The following excerpt is taken from Dabney’s sermon “Parental Responsibilities,” preached before the Synod of Virginia in October 1879.
But the whole of this power is not yet described. All men who understand liberty believe that spiritual freedom, the prerogative of the immortal mind to think for itself, in obedience to the law of conscience laid upon it by its Maker, to judge its own duty, to select its own moral and religious opinions, and to serve its God according to its own understanding of his will—that this is the corner-stone of all other liberty, and the most precious of all. We proudly erect ourselves and declare this to be the crowning prerogative of our manhood. This liberty, we exclaim, is, next to the throne of God, the most sacred thing in the universe; and he who presumes to intrude his fallible will between the creature’s soul and the immediate authority of its only Lord and Judge is guilty of a profane usurpation of the authority of Almighty God. Well, the parent has power almost to invade this sacred liberty of the soul. It is made both his privilege and his duty to impose the principles and the creed which he has sincerely adopted as the truth for himself upon the spirit of his child. Some men, it is known, vainly prate of a supposed obligation to leave the minds of their children independent and “unbiased” until they are mature enough to judge and choose for themselves. But a moment’s thought shows that this is as unlawful as impossible. No man can avoid impressing his own practical principles on his child. If he refrains from words, he does it inevitably by his example. The only way to prevent the “dictation,” as it has been stigmatized, is to banish the child absolutely from the parent’s society and protection, and thus to be recreant to every duty of the parent. Again, if he could avoid every impress upon the soul of his child, others would not refrain. One thing is certain, this young and plastic soul will take impress from some whither, if not from the appointed and heaven-ordained hand of his parent, then from some other irresponsible hand, of man or evil angel. One might as well speak of immersing an open vessel in the ocean and having it remain empty as of having a youthful soul to grow up in society “unbiased,” until it is qualified to elect its own creed most wisely. The only alternative left the parent is either to bias the child’s soul himself for God and the truth, or to see it fatally biased by other influences against both. The Scriptures here are positive. The parent is commanded to “train up the child in the way he should go.” Which is that way? He must “bring up the child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Which is that nurture? Popery, Presbyterianism, Rationalism, or Infidelity? At the time the training is to begin, the child is wholly unqualified to judge; the parent must judge for him.
Now, it is fully admitted that neither divine nor human law gives a parent the right to force the tender mind of the child by persecutions or corporeal pains or penalties; or to abuse it, by sophistries or falsehoods, into the adoption of his opinions. But this power the providential law does confer: the parent may and ought to avail himself of all the influences of opportunity and example, of filial reverence and affection, of his superior age, knowledge, and sagacity, to reinforce the power of truth over the child’s mind, and, in this good sense, to prejudice him in favor of the parental creed. And how potent is this influence! Does it not almost commit the spiritual liberty of the young soul to a human hand? How mighty the power of opportunity which the parent is thus authorized to employ to propagate his creed on another soul; while as yet the pupil is ignorant of the process wrought upon him, and incapable of resisting it! There is no power beneath the skies, authorized by God, that is so far-reaching, so near the prerogatives of God himself; and for that reason there is none so solemnly responsible. When God has clothed you, O parent! with such powers, with results so beneficent and glorious, and has thus made you so nearly a God to your own children, do you suppose that you can neglect or pervert them without being held to a dire account? It were better for that man that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depths of the sea. Here appears a new argument to prove man’s responsibility for his moral and religious opinions. The code which he heartily believes is, to him, his authoritative creed. It is to this the privilege of parental inculcation must practically apply. Hence, he who has perverted his own reason and conscience to mistake a lie for the truth, makes himself responsible, not only for his own destruction, but for the probable destruction of the children God has submitted to his guidance. Take heed, then, parents, how you hear and how you believe, not only for your own sakes, but for your children’s sakes.
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.
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