David Lipscomb on the Cholera Epidemic in Nashville (June 1873)

One of David Lipscomb’s incessant emphases was that the poor were God’s special concern.  The Cholera Epidemic of 1873 provided an opportunity for the church to serve the sick, dying, and needy, especially among the poor which included the African-American community.

In 1873 the population of Nashville was 25,865. Cholera first appeared in 1873 in the city prison on May 6. Some prisoners had just returned from western Tennesee where they had been working on the railroad. A significant number of prisoners fell ill and the first death outside the prison walls occurred on May 25.  Between June 7 and July 1, Nashville recorded 244 “white deaths” and 403 “colored deaths” (The Cholera Epidemic in the United States, 143-157) and close to a 1,000 died in the epidemic. This means that something like 1 out of every 25 people died in Nashville that summer.

David Lipscomb, though he lived ten miles outside the city limits, remained in Nashville to assist the sick.  His buggy carried the women of the Roman Catholic “Sisters of Mercy” as well as the Dominican order to their destinations and he himself cared for the sick and dying, including African-Americans.

Lipscomb was disturbed that so many people fled the city rather than staying to minister to the sick and needy.  Below are two articles that apperaed in the Gospel Advocate that summer.  The first (July 17, pp. 649-653) rebukes those who fled on the ground a strong theological argument and describes some the efforts in the city to care for the sick.  The second article (August 21, pp. 774-776) responds to an anonymous critical response to Lipscomb’s article.

The first letter is lengthy but well worth the read. It was a memorable moment in the history of Nashville as well as in the life of David Lipscomb. In this moment ecclesiological differences were transcended by acts of mercy across economic and racial barriers.

First Article

David Lipscomb, “The Cholera and the Christian Religion,” Gospel Advocate 15.28 (17 July 1873) 649-653

The object of giving to man the Christian religion is to educate him up to the full observance of the will of God, as Christ observed it.  Christ came to do his will even unto death that we might live according to the will of God. The great object of all God’s dealings with man is to induce him to give himself up unreservedly to do the will of God, to submit to his laws. Christ’s life was a perfect submission to the will of his Father in Heaven. The religion of Jesus Christ, then, proposes to reproduce in our lives the life of Christ, both in spirit and active labor. The reproduction in our lives of the life of Christ is the end before us, for our attainment. To this work, we pledge ourselves when we profess to become his followers. We say, we will, with the help of God, strive to live according to his precepts. His life was the practical exemplification of his precepts. He practiced the precepts he gave for the government of the world. He gave in percept for the government of his followers the rules of his own life.

To the extent that we follow his example, and thus practice his precepts, we form within us the living Christ. Paul to the Galatians, 4, 15, says, “My little children of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you.” Again Colos. 1, 27, “To whom God would make know what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you the hope of glory, whom we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.”

We are not only brought into Christ, but Christ is also formed in us by a learning and compliance with his will. The unification between Christ and the disciples progresses from two different directions. The attainment of that unity with Christ is the Christian’s work in life.

Man is baptized out of himself, out of the world and its institutions, and is baptized into Christ that he may walk in him, obey him, enter into his spirit and that Christ may be formed in him. He thus becomes one with Christ, he is in him, he acts through him. The pledge that we solemnly make in our profession of faith in Christ and of our baptism into him is, that we will strive to reproduce his life before the world in our own lives. Hence we are epistles of Christ to the world, to be read of all men.

To reproduce the life of Christ in our own lives is to act as Christ would act, were he in our places. We thus become Christ’s representatives to the world. The solemn pledge of our lives is to act to the best of our ability in the various relationships that we occupy in the world, and in the exigencies and circumstances in which we are placed as Christ would act, were he here situated as we are.

A man with talent and social position confesses [650] Christ, puts him on in baptism. He pledges to God most sacredly, before the world, he will use that talent or ability as Christ would use it. A man with one, two, ten or a hundred thousand dollars, as baptized out of himself into Christ, he pledges as a servant of Christ to try to act as Christ would, were he here on earth situated as this individual is, with his one, ten, or one hundred thousand dollars. That is the obligation, nothing less. (I have no utopian idea that Christ in such circumstances would divide his ten or one hundred thousand dollars among a set of lazy thriftless vagrants or spendthrifts, that would be no better off with it, than without it. But he would so use it as to relieve the pressing necessities of the suffering and to help the helpless, and teach all the way of industry, righteousness, goodness and thrift).

We came into the church with this pledge. We speak and act for Christ, to the world, in the place or stead of Christ. How do we act for him? We stand as Christ to the world. We are the body of Christ. In us he dwells. How do we represent him?

