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Who Was David Lipscomb? A Review of ‘Crying in the Wilderness’

David Lipscomb (1831–1917) cofounded David Lipscomb University, served as publisher and editor for the Gospel Advocate, and made a wide-reaching influence on the Restoration Movement’s churches of Christ in the 19th century. Chad Harrington reviews Robert E. Hooper’s biography of Lipscomb, Crying in the Wilderness, to reveal five of Lipscomb’s admirable character traits.

I recently taught a six-week class at my home church on what’s known as the Restoration Movement. Teaching the class was good for my church, but it also made a profound impact on me because I became reacquainted with the movers and shakers in my faith tradition. This movement began in the late 1700s but started to make headway with Thomas Campbell’s plea for unity in his 1809 Declaration and Address.

James B. North defined the Restoration Movement as “a movement that began in America in about the year 1800, in order to restore the church to the ideals that are pictured in the New Testament” (Union in Truth, 6).

As I taught a class on this movement at my church, I enjoyed going deeper into the lives of people such as Barton Stone, Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, and Walter Scott, those early influencers among Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ.

Teaching the class also inspired me to understand the movement’s history in Tennessee, where I live, which meant learning more about David Lipscomb.

In 1891, David Lipscomb cofounded with James A. Harding the Nashville Bible College, which is now David Lipscomb University. Plus, he served as an editor for the Gospel Advocate for 50 years.

Inspired by what I knew of Lipscomb’s life on a surface level, I wanted more, so I read Robert E. Hooper’s biography of David Lipscomb, Crying in the Wilderness: A Biography of David Lipscomb. Dr. Robert E. Hooper was a longtime Lipscomb University history chair and taught from 1960–1998.

According to Janel Shoun, this is “the only comprehensive biography of David Lipscomb.” Plus, Douglas A. Foster says, “No individual had a more profound and lasting influence on the shape of Churches of Christ in the twentieth century than David Lipscomb.”

Reading biographies has always helped me better discern my sense of calling in life. Since I’m a publisher at HIM Publications and a teacher at my church, I wanted to know more about Lipscomb’s story as a publisher and teacher as well.

Thus, Hooper’s biography scratched my itch for more details.

While Hooper’s Lipscomb biography was originally published in 1979, it was updated and republished in 2011. My review covers the 1979 version.

My Major Takeaway

What struck me most about this biography was David Lipscomb’s character. He was a humble, generous, nuanced, consistent, and faithful man.

Having studied his life in this 324-page book, I’ve come to think about his life in general like this:

David Lipscomb lived a life of crescendo, not diminuendo.

This realization came to me halfway through the biography, when I still hadn’t read a word about his cofounding Lipscomb University. Prior to reading the book, I had thought cofounding the university was his main life’s contribution.

Yet he was 60 years old when he embarked on that new chapter of life in 1891.

So I wrote down a phrase to help myself and others emulate his life, which I shared in my Luke 1:5–38 sermon on the kingdom. I hope this inspires you too:

Live a life of crescendo.

Let me share with you his life of crescendo by describing five characteristics that made David Lipscomb effective in the kingdom of God. Then, I’ll share with you a few critiques about the book itself.

This post is not a comprehensive summary of Lipscomb’s life or beliefs but mostly a high-level overview of his character—what’s admirable about his life.

I hope you will find inspiration and practical application of his story for your story. Scripture says to think on whatever is admirable (Phil. 4:8), and Lipscomb’s life gives us admirable traits upon which to dwell.

1. Lipscomb Was Humble

David Lipscomb was a humble preacher. While he was notoriously an ungifted public speaker, he preached faithfully to whatever size crowd showed up: whether 3 or 300 people in audience.

I enjoyed the story about when only one man and two women showed up to hear him preach. The man said, “I am sorry it is a bad day, I was hopeful you would have enough people to preach to, as I am interested in your preaching.”

Lipscomb replied, “If you are interested, we have enough to preach to” (240).

I love what he wrote to Advocate readers about preaching wherever they had opportunity (241):

“Do not despise the day of small things.”

At that time in Middle Tennessee when most preachers supported themselves through other means, Lipscomb preached faithfully on Sundays at various churches throughout his life, often multiple times a week even, and he ran his farm and publishing business to support himself.

He was the first Restoration Movement preacher to preach in most areas of Davidson County—often to small groups of people.

He was a humble preacher.

He was a humble about his speech in general, though. Even among Christian circles, people made public fun of his speaking abilities, but that didn’t keep him from preaching and debating. He wrote to one debater, “I am awkward and not eloquent, but I am willing to risk the truth against your grace and eloquence” (245).

For Lipscomb, the purpose of his participating in public debates—which only happened a few times—was not to win the argument but to find the areas in which they agreed.

He didn’t believe in preaching eloquent sermons but in delivering the Word of God faithfully. The preacher should really be a teacher, he thought.

