Lipscomb, Fanning, and Campbell: The Decline and Rebirth of a Christian Anarchist Movement

Laurence Vance wrote an excellent article detailing the radically anti-war and anti-state sentiment and arguments of the 19th century writers Alexander Campbell, Tolbert Fanning, and David Lipscomb. Readers interested in that article might wonder what happened. Where, who, when, and what removed their influence?  This is an attempt to answer these questions with additional insight from living within this religious movement that these three championed. Here I will explain what happened to this movement, what else went right, and what went wrong.

Vance writes from outside the Stone-Campbell movement, but was nevertheless accurate and objective. Although he says that Lipscomb was Campbell’s “most noted disciple”, this would only be true from the “Church of Christ” branch of the Stone-Campbell movement. As the movement was originally radically decentralist, there was no centralized body to say officially that there was a split. In 1906 the US Census asked David Lipscomb to say whether the Church of Christ segment had in fact split from the Disciples of Christ, and he stated his opinion that such division had taken place, and so this date is taken as the de facto date of division. Those of the Disciples group, who in 1906 probably accounted for 75% of the Stone-Campbell movement hardly acknowledged Lipscomb as influential or important among them.

This movement is named the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement equally for Barton Stone as for Alexander Campbell. As when the two parties first met and merged, Stone’s influence was probably greater. Like the others, Stone argued as early as 1827 that “war and slavery” were the “greatest evils in the world”. Stone’s proportional influence lessened over time as Campbell was considered a better writer and more persuasive debater and speaker. However, their differences are not significant in the scope of the current subject.

Campbell’s philosophical strengths and weaknesses (upon which religious and political beliefs are based) can be summed up by stating he was thoroughly a classical liberal influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment. Many readers of may know that classical liberalism’s flaw was that it did not apply the principal of reducing the nation-state to the consistent logical and ethical necessity of anarchism. Therefore, when classical liberals obtained power, they suffered a quite predictable crisis of faith. Campbell’s ideological shift (or rather, glaring silence) during the Civil War is elsewhere ascribed to his declining faculties in old age, or to the company around him, and while those may have contributed in part, certainly the nature of his classical liberalism should be recognized equally at fault.

In politics, classical liberalism’s crisis of faith happened around 1890-1900. Upon that crisis, it split into two parts. One part, modern liberalism, reversed course completely, making peace with the state as head of society. Second was conservatism, which was without a head and was mostly swept into alliance with aristocratic militarism.

However, in the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement, this crisis of classical liberal faith happened earlier, from 1860-1866, causing a split that wasn’t recognized till later. I will use three of the most influential people in this period to explain it.

James Garfield, who would later be president, based on Stone-Campbell influences wrote in 1850, “I have engaged to support the following proposition, viz., Christians have no right to participate in human governments!” However, he then went to the Calvinist Williams College and changed his belief completely. Next, Isaac Errett was a preacher and writer who would become joint editor of Campbell’s Millennial Harbinger in 1861. While Campbell would not defend participation in the Civil War, with Errett as coeditior he did not repeat his earlier strong anti-war arguments from his Address on War of 1848.

Finally, there was Thomas Wharton Phillips: oil millionaire, future fractionally reserved bank president, and one of the wealthiest men in the country to provide the financial backing to alter the political beliefs of the Stone-Campbell movement. These three, Garfield, Errett, and Phillips would create the Christian Standard in 1865 with the explicit purpose of creating a financially powerful pro-war, pro-Union, pro-government voice within the Stone-Campbell movement to oppose the other writers who were pacifist, anti-war, and abolitionist.

But even before that, in 1861, Errett and Garfield supported a resolution for the American Christian Missionary Society (ACMS) to expect Christians “to do all in their power to sustain the proper and constituted authorities of the Union.” Then one even stronger in 1863  denouncing “the attempts of armed traitors to overthrow our government.”  These acts, abandoning the anti-war and anti-state arguments of Campbell, Fanning, and Lipscomb made the peaceful element of the church that much more opposed to the centralization implicit in the ACMS.  The 1906 split of the movement was effectively defined by those congregations which were subject to the ACMS verses those that retained their independence from it.

By the end of the millennium, the Disciples of Christ movement that Phillips funded by his extreme wealth would virtually collapse, measured in members, churches, and finances, such to the point that the Phillips Theological Seminary named after him would have to become jointly associated with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and have a religion so altered from Stone and Campbell that would allow what remained of the Disciples of Christ to be so co-branded as a seminary for atheists.

What is recognized by almost no one, is that the split between the sides represented by Errett and Lipscomb specifically on abolitionism. Lipscomb was an abolitionist, and explicit anti-racist who considered, and openly wrote that it was blasphemy to segregate churches by race, and so he represented Southern abolitionism. Errett, on the other hand was not abolitionist, and specifically avoided taking religious sides on the issue of slavery, even though he claimed personal disapproval of slavery. Statistics show that Errett’s Disciples of Christ were the largest slave holding religion, per capita. How interesting that a religious group split in significant part on the line of Southern anarchist abolitionists verses pro-Union slave-holders. If such an interesting history were not so politically inconvenient, it would have been commonly known.

No longer held back by the anarchist abolitionists, the Disciples of Christ governor of Indiana Edward Jackson was one of the most influential leaders of the KKK, a eugenicist and prohibitionist, and a Lincoln idolater. He created the Indiana Lincoln Union (ILU) to erect a “national shrine” to Lincoln and his mother. In his dedication of the “hallowed ground” where they walked, he even praised Lincoln’s mother in religious terms you would expect he was a Catholic speaking of the Virgin Mary. Those without much knowledge of either the KKK or Abraham Lincoln maybe surprised that the KKK was so explicitly worshipful of Lincoln.

