Reflecting on Theonomy After I left it

EDIT AND CORRECTION: Prof Clark linked David Bahnsen’s post where his father, Greg, supported Norman Shepherd.

A few blogs ago, I did a series called “The Theonomy Files.” I have since updated my own thinking more in line with Reformed Scholasticism since I wrote that. Here is the gist of it. Part of this will be a number of problems in theonomy. These aren’t “gotcha” but they are difficulties to which I never saw a satisfactory answer. I do plan on offering more substantial criticisms later.

 Let’s briefly define our terms:   theonomy is the position that all of the old testament laws are binding for the new covenant Christian, unless rescinded by command (or presumably practice), and are to be applied in their new covenant context.  

It is hard to debate with theonomists.   Part of the reason is they respond to every criticism with “Oh, but you are simply an antinomian/statist/relativist.”  

The following points of criticism do not necessary serve as any one  refutation of theonomy.    Taken together, however, the place a burden of epistemological proof upon theonomists that I deem is impossible for them to bear.

  1. Where were you all this time?   Theonomists like to point out that older, medieval Christian societies were theocratic and would be opposed to the secularism of today’s politics.   Yes, they were theocratic, but they were not theonomic.   And to the degree that the early Western medieval church was Augustinian, they were most certainly not theonomic (Oliver O’Donovan’s reading of Augustinian ethics shows how difficult the Augustine = theonomist case really is).  Further, almost ALL of these societies were explicitly monarchist, a position theonomists vehemently reject.  Obviously, you can’t simultaneously say you affirm (King) Alfred the Great’s social ethic while denying the form of Alfred the Great’s politics (and by implication, social ethic).
  2. Bird’s Nests and God’s Law.  Deuteronomy 22:6 tells you what to do when you come across a bird’s nest.   Is that considered civil case law, moral law, or ceremonial law?   While I admit at times the law can be delineated along such lines, more often than not it cannot.  It is not always clear whether a law is civil, moral, or ceremonial.  Or maybe it’s all three.   If it’s all three, and we obey the moral part, do we not also obey the ceremonial part? But isn’t that heresy on the standard reading of the law (by both sides)?
  3. Moses isn’t the same as John Locke.   Similar to (1);  theonomists have a tendency to read 18th century American (and 17th century British) political concepts back into the law of God.  Ultimately, this means they reject Christian Monarchy, but they reject Christian Monarchy along American revolutionary lines.   They conclude their rejection of monarchy (which would entail a rejection of most of Christian historical ethical reasoning–a point theonomists often fail to grasp) by an appeal to 1 Samuel 8.   Presumably, 1 Samuel 8 is binding on all Christians all the time (though 1 Samuel gives no evidence to that claim).   Notwithstanding, theonomists cannot give us a clear answer to the question:  does Torah teach monarchy or theocratic republicanism?  (Read Deuteronomy 17 and Genesis 49).  Further, is 1 Samuel 8 civil law or moral law?  Is it even law? If it isn’t a law, should we be bound by it?

Torah isn’t the Congressional Register

Of course, by Torah we mean after Christ, apart from works of Torah.   I am saying that seeing the “Law” as Torah and not theonomy provides a better model for understanding Scripture.  A quick perusal of the Pentateuch will show that it was not written with late Western modernity in mind.  In fact, seen in our categories, much of it is quite bizarre.

That’s not to deny its importance.  If anything, the strange ways in which Torah is organized should invite the reader to reflect even deeper about reality and the way that God’s world works.  Let’s consider a few and ask how these can possibly work on the theonomic thesis:

  1. While there are covenantal-sequential patterns and typological motifs (riffing off of the days of creation–Ex. 25-40), many of the laws are apparently haphazardly organized together.  This should alert us to the fact that maybe God didn’t intend for these laws to be understood in a post-common law framework.
  2. Torah is also story.  In Paul’s use of Abraham in Romans Torah is not functioning as a list of dos and don’ts, but as story.  How do you put story into a law code?

Women Breaking up fights

Here is another difficulty with theonomy.   Maybe it’s not with theonomy the idea, but it does invite young theonomists to reflect more deeply on what they are actually saying.  Here is Deuteronomy 25:11

“When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, 12then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity.

