Robert Lewis Dabney on "The Attractions of Popery"

Christopher A. Hutchinson is the Senior Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Blacksburg, Virginia, and the author of Rediscovering Humility (New Growth Press, 2018). He graduated with an A.B. from Duke University and an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

In her collection of essays, Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard explains that she began attending Roman Catholic Mass “simply and solely to escape Protestant guitars.”[1] Many of us have felt similar sentiments or have friends who became so fed up with evangelical fads or blandness that they have ended up “swimming the Tiber” to Rome. I am sympathetic with those who have a longing for greater grandeur, beauty and tradition in worship. They rightly judge that much of contemporary American Protestantism has so enmeshed itself in our surrounding culture that it can almost be considered a syncretistic religion. Money, numbers, emotion, and the constant desire to be deemed acceptable and successful by their unbelieving peers have so watered down many evangelicals’ concept of the Gospel, that it is no wonder serious Christians look elsewhere for a more authentic expression of the faith.

Nevertheless, I have often cautioned my Reformed friends who feel the need for a change to stop their pendulum swing somewhere north of the Tiber, and to try to stay on this side of the Thames or the Rhine; that is, to become Anglican or Lutheran if they must. Better yet would be to rediscover the simplicity and beauty of classic Reformed worship and ecclesiology, along with the latter addition of instrumentation and hymns for greater balance and catholicity. There is harm in going all the way over to Rome, whose official doctrines since Trent officially water down the grace of the Gospel, and which itself is a syncretistic mixture of Scripture and culture, albeit the culture of a dying Roman empire from a millennium ago. Just because it is older and feels grander does not make it any less corrupt than our contemporary evangelical mess. All means of clutter still serve to obscure the Gospel that comes by faith, not sight.

It may surprise readers that this dilemma is not new. Robert Lewis Dabney discusses the tendency of some Protestants to head to Rome in his 1894 essay, “The Attractions of Popery.”[2] While this essay belongs to an earlier, more polemic age, and one that was pre-Vatican II, which greatly softened Rome’s errors and stance towards us “separated brethren,” it nevertheless offers insights that ring true today. Indeed, it is refreshing to find in such polemics the actual idea that truth matters and that people should decide matters by precept rather than by sentiment. Moreover, we find Dabney to be not so much critical of Rome (which of course he is), but frustrated with the state of his contemporary Protestantism that made Roman Catholicism such an attraction option.

For instance, Dabney critiques not only “democratic Protestantism,” which has declined into “Jacobin libertinism,” but also “rationalistic and skeptical Protestantism.”[3] Both have so failed to guard truth and godliness that Rome appears as a relative bastion of stability and morality. Never mind that Rome is able to adjust her teaching when she sees fit, according to her own processes, since she rejects sola scriptura; in comparison to revivalistic and liberal Protestantism, she appears to be the conservative alternative.

In contrast to all this Protestant weakness, Dabney writes, “Meantime, Rome gets up no spurious revivals; she works her system with the steadiness and perseverance which used to characterize pastoral effort and family religion among Presbyterians. Her worship is liturgical, but her liturgies, however erroneous in doctrine, are at least, genteel, and marked by aesthetic dignity.”[4] In other words, worse than the superstitious Roman piety is the practical atheism of the typical Protestant.

And yet, Dabney insists that Rome is not the answer, despite the attractions it offers. He delineates six of these attractions which were a powerful draw in the American Gilded Age: 1) the political power that accompanies a “permanently endowed” institution; 2) an appeal to the natural “aristocracy” each man craves; 3) the show of a more “spectacular and ritualistic” worship with its “architectural pomps and operatic music;” 4) a half-way station to man’s natural polytheism and image worship via the “intermediate gods” of saint veneration; 5) the replacement of spiritual salvation with concrete, material and spectacular rituals; and 6) the offer of Purgatory as a more “reasonable” doctrine than the immutable fate of eternal heaven or hell.[5]

While some of these attractions may have held particular force in the late 19th century, I think we can agree that even in a post-Vatican II world, the basic thrusts of the attractions remain the same in our day. Particularly telling and dangerous are the last two attractions, ones that must be resisted by souls who love the doctrines of grace, and who know that their only hope remains in an absolute pardon founded upon the full propitiation of the substitutionary atonement, which is accessed by faith alone. As Dabney writes, rituals better suit the sinful, selfish soul that does not wish to part with its sins, and also does not wish to go to hell. “It is less irksome to the carnal mind to do twelve dozen pater-nosters by the beads than to do a few moments of real heart-work.”[6] But those who know the depths of their own sin and the sufficiency of Christ’s blood would rather do real heart-work than settle for a half-justification which, in the end, provides little comfort or assurance. Despite any sentiment we may feel towards propriety in worship, abandoning sola fide is never the answer.

In that regard, Dabney’s essay represents the best of theology, one that both addresses particular problems in its own age, and yet advances principles that are timeless, and an aid to all generations. And thus in our own age of such rampant evangelical errors, his essay remains a help to those who sense the urge to take the plunge into the cold Tiber. The far shore may look attractive from afar, but a closer examination reveals much healthier grounds closer to home, if yet distinct from what now dominates the landscape.


[1] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 59.

[2] Robert Lewis Dabney, Discussions (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1994), 4:540-567.

[3] Ibid., 544-5.

[4] Ibid., 546.

[5] Ibid., 550-567.

[6] Ibid., 563.