By Steve Wolfgang
One of the many church bulletins which cross my desk regularly is The Discerner, edited by Robert McDonald and published by the church in Odessa, Texas, where he is the preacher. It is both informative and attractive in format, and, to judge from the frequently published letters from readers, evidently is circulated rather widely among brethren. Many of the articles in the last four or five months’ issues have pertained to the question of whether individual Christians have the right, or are permitted by the Scriptures, to support a college not supported from local church treasuries but which teaches religion or Bible courses. The October, 1978 issue contained a lengthy article by Leon Odom of Midland, Texas, entitled “Put Your Brand On Him” in which some historical circumstances are alluded to in order to establish the author’s point. Some of the historical allusions and allegations based thereon do not exactly square with the facts, and I had considered replying when I first received that issue but then put it aside to tend to other pressing duties. I have since been asked by the editor of this paper to respond; hence, this article. I write with neither personal acquaintance nor animosity toward either Brother McDonald or Brother Odom.
I wish to begin by emphasizing my wholehearted concurrence with one of Brother Odom’s points-that of the “labeling” of brethren generally, and the specific label of “Sommerite” in particular. If the only point Brother Odom wished to make was a simple appeal to brethren to quit “labeling” other brethren with whom they may disagree and instead enter into a Biblical discussion with those deemed to be in error, I would be happy to join with him in this effort and add a hearty “Amen” to his sentiments. But it appears to me that Brother Odom has gone well beyond this simple plea and becomes guilty of this very thing at several places in the article. I submit that Brother Odom commits the very error he condemns-branding brethren with whom he disagrees-in a pronounced absence of Biblical argumentation. We wish in this article to respond not only to the general issue of “branding” but to deal with the specific label “Sommerism.” Since Brother Odom’s article is only one of several such misrepresentations of Daniel Sommer’s position which has appeared in print in the last five years or so, it is perhaps time for reasonable response.
Perhaps a word should be said regarding the author’s familiarity with “Sommerism.” I was both born and raised in Indianapolis, which was Daniel Sommer’s home for more than 45 years, from 1894 until his death early in 1940, and where his children continued to live and publish the Sommer paper.(1) From an early age I attended with my parents and grandparents the old Irvington church during the time that Earl West and, then, Cecil Willis (the first two preachers I have conscious memories of hearing) were preaching there and writing their histories of controversy in the “Restoration Movement.”(2) About 1957, “when the institutional issues forced a crisis in the Irvington church… it became necessary for those who wanted to keep the Lord’s church from becoming a handmaid to human institutions to leave Irvington . . . . So the Wolfgang families moved. . .”(3) to the Emerson Avenue congregation (40th and Emerson). This congregation, recently moved to the new location, had been the old North Indianapolis church, where Sommer’s membership had been, and where he had often preached when not traveling in evangelistic work. Among the members was Sommer’s daughter, Bessie, and several people who had grown up hearing Sommer preach. The preacher there was Loren Raines, who began preaching under the influence of Daniel Sommer(4); it was here that I was baptized in 1962 by Brother Raines. More than a decade later, I wrote for my M.A. thesis at Butler University in Indianapolis a biography of Daniel Sommer. During the course of this research I used not only the files of Sommer’s paper, now in the library of Christian Theological Seminary adjacent to the Butler campus, but numerous boxes of Sommer’s personal letters, papers, and sermons, the record book of the North Indianapolis church, and several taped interviews of Sommer’s living children and associates.
Now, all of this certainly does not make me “the authority” on Sommer or his teaching. It does, however, establish some reasonable familiarity with Sommer and his work on the author’s part. In short, I am no stranger to the label “Sommerism.”
It needs to be made clear that this article is not written as a defense or vindication of Sommer or any views peculiar to him. Actually, though I have read a good deal of Sommer’s writings, I do not think any more of him than of Alexander Campbell, or Lipscomb, or McGarvey or any other “Restoration giant” (though I would admit to having a few personal “favorites”). I do not believe they were exceptionally brilliant above other men; nor do I happen to believe (as one “Restoration specialist” among liberal brethren begins his lectures by saying), “The greater the men the greater the movement.” I have no interest whatsoever in the vindication or veneration of any man, living or dead. I do happen to think that if brethren such as Brother Odom are going to insist on arguing their position historically instead of Biblically that they get their facts straight so that their historical interpretations and conclusions will not be unduly warped. If we are going to quote or represent those of bygone years let us at least do so accurately.
