Biographical Sketch of John L. Dagg

Biographical Sketch of John L. Dagg

(Adapted from Tom Nettles’ preface to the Sprinkle Publications print edition)

In 1824, J. B. Jeter heard John L. Dagg preach from Romans 1:14. The occasion was a Missionary Society meeting; the place was Richmond. Jeter described Dagg’s preaching style.

His manner was calm and slow; his voice was distinct and solemn; his style was pure, condensed, and vigorous; his gestures were sparing but appropriate, and his thoughts were pertinent, weighty, and impressive,

Shift that description to characterize a written medium rather than an oral medium and, again, the words aptly describe John Dagg.

For clarity, cogency, and sincerity of expression, no theological writer of the 19th century surpasses John L. Dagg. Therefore, I celebrate the appearance of these volumes as a blessing of God to the church.

These works breathe their author’s genuine Christian spirit. In both the theoretical works and the intensely personal autobiography, the vibrant experiential Calvinism of Dagg captivates the reader’s spirit and opens his mind to consider the magnitude of the grace of God.

Dagg, born in 1794, in Loudoun County, Virginia, lived to be over 90 years old. He died in June of 1884, as one of the most respected men in Baptist life and remains one of the most profound thinkers produced by his denomination. The diversity of his works demonstrates this.

In addition to the theological treatises presented here, Dagg wrote a textbook on Christian ethics entitled The Elements of Moral Science (1860) and a defense of the Christian faith entitled The Evidences of Christianity (1869).

The voluminous amount of material, the persuasiveness of his arguments, and the relevance of his insights show these works to be extraordinary for a man under normally healthy circumstances. However, if one realizes that Dagg was virtually blind, mute and lame at the time of his greatest productivity the accomplishment exceeds comprehension.

John Broadus esteemed highly the character of Dagg and benefited significantly from his writings. In his Memoir of James P. Boyce, Broadus says:

Dr. Dagg was a man of great ability and lovable character. His works are worthy of thorough study, especially his small volume, “A Manual of Theology.” (Amer. Bap. Pub. Soc.), which is remarkable for clear statement of the profoundest truths, and for devotional sweetness. The writer of this Memoir may be pardoned for bearing witness that after toiling much, in his early years, as a pastor, over Knapp and Turretin, Dwight and Andrew Fuller, and other elaborate theologians, he found this manual a delight, and has felt through life the pleasing impulse it gave to theological inquiry and reflection.

Dagg’s theology has been classified as “moderate Calvinistic Augustinianism.” Such nomenclature should not leave the impression that the soteriological or theological doctrines of Calvin were rejected or hidden in any way. Properly understood, the phrase paints Dagg as an experiential Calvinist, not simply a scholastic theologian. The most notable structural evidence of Dagg’s experientialism is seen in his combination of the truths of duty and grace in an impressive and graphic manner.

The Duty of man is stated in the Introduction to each “book” of theological inquiry. In fact the introduction to the entire Manual states the obligation of man to study religious truth.

The study of religious truth ought to be undertaken and prosecuted from a sense of duty, and with a view to the improvement of the heart. When learned, it ought not to be laid on the shelf, as an object of speculation; but it should be deposited deep in the heart, where its sanctifying power ought to be felt.”

Such is the attitude and form of the book throughout.

In book Two, “The Doctrine Concerning God,” the very first section begins with an explication of the duty to love God; book Three, “Concerning the Will and Works of God” begins with a treatise on “the duty of delighting in the will and works of God;” book Four, “Concerning the Fall and Present State of Man,” begins with a statement on the duty of repentance; book Five, “Doctrine Concerning Jesus Christ” begins with an admonition concerning the duty of believing in Jesus Christ; book Six, “Concerning the Holy Spirit,” begins with the duty of living and walking in the Holy Spirit; book Seven, “Doctrine Concerning Divine Grace,” begins with a statement concerning the duty of gratitude for divine grace; book Eight, “Concerning the Future World,” is introduced by a statement on the duty of preparing for the future world.