In the other direction, separated from the corrupting influence of Errett’s warmongering theology, David Lipscomb’s peaceful and radical anarchist libertarianism had also broken free from the contradictions of Campbell’s classical liberalism, and was growing strong despite massive property destruction of the war.

The Austrian economist Edward Stringham does an excellent job of explaining Lipscomb’s radical libertarian anti-war anarchism, so I will not repeat much of that. However, it is important to understand how Lipscomb’s beliefs were eventually displaced within the Churches of Christ.

Separated from the Disciples of Christ, the radical decentralization of the Churches of Christ meant that no individual had any authority or influence beyond their own persuasiveness. However, political power also competes for influence and persuasiveness. Lipscomb’s essays on Civil Government from 1866-1867, later published in book form, and the corruption of politics witnessed in the Disciples of Christ were of central influence in resisting the temptations of legitimizing civil government. However, before he died in 1917, pro-government apologists released one of the influential propaganda pieces of all time with the 1915 movie “Birth of a Nation”. This was a Northern attempt to convince the South to reconcile to Lincolnism, progressivism, and worship of government by blaming blacks for the Civil War…and it was sadly quite successful.

World War I proved a perfect storm of persecution by the United States government against the Churches of Christ. We had Cordell Christian College come under direct threat because of our pacifist opposition to the war. The government forced all faculty who were pacifist to quit. As that was every member but one, there was no way to continue the college and thus it was shuttered by the government. Two students of the college were sent to Leavenworth prison for their Christianity, and put before a firing squad, although a command to fire was not given. Given this background of severe persecution of peaceful Christianity in the USA, and the death of the stalwart David Lipscomb in 1917, when J.C. McQuiddy was threatened to stop writing anti-war, anti-selective service articles in the Gospel Advocate, or face confiscation of all church and magazine assets, he knew Wilson’s progressive US government was not giving idle threats. He gave in. The Gospel Advocate went silent on these issues.

In comparison to Cordell Christian College being forced out of existence by the progressive US government, another of our small start-up colleges decided to do the opposite. Abilene Christian College (now ACU – Abilene Christian University) decided to side with the government and instead of the persecution faced by Cordell, it created a student military auxiliary and was rewarded by government financial subsidy of their college. So having adopted progressive pro-war, pro-state values in 1917, ACU would also be famous for reversing Lipscomb’s anti-racism to adopt the racism of the progressive movement.

An interesting personal story aside: An older lady was an unusual friend of mine and other fellow teenagers in the early 1990s at the congregation I attended, because she got into computers to keep herself from being an idle widow. What I didn’t know till much later was that when she went to ACU in the 1940s, she became engaged to a Japanese Christian man. The ever-progressive influenced ACU administration, on the heals of the progressive Executive Order 9066, found out and forced them to sever the engagement because it would be too improper for a white woman to marry a Japanese man. Nevertheless, thanks to the internet, after he was widowed once and her twice, they found each other fifty years later and were finally able to marry. Their story was on the cover of the Dallas Morning News in 1997.

I would like to paint ACU in a better light. My parents met there, my maternal grandparents met there. I wouldn’t exist without it. Nevertheless, ACU has for almost 100 years represented the idolatrous influence of progressivism attempting to stifle the influence of David Lipscomb within Churches of Christ. It remains such to this day, sadly, with influences like their star prodigy, Max Lucado leading a prayer of religious endorsement for further progressive warmongering at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

These modern progressives who have martyred Lipscomb’s anarchism have tried to shift the flaws of our movement’s past to blame conservatism and irrational dogmatism. However, they are dependent on ignoring that conservatism and excessive dogmatism are mere phases of progressivism and obfuscation of our own history, intent of blame shifting away from the idolatry of human government.

But the progressives in our movement are more deceptively ahistorical. They point, correctly, to Foy E. Wallace Jr. as a figurehead bad guy in our movement. They tie, fairly, Wallace’s excessive dogmatism to his explicit racism, and then point this out to blame the conservatives. Yet, they have to ignore the central influence of Wallace’s dogmatism as the means by which he strong-armed progressive, Wilsonian pro-government values into the Churches of Christ. Like a master of deception, Wallace shifted the focus away from our relation to government, which Lipscomb considered most important, and the devil’s final temptation of Jesus, to more superficial issues like instrumental music. Certainly, once progressivism was done with racism as a scaffold to entwine idolatrous patriotism into a religion, it can remove the scaffold, but progressivism becomes no less evil in its nature because it drops one evil that has passed its usefulness. The pro-state progressives fail to recognize the obvious, to properly credit Foy E. Wallace Jr. is a founding source of their belief system within the Churches of Christ.

I wish I could end with optimism for a return of our heritage to throw off the yoke of the enslaving idolatry of progressivism. I see a glimmer of hope as at least a remnant few are rediscovering Lipscomb’s profound ideas and arguments across the internet. But at the moment, it is only a glimmer and a remnant. I can add myself as one who would not have known my own heritage and the genius of Lipscomb’s writings if it were not for the broader anarchist influences of people specifically like Murray Rothbard, after whom my sixth child was named, shining a light of openness and knowledge that would let forgotten anarchist movements rediscover themselves.

My great aunt gathered 50,000 women to rally against the ERA in 1977 at the Houston Astrodome, supposedly a turning point in stopping it. While she might have been right in a fight against increasing government authority, she said that she spent her life in the Churches of Christ fighting the ghost of David Lipscomb. Sorry Aunt Lottie, Lipscomb’s ghost is alive, and he was right.