By Steve Wolfgang
Shortly before his death in 1878, the venerable Benjamin Franklin, editor of the American Christian Review (which one historian has called “the most influential Disciples journal” during this period of the Restoration Movement 1 ), wrote to the young preacher, Daniel Sommer. Eight years later, Sommer would assume the editorship of the Review. In the letter, Franklin urged his young protege to “write yourself into the affections and confidence of the brethren, while I am still at the helm, so that when I fall, you may be a necessity, as I am now.”2
Since I began preaching several years ago, some older preachers have offered similar advice to me, suggesting that I submit “short, simple articles” to the various “brotherhood journals” for the purpose of “writing oneself into the confidence of the brethren.” My inclination, however, has been to wait until becoming somewhat more experienced, and especially until I felt I had something to say instead of merely having to say something. Had I wanted to chop up a number of graduate and undergraduate term papers into article form (as some young writers apparently have done), I might well have been inscripturated by now into the brethren’s confidence. But I trust that the brethren will consider what is said on the basis of its merit rather than on the reputation (or lack of same) of the writer.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with brethren having confidence in someone based upon past experience. Nor is there anything sinful in a person using for good whatever influence he may have with others. Some of the present denouncers of “centers of brotherhood influence,” “power structures,” “paper and publishing combines,” etc., seemingly do not recognize that they are using the same type of “paper and publishing combine” to accomplish the same end (influencing brethren). Try as they may to piously disclaim any attempt to control or exert influence over other people, they cannot escape the fact that is exactly the effect they have and denunciations of others from such sources come with rather poor grace!
Additionally, some no doubt well-intentioned brethren recently have criticized human institutions (such as colleges and/ or papers which teach the Bible) using another human institution (a paper) to teach what they suppose to be the truth. One hears references to “classical Sommerism” and “the Sommer position” and wonders if those who use them realize what they refer to. There is something Brother Sommer apparently could never see-that in vociferously defending the Lord=s church from human institutions, he was utilizing a human institution (his paper, the Review) to teach what he understood the Bible to teach. Nor was he able, logically, to avoid the force of the argument by pleading that the Review was not “incorporated” or Aorganized” as such, but merely owned and operated by himself and his family. It yet remained a human institution, something other than the church.
It may well be that the brethren who are so vocally using human institutions (papers) to castigate other human institutions (such as a college), and who are quick to point to the “unwarranted influence” that a school might have. might profit from reading some history. For instance, an historical judgment which has been stated by more than one analyst of the movement is well stated by Earl West:
“Colleges, as a general rule, have not fostered the thinking of brethren on certain issues, but rather have reflected the opinion of the majority after the issues have arisen …. The charge, therefore, that the Bible schools have been the cause of digression is a generalization of very little historical accuracy. Rather, just the opposite is true. The chief sources of opinion and policy in the brotherhood have always been the brotherhood publications …. Digression in the restoration movement began not with colleges but with papers, which is to say influential editors and writers. It was not until after they had swung the opinions of the brotherhood into one line or another that the colleges began to take up the issues and become champions of them.@3
Of course, the cliche that the Restoration movement has had editors rather than bishops (as in, for instance, the Methodist church) has been repeated perhaps as often as almost any other phrase in the history of the movement. While this may be true, and while it is perhaps true that some have abused their influence over others, it is also true that some who criticize others are the worst offenders!
When one undertakes to write, he assumes the same responsibility as when he teaches in any other medium (James 3:1). However, by writing, he may be reaching an audience of thousands instead of tens or hundreds. Of course, one needs to teach the truth at all times-whether the audience consists of one or one thousand. But when the possibility exists for teaching so great a potential audience, one needs to pay strict attention to what he teaches. While religious error taught to one may have as its result the loss of a soul or, at the very least, confusion of scriptural concepts, the same error, taught before a large audience, by a sort of ” multiplier effect,” may have even more far-reaching consequences. Thus, one who teaches publicly, either orally or by written articles, should have no aversion to anyone questioning what he may teach. In fact, in view of the responsibility he bears, he should welcome such criticism. Some brethren seem to feel that they can write virtually whatever they please, without regard to the implications of what they may teach, and then withdraw to their ivory towers, behind a facade of piety, if someone disagrees with or even questions their assertions. I have even heard some brethren suggest that they should be able to teach what they please publicly, but all critics have the right to question them only privately! I suppose they feel that such is a “scriptural” (?) position.
Let me conclude these random reflections on writers and their influence by offering for your consideration some remarks made by a venerable soldier of the cross who preached for about three quartrs of a century. Brother W. W. Otey made the following observation:
A. . . it is very likely that they (non-writing preachers – SW) would do the cause as much good as a preacher whose name frequently appears in print. The mere fact that a man=s name appears often in print is no proof that he will give you satisfaction as a preacher. Nor is the fact that a man’s name is seldom seen in print any proof that he is not a good preacher. I have known of churches sending long distances for a preacher to hold a meeting and then say, ‘We were disappointed. He does not preach as well as he writes.’ I have known of churches sending for. preachers whose names seldom appear in print and then say, ‘Why have we not heard of you before? “4
It may be that, there are some today who are infatuated with those who write. There have been instances of preachers moving to a new work and then “lining up” solely influential writer-preachers and / or editors to hold meetings. Some brethren seem to think that if a brother does not write that he may not be able to preach! One capable preaching brother, who is probably as well informed as anyone on subjects such as evolution, Catholicism, and current religious thinking, but who has not written extensively in “brotherhood periodicals,” told me several years ago that some brethren had expressed amazement at his being asked to work with a certain church because “they had never heard of him!” And surely most of us have had the experience of hearing a preacher who is not nearly as effective in “Pulpit work” as in “editorializing.” Each one has his own place and should use such talents as he has-but such typecasting and stereotyping of brethren is not conducive to the most effective use of available talent.
May we all use whatever influence for good we may have, and encourage others to do likewise. Let us not develop an “Elijah complex” when others do not work exactly as we do, or as we think they ought to. Let us listen to what our brethren are saying-and accept truth, wherever it is taught, Without respect to who may teach it. “Consider what I say, and the Lord give thee understanding in all things” (2 Timothy 2:7),.
1. David Edwin Harrell, Jr., The Social Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ, 1865-1900: The Disciples of Christ and American Society, Volume II (Atlanta: Publishing Systems, Incorporated, 1973), p. 17
2. Letter from Franklin to Sommer, May 30, 1878; letter from Sommer to Review owner Edwin Alden, October 30, 1878; Daniel Sommer “History,” American Christian Review, (March 3, 1887), p. 65; see Eari Irvin West, The Search for the Ancient Order. A History of the Restoration Movement, 1849-1906 (Volume 11, 1866-1906; Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1954), pp. 299-302, 306-315.
3. Ibid., II, 461-462.
4. “Facts and Reflections,” Octographic Review, XLVIII: 43 (October 24, 1905), pp. 4-5.
Truth Magazine, XVIII:39, p. 4-6
August 8, 1974