Book Review: Our Comfort in Dying: Civil War Sermons by R.L. Dabeny, Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff

Our Comfort in Dying: Civil War Sermons by R. L. Dabney, Stonewall Jackson’s Chief-of-Staff
Transcribed and Edited byJonathan W. Peters
Sola Fide Publications, 2021, $21.99 paper

For Thursday, June 13, 1861—barely two months into the war—President Davis announced a national day of fasting and prayer throughout the South. He urged the people to participate in the observance: “we would implore the Lord of Hosts to…bless us with His favor and protection, and…bestow His gracious benediction upon our government and country.”

Newspapers throughout the land publicized the Fast Day and clergymen everywhere led services and delivered sermons. Few of these orations were published, which is why I turned first to the Rev. Robert L. Dabney’s Fast Day Sermon in this valuable new book, edited by Jonathan Peters.

Born in Virginia in 1820, Dabney was educated in college and seminary; he began his Presbyterian ministry in 1847. In 1853 he began serving as professor at Union Theological Seminary in Hamden-Sydney, Va. After war broke out he became chaplain of the 18th Virginia. It was to the 18th that Dabney delivered his Fast Day Sermon.

General Jackson himself admired Dabney for his inspiring messages. A month after Manassas he asked the chaplain to preach to men of the Stonewall Brigade. What struck me in reading Dabney’s words is that he avoided politics and propaganda; he stuck purely to theology; the chaplain saw in the stoning of the martyred Stephen a sublime death. This “blessed compensation”—providential salvation for sloughed mortal coils—represented “Our Comfort in Dying.” Stonewall was so moved that he wrote Anna how Dabney had “beautifully and forcibly described the death of the righteous.” Indeed, Julia Smith’s colorful cover painting shows Dabney speaking before seated soldiers as Stonewall approvingly looks on.

Dabney resigned in the fall of 1861 to return to UTS. When conscription in March ’62 emptied his classrooms, Dabney accepted Jackson’s offer of becoming his chief of staff, with the rank of major. He arrived at HQ on April 24. In addition to his administrative duties, Dabney was expected to serve as parson for Jackson’s Division. After hearing one of Dabney’s sermons—usually delivered from notes only—Jackson asked his parson/adjutant to set the text in writing and promised himself to have it printed. (Didn’t happen during the war.)

Dabney continued in this dual role until a bout of camp fever in July 1862 forced him to resign and leave the service. When his health improved, he returned to Union Seminary. He ended the war ministering to two Presbyterian churches in Petersburg.

After Jackson’s death, Anna asked Dabney to write a biography of her husband. The cleric researched and wrote throughout the rest of the war, until his Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson appeared in 1866. (Of Dabney’s work Freeman has written, “until Henderson [1898] the most dependable authority upon Jackson and even now [1935] very useful.”)

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