David Lipscomb Against Union Conscription

This entry is part 12 of 18 in the series The Church of Christ and World-Powers

This article continues a series of weekly posts originally authored by David Lipscomb, an important figure in the Churches of Christ in the 1800s. Learn more about Lipscomb’s background here and here, and see other references to him on LCI here. The series is titled “The Church of Christ and World-Powers”, and it was also originally published as a series of 18 articles in The Gospel Advocate in 1866. (To read from the beginning of the series, start here.)

In the previous Gospel Advocate issue, Lipscomb recounted the letter sent to Confederate authorities explaining why Christians should be exempt from southern conscript acts. We know from history that some time after, Union forces took Tennessee and Lincoln installed Andrew Johnson as military governor, who would later become Vice President and then succeed Lincoln. Of course, Johnson then wanted to conscript Tennesseans into the Union army for further campaigns. (Imagine being conscripted by both sides of the war in the span of barely a year. Remarkable.) This following letter, similar to that delivered to the Confederacy, was Lipscomb’s response to those Union conscription orders.

It is notable how deferential Lipscomb is, yet he clearly is making an indicting argument against what religion the leaders purportedly hold. Reading between the lines, you can see how strongly he is suggesting that the only proper Christian position toward the armed conflict is to separate themselves from it. Point #4 in the letter is poignant: “no man who regards the authority of God… can engage in, or in any way aid, foment or countenance the strifes, animosities, and bloody conflicts in which civil governments are frequently engaged, and in which they involve their subjects.” It’s hard to imagine such deeply held beliefs in our present world so inculcated with the reverence of violence and the state.

The Church of Christ and World-Powers (12) — David Lipscomb in The Gospel Advocate, July 24, 1866, pp. 465-467.

To the Ruling Authorities of the State of Tennessee:

WHEREAS, A large number of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ feel a deep sense of the responsibility they are under to recognize the Bible in its teachings, as the only infallible guide and authoritative rule of action, and as being of superior authority to, and more binding upon the subjects of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ than any human rules or regulations, they would most respectfully represent,

First, That they recognize the necessity for the existence of civil government, so long as a considerable portion of the human family fails to submit to the Government of God.

Second, That while God demands of his servants that they should submit cheerfully and heartily, to the government under which they may live, in all cases, except when compliance with the requirements of civil government, involves the violation of God’s law, they are deeply impressed with the truth that when there is a conflict between the requirements of civil government and the law of God, the duty of the Christians is, upon peril of his eternal well-being, to obey God first, let the consequences be to him what they may.

Third, They are satisfied that the measure of their duty to civil government, as defined in the Bible, is to submit, not by personal participation in the affairs of government, to uphold or destroy, pull down or upbuild, but simply, as a duty they owe to God, to submit, and in that submission, modified only as above, to discharge the offices of good citizens in all the relations of life.

Fourth, They are firmly impressed with the truth that no man who regards the authority of God, or of his holy Apostles, as set forth in example and precept, for the instruction and guidance of his followers in the future ages of the world, can engage in, or in any way aid, foment or countenance the strifes, animosities, and bloody conflicts in which civil governments are frequently engaged, and in which they involve their subjects.

Fifth, The spirit of the Church of Christ and the spirit of civil government are different. The one is a spirit of force, as all history attests, that no civil government ever did arise except by force, violence and the destruction of life. So they must maintain that existence by force. We suppose the future, with but slight variations, will repeat the history of the past. But Christianity permits not its subjects to use force or do violence, even in defence [sic] of its own existence; its guiding spirit is one of love, “peace on earth and good will toward man.”

Sixth, This difference in the spirit of the two institutions, the government of God and the government of man, together with the diversity of the means essential to the prosperity and success of each respectively, necessarily, at times, involves a conflict in their respective requirements. We, therefore, in behalf of the churches of which we are members, respectfully petition of you that the requirements which, as we believe, conflict with our duties to God, may be remitted to those members of our churches who have been, and are now, striving to maintain a position of Christian separation from the world, its conflicts and strifes, as set forth in the preceding articles.

Seventh, We firmly believe that the oaths of allegiance, and the oaths to support and defend the governments of the world, now imposed as necessary to the transaction of the common affairs of life, are contrary to the spirit and teachings of the Savior and is inspired Apostles, and involved, if strictly complied with, a violation of some of the plainest precepts of the Christian religion. We, therefore, feel that in taking these oaths and obligations, and in performing those requirements that have an appearance of countenancing bloodshed and violence, we are violating the obligations of fealty we have taken to our Heavenly Master. We imperil the well-being of the church, dishonor God, and involve ourselves in eternal ruin. We, therefore, respectfully ask a release from the performance of these requirements, and others of a similar character, assuring you again, that we recognize it as a solemn duty we owe to God, to submit to the government under which we may live, in all its requirements, save when that governments requires of us something contrary to the letter and spirit of the Christian religion, as revealed in the Bible.

 To His Excellency Andrew Johnson, Governor of the State of Tennessee:

We, the undersigned, having been appointed a committee by an assembly of the Churches of Jesus Christ, met at Leiper’s Fork, Williamson county, Tenn. to present to your Excellency their grievances, and in their and our behalf to petition of you a release from certain requirements made at their hands, would most respectfully represent that the mass of the members of the Churches of Jesus Christ, in the counties of Davidson, Williamson, Maury, and Hickman, and many scattered through other countries of Middle Tennessee, believe that all military service, or connexion [sic] with military service, is utterly incompatible with the spirit and requirements of the Christian religion. Believing this, they cannot comply with the requisition recently made of them in common with other residents of the State, for enrolling themselves for military service without a violation of their solemn conscientious convictions of duty to their Lord and Master, and a violation of their vows of fealty to him. We, therefore, in behalf of these churches and members of churches, respectfully petition of you, in the exercise of your authority, a release from those requirements, that are repugnant to their religious faith, upon terms that you may consider just and right. We desire to assure you in this request and movement, upon the faith and integrity of Christians. We are acting from no factions or political motive, but from the single desire of preserving our faith and profession of Christianity pure. Praying earnestly that your counsel and the counsels of the rulers of our country may be so conducted as to restore to our contrary a speedy and lasting peace, we are most obediently and respectfully yours,


For a more complete exhibit of our faith and course in reference to this matter, we respectfully refer you to the two accompanying petitions marked A and B, one directed to the Federal, the other to the rebel authorities.

The foregoing should have appeared in number 28, but were crowded out. They simply exhibit the steps and positions occupied by some of the Churches of Christ in the successive difficulties through which they were called to pass in the years of trial to their faith and integrity, that we trust, for a time, has ended. The first petition was presented soon after the occupation of the state of Tennessee by the Federal troops, the other upon the occasion of the citizens of the State being ordered to enrol [sic] themselves for military duty. A number of Christians could not do this without violating their sense of duty to God, hence presented this as a reason for refusing so to do. The reason was accepted as satisfactory by the authorities acting in such matters. The petitions referred to as marked “A” and “B,” were the two first presented to the two powers claiming the right to control us. Both of which were filed with Governor, now President Johnson.

Next week in lieu of something from ourselves, we will commence the publication of a series of articles upon this subject, prepared two years ago, North of the Ohio river. We bespeak for it a careful consideration, as exhibiting the oneness of faith produced in different individuals in different countries and situations by the word of truth.

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