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 Central Presbyterian (November-December 1867), entitled “A Mother’s Crowning Glory.” The article can be found among the “Secular Topics” section of volume 5 in his Discussions, p. 373. Dabney continues to discuss the “ornament of a meek and quiet spirit” characteristic of the Virginian mother:
Having pointed out some of the chief sources of influence in forming the character of the Virginia Matron, let us point out a precious trait of the manners and domestic training of the olden time from which much of the superiority of our mothers arose.
When we remember how scanty were the opportunities of many of them, we are amazed at the elevated range of their manners, taste, and intellect. The explanation is that they were educated by the social influences of their own seniors, cultivated, and elegant gentlemen and ladies. Those were not the days of juvenile parties, juvenile text books, juvenile hymn books, and juvenile story-books; those ingenious inventions of the latter day wisdom, which seem designed expressly to stereotype the narrowness and feebleness of childhood upon the growing mind and character. On the contrary, when once the young reader got beyond the grade of Mother Goose’s Melodies, there was nothing for her, but to sing the noble and grand hymns, and read the Bible and other good books, that her mother read. Nor did the usages of that day favor the segregation of the young from their seniors, for all their social enjoyment. Instead of young miss and young master being set up with a juvenile party, where they might train their minds and hearts to grade of manners compounded of the frivolity, ignorance, emptiness and pertness of undrilled youth, and the mimicry of the airs of grown up fops, they were bidden to remember that “young folks must be seen and not heard;” and to sit for the most part decorously still, and listen to the converse of their seniors. Now, when in a promiscuous social circle, age and wisdom and experience, introduce those topics of literature, or public affairs, in the discussion of which mind sharpens mind, and the most precious of the lessons of true education are given in their most attractive form, your young miss from the “female college” usually makes it a signal for separating herself, with her admirers, into another coterie, where, after voting the grave discussion of the old folks a bore, they set about drowning the sound of it in the senseless giggle and prattle of flirtation. In the olden time, this was an indecorum, which the rules of good society forbade. No such separation of the inferior members of the social circle was allowed; but their part was to lend a respectful heed to the converse of their seniors, until they were qualified to participate in it. Hence, if our mothers learned less music, or French, or Italian, they had a hundred fold more of the education of the parlor.—And this was because in that domain of strict decorum, it was the best, and not then meanest, the most able and superior, and not the most flippant and ill-furnished of the circle, to whom their attention was lent. They were educated, in the noblest sense, by the wisdom, learning wit, and sentiment of the noble men and women with whom their parents associated, and thus, in due time, they became like them.
One more powerful influence remains to be described, to which much of the superiority of the Virginia Matron was due. It was her superior position as the head of a dependent class. The aristocratic element in our former society was adjusted with a practical wisdom which knew the springs of human nature, for the elevation of its ruling class; and their superiority of character, in turn, diffused through all the orders beneath them, by the powerful influences of dependence, imitation, the aspiration for their higher manners and sentiments. The position of the mistress of many dependents conferred at once self-respect, and a sense of responsibility. She who would govern others, must first govern herself; hence the Southern mistress was the most self-disciplined of women, as the Southern master was of men.—The knowledge of the fact that she was observed of many, and made a model by all observers among her dependents, gave elevation of sentiments and bearing. The duty of providing for the welfare of many, produced habits of benevolent care, self-sacrificing labor, forecast, and economy. The dignity of character was enhanced by the development of the talent of command.
To these causes, but especially to the prevalence of a pure and undefiled home religion, must the peculiar traits of the women of the old times in Virginia be attributed.
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