Vantage Points

The Search for the Long-Lost David Lipscomb Cartoon

Oct. 12, 2015

by Kippy Myers

 

            For 125 years, numerous periodicals, sermons, books, and lectures associated with churches of Christ have made reference to a cartoon or caricature that someone made of David Lipscomb (editor of the Gospel Advocate 1866–1913). The cartoon allegedly pictures Lipscomb as an older woman who is futilely attempting to sweep back the ocean tide with a broom. I say “allegedly” because no one seems to know where to find the cartoon. A lot of us would love to see it and to have a copy of it.

            People tell me that they have seen the cartoon, and for some, the image is still clear in their minds. But no one knows where they saw it or where we can locate it. And believe me, over the years a lot of us have searched diligently for it. 

            With so many eyewitnesses, so many references to it, and so many researchers looking for it, how has this caricature of Lipscomb eluded us? Well, it is a long and convoluted story.

The Origin of the Mrs. Partington Image

            About 1831, Sydney Smith told the story of an old woman by the name of Mrs. Partington who lived near the sea. A particularly bad storm blew in one evening and the waves were threatening her home. She was observed outside her house trying desperately to hold back the encroaching tide by sweeping at it with a broom (or with a mop as some tell it). Smith used this story as an illustration of someone who is fighting a losing battle, trying to hold back the inevitable with a mere broom.

            The poignancy of the story apparently hit a nerve, because soon it was appearing in speeches and magazines around the world. For nearly two hundred years Mrs. Partington’s struggle has been used to epitomize valiant efforts to stem the inexorable onset of change. So far, I have collected nineteen different drawings, cartoons, and photographs of people attempting to sweep back a tide of advancing women’s rights, political pressures, moral views, laws, et al., patterned after the image of Mrs. Partington. (See example below)

 

             

 

            This 1899 picture is NOT the Lipscomb cartoon. It is one instance of how the image of Mrs. Partington has been employed. This is supposedly the same imagery that was applied to David Lipscomb who was fighting what some considered “progress” in the church (the missionary society, mechanical instruments in worship, etc.). His theological opponents who produced the caricature of him believed that his effort at stemming the tide would be in vain.

“Why Don’t You Just Google It?”

            At this point someone might think, “Just look it up on the Internet.  Everything’s on the Internet.” Ah, if only it were that simple. I have Googled the Internet to death for months trying to encode the perfect search phrase that would deliver the cartoon to my desktop. Sure, I found the nineteen examples of individuals who were trying to sweep back the sea with a broom. But none them involved David Lipscomb.

            The Internet was helpful in certain ways, however, because it introduced me to a few articles and books that make references to the Lipscomb cartoon. Some of them even refer to Lipscomb as “the Man with the Broom.” But not one of those writers pinpoints the exact location of the Lipscomb cartoon so that we could see it for ourselves. Most of them only speak of it in very general terms like, “David Lipscomb was once caricatured as an old woman trying to sweep back the ocean waves with a broom” and they leave it at that. They use it as an illustration in passing. This deepens the problem of searching for the cartoon because after one writer quotes a previous general reference like this and another quotes that quote and another quotes that one, we end up reading references to references to references without any details, citations, or the locations of the original source. At least this is the case for the ones that I am aware of.

            Now where do we begin the search for the long lost Lipscomb cartoon? Judging from the most specific references that we have, it seems that the religious journal, the Christian Standard might be the place, and the late 1880s might be the time. Of course, I am not the first Indiana Jones to encounter these clues. I am a latecomer. There were intrepid cartoon hunters who pored over thousands of pages of the Christian Standard long before I came along. And sadly, they found nothing. Yes, I scoured those journals too. But I found something very interesting.

Finding “Goody Partington Again”

            When I first studied the history of the Mrs. Partington image, it was just a related topic that interested me. I wanted to know where the image of a lady sweeping back the ocean originated and how it became such a popular meme. But as often happens in research, this background information became a crucial element in my quest for the cartoon.