There are several problems here if we take it at face value and apply it to a modern Western law code:

  1. Just think about it:  how likely is something like this ever going to happen?   I am a school teacher and I break up fights all the time.   It’s not that easy to get between two people in a fight (and I’ve been hit before, though I was so pumped up with adrenaline I didn’t feel it).
  2. If two guys are moving rapidly and throwing punches, how likely is it that a woman is going to go low and grab the private parts of the other guy?
  3. And would you really apply this?  If a bad guy broke into your home and the wife was able to help out by “disabling” him (and for the sake of argument, save your life), are you really going to reward her by cutting off her hand?  Really?

Someone could say, “Well, that applies to the Mosaic covenant when it was important to provide an heir.”  Maybe.  The text doesn’t say anything about that, so it’s just ad hoc and speculation.  There is still the justice of the matter, covenant heir or no.

And then there is the equity of the matter.   Well before that:  is this law moral or civil/judicial?   It’s obviously judicial since there is a penalty attached to it.   So what’s the equity for today for theonomists?  Remember, on the theonomic gloss the “judicial law abides in exhaustive detail.”    The Reformed Confessionalist does not have this problem.   The Confession only says “allows” the equity and no more.  Which is a nice way of saying that this law would never be applied.  The theonomist has to apply the law.

The After-Calvin Source Failure

One of the reasons theonomy failed as a movement, and this reason perhaps dovetails with why theonomy went Federal Vision and also failed to work out a coherent alternative, is that theonomists generally did not read the Protestant Scholastic sources carefully, to the degree they read them at all. 

That raises another problem:  reading these sources required reading these sources on the sources’ terms.  Theonomists usually viewed anyone who disagreed with them as a “natural law adherent,” defining natural law as a mix of Locke, Newton, and Aquinas.  Here is an experiment for you:  pick up a theonomic text and find a fair definition of natural law on Reformed terms.  Bahnsen avoids it in TiCE . Gary North slams it but never really defines (or explains how modern Reformed accepted natural law).   The real villain, I think, is Kuyperianism (though, ironically, Kuyper himself was a pluralist).   The result was the no-neutrality concept was applied to areas which really didn’t make sense in a practical way (yes, we should do math and plumbing to the glory of God, but there really isn’t a Christian praxis to Christian plumbing).

If you read Reformed natural law sources carefully, you will note that
1) they don’t contradict Moses [many advocated using the Mosaic judicials because of the wisdom found therein;
2) they aren’t using the term “nature” to mean butterflies and puppies [which is how I had usually glossed it].

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, reading the Protestant Scholastic sources on their own terms will also bring the reader face-to-face with their teachings on covenant and justification, areas which modern theonomists are painfully weak. 

The Steroid Effect

One of the dangers in taking steroids while lifting weights is that despite all the gains, the level you reach is likely the highest you will ever reach.   Once you get off steroids, and even the biggest “user” won’t take them perpetually (No one does steroids, or even creatine, during the regular season for risk of dehydration), it is unlikely you will ever reach those levels naturally again.

We see something similar in theological studies.   Deciding which area to major in will determine how deep one’s theological knowledge can get.   Here was my (and many others; and for what it’s worth, throughout this post substitute any Federal Vision term in place of a theonomy term and the point is largely the same) problem in institutional learning:  I immediately jumped on how important apologetics was for the Christian life to the extent that I made apologetical concerns overwhelm theological concerns.  I essentially made theology proper (and soteriology and ecclesiology) subsets of apologetics/ethics, instead of the other way around.

I won’t deny:  I became very good at apologetics and ethics, but I didn’t know anything about theology outside of a basic outline of Berkhof.   Studying Reformed theology among sources, and worse, movements, who are only barely Reformed, limited how deep I could go in Reformed theology.

