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Facing Blindness

Category Articles
Date December 17, 2019

The following is an extract from Johnson’s biography of Dabney.

* * *

From 1886 to 1889 R. L. Dabney’s sight became dimmer and dimmer, until the light went out absolutely. On walking into his own brightly lighted parlor of an evening, he would often ask whether the light was on and that, too, when facing the chandelier. Often when the sun was shining brightly, he would ask his companion of the day whether the sun shone, or whether it were cloudy; and in case of a somewhat surprised answer that ‘the light’ of the ‘sun’ was ‘brilliantly shining’, he would quietly say, ‘The darkness and the light are the same to me.’ After 1889, he was absolutely sightless.

He dreaded the coming horror of darkness until the light had almost gone, and then his dread passed away. In September, 1887, still in the clutches of a severe attack of ‘cystitis’, he wrote to his son, Dr Charles W. Dabney:

I find these attacks destroying my remnant of eyesight very steadily. My vision, I knew, had been slowly declining since I left Austin. In the last five days I have lost as much ground as in the previous three months. The prospect thus suggested is well calculated to test one’s fortitude; of a hopeless blindness, making me not only useless, but a burden to my family, and continued apparently only for the suffering which its prolongation may involve. . . If I have strength to reach Austin at all, I am going to work on there as long as it is in any way possible, and try to die in the harness.

Some months later, apparently picking up courage, once more he appealed to a specialist, in Atlanta, and was told that there was no hope for any, even the most partial vision. That was one of the hours when the shadows lay heavy upon him. When he returned from the great doctor’s office that day to the home of his friend, Dr G. B. Strickler, he is said to have looked as if he had fought, with all the resources of his power, and been hopelessly beaten, like a brave soldier, who had spent himself to the utmost, but had been overcome and taken captive by his enemy, doomed. He went off alone on the piazza, and there for two hours fought another battle, with himself, for readjustment to God’s providence. The fight was severe, but, by the arms of faith and prayer, by the invincible might of God’s little ones, he won. He returned to the company cheerful and happy. He had recognized the inevitable, and the hand of God in his affliction, and he had formed a new plan of action, and squared himself for the new course. That evening he would not suffer the little daughter of his friend Strickler to lead him about, as she had been doing during his stay. He kindly told her that he must learn to go about as a blind man. That night he would not permit his devoted wife to put away his clothing so that he could get them the next morning, in order, himself. Following out his plan further, he soon employed a private secretary to write at his dictation, and to read for him, that he might go on with his studies. He went to the more careful cultivation of his memory, treasured up tracts of Scripture, prepared for his classes so that he could go through his lectures, from start to finish, in an orderly manner, without aid of any sort; took care to prevent absentmindedness and every weakening of his mental abilities. In case of his forgetting to mail letters in passing a post box, he would not allow a friend to carry them back for him. To the offer he would say, ‘No. I must not allow forgetfulness to grow, I must whip myself for this case by walking back to that box,’ and back he would go, feeling his way with a stick. He lived a brave, strong, beautiful life during these years of sense blindness.

He had his days and hours of heaviness, but he was uniformly cheerful in the presence of his friends. He has said of this period of his sufferings:

It was while eyesight was finally fading out that my cystitis became most agonizing, say in the autumn of 1889. Sometimes in my midnight sufferings I said to myself, ‘Here, then, am I locked in for life in a dungeon of Egyptian darkness, and now this wild-cat pain is shut in with me, to rend me in my helplessness.’ But usually I maintained a calm fortitude, and waited upon God in prayer for an unmurmuring patience. Without the Christian’s hope, such an existence would have been unendurable. But with it, I can honestly testify that my years of infirmity have been far from being years of unmixed sorrow, either by reason of present suffering or the pains of anticipation. I have known always that more or less of acute pain is to be my daily lot, until death ends it; but I have the humble assurance that death will end it, and that then the suffering of this present time shall not be worthy to be compared with the glory that shall follow. This hope, the devoted sympathy of my wife and sons, with cheerful Christian society, have made most of my days far from gloomy; and I always strive during the seasons of respite not to think of the pain that is to recur, but to be as cheerful and helpful as it is permitted me to be.


This article was first published in the November 1977 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

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