Dabney, Robert Lewis (1820–1898)

By: Daniel A. Penick

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: December 1, 1994

Robert Lewis Dabney, Presbyterian theologian, teacher, and author, was born on March 5, 1820, in Louisa County, Virginia, the son of Charles and Elizabeth R. (Price) Dabney, Jr. After private study of Greek, Latin, and mathematics, he attended Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Virginia, where he received an M.A. degree in June 1842. He spent two years managing his mother's farm and teaching his younger brother and sisters before he went to Union Theological Seminary at Hampden-Sydney in November 1844. He graduated in theology in May 1846 and in 1846–47 did missionary work in his home county. He was pastor at Tinkling Spring, Augusta County, from July 1847 until August 1853. Dabney married Margaret Lavinia Morrison on March 28, 1848, and they became the parents of three sons, two of whom died of diphtheria in 1853. In 1853 Dabney was awarded an honorary D.D. degree and elected to the chair of ecclesiastical history and polity at the seminary. He also preached regularly at the local Presbyterian church and was professor of mental and moral philosophy at Hampden-Sydney College. In 1859 he was transferred to the chair of systematic and polemic theology, a position he held until 1883.

Although he initially opposed secession, Dabney came to believe that the North was wicked and that the South had Christian motives in the war. He served the Confederate Army as chaplain in 1861 and then as chief of staff for Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson in 1862. After an illness forced him out of the service he continued his labors for the seminary and preached and wrote voluminously. He spent considerable time after the war exploring the possibilities of transplanting the Old South to Australia or Brazil. He never abandoned his belief that the South's cause had been right and that slavery was sanctioned by scripture. He remained bitter about the race issue and opposed both black education and black suffrage. Ever eager to migrate to the West, he acted on the advice of his physician and took the appointment to the chair of mental and moral philosophy at the University of Texas in 1883.

In 1884 Dabney and R. K. Smoot, Presbyterian pastor at Austin, opened the Austin School of Theology, to which they gave their services without compensation. Although Dabney became totally blind in 1890 and retired from the university faculty in 1894, he continued to live an active life. He delivered courses of lectures at Louisville Theological Seminary, Davidson College, and Columbia Theological Seminary and wrote prolifically both privately and for publication. Many of his articles were printed in the Presbyterian Quarterly. Among his books were Life and Campaigns of Lieut-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson (1866), Defense of Virginia (1867), and Sensualistic Philosophy of the Nineteenth Century (1887). Dabney and his wife moved to Victoria in 1895 to live with their son. Dabney died there on January 3, 1898, and was buried at the Union Theological Seminary cemetery in Hampden-Sydney, Virginia.

Dictionary of American Biography. Thomas Carey Johnson, The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney (Richmond, Virginia: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1903). David Henry Overy, Robert Lewis Dabney: Apostle of the Old South (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1967).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Daniel A. Penick, “Dabney, Robert Lewis,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 03, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/dabney-robert-lewis.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1994