I’ll say it another way:  when I was taking covenant theology we had to read sections of Gisbertus Voetius and Cocceius in class.  I got frustrated thinking, “These guys are tying in the covenant of works with natural law.  Don’t they know how un-reformed natural law is?”  Problem was, I was wrong.  But if you read the standard theonomic (or FV; by the way, the FV fully adopts the Barthian, and now historically falsified, Calvin vs. Calvinist paradigm) historiography, there is no way to avoid such misreadings.  Even worse, said historiography fully prevents one from learning at the feet of these high Reformed masters.

The Collapse of First Generation Reconstructionism

I’m not going to touch on the infamous “whitewall” sermon.

I suppose the inevitable question, one loaded with irony, is that given Christian Reconstruction’s commitment to postmillennialism, how come the movement fractured immediately and society is not reconstructed?  Before we get into the individual faults of the men and camps, it is important to first note perhaps why they were prone to fracturing.

Many CR leaders knew they wouldn’t be welcomed in the presbyteries.   So they reasoned:  too bad for the presbyteries!  For all the problems and limitations in local presbyteries, they tend to keep individuals from going off the deep end.   We will soon see why.

  1. Rushdoony:  On one hand it’s a good thing that Rushdoony’s errors are so easy to see.   Being egregious errors and out in the open, they are fairly easy to avoid.  His main errors are the dietary laws, ecclesiology, and shallow readings of some Reformed sources.  I won’t bother refuting his interpretation dietary laws.   I suspect his personal experiences drove his ecclesiology.  I don’t know the whole story, though Gary North has documented it here.   Evidently he got angry at the OPC and separated himself from church bodies for the greater part of a decade. A bit more minor issue but one more prevalent is that many young CRs began their study of theology by beginning with Rushdoony.  As a result, many simply parroted his slogans without really understanding all the theology and philosophy behind it.  Their grasp of Reformed theology was very tenuous beyond the basics.   Once they came across sharp Orthodox and Roman Catholic apologists, they were toast.  They didn’t have the strong foundation in Turretin, Hodge, and Owen that older men had.  Had they begun with the latter and had a decent foundation, then they could have approached Rushdoony Finally, people who really follow Rushdoony have a hard time accepting any criticism of the man.
  2. Was the home-church movement an inevitable spin off from Rushdoony?  That he endorsed something like it is clear, but most Reformed people understand he is wrong on that point.  I think one of the dangers of the home church movement is that apart from any presbyterial oversight, there is nothing stopping the members from embodying outrageous positions.
  3. Gary North:  His Y2K debacle lost him his credibility.  Others have pointed out his refusal to condemn the Federal Vision, though truth be told, would it have mattered?  Most people stopped listening to him in 2,000.   Would his condemning FV in 2003 have changed anything?  Another of his problems would be the Tyler connection. Tyler had the bizarre mixture of independent congregationalism and quasi-sacerdotal episcopalianism.  
  4. Was Federal Vision inevitable?  If you read Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics carefully, it doesn’t seem like it.  He is citing standard P&R and evangelical textbooks on hermeneutics and the Sermon on the Mount.   All of this is wildly at odds with the later Federal Visionists. That’s the problem: other theonomists either became Federal Visionists or they ran interference for them.  

Gary North notes that CR split into two camps:  Tyler Ecclesiasticalism and Rushdoony’s Home Church Patriarchalism. Neither seems like a good choice.

Reading Plan for 2022

I don’t do New Years Resolutions. I simply pick up where I left off the day before. Some of these books, however, have been on my shelf for a while, or I have been slowly working through them.

Adler, Mortimer. The Great Ideas. This is the syntopical intro to his Great Books Series. Working through these volumes will make you educated in the traditional sense. Debates over whether homeschooling or classical education are really meaningless if you aren’t familiar with these issues.

Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones.

Wodehouse, PG. The Best of Wodehouse.

Orwell, George. Essays.

Waugh, Evelyn. Decline and Fall.

Kline, Meredith. Kingdom Prologue.

The following are from the Great Books.

Volume 2 of Aristotle.




On Why I stopped being a Wilson Fan

Chris Coldwell of Puritanboard asked me what made me switch.