Brother, Odom is disturbed because he says there are brethren who have labeled him and those who share his opinions on colleges teaching Bible and religion “Sommerite” while presenting themselves as “pro-college.” Perhaps I do not circulate as widely among the brethren as Brother Odom (though I have been in more than 30 states in each of the last several years, traveling to and from meetings-mostly among brethren whom Brother Odom likely would consider “pro-college”), but I must admit having heard none of these charges. Brother Odom even says they have been bold enough to make these charges in print. Now, I have tried to keep up in the last few years with most of the journals published by brethren and with a good many church bulletins besides (I get over a hundred such publications weekly)-but I have seen none of these accusations.
It is interesting that in the midst of all the quoting of others in Brother Odom’s article, he did- not specify or quote anyone he says is doing all-the branding he abhors so much. If he would like to specify who it is he is indicting or provide documentation of such label-slinging we would be happy to join hands with him in opposing such a practice. But we find it difficult to do so until he tells us what article in which paper, or which self-styled “pro-college” brethren are labeling him and those like him as “Sommerites.”
Actually, what Brother Odom has done (try as he may to disavow it) is to paint those of us who do not share his opinions on the “college” or “Bible department” issue with the same broad brush as those he condemns as “liberal” or those who would castigate both of us as “Campbellites.” Apparently Brother Odom finds it easier to maintain his critical position by quoting (or misquoting) dead preachers than by offering a scriptural argument to support it. In addition, he evidently finds it necessary to label and lump those of us who do not share his convictions in this matter with those who would institutionalize the Lord’s church by arguing that we can do many things without scriptural authority. Such an approach is ultimately self-defeating, because arguments of this kind always raise questions in the minds of thoughtful people against a cause which apparently needs misstatements and misrepresentations of fact to support its conclusions.
Now, as if it mattered, what did Sommer actually teach in the matter in which Brother Odom cites him? Sommer’s position on Bible colleges took numerous forms early in his career. In some of his earlier debates he took the position that whatever money a Christian had left after providing “necessities” was “the Lord’s money” and should be given to the Lord’s church. This extreme position has been given much attention by some who do not realize that the occasion for Sommer’s remarks originally was the appeal of J.N. Armstrong for one of his several colleges in which he very boldly said,
“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. If you have means in your hand and are a servant of God, it is God’s means; and to be a faithful servant, you must use his means in the place where you believe it will do the most toward building the kingdom of God.”(5)
Sommer made many other arguments against schools which taught the Bible, some of which are used by present day opponents of such schools and some of which are not,since there seems to be almost as many different “Biblical positions” against a college teaching the Bible as there are different brethren opposing them.
However, by the 1930’s, which was very late in his life, Sommer was willing to concede that, even though he still opposed such colleges personally, he would preach, worship, and work with brethren who supported such colleges, so long as that support was rendered on a personal, individual basis, and did not seek the use of local church funds.(6)
For instance, Sommer said, after a “Rough Draft for Christian Unity” was proposed in the pages of his paper in 1931,
“. . . A few statements should be made about the proposal to fellowship those individuals who give toward orphan homes, church colleges, missionary societies and such-like humanisms. The `rough draft’ for unity proposes to regard such as risking their souls . . . . Thus I think, and thus many others think. ‘But who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls’ (See Romans 14:4).”(7)
That hardly sounds like Sommer had joined the ranks of “pro-college men,” does it? Sommer further stated;
“Can a man use tobacco and be a Christian? My answer has been and still is, I couldn’t, but I cannot speak for anyone else. Can a man be a member of an oath-bound order and be a Christian? My answer has been and still is, 1 couldn’t, but I can’t speak for anyone else. Can a man be a Christian and give money to build or support a man-made missionary or educational society? My answer has been and still is, I couldn’t but I cannot speak for any one else.”(8)
The following year, after making an extended tour of colleges in the South in 1933, Sommer said,
“The only change I specially noticed while visiting those schools was the disposition to speak of them as `adjuncts to the Home, rather than to the Church.’ When I heard this I generally said, `That is more reasonable, and the fourteenth chapter of Romans forbids that I should sit in judgment on how much you should do in educating your children.’ This means my sentence has changed in proportion as college advocates have changed . . .”(9)
Does that sound to you like Sommer was advocating “the old `adjunct of the home’ theory” as Brother Odom contends? The fact is, he recognized it as a much less rabid defense of the college than Armstrong’s. He may have tolerated the argument, but he did not personally agree with it or advance it, insofar as I have been able to find in his writings or personal correspondence. If Brother Odom can document his assertion I will be happy to see his evidence, but until then I must wonder whether Brother Odom is not one of the “most of them (who) don’t even know what Daniel Sommer’s position was . . .”
