The Bible is Central to Moral Education—Dabney’s Fourth Letter on the Virginia State School System

This is the last of a four-part series on R.L. Dabney's letters to Dr. W.H. Ruffner in opposition to the public school system in Virginia. Here are the articles on Dabney's first lettersecond letter, and third letterThe full letters can be found in Dabney's Discussions


R.L. Dabney’s fourth letter to Dr. W.H. Ruffner on the Virginia state school system (dated May 4, 1876) shares some similarities with his essay, “Secularized Education.” Dabney here lays out his most potent argument against state education, which has to do with religion. He asks, “What religion shall be taught to the children by the State’s teachers as the necessary part of the education of reasonable and moral beings?” (p. 262).

Seeing that there are different religious beliefs among Americans, state schools must do one of three things: (1) force the majority religion on the minority; (2) provide a variety of religious state schools; (3) limit teaching in state schools to the secular. The first two options both involve the state taxing people to support religious teaching they disagree with. Thus the state has chosen the third option of limiting teaching to the secular. But as Dabney says, “Of this solution no Christian of any name can be an advocate” (p. 265).

The Bible is Necessary to Education

Since the Christian believes that the Bible is necessary to education, the fact that the state cannot teach the Bible proves that the state should not run education. Dabney says, “The State is unfit to assume the educational function . . . Here is one part which is absolutely essential to the very work of right education: the State is effectively disabled from performing that part. Then the State cannot educate, and should not profess it” (p. 266).

We can put Dabney’s argument in the following logical form:

P1:            The Bible is necessary to true education.
P2:           State schools cannot teach the Bible.
C:             Therefore the state cannot provide true education.

The following is a more formal syllogism:

P1:            All true education is education that teaches the Bible.
P2:           No state education is education that teaches the Bible.
C:             Therefore, no state education is true education.

The syllogism is valid, so the only issue that can be raised is the truthfulness of the premises. The second premise is a fact in America resulting from past Supreme Court rulings—state schools do not teach the Bible. Non-Christians would challenge the first premise, but all Christians should embrace it. If accepted, this is a potent argument against placing children in a state school that prohibits the use of the Bible. They are not providing a "true" education, as the Bible is foundational to all true learning (Proverbs 1:7). 

Following his argument, Dabney quotes Daniel Webster, “In what age, by what sect, where, when, by whom, has religious truth been excluded from the education of youth? Nowhere; never. Everywhere, and at all times, it has been and is regarded as essential. It is of the essence, the vitality of useful instruction” (p. 266).

Dabney understands that Christianity must be part of all that we do, including the education of youth: “We claim more than the admission that each man should at some stage of his training, and by somebody, be taught Christianity; we mean in the fullest sense that Christianity must be a present element of all the training at all times, or else it is not true and valuable education” (p. 267).

All Education is Moral

Education is moral and leads to moral actions. As he says, “The moral judgments and acts of the soul all involve an exercise of reason; so that it is impossible to separate the ethical and intellectual functions . . . Man fulfills the ends of his existence, not by right cognitions, but by right moral actions . . . knowledge is really valuable only as it is in order to right actions” (p. 268).

That education is moral leads Dabney to the following conclusion:

It follows that any training which attempts to be non-Christian is therefore anti-Christian. God is the rightful, supreme master and owner of all reasonable creatures, and their nearest and highest duties are to him. Hence to train a soul away from him is a robbery of God, which he cannot justify in any person or agency whatsoever. He has not, indeed, committed to the State the duty of leading souls to him as its appropriate task. This is committed to the family and to his church. Yet it does by no means follow that the State may do anything tending to the opposite (p. 268).

The Bible is central to this moral education: “Grant the inspiration of the Bible, and we have a basis of moral appeal so simple and strong that practically all other bases are comparatively worthless, especially for the young . . . There can be, therefore, no true education without moral culture, and no true moral culture without Christianity” (p. 269).

Dabney says that the old private education system in Virginia was better, as “It leaves to parents, without usurpation, their proper function as creators or electors of their children’s schools . . . Government is not the creator but the creature of human society. The Government has no mission from God to make the community; on the contrary, the community should make the Government” (p. 270). Thus he concludes, “Noble races make their governments; ignoble ones are made by them” (p. 271).

Robert L. Dabney, “Dr Dabney’s Battery: He Opens Fire on Dr. Ruffner From Another Quarter” in Discussions, Volume 3 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1982), pp. 262-271.