I was newly married around 2008. My wife and I were not going to attend AAPC (and not just for theology reasons). We were going to a PCA church 45 minutes away. At the same time Steve Wilkins had left the PCA for the CREC, which led the La. Presbytery to implode. So we were in denominational limbo. At the same time I was exploring some claims made by Eastern Orthodoxy. I knew Wilson at the time was interacting with some guys who just swam the Bosporus. He was completely out of his depth. Instead of analytically dealing with the issue, he just inserted the theological equivalent of a laugh track every few paragraphs.

I realized then that he is just not very good at theology. A good rhetorician, to be sure, but that’s it. In any case, I was disillusioned with him. He couldn’t give theological guidance when it mattered most.

Around 2012 I swung back to a Reformed mindset and was in email conversation with R. Scott Clark on the covenants and justification. That’s what really let me see how wrong the Federal Vision was. I started reading Richard Muller’s works (ALL of them) and well, you don’t leave filet mignon for hamburgers.

Around 2015 the abuse scandals from Christ Kirk (Sitler, Wight, Jim Nance–that one’s really bad) started coming to light. That also revealed the Hive Mind among many Kirkers and Wilson apologists.

While Wilson wasn’t front and center in the Trinity War of 2016, he still aligned himself with the wrong side and hasn’t repented of that.

That’s pretty much where I am today.

On debates and dialogue

I’m fairly good on not blogging about the latest blow up on social media.  This post isn’t important in the grand scheme, though it may serve as the “Suburban Agrarian Manifesto.”  The other day some guy on Twitter asked about “Day Jyer” and should he debate him. I told him don’t worry about it.  Day Jyer has the same standard arguments against every position.  I said its better to focus on the original languages.   Day’s arguments don’t ever interact with the Hebrew or Greek in any real exegetical form.

Innocent enough, I suppose.  I didn’t think twice of it, so I logged off.  The next day Twitter exploded.  He then challenged me to a public debate.   I said no.  Let’s examine the terms of the word (good debating tip).  His view of “debate” means going to his (not yours) platform and “debating.”  What happens is that he talks over you, interrupts you, and insults you.  This, most gentle reader, is not a debate.

Please understand, in my criticisms of him I mean no disrespect to classic Eastern Orthodoxy.  I’ve learned much from them. They, for the most part, have disowned him. He even tried to get me to call Eastern Orthodox heretics.  I’m like, “Dude, I don’t even care.  Why are you so interested in me?”

When you think of a public debate, what do you think of?  Something like a Ciceronian forum, or the Bahnsen-Stein debate, or William Lane Craig.  Even the degenerate DNC debates look something like a real debating platform.

That’s not what Day Jyer has in mind.  He can’t yell over you in that format.  Case in point.  The Facebook Page Inspiring Philosophy was open to debating him.  They then asked him if he could promise not to insult people.  He got angry and started insulting them.  You can read it here.  Do read it. It’s hilarious.  Ask yourself: “Am I the kind of person that I simply cannot give a promise to not insult someone?”

That’s not the only reason for my turning him down. Another is I am an adult with adulting responsibilities.   I have a wife and a daughter.  They demand my full attention, and to them I gladly give it.  Why would I shove them aside to go get insulted by someone?

There is another reason, and this comes back to one of my earlier comments: languages.  I read Greek, Hebrew, and Latin every day.  I would link you to his comments, but he blocked me. He essentially acknowledged he didn’t know the languages and simply ridiculed us as “a group of sectarians and heretics who read the languages.” Gentle reader, would you really want to go “debate” someone like that?    Anyway, reading the languages demands much of my time.  Should I put these noble pursuits aside simply to entertain his howler monkeys at my expense?

That brings up another point: seeing that I am going to get insulted at the cost of my time and family, what exactly do I get out of it?  His disciples couldn’t answer that question.

Here are some of the screenshots.  I edited them for anonymity’s sake because I am a nice person or something.  Kind readers, are these not the remarks of someone is is unhinged?


Read Only the Best

This is as much for myself as it is for anyone else.  If you don’t have access to a grad-school level education (and that’s not always a drawback), then the best thing for you to do is:

a) Focus on the major issues.  Deal-breakers.
b) Read the best books and monographs  As these are pricey, this means you won’t be able to go after passing fads.