For the record, Sommer did recede from his argument against Armstrong’s on “the Lord’s money,” acknowledging that
“I concede Christians can divide their prosperity with a college, an orphanage, an infirmary, a secret order, a life insurance company, or even a political campaign fund, or a missionary society, or even the tobacco habit-for aught I know. And Romans fourteenth chapter informs me I should not, on that account, refuse to recognize them as brethren . . . To this I add, Christians can publish papers to advocate and defend the gospel of Christ, and can advertize in them worldy commodities good; bad and indifferent, also advertize commentaries for children that tend to turn attention from the pages of the Bible to humanly arranged pages-they can do all this, and I repeat that Romans fourteenth chapter forbids that I should, for those reasons, refuse to recognize them as brethren . . . can we afford to take the “risk” of establishing institutions He never mentioned, either personally or through his apostles? I cannot afford to do so! My convictions will not permit me to do so-not any more than they will permit me to join an oathbound society. Yet Romans fourteenth chapter and the beginning of the fifteenth chapter will not permit me to discard those from among my brethren who take such “risks.” In course of recent winter months I spent nearly twelve weeks among brethren in Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas. I found them kind and reasonable. When they favored me with the privilege to address promiscuous audiences I spoke on subjects I thought would elevate, ennoble, purify and adorn. When I spoke to those of educational reputation I did not hesitate to indicate to them what I thought was their danger . . . In the meantime we should sing this song as offered by Bro. M.C. Kurfees:
How blest and how joyous will be the glad day,
When heart beats to heart in the work of the Lord;
When Christians united shall swell the grand lay,
Divisions all ended-triumphant His Word!”(10)
This brings us to the point of this article. It is curious that Brother Odom offered no documentation for his interpretation of Sommer’s views, as he was well able and willing to do for other material presented in the article. And, there are some who would find it strange if not highly amusing (and I suspect that Sommer would be among them) to find those who support the college’s right to teach the Bible now branded “Sommerites.” But this is a relatively minor point of historical understanding which pales by comparison to a much more serious issue.
What is definitely not amusing is the ferocity with which Brother Odom and those of his persuasion seem bent on pushing this issue to the point of a breach of fellowship. Oh, I know that such an idea is vehemently denied, as it is on the tape of the 1976 Forum at Odessa provided me by Brother Grover Stevens. My question is, why should the issue of fellowship even be mentioned? If Daniel Sommer could hold his quite strong opinions as personal convictions and worship and preach with those who disagreed with him so long as their collective action in a local church was not involved, why cannot Brother Odom and his compatriots? Really, a question of “branding” does not disturb me nearly so much as the deeper issue of fellowship, since I react to one who wants to make me out a “Sommerite” in exactly the same way as I do one who styles me a Campbellite-which is simply to ignore such as one as a victim of either ignorance or malice.
A final point should be underscored: Though Brother Odom did not identify it by name, everyone remotely familiar with the issue knows that only one educational institution falls within the category of a school, rejecting support from church treasuries but accepting individual contributions, which teaches Bible and religion courses. That school is Florida College. While the school has no control (and no right to control) the actions of everyone, those in its official employ have taken pains, indeed, bent over backward, to do two things relative to this issue. (1) To make sure that there is no connection, either in substance or appearance, between the college and the church. (2) To respect the individual consciences of those who do object to the school, or its right to teach the Bible and religion courses, even when such is done only by individuals. There has been no coercion, vilification, or public ridicule of those who do not share the convictions of personal conscience held by the school’s staff or supporters.
