7 Nov 2016

The Apocalyptic Theology of David Lipscomb and James A. Harding … A Contrast to American Christianity

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Church History, Contemporary Ethics, David Lipscomb, Discipleship, eschatology, James A. Harding, Lectures, Mission, Politics, Restoration History, War -Peace
David Lipscomb (1831-1917)

David Lipscomb (1831-1917)

I do no think there is a better time to post this paper delivered to the 2006 Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University than now.  Christians in America from the various political parties have, seemingly, drank from some strange wine.  Just food for thought.

Bobby Valentine
Christian Scholars Conference
Rochester College, June 2006
The Apocalyptic Theology of David Lipscomb
and James A. Harding


Professor Richard Goode has made a plea for “scandalous” historiography on behalf of the citizenship of the kingdom of God.[1]  David Lipscomb (1831-1917) and James A. Harding (1848-1922) were both radical and scandalous. Therefore, I offer this short paper in their honor.

Apocalyptic Framework of Lipscomb and Harding

Martinus De Boer, reflecting on Paul’s apocalyptic theology, states that apocalyptic evokes the idea of “God’s own eschatological and sovereign action of putting an end to this world-age and replacing it with the new world age (the kingdom of God).[2]  Both Lipscomb and Harding lived with just such a radical apocalyptic interpretation of life in the present, a life in which they conceived as being lived in the shadow of God’s in-breaking kingdom.  Such an orientation places Christians within an entirely different age.  Christians are, perhaps, the future on display in the present.  David Lipscomb describes this counter world,

“The Advocate has no faith in Christianity which is only peaceable in perceable [sic] times, when the world is peaceable, or while politicians are peaceable, but when the world gets war like [sic] and blood-thirsty, does just like the world, become warlike and bloodthirsty. The church that acts just like the world in these matters, is not a whit better than the world.  I would like to see the church as God intended it to be. An ark of safety, peace and harmony, even while the world and the kingdoms are engaged in fierce and bloody strife.”[3]

According to Lipscomb and Harding, God’s people are to live in the present fallen age as ambassadors of another age, an age in which the unique ethics of the kingdom are manifest.  This perspective is scattered throughout the writings of both men but is nicely expounded in two key documents: David Lipscomb’s classic book Civil Government[4] and James A. Harding’s article “The Kingdom of Christ Vs. The Kingdoms of Satan.”[5]  For Harding, and to a lesser extent Lipscomb, there is a broad spiritual conflict going on in which the saints have an important role.  It is a conflict between God’s kingdom and Satan’s, between Christians and non-believers and between God’s church and the powers of this age.

According to the general scheme embraced by both Lipscomb and Harding, God created humanity out of his gracious love to enlarge the family of God.  Adam and Eve, as proto-typical humans were to be trained in the art of ruling in order to share the regency with God.  Humanity soon rejected God’s graciousness and sought to establish an autonomous government separate and apart from God. In so doing humans gave God’s good creation over to Satan himself.  The result of such a tragic turn of events is, of course, the evil and suffering that so visibly fills the earth.  Envy, hate and war became the lot of humanity.

Yet God sought to “deliver the earth from Satan, and destroy his hosts.”[6]  God first did this through Noah’s flood and progressively has been reclaiming his creation through Israel and the work of Christ.  Just as the Fall was, seemingly, a decisive moment so Harding believed there would be a decisive moment in which the enemy of God would be singularly defeated.  In a scene that reminds us of Tolkien’s Return of the King, Harding describes the battle,

When the saints are caught up to meet him, Christ comes on with them, to the earth. Then all the kings of the earth gather their armies together, with the beast and the false prophet, to make war against Christ and his army.  The beast and the false prophet are captured and cast into the lake of fire, the first to be consigned to that awful place; then by the sword that proceeds out of his mouth Christ slays all the rest, the wicked that are on the earth . . . Satan is then caught, chained and cast into the abyss, which is shut and sealed.”[7]

