The Life and Legacy of David Lipscomb: An Interview with Dr. John Mark Hicks

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Dr. John Mark Hicks is Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University, having taught in institutions affiliated with Churches of Christ for thirty-six years (you can read more about his bio here). In 2006, Dr. Hicks co-wrote the book “Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding.”

David Lipscomb’s work “Civil Government” continues to inspire Christians to look past the kingdoms of the world to the Kingdom of God as the solution to humanity’s problems. We thank Dr. Hicks for agreeing to be interviewed on life and legacy of David Lipscomb.

Dr. Hicks, for those unfamiliar with David Lipscomb, can you give us a brief sketch of who he is and how contemporary historians of the Restoration Movement have appraised his impact on the Movement?

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) was born in Tennessee, and he was educated, farmed, and ministered in the area around Nashville, Tennessee for practically all his life. He is recognized as the most significant thought leader among southern Churches of Christ in the post-Civil War era, even into the 20th century.

While all would agree he was a significant figure in the separation of Churches of Christ from the Christian Church due to his opposition to instrumental music in the Christian assembly and the centralization of money and power in missionary societies, among Churches of Christ he is often viewed as a moderate. He did not embrace some of the right-wing perspectives that characterized publications such as the Firm Foundation in Texas. For example, he opposed the practice of reimmersing those who had been previously immersed upon a confession of faith in Jesus simply because they did not understand baptism as the moment when God saved them. Doing what God said because God said to do it was a sufficient motive for faithful obedience, according to Lipscomb.

From the perspective of the Disciples of Christ, Lipscomb is a radical right-winger. From within Churches of Christ, he is a moderate. In fact, if the Disciples had never moved toward higher criticism, the introduction of women preachers, and ecumenicism, Lipscomb would probably have never been as strong on separation from the Christian Church. In other words, while disagreements would still exist, I imagine Lipscomb and contemporary Christian Churches/Churches of Christ would have found some common ground and mutual respect as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Many of our readers will be familiar with Lipscomb’s work “On Civil Government” , which first appeared in the Gospel Advocate magazine which Lipscomb edited and which argued for a strict separation between the people of the Kingdom of God (the Church) and the politics of the kingdoms of the world. How was that work received in Lipscomb’s time? When did his non-participation, non-violence view begin to wane among the Churches of Christ?

Lipsbomb did not originate this position. It was held by a significant number of people in Middle Tennessee at the outbreak of the Civil War, and Tolbert Fanning (1810-1874) advocated it a dozen years before the Civil War at least.

In 1866 Lipscomb published a series of articles articulating his position, and those articles ultimately became the book Civil Government (published in 1889).

The articles and book created considerable controversy. It is difficult to judge percentages, but it appears it was a dominant position in Middle Tennessee but it was not as well received elsewhere. Some suggest that it was a strong minority at the time of World War I, perhaps even a slight majority. I don’t think we can really know exactly.

His view began to wane among Churches of Christ in the 1920s-1930s. World War I began the demise, and as some power brokers within Churches of Christ moved to isolate premillennialists among them, it declined further because his view of civil government was closely linked to an apocalyptic vision of world history (and many added premillennialism to that vision, such as James A. Harding). Ultimately, World War II was the death of this vision of life as the vast majority within Churches of Christ embraced patriotism and nationalism (much as what happened among Northern Christian Churches at the outbreak of the Civil War).

The plethora of responses by Restoration Movement Christians to the plight of the enslaved Africans on American soil, especially in the time surrounding the Civil War, is both fascinating and frustrating. Alexander Campbell seemed to take a moderating view that stressed unity. How did Lipscomb’s view on the institution of slavery compare with Campbell’s?

Yes, Alexander Campbell was a gradualist, that is, he believed the evils of slavery would gradually disappear over time as the nation came to its moral senses, and he did not think slavery should divide churches because it was, in his view, morally sanctioned in some form by the New Testament. Campbell hoped and believed that slavery would disappear in the South just as it had in New England, given enough time and due moral diligence.

Lipscomb held a similar view as Campbell. However, he did regard slavery as a great evil because of the way the slaves were treated and he believed God, in his providence, would find a release for the slaves. Indeed, Lipscomb believed the Civil War was for the purpose of punishing the south for its treatment of the slaves as well as freeing them. At bottom, Lipscomb did not believe in violent revolution, and though Fanning and others were known to buy and free slaves (when freeing them was costly and difficult), Lipscomb submitted to the government as he thought Scripture demanded but worked for the humane treatment of slaves and expected its ultimate dissolution.