Personally, (and, while I cannot speak for everyone, this holds true for those in my acquaintance) the above procedure has likewise been my practice. I can work and worship without any reservation with any brother who does not happen to share my convictions in these matters-so long as he does not push it to the point of division or reflect upon my faithfulness or dedication for not sharing his opinions. But to the extent that brethren Odom, McDonald, . are intent on making this a public issue in which they attempt to place blame for “Who Is Causing Division?” I suspect that they will find more than a few of the rest of us willing to oppose that effort.
My question to Brother Odom (and to Brother McDonald, who indicted those supporting the right of a college or business to teach the Bible along with those who make support of such colleges the work of the church in a recent article entitled “Who Is Causing Division?”) is: Why must the question of fellowship even be raised? Are you not willing to be as magnanimous in your holding of personal convictions as even Brother Sommer came to be? Finally, my admonition is for all of us to be less concerned with labeling our brethren than with making Biblical arguments to support our contentions. May the churches have peace and prosper.
1. Sommer’s paper was published under various titles. When he became editor in 1886, it still bore the name given it by its founder, Benjamin Franklin (American Christian Review). It reverted to that name after Sommer’s death in 1940, when the paper was edited (until being discontinued in 1965) by his children, Allen and Bessie Sommer, who passed away in 1975 and 1977, respectively. During Sommer’s lifetime the paper bore the titles Octographic Review (1887-1913) and Apostolic Review (1913-1940). It is interesting to note that Sommer tried to blunt criticism of his paper as “an organization other than a local church teaching the gospel” by having the organization limited to the members of the family, with his wife officially the publisher of the paper until her death in 1924. 1 find this quite interesting in view of some of the arguments being advanced by the “no-collectivity-other-than-a-local church” group (if someone can come up with a better description for this position-especially one easier to type-I shall be glad to hear it!)
2. West’s work, of course, is Search For the Ancient Order (2 vols.; Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1954); Willis’ is W. W. Otey: Contender for the Faith (privately published, 1964); both available from Truth Magazine Bookstore. For a reprinting of Sommer’s autobiographical articles, see William E. Wallace, Daniel Sommer: 1850-1940 (privately published, 1969). Wallace did much of the work for this volume while living and preaching in Indianapolis in the 1960’s.
5. The most accessible version of this quotation to readers of this paper is in Lloyd Cline Sears, For Freedom: The Biography of John Nelson Armstrong (Austin, Texas: R.B. Sweet Publishing Company, 1969), p. 74. Sears, a former dean of Harding College, is also Armstrong’s son-in-law.
6. The question of whether “Sommer changed” is an intriguing one. There is no doubt in my mind that part of Sommer’s statements regarding the colleges was due to some deceptive information given him by those controlling the colleges. With regard to church support of colleges, W. W. Otey and others later would say, “They all do it and they all deny it.” Sommer’s interest in restoring fellowship among severed portions of the “Restoration Movement” took an interesting turn about this time, due to his association with the influential Disciple, Frederick D. Kershner of Butler University. Seeing that restoral of fellowship between Christian Churches and Churches of Christ was futile, Sommer turned his attention about 1932 to re-opening avenues of discussion and sharing among “those who have kept the worship pure.” See Sommer’s several hundred letters exchanged with Kershner from 1929-1939 (Kershner Papers, Series IX, Box 27, Folder 139, Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis). Sommer’s children seemed to feel that, while there were some legitimate scriptural reasons for opposing the colleges, that personal antipathy stemming from a shooting incident involving two of Sommer’s sons, Fred and Frank, at Milligan College in the 1890’s played a significant role in Sommer’s opposition (taped interviews with author by Allen Sommer: June 14, 1972; July 13, 1973; and December 28, 1973).
Truth Magazine XXIII: 27, pp. 439-442
July 12, 1979