Following the defeat of Satan and his hosts the long awaited Sabbath rest of Hebrews 4.9, the Millennium, is established and the poor shall inherit the earth.  The Millennium is not the end however.  The goal of creation is realized when God himself takes up his abode with his sons and daughters on a redeemed and renovated earth.  As Lipscomb would say

The mission of this Church is to rescue and redeem the earth from the rule and dominion of the human kingdoms, from the rebellion against God, and to reinstate the authority and rule of God on earth through this own kingdom. Through and in it Christ must reign until he shall have “put down all rule, and all authority and all power.” Then will he deliver up the kingdom to God the Father, and himself be subject to God, that God ruling in and through his restored kingdom on earth, may be all and in all, the only ruler of the heavens and of the earth.[8]

Or again,

The Holy Spirit came to earth to . . . guide that kingdom to its future growth, to its final and perfect development, when the kingdoms of the earth shall become the kingdom of God and his Christ, when the will of God shall be done on earth as it is in heaven, and when earth itself shall become heaven and God shall dwell  with his people and be their God and they shall be his people.[9]

Harding would agree with this sentiment:

…the earth is God’s nursery, his training grounds, made primarily for the occupancy of his children, for their education, development and training until they shall have reached their majority, until the end of the Messianic age has come; then it is to be purified a second time by a great washing, a mighty flood, but this time in a sea of fire. Then God will take up his abode himself with his great family upon this new, this renovated and purified earth…So it is apparent that the one great, all-including purpose for which we were made, for which we exist, is to be educated, trained, developed, so as to be indeed sons of God; brothers of Christ, heirs of God, who will dwell with their Father forever, and will reign with him.”[10]

It might be helpful for us to graph the Harding’s theology in the following way, sort of a mirror or chiastic structure:

Creation (Eden)                                                                Renewed Earth (God’s Reign)

Israel                                                  Sabbath Rest/Millennium



Incarnation/Age of the Spirit

This structure is not just an end time scenario for Harding and Lipscomb but fills their entire theological perspective.

James A. Harding

Avoiding “Adulterous Alliances”

If the present age has fallen into a Satanic quagmire how shall the people of God live?  Christians are those who have voluntarily pledged allegiance to the kingdom of God.  They have been translated out of the old age through their baptism and into a new age.  Members of the kingdom of God will avoid any “adulterous alliance[s]” with the fallen world.[11]  Lipscomb had argued early after the Civil War that there were only three possible positions a Christian could take with regard to the world powers.  He pointed to the first position as that of Isaac Errett and the Christian Standard. This position stated that Christians could fully participate in the world powers but imported Christian values into that sphere.  This position commits the disciple of Christ not only to voting, educating the flock for a specific “Christian” political point of view but also to bearing arms in behalf of the state.  This view had the benefit of logical consistency according to Lipscomb.

The second position Lipscomb stated was occupied by Benjamin Franklin and the American Christian Review.  This interpretation stated that disciples could vote and hold offices among the principalities and powers.  However the disciple is not to urge a particular political point of view or engage in war.  This view Lipscomb rejects as self-contradictory.

The third position regarding the disciple’s relationship to the rulers of this age is that of an alien and sojourner.  In this view the duty of the Christian is simply that of “quiet, cheerful submission to the government . . . in all things that do not contravene the letter and spirit of the Christian religion revealed in the Bible.”[12]

Lipscomb and Harding believed that the “spirit” that inhabits the kingdoms of this age and the kingdom of God were alien to each other and mutually exclusive.  There are many examples that could be called on to testify to this point but I have chosen two chronologically close examples from the late 1890s.  In the late 1890s the United States nearly came to blows with the British Empire over border disputes in South America between Venezuela and British Guiana.  And she did go to war with Spain in 1898.

