In the first three posts, we looked at the views of David Lipscomb, J.H. Garrison, and Isaac Errett. These men were chosen because their thought processes came to characterize the three diverging groups in the Disciples of Christ. David Lipscomb’s views represent those of Churches of Christ; Isaac Errett Independent Christian Churches; and J.H. Garrison Disciples of Christ. In this fourth post, we will look at T.B. Larimore. He is more difficult to pigeonhole.
Theophilus Brown Larimore was born in 1843 to a poor family. He had limited access to educational opportunities. The only formal education Larimore had was a few weeks of classes taught by itinerant teachers passing through town. Larimore enlisted in the Confederate army where he served as a scout during the Civil War. On one scouting expedition, he was captured by Union troops and took a non-combatant oath to avoid being arrested. Larimore and his mother and sister moved to Hopkinsville, KY and placed membership at a Christian Church there. Larimore was hired to teach at a female academy in town. He felt very inadequate as a teacher and preacher and so in 1867 he went to Franklin College in Nashville, TN and completed a one year program at the top of his class.
Possibly Larimore’s greatest contribution to the Disciples was founding the Mars Hill Academy in Florence, AL. The school is still in existence today. Larimore married Julia Gresham in 1868. When her father passed away, he deeded a large portion of land to Larimore in 1870. In 1871, he opened the Mars Hill Academy on that land. He taught and ran the school for the next sixteen years.
Lipscomb, Garrison, and Errett made their greatest impact on the Disciples through editing journals. Although, Larimore’s main contribution was as a teacher and evangelist, he did make an attempt at editing journals. The 1870s were some of the most controversial years for the Disciples. Battles were raging over the missionary society, paid preachers, one-man pastor system, instrumental music, and other issues. In 1875, Larimore announced the publication of The Angel of Mercy, Love, Peace and Truth. Larimore wanted to keep his journal out of the heated debates. He stated the editorial policy:
The Angel possess not the slightest belligerent proclivity–not even in the latent or dormant state. It will avoid all unpleasant discussion and personal references. One harsh, unkind or unpleasant word will be sufficient reason for consigning to the flames any articles written for its pages. (The Angel of Mercy, Love, Peace and Truth 1875:20)
This publication only lasted seven months. He tried again in 1876 with a journal entitled The Little Angel but was also unsuccessful in obtaining a broad enough readership to secure the publication financially. There is little doubt why his journals failed. Most perceived his journals to be irrelevant because he did not open the pages up for debate on the controversial issues of the day. If one only read Larimore’s journals, he or she would have no idea there were any issues in the Disciples in the late 1800s. He believed that he should avoid the controversial issues and discuss only those things which contributed toward peace and unity. In 1916, he joined the editorial staff of the Gospel Advocate.
As a popular preacher and teacher in the movement, people constantly wanted to know where Larimore stood on the issues. In 1897, a former student of Larimore’s, O.P. Spiegel, wrote an open letter to Larimore which was published in the Christian Standard (Errett’s publication) and the The Christian-Evangelist (Garrison’s publication). Larimore published a response in the Christian Standard to Spiegel’s letter. He responded that he was glad that Spiegel’s letter was written because it proved that Larimore had been successful in his attempt to never speak out on the divisive issues. Such was Larimore’s attitude. He said:
Now, my dear brother, if you deem it possible to believe it possible for a man to be in no sense a partisan, but just simply and solely a Christian, in this intensely partisan age, please try to believe that I am not a partisan, and that what I write–ALL I write–is written from no partisan point of view; but that I write simply and solely as a CHRISTIAN, with no selfish, partisan or personal purpose to subserve. (Larimore Christian Standard 1897: 965)
Spiegel thought that the matters of instrumental music and missionary societies were of great importance. He believed the division over those issues was retarding the progress of the Disciples’ movement. Larimore wrote:
When Bro. Campbell took my confession, on my twenty-first birthday, he questioned me relative to none of these “matters now retarding the progress of the cause of Christ.” While thousands have stood before me, hand in mind, and made “the good confession,” I have never questioned one of them about these “matters.” Shall I now renounce and disfellowship all of these who do not understand these things exactly as I understand them? They may refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with ME; but I will NEVER refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with them–NEVER. (Ibid.)
In that same reply, Larimore reminisced about the days he spent teaching at Mars Hill. He said that he never engaged in or allowed “useless, blinding, bewildering theological theories” to be taught. They taught the Bible alone at Mars Hill. He said that while he was over the school, the divisive issues were unheard of there. As the students went out, they promoted unity in the churches they worked with. He also pointed out that the Disciples churches around Mars Hill grew tremendously during that period. The suggestion was that if Disciples churches would stop arguing about the issues and get back to the real issue of teaching and preaching the word, churches would be growing now as they were then.
David Lipscomb took issue with Larimore’s reply to Bro. Spiegel. Lipscomb was upset that Larimore had refused to take a side on matters that he regarded to be biblical. Lipscomb said Christians do not have the privilege of standing on neither side of the issues. They were given only the privilege of standing on the right side or the wrong side. There was no neutral ground. If Larimore was not standing for what was right, then he was standing for what was wrong. (Lipscomb Gospel Advocate 1897: 500) On the other hand, Isaac Errett and the Christian Standard editorially endorsed Larimore’s response.