If you are Eastern Orthodox, then you need to be working through Perry Robinson’s bibliography.

If you are Reformed, then you need to work through some of the Reformed classics (beyond Calvin!).

If you are into Biblical Studies, I have a few for you.

On the fast end, this will take you five years.  I’m speaking to myself here. If you go this route, you will need to back off on “let’s debate.”  I don’t have time for it right now.   And neither side really knows what he is talking about.

That’s how to be an autodidact.

The “Biola” Turn in Christian Philosophy

Or, a return from relativism.

I have several goals in this paper.  I utilize Dallas Willard’s metaphysical realism to rebut post-Kantian idealism.  I also challenge James K. A. Smith’s quasi-Derridean view of interpretation.

In “How Concepts Relate the Mind to its Objects: The God’s Eye View Vindicated,” Dallas Willard defends a robust realism in the face of various post-Kantian proposals.  While criticisms of Kant are common and always welcome, this paper takes a different turn. It is a response to the various “creational hermeneutics” by men like James K. A. Smith who appear to posit an endless deferral of meaning.  To be fair, Smith doesn’t advocate a strict Derridean view. He assumes meaning is possible. Rather, he advocates that every hermeneutical event is always (already?) situated by our finitude. We never approach the realm of “pure interpretation.”

Further, Smith isn’t a Kantian.  He isn’t saying (as far as I am aware) that our minds create reality.  In this case, many of Willard’s remarks won’t directly apply to him. There are some parallels, though.  Both Kant and Smith function as though there is a “wall” between our minds and reality.

On one level that seems true enough. I don’t even know what a pure interpretation unsullied by presuppositions would look like.  I think there is something more, though. It’s not enough that Smith wants to avoid a Derridean relativism or something like an endless deferral of meaning.  Well and good. I fear, though, that his epistemology is underdeveloped and if pursued consistently, will in fact lead to relativism.

In a new chapter to Fall of Interpretation Smith responds to criticisms of Derrida.  He says Derrida does affirm that communication takes place. However, it only takes place within “communal discernment” (Smith 215-216). Indeed, communities “fix meanings.”  We will come back to this claim later.

Dallas Willard’s article provides a summary of how the mental process works. He discusses what a concept is and how the nature of a concept (which always includes intentionality, relations, etc) avoids what he calls the “Midas touch” of post-Kantianism. Followers of Kant see the concept as an activity of the mind.  As Willard explains, “It [the Kantian view] always turns the ‘mediation’ of the relation between the mind and world into a form of making: the object which comes to stand before the mind is in some essential way made by a ‘grasping’ of something other” (Willard 2-3).

The Structure of the Knowing Act

While Willard’s article decisively rebuts Kantianism, it does have a small payout for the “Derridean Christian Philosophers.”  If what Willard says is true on how the mind knows, then it doesn’t matter if we posit that our knowledge is “mediated” or “structured” by communal knowings.

Survey of the Material

Kant: what comes before the mind as objects are products of the action of the mind (Willard 4).  Evidently, there is some amorphous sludge that is present before our mind. Our mind then categorizes it and “out comes the perceived object.”

Beginning of the Case

Willard’s main argument is that all knowing acts involve “intentionality,” which is the “about-ness” or “of-ness” of something.  If I know a dog, this dog, then “there must be something about each of the terms (my thought of my dog, my dog) that my thought of my dog is “together with” or pairs up with my dog” (5).

What is a Concept? 

A concept is acquired, applies to or is “of” something (extension), has intension (inherent properties), is transpersonal.  If there is anything that “mediates” between our minds and the outside objects, it is concepts, not endless linguistic deferrals or “communal” interpretations. 

Further, concepts are properties, not acts or events.  As such, they don’t “do” anything. A concept also has a “nature.”  This means it has properties, relations, and an overall place “in the scheme of things” (8).  Since it is a universal, it is exemplified in time and space but itself is not in time or space.  

With all of this in mind (no pun intended), we can see that intentional properties are concepts which form a bridge between thought and its object.  I do not think of the intentional properties but “of what is before my mind through them” (10). The intentional properties of a concept are not identical with “the properties which things must have to fall under the concept” (11).