So he gives us something to think about with regard to humility: “Eloquent preachers may draw crowds and make the church popular, but he can never give spiritual life to the church” (237).

2. Lipscomb Was Generous

He gave sacrificially. For a decade immediately after the Civil War, which decimated the South where Lipscomb lived, he invested his own money to keep the Advocate in circulation.

From 1866–1868, Lipscomb invested $1,000 of his own money to keep the publishing business afloat. In today’s dollars, that’s $20,000.

He gave to the poor. What’s also remarkable to me is how Lipscomb gave of his time, money, and health to serve the poor.

In the 19th century, seven cholera outbreaks occurred in the United States, and when cholera hit Nashville in the 1870s, for example, many wealthy landowners left the city for the countryside.

Lipscomb, however, stayed in Nashville and physically served those with cholera. He even went into the homes of African-Americans suffering from the disease to care for them. He contracted cholera himself—on top of his chronic asthma—and while he suffered, he survived the infection.

Also, he and his wife, Margaret, helped establish the Fanning Orphan School in 1884 to serve orphans. Even after David’s passing, Margaret prepared a will that gave away half of her small estate to the Chapel Avenue Home for the Aged and the other half to two different Tennessee orphanages.

Together, the Lipscombs left a legacy of generosity.

He used his home to serve others. David had a son who died at nine months old, whom he grieved his whole life, and he and his wife never raised children of their own.

Instead, they helped others. They opened their home for others to live with them. They housed friends, family, and relatives over the years—sometimes having as many as 11 people living under their roof at one time.

After the Civil War, which left most Southerners on the verge of starvation, David Lipscomb, along with his colleagues, used the influence of the Advocate to raise $100,000 by the time the crisis was over (93). That’s $1.96 million in today’s money.

Thus, Lipscomb raised the equivalent of $2 million to help the poor.

What’s truly remarkable, though, is how he also helped garner funds for northern Churches of Christ when the Chicago fire of 1871 happened. He led the South to respond to the call of the Christian Standard to help raise $100,000 to help with reconstruction among the fellow disciples (152).

And the cherry on the cake of the generosity of the Lipscombs was when they gave their 110-acre farm to the university.

3. Lipscomb Was Nuanced

In my experience, people often portray David Lipscomb as rigid. But I’ve found him to be nuanced.

Lipscomb held strong convictions, yes, but he walked with nuance even amidst attack. In other words, he didn’t believe he was always right about everything and was open to changing his views.

To this point, Hooper writes:

“Even under an accusing finger, his position was always one of open-mindedness. Nor did he believe in moving too fast toward a conclusion on any matter. When questioned concerning the organization of the church, especially the place of the preacher within the organizational structure, Lipscomb answered: ‘Our convictions are not so fixed as to make us willing to commit ourselves to any theory. We are studying the subject as we have opportunity and shall hasten leisurely to our decision, whatever it may be.’” (219–220)

During Lipscomb’s lifetime, two hot-button issues were missionary societies and using instruments in worship. Missionary societies were early parachurch organizations that helped fuel foreign missions. “Instruments” in worship, at the time, were organs. Lipscomb notoriously opposed both—and held those convictions throughout his life—but he was not close-minded.

In fact, he even published the views of those opposed to him.

Take J. W. Higbee of Madisonville, Kentucky, for example. Higbee advocated for the missionary societies in the Advocate. As a result, subscribers began asking Lipscomb about his wisdom in appointing Higbee as editor, but Lipscomb defended him “as one searching for truth” (210).

“Lipscomb did not require those who wrote for the Advocate to agree with him.”

Lipscomb did not require those who wrote for the Advocate to agree with him. Instead his rule for the publication was “to discuss any practical question in a Christian and courteous manner to learn the truth of the Bible” (220).

As a publisher, I admire how he would publish articles written by people with whom he disagreed about important issues. As long as these writers genuinely sought truth, Lipscomb willingly published their articles because that fostered good discussion.

In like manner, Jim Putman and I sought to offer a nuanced perspective on controversial issues in our book The Revolutionary Disciple, where we offer our take on how to navigate political issues and government regulations, for example.

Chad Ragsdale’s Renew book, Christian Convictions, offers a framework for living in this sort of nuance. He divides theological issues into three main categories: essential, important, and personal.

And, as a modern-day example of doing exactly what Lipscomb did, has released content they don’t agree with—such as a dialogue article within the gender-roles debate, which includes viewpoints that don’t align with Renew’s faith statement. I commend them for being willing to engage with others with whom they disagree but share a common spirit of seeking truth.

“Lipscomb’s first concern was always a person’s motive.”

Hooper reports that “Lipscomb’s first concern was always a person’s motive” (195), and that is admirable indeed.

This is one of my favorite quotes on this topic by Lipscomb: “It is a fatal mistake for a man to conclude that he has learned the whole truth [of Scripture]” (198).