Recently the Cholera made a fearful visitation upon our people. It fell with especial severity upon the poor. It often first attacked the strong arm, the stay and reliance of the family. If not his, it struck down other members of his family so that he must needs cease to labor, in order to nurse them. Again all business ceased, and he could not get work, to support his family. In one family of industrious people, consisting of a father, mother and six industrious boys and girls, every one died save the mother, and she was prostrated. Another, a family—a nice, well-refined, well-raised family—consisted of a father, a carpenter by trade, a mother feeble with consumption, two daughters about grown, who sewed in a millinery establishment, a daughter and niece, about 12 each.

The father was taken ill and died within a few hours. The eldest daughter followed soon. The youngest daughter and niece lingered days between life and death. Only one daughter, a delicate girl was up, and she continually threatened with an attack; they too at times without a morsel of food, for sick or well.  Another case, among the colored people. The family in one house consisted of a father, mother, a married son with wife and infant, and two small children. The father, mother, son and son’s wife were all taken ill. The two males were buried. The son’s wife died on Friday night. The mother in bed sick, with the infant grandchild and one of her own small [651] children sick. The body remained uncoffined in that house until Monday morning about ten o’clock. No one was present, able to go and report the death to the proper authorities. What think you of a cholera corpse, lying in a small room with three other sick persons in the sultry, hot weather from Friday June 20th to Monday, June 23rd?

This occurred a little out of the corporation, but in a thickly populated negro village. We mention these as specimen cases. They are extreme cases, but there were many approximations to them.

Now in view of these things and the wild panic that seized the population, what would Christ have done in the emergency? Had he been a resident of Nashville with ten, twenty or a hundred thousand dollars, what would he have done? What did he do in the person of his representatives here?

Would he have become panic stricken with fear—fear of death, and have used his means to get himself and family, with their fashionable and luxurious appendages out of danger, to some place of fashionable resort and pleasure, and left his poor brethren and neighbors to suffer and perish from neglect and want?

That is just what he did do in the person of many of his professed representatives. In the person of others he retired to the cool shades of his own luxurious and spacious city mansion elevated above the noxious miasms [sic] that destroyed the poor and unfortunate and left them to die, in want and neglect, without attention from him. Did you who so acted bear true testimony to the world for him for whom you profess to act? Was not your course a libel upon him and his character? How can those who so acted again profess to be his children?

The religion of our Savior was intended to make us like Christ, not only in our labor of love—of our self sacrifice for the good of others, but also in raising us above a timid, quaking fear of death. If it does not make us willing to brave death and spend out time and money for the good of our suffering fellow-creatures, offcast and sinners though they be, it does not raise us above a mere empty profession that leaves us scarcely less than hypocrites. The religion that does not induce us to do this essential work of a true Christian cannot save us. The rich often think that they cannot condescend to do the work of nursing and caring for the poor. It is degrading. It is hard I know, just precisely as hard as it is to enter the kingdom of heaven, not a whit more difficult to do the one than the other.

These fatal scourges, under God, become opportunities to show the superior excellence of the Christian religion, in giving true courage, love and self-sacrifice to its votaries. Alas what is it judged by the course of a majority of its professors? What do we better than others, in these days of sorrowful visitation?

Christian men and women should be prudent, and cautious in such surroundings. It is proper, we think, to send women and children, who are incapable of service to the sick, and are liable to the disease beyond its reach, when possible. Bur for able bodied Christian men and women to [652] be flying from the city when their brethren and neighbors and fellow-creatures are suffering and dying for lack of attention and help, is such a contradiction in ideas, we know of no means of reconciling them. We think true Christians would come from the surrounding country and towns to the smitten community to aid the needy. I believe they would bear charmed lives in such a course. God would protect them. We heard Dr. Bowling remark during the greatest fatality, that men doing such a work never took disease and died. But if they did, the feeling and spirit out to be that of the three Hebrew children, when threatened with the fiery furnace, if they did not disobey God. The response was, If God will he can deliver. But whether he will or not, we will not disobey God.

We rejoice to state, that of those who remained in the city, although getting at the work slowly, many met their responsibilities as true men and women and did the bets they knew for the relief of the suffering.

The Sisterhoods of the Romish church were active. They do much for the relief of the suffering. Like all human organizations, they do it with a goodly degree of parade and show. We do not know that they as individuals, intend display of their charities, yet their style of dress and singular appearance and habits, cannot fail to proclaim to the world. Here we are in our acts of mercy. Christian women, dressed like other people may quietly perform much more work among the lowly, without attracting half the attention. Still these women brave danger and pestilence, go to the huts of poverty and sorrow, to nurse and relieve the sick, be it said to their credit.

