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 Southern Presbyterian Review (October 1879), entitled “The Public Preaching of Women.”
The movement towards the preaching of women does not necessarily spring from a secular “woman’s rights” movement. The preaching of women marked the early Wesleyan movement to some extent, and the Quaker assemblies. But neither of these had political aspirations for their women. At the present time, however, the preaching of women and the demand of all masculine political rights are so synchronous, and are so often seen in the same persons, that their affinity cannot be disguised. They are two parts of one common impulse. If we understand the claim of rights made by these agitators, it includes in substance two things: that the legislation at least of society shall disregard all distinctions of sex and award all the same specific rights and franchises to women and men in every respect; and that women, while in the married state, shall be released from every form of conjugal subordination and retain independent control of their property. These pretensions are indeed the proper logical consequences of that radical theory of human right which is now dominant in the country. According to that doctrine, every human being is naturally independent, owes no duties to civil or ecclesiastical society save those freely conceded in the “social contract”; is the natural equal of every other human except as he or she has forfeited liberty by crime. Legislation and taxation are unjust unless based on representation, which means the privilege of each man under government to vote for his governors. . . . They can quote the Declaration of Independence in the sense these radicals hold it: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are by nature equal and inalienably entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” “All just government is founded in the consent of the governed,” etc., etc. It is true that this document, rationally interpreted, teaches something wholly different from the absurd equality of the radical, which demands for every member of society all the specific franchises which any member has. The wise men of 1776 knew that men are not naturally equal, in strength, talent, virtue, or ability; and that different orders of human beings naturally inherit very different sets of rights and franchises, according as they are qualified to enjoy and employ them for their own good and the good of the whole. But they meant to teach that in one very important respect all are naturally equal. This is the equality which Job recognized (ch. xxxi. 15) as existing between him and his slave; the equality of a common origin, a common humanity and immortality. It is the equality of the golden rule. By this right, that human being whom the laws endow with the smallest franchises in society has the same kind of moral right to have that small franchise respected by his fellows, as the man who justly possesses the largest franchise. . . . The same law which shields the earl’s entailed estates, equally protects the peasant’s cottage. As the men of 1776 were struggling to retain for America the rights of British freemen, which the king was unconstitutionally invading, their declaration must be construed as teaching this equality of the free British Constitution. So when they said that “taxation without representation” was intrinsically unjust, they never dreamed of teaching this maxim as to individual tax-payers. The free British Constitution, for which they were contending, had never done so. They asserted the maxim of the commonwealth. Some representation of the commonwealth taxed, through such order of the citizens as properly constitute the representative populus, is necessary to prevent taxation from becoming unjust.
But this, the true, historical and rational meaning of these maxims, is now unpopular with radicalism; it cannot away with the true doctrine. And for this reason it has no sufficient answer for the plea of “women’s rights.” The true answer is found in the correct statement of human right we have given. The woman is not designed by God, nor entitled to all the franchises in society to which the male is entitled. God has disqualified her for any such exercise of them as would benefit herself or society, by the endowments of body, mind, and heart he has given her, and the share he has assigned her in the tasks of social existence. And as she has no right to assume the masculine franchises, so she will find in the attempt to do so only ruin to her own character and to society. For instance, the very traits of emotion and character which make woman man’s cherished and invaluable “helpmeet,” the traits which she must have in order to fulfil the purpose of her being would ensure her unfitness to meet the peculiar temptations of publicity and power. The attempt would debauch all these lovelier traits, while it would leave her still, as the rival of man, “the weaker vessel.” She would lose all and gain nothing.
One consequence of this revolution would be so certain and so terrible, that it cannot be passed over. It must result in the abolition of all permanent marriage ties. Indeed, the bolder advocates do not scruple to avow it. The destruction of marriage would follow by this cause, if no other, that the unsexed politicating woman, the importunate manikin-rival, would never inspire in men that true affection on which marriage should be founded. The mutual attraction of the two complementary halves would be forever gone. The abolition of marriage would follow again by another cause. The rival interests and desires of two equal wills are inconsistent with domestic union, government, or peace. Shall the children of this unnatural connection be held responsible to both of two sinful but coordinate and equally supreme wills? Heaven pity the children. Again, who ever heard of a perpetual copartnership in which the parties had no power to enforce the performance of the mutual duties nor to dissolve the tie made intolerable by violation? It would be as iniquitous as impossible. Such a copartnership of equals, with coordinate wills and independent interests, must be separable at will, as all other such copartnerships are.
This common movement for “women’s rights,” and women’s preaching, must be regarded, then, as simply infidel. It cannot be candidly upheld without attacking the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. We are convinced that there is only one safe attitude for Christians, presbyters, and church courts to assume towards it. This is utterly to discountenance it, as they do any other assault of infidelity on God’s truth and kingdom. The church officer who becomes an accomplice of this intrusion certainly renders himself obnoxious to discipline, just as he would by assisting to celebrate an idolatrous mass.
We close with one suggestion to such women as may be inclined to this new claim. If they read history, they find that the condition of woman in Christendom, and especially in America, is most enviable as compared with her state in all other ages and nations. Let them ponder candidly how much they possess here, which their sisters have enjoyed in no other age. What bestowed those peculiar privileges on the Christian women of America? The Bible. Let them beware, then, how they do anything to undermine the reverence of mankind for the authority of the Bible. It is undermining their own bulwark. If they understand how universally in all but Bible lands the “weaker vessel” has been made the slave of man’s strength and selfishness, they will gladly “let well enough alone,” lest in grasping at some impossible prize beyond, they lose the privileges they now have, and fall back to the gulf of oppression from which these doctrines of Christ and Paul have lifted them.
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