We can try to say it another way: there is an intentional affinity (the of-ness or about-ness of a concept) between the concept and the properties of the concept. They are related in such a way that the intensional properties “always come to mind upon the instancing of the property which is the concept, but not by being instanced in the thought along with the concept” (12).  In other words, the concept is before our mind, not simply the inherent structure of the concept. The following diagram might help:

Thought of a dog (exemplifies) concept of a dog (has natural affinity with) properties making up caninity (exemplified in) Dogs (Fido, etc). (Willard 13).

The Pay off

If the above is true then the objects of thought do not take on any character. They aren’t changed in structure from an amorphous sludge to a dog.  Therefore, we are not “locked inside language” (14).

How does this work with the Radical Orthodox type crowd which posits an intermediate communal meaning?  At the most basic level it makes it irrelevant. Let’s take the concept of a dog. I read about a dog in a text.  How does placing “the communal interpretation of the faith-community” between myself and the dog “make” the text correct?  

That might be somewhat trivial.  Let’s take a theological dictum. If all the RO guys are saying is that we must read in conjunction with fellow believers, then there really isn’t a problem. A more hard-line approach would be “the church’s interpretation is our interpretation.”  Only Protestant converts to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy say anything that silly. It’s common enough, though. Let’s look at it. What mediates the church’s reading of the text and the text itself? It doesn’t work to say the church, for that is no different from their own characterization of Protestantism writ-large.  Further, it’s no different from the very foundationalism they eschew.

But if the church doesn’t mediate between the church’s interpretation and a given fact of experience, then who does?  We are then thrown back to the individual believer’s responsibility to interpret the world, receive data, and make judgments.  These judgments aren’t infallible, but they are still warranted. He can accept many of them as basic beliefs (in the absence of overriding defeaters).  



The Medieval Nature of the Confederate South

This is an old paper I wrote for college.  I would change only one thing.  Some of Richard Weaver’s conclusions suggest the South was the last bastion of Christendom.  That would be false on several counts.  How widespread Christianity was in the South is debatable, though it was probably more Christian than New England.  Further, the South is better seen as the last bastion of the old classical order.  That actually makes sense from architecture to slavery.

I cut out about half of the paper.  There were certain lines of argument made by Doug Wilson and Rushdoony that are 100% false, so I had to remove those parts.  That’s why it might appear choppy.

Jacob Aitken
Civil War
Dr. William Simpson
19 April 2005

The Medieval Nature of the Confederate South

Certain themes overlap when one considers the historical and sociological nature
of the Confederacy and in the larger context the Old South. Although these themes are
not exhaustive, and certainly not exclusive, one will consider the medieval framework of
a civilization whose inhabitants drew from Europe. A brief introduction will be given
delineating the medieval aspects of a society, as opposed to a society whose foundations
are those of Modernism. 1 The point to be established is that the Confederacy saw them
as the last European civilization of the old order. 2

Instead of asking what modern-day historians think of the South, although they
will be quoted when appropriate and not overly relying on primary sources, valuable as
they may be; one will ask the question what those who have strong ties to the South but
are separated from the conflict by a few generations, thought of the Confederacy.
Attention will be given to the work of the Southern Agrarians 3 and those who studied
under them. This is important because it was the Agrarians who helped establish the
academic link between Europe and the Confederacy. Richard Weaver writes, “What they
[the Agrarians] saw—what they had to see—was that the South, with its inherited
institutions and its system of values, was a continuation of Western European culture and

that the North was a deviation.” 4 It is interesting to see how Europe saw the South
during the Civil War. Hugh Dubrulle, after tracing a generation of British scholarship
concerning the Civil War, makes a few observations. He notes, the slavery question
aside, that the British had a tendency to see the Southerners as fighting for hearth and

“In fact, British observers of the American Civil War…claimed that Federal forces had waged a new type of war unprecedented in its destructiveness and scope. The limitations of a volunteer army produced by a democratic army…prevented the North from waging a limited war of skill…Indeed, they presented Confederate forces as a model for emulation, highlighting the social inequality that had produced traditional military virtues in the South. Theses notions associated with a skillful Confederate way of war exerted much influence on British military thought in the period leading up to World War I.” 5