You co-wrote a book on David Lipscomb in 2006. And those familiar with your online writings know how Lipscomb, Tolbert Fanning, and James Harding have captured your attention. What is it about these men that fascinates, inspires, and challenges you?

Well, first of all, they are my family of origins as a minister among Churches of Christ. They shaped my family in significant ways. In order to understand myself, I need to understand them. We don’t know who we are unless we know where we have come from and how that has shaped how we think and act in the present.

More than that, however, I find their passion for evangelism, the poor, and critique of government fascinating. They advocated living simply, giving generously, and dedicating their energy toward kingdom-building rather than political and economic power. Their sense of the priesthood of all believers (every Christian is a teacher, missionary, etc.) is powerful, and their sense that the local church is the frontline of the kingdom of God in the world inspires me to focus my attention there. The church truly is, for them, a community that bears witness to others by its own life and practices.

The challenging dimension is holding together the tension between kingdom of God and the desire to bear witness to justice and peace in the world. To what extent is political action necessary if we are going to bear witness to justice? Lipscomb himself favored labor over the business tycoons of the late 19th century; he was a progressive era unionist, even sometimes bordering on a socialist communal agenda without, of course, involving himself in politics themselves. What would Lipscomb have done with the Civil Rights Movement? I think he might have marched (given the changing times) and supported the movement, but to what extent would he have seen the necessity of political action in the legislatures and voting. Probably, I imagine, he would have left that to God though he would have been a voice for humane treatment of people in their social relations and in churches.

Lipscomb obviously was not in favor of Christians taking over the legislature to, for example, “take the country back for God.” Many of us who think similarly are often met with the charge that we believe Christians should “sit back and do nothing.” How would Lipscomb have responded to such a claim?

 

It is difficult to know exactly what Lipscomb would have done in our contemporary context.

In his own context, he welcomed laws that supported morality though he neither voted for them nor antagonized for those laws. When there are good laws, he is happy to obey them. When there are bad laws, as long as they do not subvert the gospel in any way, he still obeys them.

Civil disobedience is on the table for Lipscomb, though it is difficult to discern when he would actually use such except in extreme circumstances where the law explicitly contradicts the will of God.

He also used his voice to protest war (e.g., Spanish-American War), denounce commercial greed, and advocate for labor. In the Jim Crow south, you do not see him, however, confronting the evil and calling for change, though it is clear he did not agree with Jim Crow laws. One sees this in the context of the church, for example, where there should be no difference between Black and White in the community of faith. Lipscomb opposed the Jim Crow process of segregation that shaped the South in the 1870s-1890s, and it was basically complete by the 1900s.

I don’t think Lipscomb would say, “sit back and do nothing.” He would probably say, “preach the gospel, live as disciples, and bear witness to justice and peace in nonviolent ways.”

Hypothetical scenario: I’m sitting in a Church of Christ and have come to believe Lipscomb, Harding, and Fanning were on to something, especially as it relates to the Christian’s relation to government and war. Now I am wondering if there’s a place for me in the Churches of Christ. What is your advice for such a person for whom the teachings of the leaders of the past are clashing with the realities of present teachings and trends?

I hope there is a place because that is where I sit! There is a persistent stream of thought from Stone and Fanning through Lipscomb and Harding to the present. Pacifism never died out among Churches of Christ, though it was overwhelmed at times. Our heritage has this resource, and we should retrieve for the present, especially in the light of current realities.

However, one must sit with grace, patience, and persistence. Speak when there is opportunity, live peaceably with people, model how to resist evil with good rather than evil, etc.

I imagine Jesus himself had to wonder whether he could endure remaining among his own disciples who wanted to burn cities rather than liberate them. This is part of suffering with Christ and completing the ministry of Christ in our time.

How can we allow the example of David Lipscomb to continue to challenge us in the present day?

The pressures surrounding the Civil War were intense. It is difficult for us to imagine. But suppose someone said (as some did) in the aftermath of 9/11, that our task is peacemaking rather than warmongering. Suppose someone might say, it is just for us to fight back and make war on the Taliban because of what they did to us. It serves justice and freedom.

I imagine Lispcomb heard the same thing in Middle Tennessee from both northern and southern politicos. Each could make their own case. Each employed a “just war” strategy. Lipscomb and others were under tremendous pressure to conform and pick sides and go to war. Some of Lipscomb’s cousins, classmates, teachers, and fellow-students went to war, and some from each of those categories I just listed died. The cultural pressure must have been enormous.

 

Nevertheless, Lipscomb refused to conform, and he decided for the kingdom of Christ instead of the human kingdoms.

That challenges me. Could I have done that? What would I have done? What should I do now?

Yes, Lipscomb continues to challenge me.

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