From 1895 to 1896, under the guise of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States declared it had the authority to tell Great Britain what to do in a dispute with Venezuela.  Lipscomb found it ironic that Americans of all persuasions, Republicans and Democrats, had joined the war wagon in support of the Monroe Doctrine.  The British were to our north in Canada and never injured the United States therefore Lipscomb opined that the English pose no legitimate threat to American national security thousands of miles down in South America.  It was a, seemingly, mindless “Christian patriotism” that caused folks to strike up the war band.   But Lipscomb took a different point of view.  He wrote,

When the leading lights among politicians begin to advocate war in defense of the Monroe doctrine it is high time for the chief luminaries in the church of God to commence preaching peace on earth and good will among men in defense of the doctrine of the Sermon on the Mount. And if the government of the United States decides to go to war to uphold the Monroe doctrine, the disciples of Christ should determine with equal firmness to take no part in the bloody business in order to maintain the principles and spirit of the doctrine of Christ.”[13]

Lipscomb asks rhetorically “Should the Christian patriots of America kill the Christians of England because they are patriots too?[14]

The United States did not go to war with England over the Monroe doctrine.  But  a few years later she did with Spain and the Monroe doctrine did figure into America’s interest in Cuba.  Many humanitarian reasons were put forth as justifications of the war but they rang hallow to Lipscomb,

A claim of unselfish sympathy for suffering Cubans was put forward as the ground of this war; but this was a pretext to satisfy the moral and religious sentiment of the people, and show these latter have some hold on the people, however perverted they may be.  The war will end in conquest.[15]

The real reasons for going to war over Cuba were the same as always according to Lipscomb.  Politicians use war to advance personal agendas.  The rich will use war to make more money.  And it is the poor who will kill and be killed. “Christians have no part nor lot in such affairs.[16]

But the United States had charted a course that was antithetical to Jesus.  When a person embraces the Messiah, Lipscomb wrote, the values of Jesus are also embraced.  “That is what being a Christian means[17] he declared.  Since every Christian is “pledged” to do what Jesus would do if he were present, Lipscomb asks his readers, “Would Jesus join the army of the United States to fight Spain, or join the army of Spain to fight the United States? Would he kill and destroy men?[18]

Though we cannot explore it here, mention should be made of the totally different spirit in Garrison’s Christian Evangelist of the time.  Garrison’s pro-Americanism is so pointed that his biographer, William Tucker, remarked that the “readers of the Christian Evangelist had difficulty distinguishing between his religion and his patriotism.” When the Pope offered to mediate the dispute between the United States and Spain, Garrison wrote, “Our desire for peace can never carry us to that length.[19]  There is a stark contrast between Garrison and Lipscomb and Harding on this issue.

David Lipscomb and James A. Harding believe that the principalities and powers, as represented in the rulers of this age are fundamentally self-serving and idolatrous.  These powers will tolerate religious devotion as long as it does not conflict with the agenda of its self-promoting agenda.  The moment there is a conflict, Lipscomb writes (prophetically!?), the “civil power” will seek to destroy the church “as it sought to destroy it founder.”[20]

Disciples can inoculate themselves from the temptation to “adulterous alliances” through imbibing the Sermon on the Mount.  Both Lipscomb and Harding protested the neglect, and even outright dismissal, of the Sermon on the part of many Christians.[21] Lipscomb is impassioned about the centrality of the Sermon for Christian ethics and doctrine.  He claimed that these few chapters in Matthew “contain the living and essential principles of the religion of the Savior came to establish.”[22]  Stepping up the radical meter here, Lipscomb goes on to say that these values “are given as principles to be practiced, without which we are not and cannot be children of our Father which is in heaven . . .”[23]

KCThe Sermon on the Mount is essential because in it the deep chasm that separates the principalities of this world and Suffering Servant is manifest.  The spirit of Christ pervades the Sermon and is inculcated throughout the New Testament by the Messiah’s apostolic interpreters.