            For about the first fifteen days of untold hours searching for the cartoon in old documents and on the Internet, I was constantly looking through individual documents online using specialized search terms that focused on elements of the cartoon, including the words “broom,” “Lipscomb,” “sweep,“ “cartoon,” “caricature,” and so on. In doing so I read lots of cases when the words “cartoon” and “caricature” were used in normal contexts that had nothing to do with the Lipscomb cartoon. It became clear to me that the authors were using these terms more loosely than I am acquainted with, i.e., not referring to drawings and visual images like I expected, but primarily referring to word pictures and verbal descriptions. Once this dawned on me, I began to wonder whether perhaps there is no visual cartoon of Lipscomb after all, no drawing of him as Mrs. Partington. Could it be that someone had written a verbal description of Lipscomb as a woman with a broom, fighting a hopeless battle against the sea of “progress”? Could the cartoon be verbal, not visual?

            Up to the point when I hit on this idea, I had been skimming through old journals only looking for a cartoon drawing and paying little or no attention to the hundreds of written articles that I was passing over. But now that I was entertaining the idea that it might be a cartoon made of words, I began to search more carefully, looking for an article that might describe Lipscomb as the old woman with the broom.

            And one day I came across an article that did just that.  On page (11) 773 of the November 15, 1890 issue of the Christian Standard there is a brief little article with the title “Goody Partington Again.” I saw the title and thought, “Hey, that’s the name of the woman with the broom.” Indeed, this article written by Russell Errett (brother of the Standard’s editor, Isaac Errett) was an acerbic verbal depiction of David Lipscomb as the old woman, Mrs. Partington, trying to sweep back the tide of progressivism in the church. It was a verbal caricature, not a visual cartoon. I will attach the article at the end of this report so that you can read it and have a copy of it.

            The question that now looms is, “Is this article the cartoon that we have all been looking for?” My answer: I think it is possible, but I want to be cautious.

Conclusion

            My conclusion at this point in my search for the cartoon therefore is tentative. There is much more to say about the cartoon that I am leaving unsaid here, but at the moment I am skeptical that there is a cartoon drawing out there that can be proven to be the “official” Lipscomb cartoon that everyone has been searching for all of these years. I think that the "cartoon" is in reality the "Goody Partington Again" article. I may be shortsighted in my conclusions, but I hope that by making my theory known, perhaps my skepticism will motivate someone to prove me wrong. That would be wonderful.

            On one side of the coin, the evidence that gives me reasonable doubt of my own theory is the testimony of those who say that they have seen the cartoon. I realize that there are a number of problems associated with memory ("source confusion," for example), and I can think of a few scenarios in which it would be very easy to have seen visual examples of the Mrs. Partington image in the press and later connect them to the Lipscomb cartoon. Even so, without the eyewitnesses, I would quit searching.

            On the other side of the coin, the evidence that causes my skepticism about the existence of the visual cartoon is (1) the existence of the "Goody Partington Again" article by Russell Errett (included below) and (2) the absence of anyone who can locate the cartoon drawing thus far. I know that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” That is, just because I do not have physical evidence for the cartoon’s existence SO FAR does not in itself prove that it does not exist. And there is technically no way to definitively disprove the existence of the cartoon drawing. Nevertheless, the Law of Parsimony encourages me to reach a conclusion that properly explains the evidence at hand without adding unnecessary explanatory elements. I think that the “Goody Partington Again” article explains all of the evidence except for the lingering possibility that the eyewitnesses could be absolutely right.

            Consider this: I have spoken to many preachers about the cartoon, including many of our older and most widely known speakers whom I greatly admire. I have spoken to history teachers and Restoration history enthusiasts in brotherhood schools and elsewhere about it. I have communicated with history teachers in most of the Christian Church schools about it. I have checked at least three David Lipscomb biographies about it. They mention the caricature/cartoon, but even the biographers do not cite its location. I have asked the Christian Standard organization about it, the journal that some writers have claimed published the cartoon. They were not familiar with it and told me that it would take too much time to look it up. At least twice in the past few months, Neil Anderson, publisher of the Gospel Advocate, has asked readers for help in finding the cartoon, and no one has found it (yet). Many cartoon hunters have inquired about it at the Lipscomb University library, a school founded by Lipscomb that of course carries his name. When I was there looking at microfilms one day, a librarian asked me what I was researching. I said, “I’m looking for a cartoon . . .“ and before I could finish, she completed my sentence for me, “. . . of David Lipscomb as a woman sweeping back the sea?” Exactly. I was not the first cartoon hunter that she had met. And yet, after all these years of searchers, to her knowledge no one has the cartoon or knows where to find it.  

            How could this be? Does it not strike you as a bit odd that NONE of these sources has access to the cartoon? However, if the cartoon is in reality a verbal caricature, the reason that no one can find the visual cartoon is precisely that it does not exist.

            Bottom Line for me: I think that Russell Errett made a word cartoon that involved a very fanciful and picturesque scenario such that over the years as writers referred back to it with descriptions like “caricature” and “cartoon,” their words misled some of us to think of it in terms of a visual drawing. This identification problem was further complicated because (as far as I know) people who talked about it did not reveal the exact location of the caricature/cartoon so that we could see it for ourselves. If someone had given us a citation, then people could simply go to that document and say, “Oh, it isn’t a drawing.  It’s a written article.”

            If you are a cartoon hunter, I will be happy to share with you the sources that I have searched thus far and you can share yours with me so that we can at least know where not to look. If we combined our efforts rather than working separately, we could make significant headway.  And, of course, most importantly, if you have access to the cartoon, please email it to me immediately at kmyers@fhu.edu and you will make an awful lot of people very happy. And I will joyously rewrite the ending to this report.

            Here is the article from the Christian Standard of 1890 with the caricature of David Lipscomb as a woman sweeping back the sea with a broom. The citation is at the end of the article. You will have to make your own decision as to whether it is the long lost Lipscomb cartoon or not.

 

"GOODY PARTINGTON AGAIN"

The story of the old lady who had a yard fronting on the sea, and was found one morning busily engaged in sweeping back the rising tide with a broom, is familiar to all. I am happy to recognize her exact counterpart in a dear old lady of the opposite sex, who signs herself “D. L.” in the Gospel Advocate. The precious old soul has been busy for many years in a frantic attempt to sweep back the advancing tide of cooperative work, and is still flourishing her old stump of a broom about her head, although the waters have risen too high to admit of longer resistance to them.

I am sorry to see that the old lady’s temper does not seem to be improved by the exercise, or by the results. I had hoped that after attending that good Convention at Chattanooga, her disposition would be chastened, and that she would gracefully accept the situation. But her wits seem to have been turned quite topsy-turvy. Instead of recognizing a hand greater than man’s in her defeat, she opens a wild tirade of abuse on me, and ends by declaring the cooperative work in Tennessee to be the work of my hands inaugurated solely for my own base purposes.

I think if the poor old soul ever comes to herself again, she will be sorely ashamed of the account she has given of my proceedings. What is not wholly false in it, is fearfully distorted.

But be that as it may, when she assigns the origin of the present missionary movement in Tennessee to me, she is drawing on an hysterical imagination and not on facts. My only regret is that my spell is not as potent as my venerable admirer thinks. Otherwise, it would have been successful long ago. I began in 1882 to move for a work in Tennessee similar to that in many of the other States. During the eight years that have elapsed, I have made repeated efforts to unite the Disciples in that State who were desirous of such a work. If my skill could have accomplished it, it would have been done in 1883, instead of the year of grace 1890. The present movement was inaugurated without my knowledge or advice, but has had my strenuous support. I am happy to believe it has had few more ardent friends and supporters, but I was not even consulted until the work had been undertaken.

When Goody Partington recovers from her fright, and finds herself dry and comfortable in the enjoyment of a lucid interval, I hope she will have the good sense to smile at the vagaries indulged in her irresponsible moments. I hope she will take better care of herself hereafter; disabuse herself of the notion that the great State of Tennessee is her own little back-yard, and never again fight the tide with a broom.

R. E.

Christian Standard

November 15, 1890

Page (11) 773