John Crowe Ransom looks back on the South and explains its defiant individualism in terms of its unique heritage from Europe. “The South is unique on this continent for having founded and defended a culture was according to the European principles of culture.” 6 Ransom outlines this culture as the adaptation of the English model based on the soil, and a loyalty to the Establishment to the degree that the Establishment was necessary for civilization. Ransom writes, “The Establishment…was meant to be stable rather than provisional.” 7 On agrarianism as the backbone of the Confederate society Ransom writes, “It is the European intention to live materially along the inherited line of least resistance…I have in mind here the core of unadulterated


Europeanism, with its self-sufficient, backward-looking, intensely provincial
communities.” 8 W.J. Cash, while critiquing the outlook on the Southern Agrarians in
his essay, “The Mind of the South,” makes some fascinating insights as to what drove
their historiography, among other things. Using phrases such as “neo-Medievalism” to
describe their literary forbears (and the Agrarians’ possible attempts in the future), Cash
suggests “nearly all of them had decisively escaped from the old Southern urge to turn
the country into Never-Never Land, that nearly all of them stood, intellectually at least,
pretty decisively outside the legend; and so were able to contribute to the region its first
literature of any bulk and importance.” 9 Another critique of the Agrarian movement
came from C. Vann Woodward. The critiques suggest that the “Lost Cause” mentality
never died among certain ivory-tower types. He notes, “The twelve Southerners who
took their stand in 1930 on the proposition that the Southern way stands or falls with the
agrarian way would seem to have been championing a second lost cause.” 10

not be far-fetched to suggest that what passed for States’ Rights rhetoric was merely neo-
feudalism applied to modern issues.
In his “Thanksgiving Sermon” of 29 November 1860, in New Orleans, Benjamin
M. Palmer warned if the South did not unite religiously and morally for the coming
struggle, more than the armies of Federal troops would ravage her. He saw embodied in
the North all the horrors of the French Revolution and exhorted his flock to be united. He
saw in the abolitionist reforms the abolishment of Christianity. He notes, “Last of all, in
this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion…To the South the high
position is assigned to defending, before all nations, the cause of religion and truth. In

this trust, we are resisting the power which wars against constitutions and laws and
compacts, against Sabbaths and sanctuaries…Is it possible to decline the onset?” 30

Medieval Tensions in the Confederacy

Although attempting a civilization built on a Medieval European mindset and
hoping for the advantages that such a society would have, certain aspects became lodged
in Southern society that were no longer Medieval. For instance, Medieval society, while
not condemning slavery, did encourage the freeing of slaves. Quoting Thomas Roderick
Dew Eugene Genovese notes, “[W]hile the medieval Church did encourage emancipation, it made little effort to emancipate its own slaves.” 31 Historically then, the Confederacy made no effort to follow their alleged Medieval forbears on this note. In his forceful defense of the South, Robert L. Dabney, who had served briefly as Thomas
(Stonewall) Jackson’s chief of staff, defends Virginia’s actions with respect to slavery.
Hypothetically stated, the North had repudiated a federal compact with the South and lost the governing ability to force the South to free the slaves. 32 Therefore, even if slavery was morally questionable, it was politically legal. Dabney writes, “Now, had slavery been intrinsically a moral and social evil, yet its protection was in the compact between the States; and to the honest mind, there was but one course for the North to adopt when she concluded that she could no longer endure her connection with slavery. This was, to restore to the South the pledges…and to dissolve the Union.” 33


Even though he probably would not call himself a Medievalist, Dabney is aware
of the tradition from which he is drawing, even if he does not say so explicitly—the
Protestant background of the American colonies and the feudal/Medieval implications
thereof. 34 Discussing those who would call themselves “States’ Rights Democrats”
Dabney notes that they advocated limited construction of the powers conferred by them
on the Federal Government. “Their view of those powers was founded on the following
historical facts…[T]he former colonies of Great Britain emerged from the Revolutionary
War distinct and sovereign political communities or commonwealths…allied together,
and as such were recognized by all European powers.” 35