Likewise, Lipscomb believed that there was a corresponding relationship to a disciple’s attachment to the world and discipleship.  This is why both the Protestant and “Romish” establishments want to downplay the centrality of the Sermon for the Christian.  But that is also why it has been embraced as a “rule of life” by such small and insignificant groups as the Quakers, Mennonites and Dunkards.  When the Sermon is lost on the church “the spirit of Christ is driven out of the church and the spirit of the world takes its abode in it.”[24]

Concluding Remarks

A full exposition of Lipscomb and Harding cannot be given in the space and time allowed for this conference. Our recent work, coauthored with John Mark Hicks, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding attempts to offer a deeper excursion of into the radical theology of these men along with how to live this profound Spirituality.

But their theology is not just one of radical separation from the powers of this age.  Rather they understand that God is dynamically working in and through his kingdom people to bring about the ultimate redemption of creation.  Thus the Holy Spirit and Providence figure prominently in these men’s writings (especially Harding).  Through what Harding calls the “Four Means of Grace”[25] (reading scripture, fellowship with the disenfranchised, Lord’s day, prayer) God’s people share the ministry of God in caring for the poor and powerless of this age.

Their faith in the God who is sovereignly intervening in this age fueled lives of incredible sacrifice for the kingdom of God.  They are witnesses against the cultural church of today and silently point us back to the kingdom way.


[1]    Richard C. Goode, “The Radical Idea of Christian Scholarship: Plea for a Scandalous Historiography,” in Warren Lewis and Hans Rollmann, eds. Restoring First Century Christianity in the Twenty-First Century: Essays on the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2005), 227-242.

[2]    Martinus C. De Boer, “Paul, Theologian of God’s Apocalypse,” Interpretation 56.1 (January 2002), 24.

[3]    David Lipscomb, “Response,” Gospel Advocate 8.42 (16 October 1866), 662.

[4]    David Lipscomb, Civil Government: Its Origin, Mission, and Destiny and the Christian’s Relation to It (Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1913).

[5]    James A. Harding, “The Kingdom of Christ Vs. The Kingdoms of Satan,” The Way 5 (15 October 1903), 929-931.

[6]    Ibid., 930.

[7]    Ibid.

[8]    Lipscomb, Civil Government, 12-13.

[9]    David Lipscomb, “The Kingdom of God,” Gospel Advocate 45.21 (21 May 1903), 328.  My emphasis.

[10]    James A. Harding, “For What Are We Here?” The Way 5.33 (3 December 1903), 1041.

[11]    David Lipscomb, “An Explanation,” Gospel Advocate 8 (3 July 1866), 427.

[12]    Ibid., 428.

[13]    David Lipscomb, “From the Papers,” Gospel Advocate 38.2 (9 January 1896), 17.

[14]    David Lipscomb, “The Monroe Doctrine,” Gospel Advocate 38.3 (16 January 1896), 37.

[15]    David Lipscomb, “The War and Its Lessons,” Gospel Advocate 40 (11 August 1898), 508.

[16]    Lipscomb, “The Monroe Doctrine,” 37.

[17]    David Lipscomb, “War-Its Spirit,” Gospel Advocate 40.17 (28 April 1898), 269.

[18]    Ibid.

[19]    See the fine study by Charles R. Blaisdell, “The Attitude of the Christian Evangelist Towards the Spanish-American War,” Encounter 50 (Summer 1989): 233-243.

[20]    Lipscomb, Civil Government, 64.

[21]    John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding (Abilene: Leafwood, 2006), 36-37, 66.  Cf. James A. Harding, “To Whom Was The Sermon on the Mount Addressed? A Reply to Doctor Holloway,” Christian Leader and the Way 20 (3 April 1906), 8-9; and “Saving Souls, Special Providence, Dr. Holloway,” Christian Leader and the Way 21 (29 January 1907), 8.

[22]    Lipscomb, Civil Government, 133.

[23]    Ibid., 134.

[24]    Ibid., 135.

[25]    See Hicks and Valentine, Kingdom Come, 75-141.

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