The Saga of Daniel Sommer (IV)

Cecil Willis
Marion, Indiana

When the term "Sommerism" is heard most brethren who have heard the term used probably think of a person who is opposed to colleges owned and operated by brethren in which Bible teaching is made a part of the daily curriculum. Daniel Sommer's name came to be virtually a synonym for opposition to what some called Christian Colleges."

His Early Opposition

Young Daniel Sommer attended Bethany College for three terms, from 1860 to 1872. By the time he was ready t6 leave Bethany, Sommer had already become conditioned to oppose such schools. At a very early date he became a great admirer of Benjamin Franklin and Jacob Creath, both of whom had become so suspicious of schools that they had begun to oppose them.

In his later years some tried to leave the impression that Daniel Sommer became an opponent of "Bible Colleges-" because be was by-passed when a President was being selected for Potter Bible College at Bowling Green, Kentucky. Sommer of course vehemently denied the allegation. During the very first year that Sommer wrote for the REVIEW (1878), he wrote a series of articles against colleges.

His opposition to schools operated by the brethren could be succinctly stated, and he often stated it thusly: "Collegeism led to Preacherism, and Preacherism led to Societyism and Musicism, and Socieiyism and Musicism led to Worldlyism among disciples" (DANIEL SOMMER, p. 298).

Sommer's opposition to Bible colleges brought down the wrath of David Lipscomb and James A. Harding upon his head, for both Lipscomb and Harding were connected with schools.

Debates on Colleges

J.N. Armstrong was married to James A. Harding's daughter. When Armstrong left Potter College which Harding headed at Bowling Green, Kentucky to establish the Western Bible and Literary College at Odessa, Missouri, he immediately began a fund raising campaign.

In the course of his effort to raise money to establish the intended new college, Armstrong made a rash statement: "The starting of this work does not depend on your gift, for God's hand is not shortened. Your salvation may depend on it, but the school does not" (L.C. Sears, THE BIOGRAPHY OF JOHN NELSON ARMSTRONG, p.74). This remark touched off a controversy that resulted in a series of debates on the college question. Sommer had debates with both B.F. Rhodes and with J.N. Armstrong.

There were quite different reports on the outcome of these debates, as is frequently the case of debates. Allen Sommer, Daniel's youngest son, said that these debate "doomed the Western and Literary College" (AMERICAN CHRISTIAN REVIEW, Vol. 110, No. 2, P. 5). On the other hand LC. Sears, J.N. Armstrong's son-in-law, said "the debates marked the decline of the opposition to Christian schools" (THE BIOGRAPHY OF J.N. ARMSTRONG, p. 84).

Both participants in the Armstrong-Sommer debate felt they had been mistreated. Sears said, "Actually Sommer's deep seated antagonism. seemed to be against J.A. Harding, J.N. Armstrong, and the men who ran, the colleges, rather than against the schools themselves" (p. 84). Daniel Sommer, on the other hand, said in a letter to F.B. Srygley (May 13, 1933) the Sommer-Armstrong Debate, (was) the only debate I ever had of which I felt ashamed." Sommer said "Christian Church preachers and writers, in their controversies with us, were, perhaps, never more unchristian than was my opponent in that debate" (Quoted in DANIEL SOMMER, p. 281).

"The Lord's Money"

It is mandatory, in understanding Sommer's position on Bible Colleges, to understand what he meant by "the Lord's Money." In a 1903 series of articles entitled "Concerning the Unscripturalness of Establishing Religio-Secular Schools with the Lord's Money," Sommer said that "faithful obedience to the divine doctrine of 'equality' will place all the Lord's money in the treasury, or in the hands of the Lord's needy ones. With all the Lord's money thus placed there will be none in the hands of Christians for building religio-secular schools" (OCTOGRAPHIC REVIEW, Sept. 8, 1903, p. 8).

Some in our day have tried to make it appear that Sommer's early opposition to colleges regarded only his opposition to congregational support of colleges. But this is not true. Sommer, in his early writings, opposed either congregational or individual contributions to what he called "religio-secular" schools. Sommer maintained that inasmuch as "Religio-Secular" schools are "about nine-tenths worldly, they are not to be supported by the church, either collectively or by individual Christians. Whatever any disciple may give to a Religio-Secular College is taken from that one's ability to give into the Church treasury" (DANIEL SOMMER, p. 214).

Sommer was very critical of David Lipscomb, for he had heard that Lipscomb left about $70,000 which eventually went to the Nashville Bible School (p. 223). Of Alexander Campbell's contributions to Bethany College, Sommer said, "Yet if he bad given as the Lord prospered him he would never had thought he had twelve thousand dollars to give for building a college. And when that was burned he never would have thought of giving eighteen thousand more for another building" (p. 265).

Man's ability to forget is sometimes astounding. While Sommer berated Campbell and Lipscomb for their large contributions to colleges, and while he charged them with not giving into the church treasury as they ought to have given, he seemed to forget that he paid twelve thousand dollars to purchase the AMERICAN CHRISTIAN REVIEW. The same charges he could make toward Lipscomb's and Campbell's college contributions were equally applicable to his own expenditure to purchase a religious paper.

Sommer's Late Years

Late in Sommer's life be made an extended trip into the South, during which be spoke on the campus of several of the schools, and in the meeting houses of several churches which be earlier would have called "college churches." Doubtless, from that time onward, Sommer's opposition to the schools moderated.

Some felt that Brother Sommer then was so old that the college people deceived him. Others felt that he was growing senile. Sommer himself explained his moderated views on the college question:

". . . A change has been made in the minds of many of those in the Southland who previously contended for those colleges of which I have written. When they now come northward they seem glad to preach the gospel to the best of their ability without contending for those colleges either publicly or privately. As a result the REVIEWS managers do not denounce them as it did when they were contending for the c6fleges. Besides this I should mention that several of the journals published in the Southland have opened their columns to the discussion of the college question. As a result changes have been made in the college sentiment in the Southland, and their colleges are no longer regarded as church institutions. But they are referred to as individual and family enterprises to educate young people separate from the evils of state institutions."

". . . The REVIEW has suffered in regard to the college question. It was for many years the only paper of the disciple brotherhood that offered even one word against the church college, or the 'religio-secular college' which the church was begged to support. And it was the only paper which opposed and exposed the preachers who tried to secure control of all the churches in behalf of such colleges. As a result so much was offered, and needed to be offered against such colleges that a certain class of its readers learned too well that the church college was dangerous. And those who were of that order could not or would not consider that the REVIEW should relax in its contentions on that subject when the church colleges had quit begging the churches as such for support. Nor could they understand that the REVIEW'S managers could afford to relax in their contentions on that subject when several Southern journals had opened their columns to a full and fine discussion of the college question. This sentiment in the REVIEW office was adopted: We can afford 'to relax our contentions against church colleges; for Southern papers are now open to a discussion of their merits and demerits and Southern people will more readily accept argument from their own people than they will from us." (DANIEL SOMMER, pp. 280, 281)

However, this lessened opposition to colleges was to bring Daniel Sommer under severe criticism, and ultimately it split not only his co-laborers, but his own family as well. In the next and last article in this series, we will discuss the "Rough Draft."


October 15, 1970