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.”
The results of these “revivals” are usually announced at once, with overweening confidence, as works of God’s Spirit. A minister reports to his church paper that he has just shared in a glorious work at a given place, in which the Holy Ghost was present with power, and “forty souls were born into the kingdom.” Now, the man of common sense will remember how confidently this same revivalist made similar reports last year, the year before, and perhaps many years previously. He was each time equally confident that it was the Spirit’s work. But this man must know that in each previous case, time has already given stubborn refutation to his verdict upon the work. . . . Now, the cool, critical world looks on and observes these hard facts. It asks, What sort of people are these special guardians and expounders of Christianity? Are they romantic fools, who cannot be taught by clear experience, or are they conscious and intentional liars? The world is quite charitable, and probably adopts the former solution. And this solution, that the representatives of Christianity are men hopelessly and childishly overweening in their delusions, carries this corollary for the most of worldly men who adopt it: That Christianity itself is an unhealthy fanaticism, since it makes its chosen teachers such fanatics, unteachable by solid facts. . . .
In the denominations which most practice the so-called “revival measures,” abundance of facts obtrude themselves which are conclusive enough to open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. Instances may be found, where annual additions have been reported, such that, if the sums were taken, and only subjected to a fair deduction for deaths and removals, these churches should number hundreds, or even a thousand members, and should be in a splendid state of prosperity. But the same church-reports still set these churches down as containing fifty or seventy members. Others, which have been boasting these magnificent processes, are moribund, and some have been “revived” to death.
But the men who work this machinery, notwithstanding the fatal condemnation of the facts, are not blind! What are the causes of their perseverance in methods so worthless? One cause is, doubtless, an honest, but ignorant zeal. . . . Another subtile and far-reaching cause is an erroneous, synergistic theology. The man who believes in the efficient cooperation of the sinner’s will with the divine will, in the initial quickening of his soul, will, of course, seek to stimulate that human will to the saving acts by all the same expedients by which men seek to educe in their fellows carnal acts of will. . . . Doubtless, many ministers are unconsciously swayed by the natural love of excitement. . . . This natural instinct prompts many an evangelist, without his being distinctly aware of it, to prefer the stirring scenes of the spurious revival to the sober, quiet, laborious work of religious teaching. But it is obvious that this motive is as unworthy as it is natural.
Another motive which prompts men to persevere in these demonstrably futile methods is the desire to count large and immediate results. . . . Here should be pointed out the intrinsic weakness of the current system of employing travelling revivalists in settled churches. No matter how orthodox the man may be, the very nature of his task lays a certain urgency and stress upon him, to show, somehow, immediate results before the close of his meeting. If he does not, the very ground of his vocation as a “revivalist” is gone. . . .This is too strong a temptation for any mere mortal to endure without yielding. But the prime fact which decides all true results of gospel means is, that the Holy Ghost alone is the Agent of effectual calling; and He is sovereign. His new-creating breath “bloweth where it listeth.” . . . The best minister on earth may be appointed by God’s secret purpose to the sad mission given to Isaiah, to Jeremiah, and even to their Lord during his earthly course, “to stretch forth their hands all the day long to a disobedient and gainsaying people.” Hence, this evangelist has put himself under an almost fatal temptation to resort to some illicit expedients which will produce, in appearance, immediate results. How few, even of the orthodox, escape that temptation!
An old and shrewd practitioner of these human means of religious excitements, was once asked by a man of the world, “if it were possible he could be blind to the futility of most of the pretended conversions?” The answer was: “Of course not; we are not fools.” “Why then,” said the man, “do you employ these measures?” The preacher answered: “Because a few are truly converted, and make stable, useful Christians; and the rest when they find out the shallowness of their experiences, are simply where they were before.” The worldly-wise preacher’s statement involved two capital errors. It assumed that the “revival measures” were the effective instruments of the conversion of the genuine few; and that without these expedients they would have remained out of Christ. This is utterly false. The solid conversion of those souls took place not by cause of, but in spite of, the human expedients. The work was the result of sober Christian example, and previous didactic teaching in gospel truths, and had there been no “revival measures” these souls would have come out for Christ, perhaps a little later, but more intelligently and decisively. The mistake as to the second class, “the stony ground believers,” is far more tragical. They are not left where they were before; “the last state of these men is worse than the first.”. . . These deceptive processes usually end in making the subjects infidels. Some who keep their names on the communion rolls are secret infidels; nearly all who withdraw their names are open infidels, unless they are too unthinking and ignorant to reflect and draw inferences. . . . The most earnest and clear-minded of these temporary converts has now what appears to him, with a terrible plausibility, the experimental argument to prove that evangelical religion is a deception. He says he knows he was honest and sincere in the novel exercises to which he was subjected, and in a sense he says truly. The religious teachers themselves assured him, in the name of God, that they were genuine works of grace. Did they not formally publish in the religious journals that it was the Holy Spirit’s work? If these appointed teachers do not know, who can? Yet now this backslider says himself, “I have the stubborn proof of a long and sad experience, a prayerless and godless life, that there never was any real spiritual change in me.” Who can be more earnest than he was? It is, then, the logical conclusion, that all supposed cases of regeneration are deceptive. “Many,” he says, “have had the honesty like myself to come out of the church candidly, shoulder the mortification of their mistake, and avow the truth.” . . . This reasoning having led them to discredit entirely the work of the Holy Ghost, leads next to the denial of his personality. The backslider sinks to the ranks of a gross Socinian, or becomes a Deist or an Agnostic. Let the history of our virtual infidels be examined and their early religious life traced; here will be found the source and cause of their error. “Their name is Legion.” . . .
No man is fit for the care of souls, except he is deeply imbued with scriptural piety and grace. He must have a faith firm as a rock, and humble as strong, with profound submission to the divine will, which will calm him amidst all delays and all discouragements that God will bless his own word in his own chosen time. He must have that self-abnegation which will make him willing to bear the evil repute of an unfruitful ministry, if the Lord so ordains, and unblenchingly refuse to resort to any unauthorized means to escape this cross. He must have the moral courage to withstand that demand of ill-considered zeal in his brethren, parallel to the ardor purus civium juvenium in politics. He must have the unflagging diligence and love for souls which will make him persevere in preaching the gospel publicly, and from house to house, under the delay of fruit. Nothing can give these except large measures of grace and prayer.
Previous Dabney on Sundays:
Cruelty of Humanitarian Philanthropy
Preaching, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Doctrinal Confessions, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Divine Justice, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
The African Slave Trade
Women Preachers, Part 1, Part 2. Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Dangerous Literature, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Spurious Religious Feelings, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3