The Robertson Association, a chartered, charitable association, revived in times like this, collected much means for the relief of the poor and sick. The young men of the church of Christ, divided the work, with both these classes. They, like the others were late getting at the work, but they worked effectually when they did begin.  They found the villages of freedmen around the city most neglected, and suffering greatly. They did their chief work with them. The rapid decrease in the proportionate number of deaths among the blacks attests the efficacy of their labor. The great want of the freedmen was, medicine and proper food.

The Robertson Association kindly placed their means at the disposal of the members of the church who were attending to the wants of the sick.

We were more than ever satisfied that a simple church of God, as constituted of Heaven, is the most efficient organization for good the world ever saw—if kept in proper working order. Other organizations have too much circumlocution, are too slow. They appoint their committeemen and agents after the danger is upon them, and find they have no adaptedness to the work, no natural fitness. The church always, to a greater or less extent, doing such a work, knows exactly when to send, indeed finds the proper individuals at work before she sends, provided she does not ignore and smother out the working spirit of the church, by her offices who are very frequently unadapted to the work to which they are appointed. Frequently in a [653] church the Lord has deacons, who are the church’s deacons. The church’s deacons are those appointed of the church. The Lord’s deacons and deaconesses are those who, in his name, do his work in taking care of the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting those in prison. These are true deacons and deaconesses of the Lord, chosen and approved by the Holy Spirit whether the church ever recognizes the selection or not.

The pastors of the various churches, save one, remained at their posts—gave their flocks proper clerical visitations in sickness and attended the funeral obsequies of the dead. Some of the them actively engaged in relieving the needy. One fell a victim to his own work among the poor, Mr. Royce of Trinity church, Episcopal. The physicians as a class did noble work. Many of them forgot self in laboring for all. Their labor was incessant and trying.

We are satisfied, had one half of the time and means expended by able bodied professors of the Christian religion in fleeing from their homes, been expended in caring for their needy neighbors, in furnishing them with proper food and medicine the disease might have been arrested almost in its incipiency.

Those who did quietly and calmly do their duty although in the midst of pestilence, want, suffering and death, found these the happiest days of their life. Days to which they can always look back with a feeling of true satisfaction. We trust we may all learn that Christian men and women must be possessed of true and calm courage—that they must be able to face death and find true happiness here, as well as a crown of joy hereafter, in doing their duty in all circumstances.

 Second Article

Anonymous and David Lipscomb, “Consistency,” Gospel Advocate 15.33 (21 August 1873) 774-776.

             D. Lipscomb: Dear Bro.—Since Christ, had he been on earth during the recent sickness would have contributed any amount of money, &c., he may have had in supporting and relieving the sick and needy, and as you are so strenuously in favor of others doing so to imitate Him, claiming yourself, of course you spent all you had on hand, (glad we have one person in our city who so glitteringly reflects the image of our adorable Redeemer) judging from you article, “Cholera and Religion,” in last Advocate. Would it not be right for a contribution to be raised now for you, by those who left the city, to relieve your wants—since you must, according to your own argument be left without a “red.” By doing so, could not those who “went fishing” partially restore their religious standing? Would you accept of this generous offering, which certainly would answer in place of what they should have done, if they had been here? Let’s hear from you in the Advocate.—Admirer of Truth and Consistency.

                                    Nashville, Tenn, July 18, 1873.


            Ah, my brother, you feel badly over your course. I know you do. I am glad of it. I am in hopes you will feel worse and worse until you determine you will never do so again.—You will never again say, by your actions, that Christ, whose representative you profess to be, whose work you have pledged yourself to perform, would flee from his home and neighbors who were dying for want of food [775] and attention. Your bore a false testimony concerning him, as you do concerning me in your bitter note, to which you were ashamed to place your name. It would have been so much more manly—so much more like a Christian, and then you would have felt so much better, just to have said, I had not considered my duty and obligation in the premises, I became infected with panic, acted unworthily, but by the help of God will try to do so no more, and then like an honest and true man, signed your name to it. It is so bade for a man, especially a Christian man, to write or do a thing of which he is ashamed! I know you feel worse since you wrote it. I am sorry for you, but I can hear your petty malice with perfect composure. But you take the wrong course to get right. You again misrepresent the master. You have said by your action as his servant, Christ would do such a little, unworthy, spiteful thing as this. You know he would not. You say I have claimed to reflect the likeness of Christ during our plague. You know I did not such thing. You know no man could know from that article whether I was in the city or not, whether I had done my duty or not. I live in the country, ten miles from the city—had a sick family when and before the cholera broke out, had cholera in my own neighborhood and might have been perfectly justifiable in staying away from the city, while you were without excuse in fleeing form it. Beside I do not write for the Advocate to tell what I do, but what the Scriptures teach. I do not make the measure of my action, the rule of interpreting or teaching the Scriptures. I fail often to do my duty; that does not prevent my seeing the truth. Whether I was in the city or not, whether I did my duty or not, would not change the truth of my article, not cause me the less, to declare it. The article is true, just and scriptural, and you betray your sense of impenitent guilt by misrepresenting it and me. But were I hungry and needy, I know too much of the world to expect a man who ran from the cholera and then wrote such a letter as the above would aid me. Such men are usually only generous in “offering.” You may be an exception. I intend to test you. While then I am very scarce of “reds” as you call them, and my purse is in as perfect collapse, as if it had had the cholera, I am no object of charity. Never expect to be while God blesses me with health and vigor. But to ease your conscience and relieve your overburdened purse, I will yet find victims of the choler, sadly in need of Christian help, to which I will appropriate all you surplus cash.

Or, to guarantee that it will be faithfully applied, you can pay it to the church treasurer, Bro. Dortch, and under the direction of the Elders or deacons, it shall be appropriated. I will only present to them the cases of need. I have not seen the time for the last eight years that I could not find cases needing Christian help in your city. Now, dear sir, let us see you show that you love truth and consistency in yourself, as well as in others, by being “generous” not only in “offering” but in the doing. I know you will be ashamed to let any one know who wrote such a little [776] spiteful piece, professedly in the name of Christ. So you can enclose your “generosity” in a letter signed as you did the above. A good generous gift to the poor, in the name of Christ, would relieve your soul of its bitter bile and your would fee better, much better.

7 Responses to “David Lipscomb on the Cholera Epidemic in Nashville (June 1873)”

  1.   rich constant Says:

    amazing men and women from the past that in the face of adversity do gods good.
    the gripe of my life, ethics gone to the seat of the spectator, the predisposition of the back seat driver.
    i make no allusion for myself by way of my pattern of late,i would be one that yelled from the backseat of compliance,oh ya the guy should go to the tree.
    i may feel different to be sure.

    WHO I AM

  2.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I remember hearing a lecture given by Richard T. Hughes on how the Sermon on the Mount has been lived out historically in which he spoke of David Lipscomb and the Cholera epidemic. Very good stuff.

  3.   hawk1936 Says:


    Thanks for the work you do in bringing the past to us with its valuable lessons.

  4.   Conard Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this. I’ve been thinking about boldness lately and the ability to speak truth into others’ lives. I think we often hold back, but here is an example the opposite. Thanks for sharing.

  5.   rich constant Says:

    john mark:i hope you do not mind,
    i wish you would listen.
    I do think it is appropriate…although i am not right a lot of late. 🙂

    my kids help me a lot with music
    being in the church of Christ all my life, over the last 3 years i have a phone full, and right now i am listing with the phone plugged in to the receiver.
    i have deep appreciation for praise music today.

    this link

    Casting Crowns – Praise You In This Storm (5:05)


  6.   Richard Corum Says:

    I plan on using this as the basis for my sermon this Sunday. Proper credit will be given, of course. I just found this discussion fascinating. Lipscomb lived his life in such an exemplary manner. Running is almost always the easiest course of action. I know that there have been biographies written about Lipscomb, but he deserves a much deeper treatment than anything I recall being out there. Thanks for what you are doing with your blog. It is a gold mine for anyone, but especially for those of us who have an appreciation of our heritage.

  7.   Stan Wilson Says:

    Thank you for this article as it is such a pertinent parallel to the situation we find ourselves in today with COVID-19. I pray our burden does not escalate to the level of the Cholera epidemic described above. However, may we look to 1873 as an example of what to do as Christians representing Christ Jesus and the action steps He would take towards those with COVID-19 and their affected communities. Moreover, may we embrace “the religion of our Savior intended to make us like Christ, not only in our labor of love—of our self-sacrifice for the good of others but also in raising us above a timid, quaking fear of death. If it does not make us willing to brave death and spend our time and money for the good of our suffering fellow-creatures, offcast and sinners though they be, it does not raise us above a mere empty profession that leaves us scarcely less than hypocrites. The religion that does not induce us to do this essential work of a true Christian cannot save us.”


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