Larimore was a master of illustration and application. He was known for the way he could make illustrations come alive in sermons. Unity was one of his favorite topics. In a lesson on John 17:17-23 Larimore answered how the Father, Jesus, and disciples could all be one. It would only be in the way that God and Jesus are one “in aims, one in purpose, working harmoniously together for the same glorious result.” (Letters and Sermons of T.B. Larimore: 397) He said that it would be ludicrous to imagine the members of the Godhead dividing, arguing, and disputing over certain issues. There should be no more place for division and argument among Disciples than there is among the Godhead, Larimore exclaimed.
One of Larimore’s favorite biblical examples was the story of Abraham and Lot in the Old Testament. Larimore believed that when it came to material and inconsequential matters, Abraham’s motto seemed to have been, “Peace at any price” rather than strife with his kinsmen. Larimore was opposed to separating over strife. He believed that, like Abraham’s example, Christians should be willing to give up cherished possessions for the sake of peace and unity.
Larimore worked hard to promote unity in a period of time when the Disciples were heavily divided. He decided on his course of action throughout the controversies. He would simply, “preach the word.” (Christian Standard 1897:44) He said that would not participate in the divisive controversies of the day. Instead, he exclaimed, he would leave wrangling about the issues to “wiser and better men.” (Ibid.)
His refusal to take sides angered both conservatives and progressives. Larimore received harsh words for regularly preaching at churches that used the instrument and supported missionary societies. However, he was also treated harshly by the progressive side for not stating that instrumental music was not wrong. Once, he was even boycotted in Texas by the pro-instrument crowd for not taking a side on the issue. Even though Larimore received harsh criticism from both sides, he refused to respond in kind. At the close of an 1888 article on communion, Larimore wrote what was typical of his attitude toward division, “Criticize freely brethren, if you wish; but do not hope to provoke unpleasant controversy with me. THIS YOU CANNOT DO.” (Larimore, Gospel Advocate 1888: 3)
Larimore believed that part of the problem was that Christians had made it their goal to win debates over the controversial issues. All discussions quickly turned into wrangling. In the heated debates of his day, Larimore did not observe a spirit of love and peace that should be characteristic of Christians. He believed that the desire to win battles over issues was a curse to the cause of Christian unity. People were more concerned with being right than they were with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
He believed there was a latitude allowed in the church for different opinions. In a sermon on 1 Pet. 3:8 “be ye all of one mind,” Larimore explained that this passage cannot be referring to having all the same thoughts or opinions. He explained that even the best Christian among us is not free from having opinions, prejudices, biases, and personal preferences. That is part of being human. Larimore believed that people were allowed to hold their opinions, but they were not allowed to force their opinions on others. Larimore believed it was a privilege to be able to defer an opinion for the sake of a brother. He said, “And, unfortunately, some sincere souls seem to be determined to never recognize as Christians, or have fellowship with any, save those who ride their hobby.” (Larimore, Letters and Sermons: 184)
What was Larimore’s position on instrumental music then? Larimore believed that instrumental music, since it was untaught, fell into the category of opinion. Since it was in the realm of opinion, Larimore believed it was his duty to never preach about it. He felt compelled to preach matters of faith and divine truth, not matters of opinion. It is no surprise then that Larimore didn’t say much about instrumental music. He did believe that debating about instruments fit into the category of “foolish and untaught questions” (2 Tim. 2:23) and thought Christians should avoid discussing those things which cause division. (Letters and Sermons pgs. 261-262) He believed that “untaught questions” consisted of those things not mentioned in the Bible. The only solution he saw was to go by those things that are expressly taught by the Bible. Because of this, Larimore was dedicated to quoting the Bible as much as possible in discussions with other people. He believed that if Christians would stop wrangling about the “untaught questions” and get back to taking the gospel to the world, all the disputes would soon be forgotten.
As was already mentioned, Larimore would often conduct revival meetings with instrumental churches. He also never preached against the instrument. This frustrated the conservatives. On the other hand, he never endorsed instruments either. This frustrated the progressives. He believed unity could be had despite differences over the issues. One incident in his life serves as a great example of how Larimore ministered to a fractured movement. In Sherman, TX in the 1880s, a pro-society group split off from the Houston Street church and formed the Central Christian Church. During the mid-1890s the Houston Street church began having issues over the instrument. The pro-organ group succeeded in getting in the instrument, and both the pro-organ and anti-organ sides were ready to withdraw from one another. Larimore was called in to the splintered congregation to help reunite them. Larimore said that he would preach indefinitely for them until they were united again. He began his revival on January 3, 1894 and it continued until June 7, 1894. There were 254 additions to both the Houston Street church and the Central Christian Church. The instrumental music issue was soon forgotten. The organ played for the first few weeks of the meeting, but was later abandoned. Larimore never even mentioned the organ once. It just went away as he spent time preaching on love and unity. Shortly after Larimore left town, the church divided over the organ. The anti-organ group met at 11:00 AM on Sunday and the organ group met at 3:00 PM on Sunday. This continued until the pro-organ group left in 1895 to form the First Christian Church. (Eckstein, Churches of Christ in Texas: 117, 247-48) As long as Larimore, the man of peace, was with them, they were united. As soon as he left, they divided.
After reading the views of Larimore on these issues, one Scripture came to my mind: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Whatever you ultimately decide about the views of T.B. Larimore, you cannot deny his passion for the unity of Christians. Maybe if we had more men like Larimore today, we would see less division in the religious world. Larimore’s beliefs also cause me to ask some questions. Was David Lipscomb right? Do we only have the privilege of standing on the right or wrong side? Was Larimore wrong for not taking a side on the instrumental music question? What would happen today in our churches and in our world if people were as passionate about unity as Larimore?