The following excerpt is taken from Dabney’s sermon “Parental Responsibilities,” preached before the Synod of Virginia in October 1879.
The responsibility of parents is argued, again, from the unique and extensive character of their authority over their offspring. For, just so surely as God, who gave this authority, is a righteous and equitable ruler, is he certain to apply to parents that just rule of law, that men will be held accountable according to the extent of the powers intrusted to them. The steward to whom a thousand talents are committed must be held accountable for a thousand talents; he to whom ten, must account for ten. If this equitable principle must rule where the trust is nothing but dead money, how much more where power over rational, responsible fellow-creatures is intrusted to fellow-creatures! If the steward in this case were not held to account according to the degree of the power he had perverted to the injury of his fellow-creature’s destiny, and of God’s rights in him, this would be a glaring injustice to the victims of his abuse, and to the Divine Master whose power he had wrested. Be assured, then, parent, that you must be held responsible according to the extent of the power committed to your hands.
But it must be remembered now, that your trust is not corruptible things, as silver and gold, but immortal souls, capable of knowing and glorifying their Maker; or, very much as you shall determine, of blaspheming him, and experiencing his almighty justice forever.
Let the extent of the parent’s legitimate or unavoidable power over his children be pondered. As he is industrious and discreet, or indolent and prodigal, he decides for his children whether they shall begin their adult existence with a competency or as paupers. As he is virtuous or vicious, he decides for them whether they shall bear an honored name, or be branded with the mark of infamy at their outset in society. As he is pure and courteous, or coarse and sensual, he assigns to his children a social grade creditable and elevated, giving them a passport to good society, or he condemns them to the association of the vulgar and low. His neglect of their early mental culture determines whether they shall reach adult life stupid boors or educated and intelligent men. Yea, more than this, character itself, at the outset of manhood, is mainly determined by the parents, and that chiefly by their example; so that they have the power of deciding with probable effect whether their children shall begin their careers with base or with virtuous principles and habits. According to the ordinance of providence, and the unavoidable tolerance of the civil law, the parent is irresponsible to any earthly authority in the use and abuse of these sweeping powers. There is no hand beneath the skies that can beneficially interfere with authority between this parental autocracy and its victims. It is true, that when the civil law assigns to the son or daughter his majority, he may then throw off the malignant incubus, if he pleases, and begin for himself the arduous task of reversing the evil work of the neglectful parent. He may, if he pleases, then begin the hard task of earning a personal good name in the place of his inherited infamy, and of acquiring knowledge in lieu of ignorance, culture in lieu of boorishness, and competency instead of destitution. He may—if he pleases! But what prospect is there that he will choose this hard task, with a character debauched and enfeebled by the parental curse? And if, contrary to all probability, he prove to have the nerve of steel requisite for such a revolution, how cruel is the load which the parental tyranny has assigned him to carry in this life-and-death struggle! There is no power allowed to any creature under heaven over another responsible creature so wide as this providential power of the parent. Men speak of the Czar as “the Autocrat of the Russias.” They describe with s shudder that imperial power over the property, the liberty, the life of the subject, unrestrained by constitution, law, jury, or appeal. But the power of a Czar over a subject is trifling compared with this parental power over children. That may dispose of the body and goods; this disposes of mind and soul. How helpless is the little child to resist the destiny which the domestic autocrat is thus preparing for him! Whither shall he carry his appeal against his own father? And how dead must that parent’s soul be to all magnanimity who can consider, with unrelenting selfishness, this mute appeal of a child’s helpless dependence!
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 have been posting bite-sized excerpts from Dabney’s works, with perhaps a little bit of my own commentary. This has been done in hopes of promoting wider readership for this great man. You can find links to all the previous “Dabney on Sunday” posts below.
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, Part 4
The Virginia Matron, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
The Sabbath’s Moral Perpetuity, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
Parents’ Solemn Obligations, Part 1