The great Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney has been mentioned a number of times on this site. It is a very telling indication of our times that such a visionary man is so little known, and usually slandered when mentioned at all. You can find the entire collection of his written works at the Dabney Archive, all of which are well worth reading. However, such a massive undertaking can be a bit overwhelming, and so on Sundays I will post bite-sized excerpts from Dabney’s works, with perhaps a little bit of my own commentary. This will be done in hopes of promoting wider readership for this great man. You can find links to all the previous “Dabney on Sunday” posts at the bottom of this post.
The following excerpt is taken from Dabney’s article which appeared in The Presbyterian Quarterly (October 1887), entitled “Spurious Religious Excitements.”
These plain facts and principles condemn nearly every feature of the modern new measure “revival.” The preaching and other religious instructions are shaped with a main view to excite the carnal emotions and the instinctive sympathies, while no due care is taken to present saving, didactic truth to the understanding thus temporarily stimulated. As soon as some persons, professed Christians, or awakened “mourners,” are infected with any lively passion, let it be however carnal and fleeting, a spectacular display is made of it, with confident laudations of it as unquestionably precious and saving, with the design of exciting the remainder of the crowd with the sympathetic contagion. Every adjunct of fiery declamation, animated singing, groans, tears, exclamations, noisy prayers, is added so as to shake the nerves and add the tumult of a hysterical animal excitement to the sympathetic wave. Every youth or impressible girl who is seen to tremble, or grow pale, or shed tears, is assured that he or she is under the workings of the Holy Spirit, and is driven by threats of vexing that awful and essential Agent of salvation to join the spectacular show, and add himself to the exciting pantomime. Meanwhile, most probably their minds are blank of every intelligent or conscientious view of the truth; they had been tittering or whispering a little while before, during the pretended didactic part of the exercises; they could give no intelligent account now of their own sudden excitement, and, in fact, it is no more akin to any spiritual, rational, or sanctifying cause, than the quiver of the nostrils of a horse at the sound of the bugle and the fox-hounds. But they join the mourners, and the manipulation proceeds. Of course, the sympathetic wave, called religious, reaches them more and more. As I have shown, it is the very nature of sympathy to assume the character of the emotion with which we sympathize. Thus this purely natural and instinctive sensibility takes on the form of religious feeling, because it is sympathy with religious feeling in others. The subject calls it by religious names—awakening, conviction, repentance—while in reality it is only related to them as a man’s shadow is to the living man. Meantime, the preachers talk to them as though the feelings were certainly genuine and spiritual. With this sympathetic current there may mingle sundry deep original feelings about the soul, to which, we have seen, the dead, carnal heart is fully competent by itself. These are fear, remorse, shame, desire of applause, craving for future, selfish, welfare, spiritual pride. Here we have the elements of every spurious grace. The “sorrow of the world that worketh death” is mistaken for saving repentance. By a natural law of the feelings, relaxation must follow high tension—the calm must succeed the storm. This quiet is confounded with “peace in believing.” The selfish prospect of security produces great elation. This is supposed to be spiritual joy. When the soul is removed from the stimuli of the revival appliances, it of course sinks into the most painful vacuity, on which supervene restlessness and doubt. So, most naturally, it craves to renew the illusions, and has, for a time, a certain longing for and pleasure in the scenes, the measures, and the agents of its pleasing intoxication. These are mistaken for love for God’s house, worship and people. Then the befooled soul goes on until it is betrayed into an erroneous profession of religion, and a dead church membership. He is now in the position in which the great enemy of souls would most desire to have him, and where his salvation is more difficult and improbable than anywhere else.
The most fearful part of these transactions is the unscriptural rashness of the professed guides of souls. They not only permit and encourage these perilous confusions of thought, but pass judgment on the exercises of their supposed converts with a haste and confidence which angels would shudder to indulge. Here, for instance, is a hurried, ignorant young person, no real pains having been taken to instruct his understanding in the nature of sin and redemption, or to test his apprehension of gospel truths. In his tempestuous excitement of fear and sympathy, he is told that he is unquestionably under the influence of God’s Spirit. When he has been coaxed, or flattered, or wearied into some random declaration that he thinks he loves his Saviour, joyful proclamation is made that here is another soul born to God, and the brethren are called on to rejoice over him. But no time has been allowed this supposed convert for self-examination; no care to discriminate between spiritual and carnal affections, or for the subsidence of the froth of animal and sympathetic excitements; no delay is allowed to see the fruits of holy living, the only test which Christ allows as sufficient for other than the omniscient judgment. Thus, over-zealous and heedless men, ignorant of the first principles of psychology, and unconscious of the ruinous effects they may be producing, sport with the very heart-strings of the spiritual life, and that in the most critical moments. It were a less criminal madness for a surgeon’s raw apprentice to try experiments with his master’s keen bistoury on the patient’s jugular vein.
These abuses are the less excusable in any minister, because the Scriptures which he holds in his hands tell him plainly enough without the lights of philosophy, the wrongness of all these practices. No inspired apostle ever dared to pass a verdict upon the genuineness of a case of religious excitement with the rashness seen on these occasions. Christ has forewarned us that converts can only be known correctly by their fruits. Paul has sternly enjoined every workman upon the visible church, whose foundation is Christ, to “take heed how he buildeth thereupon.” He has told us that the materials placed by us upon this structure may be genuine converts, as permanent as gold, silver, and costly stones; or worthless and pretended converts, comparable to ” wood, hay and stubble;” that our work is to be all tried by the fire of God’s judgments, in which our perishable additions will be burned up; and if we are ourselves saved, it will be as though we were saved by fire. The terrible results of self-deception and the deceitfulness of the heart are dwelt upon, and men are urged to self-examination.
The ulterior evils of these rash measures are immense. A standard and type of religious experience are propagated by them in America, as utterly unscriptural and false as those prevalent in Popish lands. So long as the subjects are susceptible of the sympathetic passion, they are taught to consider themselves in a high and certain state of grace. All just and scriptural marks of a gracious state are overlooked and even despised. Is their conduct immoral, their temper bitter and unchristian, their minds utterly dark as to distinctive gospel truths? This makes no difference; they are still excited and “happified” in meetings; they sing and shout, and sway to and fro with religious feelings. Thus these worthless, sympathetic passions are trusted in as the sure signatures of the Spirit’s work.
Our modern sentimentalist-Pentecostal-negrified worship stands condemned.
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