Side by side with man’s duty or obligation, Dagg inserts God’s grace. While a man must perform all of his duty to God, he cannot apart from God’s grace. Likewise, while only by grace can any one repent and believe, that reality does not release him from the obligation of performing these duties. Duty dominates the relationship of a man to God; without free grace no performance of duty is possible.

The doctrine that salvation is of grace, is not a useless speculation; but it enters into the very heart of Christian experience; and the faith which does not recognise it, does not receive Christ as he is presented in the Gospel.

Dagg sees God’s love as the efficient cause in producing faith within the sinner.

It is plain, therefore, that this love operates as an efficient cause, before it operates as a motive to holiness. Faith is produced by its efficient power. This divine operation, which is additional to the motive power of truth, proceeds from what has been called the direct influence of the Spirit.

Thus, faith, a duty, is produced by God’s love under the direct and effectual working of the Holy Spirit.

Dagg is unpretentious almost to a fault. He quotes few other writers, and these appear mainly in the Treatise on Church Order. This condition arises from his purpose to give a straightforward exposition in systematic form of the teachings of the Scripture, rather than an analysis of the beliefs of other men. Scripture is quoted voluminously and no assertion rests alone without supportive teaching from Scripture. He has purposed to avoid “the thorny region of polemic theology.”

One should not conclude from this, however, that Dagg was not aware of theologies and arguments of other men. He was clearly informed of positions that differed from his own and sets forth these alien arguments in an imminently fair presentation. He then proceeds to dismantle the greatest strengths of the opposition with the tools of forceful and convincing biblical exposition interpreted according to grammar, history, and the analogy of faith. He mentions no names, however, for he resolved to know no controversy “but with the unbelief of our own hearts.”

In his Treatise on Christian Doctrine Dagg demonstrates very well the coherence between an orthodox theology and Christology and a Reformed Evangelical soteriology. His discussion of the attributes of God lays a solid foundation for his exposition of the sovereignty of grace. His discussion of the Person of Jesus Christ is foundational to his understanding of the atoning work of Christ. However, his dominant theme centers upon the Holy Spirit as the agent of transforming the human heart by and unto the truths of the gospel. Christians of all persuasions can benefit greatly from his lucid discussions.

His Treatise on Church Order will be especially delightful to Baptists as it is one of the most cogent defenses of the Baptist view of the church. Also those of Baptist persuasion will see this as the necessary complement to a Reformed soteriology. In addition, his defense of the church universal is significant in light of the rising power of Landmarkism in Dagg’s generation. Dagg did not pursue this treatise with the same delight which accompanied the earlier one on Doctrine; but, in conformity with his own theological position, he proceeded from a sense of duty.

In 1879, the Southern Baptist Convention gave strong expression to an endorsement of Dagg’s basic theological position. Led by W. H. Whitsitt, the convention resolved “that a catechism be drawn up containing the substance of the Christian religion for the instruction of children and servants and that brother John L. Dagg be desired to draw it up.”

It is my prayer that this present volume may renew such theological commitment among Baptists; but, even more, may the spirit of the man be so evident that once again we will share his warm experiential commitment to the things of God as he expressed in his autobiography.

To excite their gratitude to God, I wish to make mention of the Lord’s kindness to our family. All my five children professed Christ. Two of them are gone to heaven; and the remaining three are on the way. Of my grand children, seventeen have professed Christ, and are, I hope, true disciples. If all of these twenty-two are heirs of the incorruptible inheritance, worth more than all the kingdoms on earth, what a rich family are we! Let us all unite in gratitude to God for his unspeakable blessings. But let us not forget that there are still nine grand children and eight great grand children who need Christ and his great salvation. For them let us pray fervently that they all may be brought into the fold of Christ and may serve him faithfully on earth, and be united with the rest to make an unbroken family in heaven.

Print versions can be ordered from:

P. O. Box 1094
Harrisonburg, Va. 22801

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts