David Lipscomb: Forgiveness and Unity After the Civil War

September 11 means something to us. It raises questions about forgiveness, war and our future.

I don’t think that date meant anything particular to David Lipscomb, but on that date in 1866 Lipscomb addressed the problem of war and forgiveness (Gospel Advocate 8 [11 September 1866] 579-583). How do we forgive those who sought our lives in war? Ought we to forgive them even if they have not repented? How can we make peace with others while memories of violence, horror and hostility fills our minds?

Nathan W. Smith asked Lipscomb this series of questions: “If, then, it is true God forgives none but those who repent, does he require more of us? Does he require us to forgive those who have injured us, in word and deed, and who give no signs of repentance? Let those who think I am wrong, show it by the word of the Lord if they can. I am willing to pray for our enemies, to do good to those that hate us, and if our enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; but to forgive those who injure us, without any repentance, I am not willing to do so, unless it can be shown that my Lord requires it.” (p. 579).

Lipscomb’s fundamental response is: Yes, of course, we should. The Christian “should be possessed of that kind, forebearing [sic] and forgiving spirit that the Savior exhibited to his murderers and crucifiers, and that allows him to return no ill, to cherish no bitter, vindictive feelings, but ever to do good to our enemies, and under all circumstances return good for evil. Christ’s feelings, work, suffering for the human family while it was yet in sin and rebellion, is the model for our treatment of the impenitent sinners and offenders” (p. 582).

As Christ-followers, we forgive those who seek to crucify us just as Christ forgave his enemies. Does this apply to our own September 11 just as, according to Lipscomb, it applied to combatants in the Civil War, both north and south?

Lipscomb encouraged forbearance, making amends, healing and disengagement from worldly powers. In particular, he prays that “peace and harmony will be restored to our divided and sundered brotherhood” and “too many sacrifices cannot be made to attain this happy state.”

Forgiveness only takes one–I forgive my enemies. Reconcilation takes two–a mutual search for peace. But reconcilation cannot happen unless forgiveness comes first.  That was true for Lipscomb postbellum and it is true for us post-September 11.


Below are the last couple of pages of Lipscomb response to Smith’s question (pp. 582-83).

“His full and free acceptance of the penitent, obedient believer as righteous and a coheir with himself in the honors and glories of the universe, is our pattern for the treatment of the repentant wrong-doer. Taking Christ as our model in these things as others, is the only infallible guide to right. In our country there is a class of crimes and wrongs that have been committed by professed Christians in the name of and as subjects of the world powers of earth, that are more difficult to settle than any others. Our connection with civil governments and the partizan feelings that enter into these questions, greatly embarrass them. War, strifes, politics, worldly governments are all corrupt and corrupting. War is wholesale murder and robbery. Whoever votes for, encourages, or in any manner excites war, is just as guilty for all the crimes that are legitimately the consequences of that war, as is the individual who personally commits the crimes. Again, in war, such as we have passed through, men engaged in the conflict upon each side from equally honest motives. The different teachings in political science, their surroundings, and above all, their interest, real or supposed, (for this is usually the controlling influence in politics and with nations,) led them to different courses of action. For professed Christians of one part or one section to suppose that all the honesty of sentiment or purpose was confined to their party or section, exhibits a remarkable degree of narrowminded bigotry. Men were equally honest in their views of duty on each side. And when once they entered the contest, violence, plunder and slaughter were the necessary results. The individuals then became the mere instruments in the hands of the power controlling them. So we are inclined to think that the sin was in yielding themselves instruments of an unrighteous power. So, too, we think that no individual who has himself entered the service of a world-power ought to complain of another who has merely served a different one. One these questions of difference in which, from our standpoint, both parties did wrong, the greatest forbearance should be exercised. Both parties acted as they thought best, and one party had, religiously as much right to act upon his convictions as the other. In the same neighborhood and in the same church, one had been taught to believe that the supreme authority was vested and should rest in the State. Another held, from equally satisfactory grounds, that the paramount obligation of the citizen was due the general government, and each acted on his convictions in the matter. In carrying out their convictions, each party acted as all men do when engaged in war. The wrong, we repeat again, was not in the acts that were performed, but in Christians putting themselves under the control of ungodly powers. That individual may have made excuses of their position, and taken advantage of their opportunities to exhibit a depraved and corrupted heart, and to have indulged in crimes and wreaked vengeance on those who were at their mercy, is true, and such should be dealt with according to the spirit they exhibited, yet we should be careful that no party spirit controls us in this. Yet to cherish prejudices against individuals, is not exactly fair. Forbearance, Christian forebearance, is what is needed now to allay the passions, heal the divisions and strifes, and put us in a condition that we may all be brought to see our wrongs, and that we may be prepared to avoid those difficulties in the future by keeping ourselves free from entangling alliances with the world-powers. Every one should strive to see how much of wrong he had done and make amends for it, and to see how much he can overlook and forgive in his brother. Thus peace and harmony will be restored to our divided and sundered brotherhood, and as one people in the Lord we may labor and toil and rejoice in the Lord. Too many sacrifices cannot be made to attain this happy state, provided we do not sacrifice God’s truth and God’s authority.”

