The following excerpt is taken from Dabney’s sermon “Parental Responsibilities,” preached before the Synod of Virginia in October 1879.
But, above all, the parents have the forming of their plastic years. When they are moulding the child, his character is in the gristle, yielding to the softest pressure. By the time he has come to the hands of the pastor the gristle has been hardened into rigid bone, which may be broken by violence, but cannot be bent. Every way the parent has the advantage over the pastor; so that the latter has small prospect of reversing the parent’s work when it has been for evil. If men are brought from sin to Christ after they reach adult years, examination usually reveals the fact that the remaining influence of parental piety, cleaving to the heart during its apparent indifference, has far the larger part in the result. . . .
To this correspond the experience of pastors. When they have a hardened adult or aged sinner bow apparently to the force of a preached gospel from their mouths, they are apt to find, if they inquire faithfully, that this hardened subject had not always been hard; that his youth had been spent, in part, at least, under the blessed influence of home piety; and that the seeds of good then sown, long buried beneath the clods, have at last borne their fruit. But for those early planted seeds, the later sowing of the pulpit would also have fallen upon the trodden roadway and been caught up by Satan. Pastors know that there are few cases of conversion among grown-up men who have been the children of hypocritical or nominal Christian homes. They are taught that the exploits of their spiritual weapons are puny and poor, compared with those of godly, sincere parents. The confession is not grateful to self-love, for it is natural to desire success, and it is sweet to boast in our efficiency; but candor compels this avowal. An authentic instance now rises from the early recollections of the writer. A church was rejoicing with its new pastor in an ingathering of souls, and among the converts was one whose appearance was so surprising that it filled them with wondering gratitude. The subject was a man of the world, who had lived past middle life, far from Christ and good. He was a man of inherited wealth and social position, generous and profuse, profane when irritated, a sportsman and keeper of thoroughbred horses, a frequenter of all scenes of gayety and worldly amusements which were not low. This man now suddenly manifested a solemn interest in divine things, was constant in God’s house and was found, before long, sitting like a contrite child at the feet of Jesus. And let it be added here, that his after-life nobly attested the genuineness of the change: he lived a pure Christian and devoted philanthropist, and died in the faith. There was naturally in the new pastor’s heart a curiosity to know how so surprising and gratifying a revolution was wrought, and, perhaps, a trace of elation as he argued with himself that this case must be purely a result of pulpit instrumentalities. So, when the convert came to confer with the session, he was asked what sermons had been the special means of his awakening. It seemed hard for him at first to apprehend the drift of such a question, but at last he answered very simply that his change was not due to any sermons or recent means, but to his mother. To his mother? She had been dead so long that few remembered what manner of mother he had! She had been in her grave more than forty years. The oldest elder present had never seen her—had, in fact, never heard of her. She had died in the bloom of her beauty and maternity, when he was a boy of six years. Thus the wonder grew. But he explained that she was a Christian woman, a fruit of the ingathering of Samuel Davies in the colonial days, and she had begun to instruct her oldest-born in the truth. He stated that now, if he was Christ’s, it was the power of those teachings over his infant mind, and especially of the dying scene, which were the true instruments for bringing him back; without which all other instruments would have been futile. When this young mother was about to die, she had gathered her little flock at her bedside, cowering like a cluster of frightened birds before the mighty hunter, Death; had prayed for and blessed them, and, as she laid her dying hand upon his brow, had charged him, her first-born, to fear his mother’s God, and remember her instructions. That hand had been upon his head ever since, through the long years of his worldliness; he had felt its touch in the haunts of business as well as in his hours of solitude; in the hunt, as he was hieing his hounds after the fox; on the racefield, as he cheered his winning horse; and it was this which, at last, had brought him back to God.
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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