Friday, August 27, 2010

Architect of Orthodoxy

Robert Lewis Dabney, besides being a famous Southern Presbyterian theologian, was, among other things, both an architect and an opponent of musical instruments in worship. These features combined to form churches that were built to keep organs out.

While serving as pastor of Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church in Fishersville, Virginia (1847-1853), Dabney authored an 1849 letter to the Watchman and Observer of Richmond, Va. submitted under the pseudonym of Chorepiscopus on the subject of "Organs." (In the July 1889 Presbyterian Quarterly, he also reviewed favorably John L. Girardeau's treatise contra Instrumental Music in Public Worship.)

In 1850, he designed the construction of the present Tinkling Spring church building in the Greek Revival style. Calder Loth of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources wrote of Tinkling Spring (The Virginia Landmarks Register, p. 55):

The present building, the third to serve its worshipers, was designed and built under the direction of its incumbent minister, Robert Lewis Dabney, who was the architect of several churches in the state. Dabney described his design, executed in 1850, as "the plainest Doric denuded of all ornaments." The chaste building, distinguished by its portico in antis, is similar to the chapel Dabney designed for Hampden-Sydney College. Its no-nonsense character appealed to Calvinist austerity and influenced the architecture of a number of Virginia's Presbyterian churches.

The Museum at Tinkling Spring notes, however:

Robert Dabney ardently opposed musical instruments, so not until 1869 did the session vote to permit the purchase of a "Cabinet Organ or Carmonium" and only after a close congregational meeting that saw 49 members vote in favor of musical instruments and 33 vote against such a move....A pipe organ became part of the church's musical offerings with the extensive building renovation under pastor J.O. Mann in 1916....In 1981 a new organ was installed. This was rebuilt and restored as part of the extensive church expansion in 2007 by the organist John Slechts.

Dabney went on design the construction of the Briery Presbyterian Church in Keysville, Va. in the Gothic Revival style circa 1855. He also designed the Farmville, Va. Presbyterian Church in the Greek Revival style around 1859.

Serving both on the faculty of Hampden-Sydney College and as pastor of the College Presbyterian Church from 1858 to 1874, Dabney designed the College Church also in the Greek Revival Style in 1860. The church website gives the following account of its historical design, noting in particular that its architect intentionally designed it to keep organs out, and the description reveals certain biases by its author against his views.

This is the third building to be used by the Presbyterian congregation at Hampden-Sydney. It was designed by the famous 19th century conservative theologian, Robert Lewis Dabney, whose hobby was dabbling in architecture. The structure itself was built of hand-made brick, molded and baked on the site, and the entire building was constructed in the space of the three summer months of 1860. There had been an earlier, box-like wooden church building in the vicinity of Hampden House, near the north gateway onto the campus, and this had served the congregation from the late 1770's until 1820. In that year the congregation purchased four acres of land at the present church site, and a small brick building was constructed "with ugly tudor arches," as an early chronicle editorially stated. That structure was located between the present building and Atkinson Avenue, and it faced south toward the cemetery.

Architect Dabney had earlier used this same design at the Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church near Waynesboro, Virginia, and also at the Farmville Presbyterian Church, except in those cases there was a center entrance, while at College Church there were two entrances, one for women and one for men. The stairways on either side of the porch led to the slave galleries. With the original pews the seating capacity was 400 downstairs, 200 upstairs. Until recent years this space was sufficient for seating the entire student body, and for over a century, most of the all-college events were traditionally held here. These included daily chapel, seasonal convocations and graduations. Dr. Dabney also designed for his family use, a nearby Italiante-style residence, and he was the architectural consultant for the American Gothic design of Briery Presbyterian Church near Keysville. However, he was probably adapting that exquisite design, as well as his own sophisticated Westmerton residence, from 19th Century pattern-books.

Dr. Dabney believed that a church building should display what one believed, and he therefore avoided any symbolic elements whatsoever, as this stern, somewhat Puritan-like, figure abhorred all high church elements as being ambiguous at best and idolatrous at worst. His stern Calvinism was based on the clear light of reason, and he therefore used plain, clear window panes, in the fashion of the New England meeting hourses. He especially disliked stained-glass windows, believing that they obscured God in mystery, whereas the Deity should be explained rationally and orally. He specifically detailed that there should be no "popish cross" on public display in this room, and since he was decidedly opposed to pipe organs he thought that he had designed the room in such a way that no such instrument could ever be installed. However, when a pipe organ was installed in 1920, in the generation following his death, its parts were painstakingly taken up the slave gallery steps, piece-by-piece, and assembled in the balcony. Dr. Dabney never used the word "sanctuary, which he associated with Episcopalians, and he consistently referred to this main room as an "auditorium," a word which underscored his concept of worship as a listening experience. He designed the over-built pulpit as a virtual throne for the preacher, and the plain, hard wall immediately behind the pulpit has meant that the acoustics in the building are unusually bright.

The only decorative features within his auditorium design are: a classical frame outlining the sounding wall behind the pulpit - again "framing the pulpit and preacher with prominence - and the recurring series of panels that are carved into the balcony. The latter may possibly represent the tablets of the law, as given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, since Dr. Dabney was big on the law, and somewhat small on matters of grace. Some believe that the entry doors with their tripartite mullions could possibly be taken as symbols of the Trinity, but if so they were probably unintentional. The left front door, incidentally, still shows the marks of a futile attempt by one of General Sheridan's troopers to break into the church - possibly to steal the Communion silver - when a large part of the Federal infantry and cavalry came through Hampden-Sydney on April 6 and 7, 1865.


  1. Thanks, Andrew. I had no idea Dabney dabbled in architecture. I've posted a link to this on my blog.

    Do you know any more about referring to the "sanctuary" as the "auditorium"? Was this a common thing in Southern Presbyterianism (calling it the auditorium) or was Dabney the only one to do this?

  2. Andrew:

    Your post prompted me to finally start posting some of Barry Waugh's photo collection on the PCA Historical Center's web site.

    So, first up is the page for Old Briery: