The E. M. Zerr Bible Commentaries

By Cecil Willis

The Cogdill Foundation, which publishes Truth Magazine, has obtained exclusive publication rights to the six volume Bible Commentary written by Brother E. M. Zerr. This set, covering both Old and New Testaments, is available in an impressive hardback binding. The dark green binding material looks beautiful, stamped in gold lettering, and should serve the average user a life-time. The six books consist of approximately 400 pages each. The set sells for $32.50, and single volumes sell for $5.95 each. A customary trade discount is allowed to other retail outlets. These books may be ordered from Truth Magazine Bookstore, Box 403, Marion, Indiana 46952, or through your favorite religious bookstore.

Information About E. M. Zerr

Brother Zerr was quite well-known among a group of very conservative brethren, but he may not have been known among brethren in general. Hence, a little information concerning him is here given. Edward Michael Zerr was born October 15, 1877 in Strassburg, Illinois, but his family soon thereafter moved to Missouri. He was the second of six children born to Lawrence and Mary (Manning) Zerr. Brother Zerr’s father was reared as a Catholic, but after he married Mary Manning, he obeyed the gospel. At the age of seventeen, young Edward was immersed into Christ in Grand River, near Bosworth, Missouri.

In June, 1897 young Brother E. M. Zerr received a letter from A. L. Gepford asking him to go to Green Valley, Illinois, and to preach in his stead. His first sermon was entitled, “My Responsibility as a Preacher of the Gospel, and Your Responsibility as Hearers.” In the years between delivery of this first sermon on July 3, 1897, and the delivery of his last sermon on October 25, 1959, Brother Zerr preached about 8,000 sermons, from California to Connecticut, and from Washington to Arizona. It is noteworthy that his last sermon was built around Matt. 13:44, and was entitled “Full Surrender.” Brother Zerr preached the gospel for a little over 60 years.

Among the brethren with whom Brother Zerr was most frequently associated, it was then common to have protracted periods of concentrated Bible studies, commonly referred to as “Bible Readings.” Young Brother Zerr attended a three month “Bible Reading” conducted by the well-known teacher, A. M. Morris, in 1899. During this study which was conducted at Hillsboro, Henry County, Indiana, Brother Zerr stayed in the home of a farmer named John Hill. After leaving the John and Matilda Hill farm, “E. M. ” began correspondence with their daughter, Carrie. The following year, while attending a “Bible Reading” conducted by Daniel Sommer in Indianapolis, “E. M. ” and Carrie were married, on September 27, 1900. The newly weds took up. residence in New Castle, -Indiana, where their four children were born, one of whom died in infancy.

In 1911, Brother A. W. Harvey arranged for Brother Zerr to conduct a “Bible Reading” which continued for several months at Palmyra, Indiana. These “Bible Readings”, usually consisted of two two-hour sessions daily. Young Brother Zerr’s special ability as a teacher was soon recognized, and he continued to conduct such studies among churches of Christ for 48 years. Edward M. Zerr died February 22, 1960, having been in a coma for four months following an automobile accident at Martinsville, Indiana. His body was laid to rest in the little country cemetery at Hillsboro, Indiana, near the church building in which he had attended his first “Bible Reading.”

Brother Zerr’s Writings in addition to his oral teaching and preaching, Brother Zerr was a prolific writer. He was a regular contributor to several religious periodicals. Brother Zerr also composed the music and lyrics of several religious songs. Two of these, “The True Riches,” and “I Come to Thee,” may be found in the widely used song book, Sacred Selections.

One of the books written by Brother Zerr is entitled Historical Quotations, and consists of the gleanings from 40,000 pages of ancient history and other critical sources which he read over a period of twenty years. These quotations are intended to explain and to confirm the prophetic and other technical statements of the Bible. Another book, a 434 page hard-cover binding, consists of a study course containing 16,000 Bible questions. This book, New Testament Questions, has at least 50 questions on each chapter of the New Testament. A smaller book, Bible Reading Notes, consists of some of the copious notes which Brother Zerr made in connection with the “Bible Readings” which he conducted.

But the crowning success of his efforts was the writing of his six volume commentary on the whole Bible. These six volumes were published between 1947 and 1955. Brother Zerr has the unique distinction, so far as is known to this writer, of being the only member of the church to write a commentary on the entire Bible. Many other brethren have written excellent and valuable commentaries on various books of the Bible, but no other brother has written on the entire Bible.

The writing of this commentary consumed more than seven years of full-time labor. In order that he might devote himself without interruption to this herculean effort, Brother Zerr was supported by the Newcastle church during this seven year period. It is unfortunate, in this writer’s judgment, that other competent men have not been entirely freed of other duties that they might give themselves to such mammoth writing assignments. Through Bible Commentary, Brother E. M. Zerr, though dead since 1960, will continue to do what he liked best to do-conduct “Bible Readings” for many years to come. The current printing is the fourth printing of the Old Testament section (four volumes) of the commentary, and the fifth printing of the New Testament section (two volumes).

Many Christians spend but little money on available helps in Bible study. Some own perhaps only a Cruden’s Concordance, a Bible Dictionary of some kind, and then Johnson’s Notes. It would be interesting to know how many copies of B. W. Johnson’s The People’s New Testament Commentary With Notes have been sold. If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that at least 1,000,000 copies of this superficial commentary have been sold. Johnson’s Notes contains the printing of the entire New Testament text in both King James Version and the English Revised Version (the predecessor to the American Standard Version), and his comments, all contained in two volumes. In fact, a single volume edition also is available. Thus one is buying two copies of the New Testament, and B. W. Johnson’s Notes, in one or two volumes. So necessarily, Johnson’s Notes are very brief.

If brethren somehow could be made acquainted with Brother Zerr’s Bible Commentary, it is possible that it could be as widely used as has been Johnson’s Notes, first published in 1889. Brother Zerr printed very little of the Bible text in his commentary. He assumed you would have your own Bible nearby. To have printed in the commentary the entire Bible would have required at least three other volumes. While it would have been helpful to have the Bible text printed by the comments, this unnecessary luxury would have been very expensive, since we all have copies of the Scriptures already. Furthermore, Brother Zerr intended that one be compelled to use his Bible, in order that his commentary never supplant the Sacred text.

A Word of Caution

I am sure that Brother Zerr, were he yet living, would advise me to remind you that his Bible Commentary is only that of a man, though a studious man he was. In fact, in the “Preface” to this set of books, just such a word of warning is sounded by Brother Zerr. The only book which we recommend without reservation is the Bible! But Bible commentaries, when viewed merely as the results of many years of study by scholarly men, can be very helpful to one.

Brother Zerr spent his life-time working among those brethren who have stood opposed to “located preachers” and to “Bible Colleges.” However, he has not “featured” these distinctive views in his Bible Commentary. If one did not know of these positions held by Brother Zerr, he might not even detect the references to them in the commentary. However, I want to call such references to your attention. Along with the opposition to “located preachers,” Brother Zerr also held a position commonly referred to as “Evangelistic Oversight.” This position declares that until a congregation has qualified elders appointed, each congregation should be under the oversight of some evangelist. With these positions, this writer cannot agree. References to these positions will be found in his comments on Acts 20:28; Eph. 3:10, 3:21; 4:11; 1 Tim. 5:21; 2 Tim. 4:5, and perhaps in a few other places that do not now come to memory. Brother Zerr also took the position that a woman should never cut or even trim her hair. His comments on this position will be found at I Cor. 11:1-16.

But aside from a very few such positions with which many of us would disagree, Brother Zerr’s Bible Commentary can be very helpful. Some restoration-period writers of widely used commentaries held some rather bizarre positions regarding the millennium. Brethren scruple not to use Barnes’ Notes, in spite of his repeated injection of Calvinism, and Clarke’s Commentary, in spite of his Methodist teaching.

Brother Zerr’s Bible Commentary is far superior to Johnson’s Notes. Though there are some extraordinarily good volumes in the well-known Gospel Advocate commentaries, there also are some notoriously weak volumes in this widely used set. Viewed from the point of consistent quality, Brother Zerr’s Bible Commentary is superior to the Gospel Advocate set. Some brethren whom I consider to be superior exegetes of the Word have highly recommended Zerr’s Bible Commentary and have praised the splendid and incisive way in which he has handled even those “hard to be understood” sections of God’s Word.

Our recommendation regarding E. M. Zerr’s six volume Commentary can be paraphrased from the words of a well known television commercial: “Try it; you’ll like it!”

Truth Magazine, XVIII:36, p. 3-5
July 18, 1974