4. Lipscomb Was Consistent

Although Lipscomb held strong convictions and made space for nuance, he was consistent in various areas of life: in work, in family, and in theology.

Work. David Lipscomb displayed his consistency in humility as he preached often multiple times a week throughout his life.

Most impressive to me was that he edited and wrote for the Advocate for five decades. For a large portion of that time, he traveled ten miles each working day from his house on horseback—there and back! Eventually, as he got older, he and Margaret moved to be only four miles away from the publication’s office.

Family. Every night at 9 p.m., Margaret read aloud one chapter of the family Bible with everyone staying at the house. Then, David knelt and led everyone in prayer.

The Lipscombs did this every night.

Theology. While many preachers, teachers, and scholars rightly change their views when their studies lead them to change, sometimes changing one’s views isn’t admirable.

Instead, being consistent theologically can be a strength. In Lipscomb’s case, it was a strength, even though I might disagree with some of his convictions. The reasons he maintained his positions were helpful for the discussions of his age, and we can admire his ability to argue—and hold to—his positions.

Lipscomb’s views didn’t vary drastically over his lifetime.

I appreciate that he was strong and unshaken by accusation, challenge, or differing views in regard to theology. That is, God’s Word was his highest source of truth, not the opinions of people. He was open to differing views on God’s Word, but only when someone made a convincing argument—not just because it was culturally appealing.

He was a man of conviction and consistency, and in a similar vein, he was faithful.

5. Lipscomb Was Faithful

Lipscomb was faithful to his wife, his college, the church, and his work.

To his wife. In our age, when influencers and movement makers sometimes show marital unfaithfulness, Lipscomb was faithful to his spouse.

They were unable to have children, yet he was faithful.

He traveled many days of the year, yet he was faithful.

He was well-known, yet he was faithful.

His legacy has stayed intact, I believe, in part due to his faithfulness in areas such as marriage.

“His legacy has stayed intact, I believe, in part due to his faithfulness in areas such as marriage.”

To the college. I love Hooper’s anecdote about Lipscomb’s devotion to his primary vocation.

Lipscomb once arrived at Union Station in downtown Nashville to board a train on his way to preach a funeral. While waiting for the train, he saw two other preachers. He asked if they would preach the funeral instead of him, so he could get back to his teaching duties at Nashville Bible College.

They agreed, and he went back to the college. He was focused on his primary duty of teaching at all costs.

To the church. I also find remarkable his devotion to the church. He preached in churches and sought to build up the church his whole life.

He still preached after he turned 75, but his preaching appointments got further and further apart. He preached as much as he could for as long as he could.

Even though he and Margaret moved several times during their lives together, they always remained devoted to the local church. In fact, the reason he opposed the missionary societies was not because he was opposed to mission work.

Rather, he was devoted to mission work but believed missions should come out of a local body of believers.

Lipscomb held a centrifugal view of evangelism, you could say. Hooper writes, “Always Lipscomb urged Christians to preach the gospel in their neighborhoods first, then think about sending someone to outlying areas and across the seas” (192).

The church held the primary seat of authority in Christ’s kingdom work on earth to Lipscomb, and Lipscomb held this view—and lived by it—throughout his life.

To his work. Lipscomb lived until he was 86, and he served the church as publisher for the Advocate for 50 of those years, which is worth mentioning again.

He didn’t let his pride keep him in the game too long, though. As his mind and body declined in his 80s, he allowed younger editors to take the lead at the Advocate.

And he stopped writing regularly when he realized his mind was not sharp. He started making mistakes in the Advocate. For example, he wrote that “Luke was not inspired” when he meant “was not an apostle.”

As a result, Lipscomb humbly wrote in 1912:

My mind sympathizes with my body and is very unreliable at times. I get confused in names of things and persons, and I often call names and say the opposite of what I intend. I have quit teaching in the school on account of this trouble, and, I take it, must quit trying to talk to the public. (316)

He finally went to rest on Sunday, November 11, 1917. Having slipped into a coma days earlier, he entered into the next life, having lived faithfully to God, wife, church, and work.

My Critique of the Book

Robert E. Hooper’s biography was a source of encouragement and perspective to me.

In terms of negative critique, however, Hooper’s book offered more details than were necessary for his major points. He could have summarized more, in my opinion, and left out what seemed to be irrelevant tangents on occasion.

This biography was free of typos, but it repeated some facts and points that could have been eliminated with more editing.

Another critique is the organizational style of the book could easily confuse the reader. The book was not always arranged in chronological order—especially his “INSIGHT” chapters—which disrupted the flow for me.

Those critiques are minor, though, compared to what the book offers in substance.

For the stories, facts, and information it offers, I heartily recommend this book, especially for those with an interest in Restoration Movement history in the 19th century or a vocational interest in Lipscomb’s life.

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