Assuming that they sought to be faithful to their Medieval heritage, they were
faced with Medieval tensions. Genovese writes, “For one thing, educated slaveholders
were taught medieval history and read a good deal of it thereafter. And in the late Middle Ages…a serf could run to town not merely to escape his master’s clutches but to secure legal protection against him.” 36 However, “The great difficulty in the way of transition to a system of unfree labor other than slavery was that virtually all its features threatened the economic or political security of the slaveholders in a transatlantic world that was rising on commodity production for a burgeoning world market.” 37 The Confederate economist could argue that abolishing slavery would effect more than the South: the North and Europe would suffer as well, theoretically. Southerner’s sought to get around

the horns of this dilemma by appealing to a pre-Medieval, Roman tradition: “A
contradiction between intent and reality bedeviled Southerners who attempted to defendand reform slavery. Roman law established the concept of absolute property, which rationalized a commercial slave system based on commodity exchange. Roman law thereby provided an ideal starting point for the modern bourgeoisie as it fought loosefrom medieval notions of multiple claims of property.” 38

While a perfect picture of the South as a Medieval society is not possible, it is not
far-fetched to see Medieval themes in the Old South from Colonial times until 1865, with
a brief resurgence by the Southern Agrarians. Furthermore, it is difficult to say how
Medieval the Southerners at the time saw themselves. Surely they hoped for European
support, finding aristocratic traditions in which their friends overseas could relate.
Nevertheless, segments of the Medieval world appear in the Old Confederacy: a feudal-
like social order that entails a fierce loyalty to one’s home, a religious and cultural
movement that sought, if unsuccessfully, to have the Confederacy theocratic, and a
tentative ruling class, one which never worked out its problems with slavery.

1 This will not include restating European intellectual history, rather it will highlight several themes prominent in the Medieval mindset.
2 The time-period of Medievalism will be broader than what some would define it, although I think it is faithful nonetheless. Secondly, the terms European and Medieval will be used interchangeably because I will be referring to a Medieval European society throughout the course of the essay.
3 That is, the historians and literary critics connected with Vanderbilt University in the 1920’s and ‘30’s.

4 Richard Weaver, “The Tennessee Agrarians,” in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, eds.George M. Curtis III & James J. Johnson, Jr. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1987), p. 7.
5 Hugh Dubrulle, “A Military Legacy of the Civil War,” Civil War History vol. 49 no. 2, June 2003, p.153f.
6 John Crowe Ransom, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the AgrarianTradition; By Twelve Southerners. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, [1930] 1977), p.3.
7 Ibid., p. 13. The implication for a limited central government should not be missed in his comment.

8 Ibid., p. 5.
9 W.J. Cash, The Modern Southern Reader, eds. Forkner & Samway (Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Publishers,[1986] 2000), p. 477.
10 C. Vann Woodward, The Modern Southern Reader, p. 552.

30 Thomas Cary Johnston, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer (Richmond, VA: PresbyterianCommittee on Publication, 1906), p. 212f.
31 Eugene Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White ChristianSouth (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1998), p. 78.
32 Whether or not the North actually repudiated such a compact is beside the point at the moment.
33 R.L. Dabney, A Defense of Virginia and the South (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, [1867]
1991), p. 350. It must be pointed out that Dabney is concerned over the rightness of Virginia’s cause ratherthan the European foundation of the Confederacy.

34 There is still much debate over the extent of Christianity in the Colonies. For the moment the discussion is limited to the vestiges of Puritanism remaining in the colonies. Granting rising secularism in Colonial America (from a post-Puritan perspective), remnants of Puritan thought, such as natural law, were still prevalent.
35 Robert Lewis Dabney, The Life and Campaigns of Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson(Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, [1865] 1983), p. 125.
36 Genevose, A Consuming Fire, p. 112. It is often pointed out that some slaveowners wanted their slavesto be exposed to the Bible; one wonders the reaction had they also been exposed to Medieval history.
37 Ibid, 112.