From the Archives: Robert L. Dabney

WHEN A CHRISTIAN MAN, who has professed to dedicate himself and his all, body, soul and estate, to the highest glory of God and love of his fellow-creatures, passes by the hundreds of starving poor and degraded sinners around him, the thousands of ignorant at home, and the millions of perishing heathen, whom his money might instrumentally rescue from hell-fire, and sells for a song his safe, strong, comfortable family carriage, and expends hundreds in procuring another, because his rich neighbor is about to outstrip him in this article of equipage; or when he sacrifices his plate and china to buy new at great cost, because the style of the old was a little past; or when he pulls down his commodious dwelling to expend thousands in building another, because the first was unfashionable; is not this sinful waste? When hundreds and thousands of God’s money are abstracted from the wants of a perishing world, for which the Son of God died, to purchase the barbaric finery of jewelry, as offensive to good taste as to Christian economy, jewelry which keeps out no cold blast in winter, and no scorching heat in summer, which fastens no needful garment and promotes no bodily comfort, is not this extravagance? When large sums of money are expended on exotics not half so pretty as a clover blossom nor so fragrant as a common apple—tree flower, whose only merit is that no other lady in town has obtained one, what is this but extravagance? We are deeply convinced that if our principle of self-dedication were honestly carried through the usages and indulgences of fashionable society, a multitude of common superfluities would be cut off. Indeed, we doubt not that the depth to which it would cut, and the extent to which it would convict the fashionable Christian world of delinquency, would be the grand argument against it.

In a word, the awakening of the Christian conscience of the church to the truth, and to its duty, would reduce all Christians to a life of comfortable simplicity, embellished, among those who possessed taste, by natural and inexpensive elegance, and all else would be retrenched. The whole of that immense wealth now sacrificed to luxury would be laid on the altar of religious benevolence, or devoted to works of public utility. The real politeness and true refinements of life would be only promoted by the change. Every useful branch of education, all training by which mind and body are endued with a higher efficiency for God’s service, would be secured, cost what it might. Every truly ennobling taste would receive a simple and natural cultivation. But the material luxuries and adornments of life would be sternly retrenched, and Christian society would be marked in dress, in equipage, in buildings, sacred and domestic, in food, and in every other sensuous gratification, by a Spartan simplicity, united with a pure and chaste decency. Wealth would be held as too sacred a trust to expend any part of it in anything which was not truly necessary to the highest glory of God in the rational and spiritual welfare of his creatures, our fellow-men.

. . . the extent to which the worldly conformity of the church follows on the heels of the advancing luxuries of the world, plainly indicates that something is wrong with us. Every age has added to the wealth of civilized societies, and every generation, nay, every year, the style of expenditures advances. More costly dwellings are built. What were commodious and respectable mansions a few years ago, are now dragged away as so much rubbish; and if Providence permits our much-abused wealth still to increase, the places we now build will be pulled down to make room for the more luxurious palaces of our children. New and unheard-of indulgences are invented. What our fathers regarded as luxuries almost extravagant, we have accustomed ourselves to look upon as ordinary comforts, almost despised for their cheapness. More capricious wants are indulged; more costly articles of adornment are invented. And, as if to repudiate in the most direct and expressive mode every remnant of the obligations of sobriety, costliness has become the very element of fashion. Because the ornament is monstrously expensive, in proportion to its true utility, therefore it is sought.

Now let extravagance of expenditure take as enormous strides as it will, the indulgence of Christians follows close on its heels. No species of adornment, however outrageously wasteful; no imaginary indulgence, however capricious, has become fashionable, but rich Christians have soon proceeded to employ it almost as commonly as the world . . . . And let it be observed, that those who ride on the floodtide of extravagance are not merely those inconsistent persons whose piety is under grievous suspicion on all hands, but often they are those who stand fair and are much esteemed in the church . . . . They will admit one extravagance after another, on the plea of usage and the customs of society, and the innocence of the particular indulgence in itself, to the utmost extent to which an apostate world may please to run in its waste of God’s abused bounties. Hence it is evident that there must be an error in those principles. And let anyone attempt to go back and review them, comparing them with the principles of the Bible in order to eliminate that error, and he will find that there is no rational or scriptural stopping place short of the strict rule we have advocated.

By Robert L. Dabney

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #19 in 1988]

Robert Lewis Dabney (1829–1898) was one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 19th century. A Southern Presbyterian, he was a leacher, statesman, writer, and social critic, as well as theologian, and taught at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. In the American Civil War he once served as Chief of Staff to the Confederate general “Stonewall” Jackson. Dabney’s contributions have been dampened partially by his vigorous defense of the pre-Civil War South’s institution of slavery; however, his work, especially his Systematic Theology, has been highly regarded by scholars from Benjamin Warfield to Karl Barth.
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