7 Responses to “David Lipscomb: Forgiveness and Unity After the Civil War”

  1.   Warren Baldwin Says:

    Powerful statement, John Mark. I like comment about keeping ourselves from from entangling alliances with world powers. I abviously borrowed that from Geo. Washington’s Farewell address and gave it a different application for Christians.

    Have you read de Zayas’ book “A Terrible Revenge?” It details the revenge visited upon the Germans after WW2, from 1945 to 1950, a story we know so little about. Revenge often takes on a savagery that exceeds the offense that precipitated it. I use it in an ethics class.

  2.   Warren Baldwin Says:

    Note: I have no idea how/why this is happening, but the link attached to my name takes you to a different Warren Baldwin. Also, my computer is acting weird. There is a long delay for typed text to appear, and some words get left out. That is evident in my comment above, which I didn’t read/correct before posting.

  3.   Clark Coleman Says:

    I often think there are different kinds of forgiveness, even if we use one word for them all. We cannot forgive in the same sense that God forgives, because we do not have authority to forgive sins in that sins. Often we use the word “forgive” to mean “decline to hold a grudge; decline to hold on to bitterness.” We do this for two reasons: Because judgment and vengeance are left for the Lord, and because bitterness hurts us and is counterproductive. Neither rationale has anything to do with God’s rationale for forgiveness of sins, which is entirely different in this respect.

    So, should we resolve not to hold grudges and not to cling to bitterness? Absolutely. But I am not sure about the Biblical analogies that both Lipscomb and his interlocutors used. I can forgive in the human sense even in the absence of repentance, because holding a grudge does no good and I can leave God to deal with the lack of repentance. Nathan W. Smith was incorrect to insist that repentance must precede human forgiveness. But Lipscomb was incorrect to claim that Jesus forgave his enemies, if by forgiveness he implies Godly forgiveness (eternal reconciliation), because we have no indication that this occurred. Rather, Jesus forgave as a human forgave; he released any anger he could have rightfully had towards his tormentors on the cross. Because this is not eternal forgiveness, repentance is not the issue.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      I don’t think you said anything inconsistent with what Lipscomb said, or that I meant by forgiveness only takes one (me) but reconciliation takes two. It seems to me that Jesus, hanging on the cross, forgave his enemies, and prayed that God would forgive them, too. We can do the same.

      •   Clark Coleman Says:

        I don’t think that most people would say that unsaved people are forgiven but not reconciled. I don’t think the word “forgiveness” is consistently used in such a way in the New Testament, is it? In that respect, I think Nathan W. Smith had a biblical understanding of what the word means in a Godly context. He did not realize that you cannot take it out of the Godly context directly into a human context and insist on repentance before forgiveness, even though God can.

        So, I would say that human forgiveness only takes one (me), but that is not what the word means in every context in the New Testament.

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        Lipscomb is talking about the horizontal dimension–how humans relate to each other.


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