dabney.

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