When the Central Christian Church in Cincinnaiti, Ohio, completed its $140,000, 2000-seat French Gothic building in 1872, many–especially Benjamin Franklin and David Lipscomb–thought it was an outrage. By 1892 there were rumors that the church needed to sell the building since many of its members had moved to the suburbs. The downtown, urban church could not sustain such a large, luxurious building.
Judging that the building itself was more a testament to human pride than it was to honor God, Lipscomb thought the concentration of such funds in a single building unwise–more than that, downright sinful. He preferred that instead of building one huge, lavish structure that it would have been better to build twelve modest buildings spread throughout the urban landscape.
His own history confirmed this for Lipscomb. When the “fine house” of Nashville–built in 1852 at the cost of $30,000–burned in 1857, Lipscomb rejoiced. Nashville then developed several churches over the years instead of one central congregation. Instead of one “fine house,” they had multiple “modest” houses, and the church grew in the city. Whereas in 1889, Cincinnati only had 1000 Disciples in the city, Nashville had 2,500 (cf. Hooper, Crying in the Wilderness, 203).
Consequently, Lipscomb’s consistent counsel throughout the years was small, modest buildings rather than “fine houses.” Smaller and more modest is better than large and lavish. This fit his own belief in the dignity and special character of the working/farming class. “The best community in the world,” he thought, “is that every man own his own land, small farms with industrious owners” (Gospel Advocate, 1875, 300). This is how1852 he thought about churches as well–relatively small, modest, every member involved, mutual edification, and shared leadership. Wealth, power and “fine houses” were corrupting influences that diverted the church from its mission to the poor and the lost.
Below is one article, among many, that articulates his perspective. In my next post, I will follow up with the theological ground that shapes Lipscomb’s perspective on “fine houses.” In the below article, Lipscomb states that building a “fine house” is to give up the “Christian spirit.” My next post will address that point.
David Lipscomb, “Fine Houses for Worship,” Gospel Advoate 34 (28 January 1892) 52.
We understand the Standard calls in question our statement that there has been talk of selling the Central Church building up in Cincinnati, because too expensive to keep up. We are sure such has been the talk, and the reason was, so many of the wealthy members have moved to the suburbs and united with churches out of the city, those remaining are not able to keep the church up. We have heard of the talk down here. It come from persons doing business in Cincinnati, too.
We understand the Standard adds, that we seem to rejoice in the matter. We do not rejoice, but sorrow at the fewness or weakness of the disciples in Cincinnati, or elsewhere. This whole talk has been brought about by the society folks from Ohio and Missouri, decrying the destitution in Tennessee, in order to help fasten on us a society. We knew the cry was either hypocritical or founded on dense ignorance. We determined to expose it, so no honest man can hereafter raise the plea.
But, candidly, when the Central Church house was built and such a flourish made over it in the papers, we published that we believed it both a blunder and a sin, to put so much money in a house to be used only a few hours a week. We believed it would hinder instead of forward the cause of true religion in Cincinnati and elsewhere, hence was a blunder. We believed it a sin against God and his people to put such large sums of money in a building, when so many thousands and millions of our fellow creatures are suffering want and going down to hell for lack of the truth. We believed, and still believe, that this expenditure is not to honor God but to minister to human pride. This is sinful.
I still believe such a waste of means to gratify pomp or pride sin. I would have rejoiced if they had build a modest and economical house then. I will rejoice at anything that will now bring the church in the line of Christian propriety. Yes, I would rejoice if they would sell the house and build a dozen simple, modest houses for worship, that correspond to the principles and aims of the Christian religion. I would be glad if they would voluntarily do this without being forced to it; but, if they will not do it otherwise, I will be glad if they do it of necessity.
Once the disciples in Nashville built a fine house, when they ought to have built a half dozen modest ones. It was the occasion of trouble, and was burned up. I was in the pulpit at Philadelphia, church in Warren Co., with Bro. Nix Murphy, when I heard of it. I publicly expressed my joy at the result. I still think it was a blessing from God.
When I hear of a church setting out to build a fine house, I give that church up. Its usefulness as a church of Christ is at an end. The church at Dallas, Texas, has spent a large amount to build a house finer than any other house in the State. It has burdened itself with debt. It has shown its lack of the Christian spirit, and its promise for usefulness for the future is not flattering to my mind.
In Arizona there is not a single preacher giving his time to reach the dying multitudes of sinners that people that State. A little handful built a house costing several thousand dollars, and have been compassing the whole land to get money to pay for it. People that star in that direction cannot convert sinners, and we believe it would be a blessed thing if the house were sold and the tempotation to travel in the wrong road taken out of their way. It is not Christian to spend the Lord’s money in this way, while sinners, ignolorant of the will of God, are dying all around them. My conscience has hurt me all th epast year at the appeals that have been made for this house through the Advocate without a protest from me. If half the money required to build this house had been spent in having the gospel preached in the State, a hundred fold more sinners would have been saved.
The brethren in Atlanta are proposing to build a thirty thousand dollar house. They do not ask my advice. None the less, I give it without cost. It will weaken instead of strengthen them. Half the money spent in preaching in the destitute suburbs of Atlanta, building a few modest houses, as needed, will save a hundred fold more sinners, and God will reward such work. He will not reward us for building houses to gratify our pride. Yes, brethren, I rejoice when you fail to build fine houses. I rejoice when you sell them. I rejoice when they are burned down and replaced with modest house that comport with the church of Christ.