THE CRUEL DESTROYER
Dr. Robert L. Dabney is remembered today by some for his service with General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson during the American Civil War, his work as a theologian, and his role in the founding of a Presbyterian seminary. In the fall of 1855, he set out on a 140-mile trip to attend a church synod meeting in North Carolina. The trees were perhaps still in their brilliant autumn colors, but Dabney paid little attention; his thoughts were mostly on his little boy, Robert (whom he affectionately called Bobby). His son was sick, and Dabney had hesitated about starting his trip.|
From the time his father left, Bobby grew rapidly worse. Dabney received word that his son was extremely ill with "a putrid sore throat that threatened suffocation." Dabney turned back and traveled all night, reaching home the next evening. What followed next is best retold in Dabney's own words in a letter to his brother:
We used prompt measures, and sent early for the doctor, who did not think his case was dangerous; but he grew gradually worse until Sunday, when his symptoms became alarming, and he passed away, after great sufferings, Monday. He was intelligent to the end, even after he became speechless, and his appealing looks to us and the physician would have melted a stone. A half hour before he died, he sank into a sleep, which became more and more quiet, until he gently sighed his soul away. This is the first death we have had in our family, and my first experience of any great sorrow. I have learned rapidly in the school of anguish this week, and am many years older than I was a few days ago. It was not so much that I could not give my darling up, but that I saw him suffer such pangs, and then fall under the grasp of the cruel destroyer, while I was impotent for his help. Ah! when the mighty wings of the angel of death nestle over your heart's treasures, and his black shadow broods over your home, it shakes the heart with a shuddering terror and a horror of great darkness. To see my dear little one ravaged, crushed and destroyed, turning his beautiful liquid eyes to me and his weeping mother for help, after his gentle voice could no longer be heard, and to feel myself as helpless to give any aid-this tears my heart with anguish.
Dabney's son died of diphtheria, not two weeks from the death of another son, Jimmy, who had died from the same disease. It has been said of Dabney that in these bereavements he suffered as only a very strong man, a man of persistence and intensity of character, could suffer. But the deaths of the two boys wore hard upon him. One of his seminary students wrote at this time:
Among the most gloomy days that occurred during my seminary course were the ones when his children, James and Robert, died and were buried. They were "rare and radiant" little boys, and they had a warm place in my heart. There was only a brief interval between their funerals. In the many burial scenes I have witnessed, Dabney was about the only heart-broken mourner, without visible tears, that I have ever seen. Before that, I had never realized the deep and almost unearthly significance of a sorrow too deep for tears. At the burial of Robert, there was something in Dabney's features so pallid and deathly, as he took a parting look at his dead first-born child. . . . In a little while, however, we were glad to see him emerge from the gloom of this afflictive time and resume his duties with quickened zeal and impressive unction.
Dabney fought to save his sons' lives, and that should not go unnoticed. Death is a not a friend to be embraced, but an ugly enemy, a vile intruder into the world. But God, in His common grace, gives us doctors and medicines, and we should use them to treat illnesses, adding our prayers for God's blessings upon such treatment for the restoration of the body's health. And more than that, we should give thanks to God, who has conquered death through the resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. Because of Him, death has no sting or victory over the children of God.
Dabney picked up this thought later in the same letter to his brother, saying:
Our parting is not for long. This spoiled and ruined body will be raised, and all its ravished beauties more than repaired. As for my other loved ones, whom I see exposed to disease and death, I know that death cannot touch them unless my Heavenly Father, who orders everything for me in love and wisdom, sees it best. So that I can trust them, though trembling, to His keeping, and be at peace. Our little Jimmy, we hope and trust, is now a ransomed spirit. . . . This is a hope inexpressible and full of glory. As I stand by the little grave, and think of the poor ruined clay within, that was a few days ago so beautiful, my heart bleeds. But as I ask, "Where is the soul whose beams gave that clay all its beauty and preciousness?" I triumph. Has it not already begun, with an infant voice, the praises of my Savior? Perhaps one of the loving angels that bore home his spirit has been teaching and training him to heavenly manhood. Perhaps he has been committed to our sainted father, or to my wife's sainted grandmother, as one of their redeemed posterity, to keep and train till we can embrace him again. At any rate, he is in Christ's heavenly house and under His guardian love. Now I feel, as never before, the blessedness of the redeeming grace and divine blood, which have ransomed my poor babe from all the sin and death which he inherited through me.
This is not the end of Dabney's tale; more of him will be told later. But I must say here that of all men remembered in this book, I see more of myself in Dabney's story - though I'm not half the man Dabney was. He, more than all the others, expressed so much of what I have experienced: a sick little boy, casting his eyes upon me and my wife, an occasional cry but with no sound because of the ventilator tube in his mouth, and I was impotent to help. I buried John Cameron's body in a little grave, and my heart bleeds, though I triumph in the hope that his soul is present with our Savior. Dabney's example will lead us further down the path to glory. I follow, though in unequal steps.