R.L. Dabney on the Unique Responsibility of Parents

Parenting has fallen on hard times in our day, as many parents have abdicated the responsibility to raise their children. This is sad because of the monumental influence parents have on their children. No one understood this influence better than R.L. Dabney, the great Southern Presbyterian pastor and theologian.

Dabney preached a sermon in October of 1870 to the Synod of Virginia, titled “Parental Responsibilities.” In this sermon, Dabney highlighted the special responsibility parents have in raising their children. This is a responsibility that is grounded in “the unique and extensive character of their authority over their offspring” (p. 682).

The Influence of Parents

Listen to what Dabney says about the magnitude of parents’ influence on their children. He explains how parents determine the wealth, reputation, intellect, character, and opportunities of their children:

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 . . . 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 (pp. 682-683).

Parents are the greatest influence on a child, such that “there is no power allowed to any creature under heaven over another responsible creature so wide as this providential power of the parent” (p. 683). Part of this power involves the passing on the parents’ religious beliefs and worldview. Some parents seek to be “unbiased” or “neutral” in this regard, but Dabney shows this is impossible:

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 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 (p. 684).

Dabney continues, “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” (p. 685). In other words, parents determine the religion and worldview in which they will train their child.

The Most Important Business on Earth

We may think school, media, and friends have great influence on children. But who makes the decision as to what school a child attends, or what media a child is exposed to, or which friends a child associates with? Is it not the parents? Hence, Dabney concludes, “These considerations prepare us to expect that the parent’s influence will be more effectual good and evil than any or all others that surround the young soul . . . The parent has the first and all-important opportunity” (p. 87). This leads to Dabney’s masterful description of the importance of parenting:

The education of children for God is the most important business done on earth. It is the one business for which the earth exists. To it all politics, all war, all literature, all money-making, ought to be subordinated; and every parent especially ought to feel, every hour of the day, that, next to making his own calling and election sure, this is the end for which he is kept alive by God—this is his task on earth. On the right training of the generation now arising, turns not only the individual salvation of each member in it, not only the religious hope of the age which is approaching, but the fate of all future generations in a large degree. Train up him who is now a boy for Christ, and you not only sanctify that soul, but you set on foot the best earthly agencies to redeem the whole broadening stream of human beings who shall proceed from him, down to the time when men cease to marry and give in marriage. Until then, the work of education is never ending (pp. 691-692).

Parents have a supreme task at hand. How they raise their children not only affects their children but also the future generations until the end of time. Thus Dabney can say, “The supreme end of the family institution is as distinctly religious and spiritual as that of the church itself” (p. 692). And again, “The instrumentalities of the family are chosen and ordained of God as the most efficient of all means of grace—more truly and efficaciously means of saving grace than all other ordinances of the church” (p. 693).

The magnitude of this task ought to lead parents to set a godly example, teach their children the faith, pray with and for them, and choose a schooling option that will aid the task of training their children in the way of Christ. May all of us be faithful to this task of eternal consequences.

R.L. Dabney, “Parental Responsibilities” in Discussions, vol 1 (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1994), pp. 676-693.