Historians of the Stone-Campbell Movement are agreed that one of the most controversial figures in the history of this faith-heritage is without a doubt Daniel Sommer. His impact upon this religious movement within American church history is unquestioned, as is the tremendous negative force of that impact. Daniel Sommer was a militant who left a legacy of legalistic wrangling and divided congregations. Bro. John Waddey, in one of his articles in his periodical Christianity Then and Now, made this observation, “The long shadow of Bro. Sommer still affects many in our brotherhood. Most of the ultra-conservative splinter groups that have arisen owe their genesis to the influence of this man.” Bro. Steve Wolfgang, in his master’s degree thesis for Butler University (submitted in 1975), has made the insightful observation that “one who can understand Daniel Sommer has taken a major step toward a better understanding of the conservative religious psychology generally and of the Churches of Christ in particular” (p. 142).
There is a genuine fascination on the part of many scholars with the psychology of religious exclusivism. It is a very militant mindset, and was very apparent in the life of Daniel Sommer. In much more recent years, the term “Sommerism” has come to be “a label attached to nearly every idea which some brother thought to be extreme” (Cecil Willis, Truth Magazine, Oct. 8, 1970). He has been called the “Father of Extremism” within Churches of Christ, and to this present day for one to be labeled a “Sommerite” is very rarely regarded as a compliment. In the readers’ section of Reflections #210 a reader from the state of Michigan wrote, “Al, I read Goebel Music’s book (“Behold the Pattern”) several years ago. What an embarrassment to our Stone-Campbell heritage. You’d almost think Daniel Sommer had written it!”
Daniel Sommer was born in Queen Ann, Maryland on January 11, 1850 to parents who were German immigrants. They were members of the Lutheran Church, though only nominally, and had Daniel sprinkled as an infant. He entered school at the age of seven, but attended only sporadically. At the tender age of nine he began doing construction work on jobs near his family home, and in 1862, at the age of twelve, he left school to work fulltime. Daniel was no stranger to poverty and hardship, but these difficult times helped form his character. He was a man afraid of nothing, and regarded himself as the best woodsman in Maryland. “He was no ordinary man by any count. Burly as an ox, he could lift with one hand what most men could not lift with two” (Dr. Leroy Garrett,The Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 389).
Since Daniel’s parents were only nominal Lutherans, at best, there was apparently no great concern when he chose to affiliate himself with the Methodists in 1864. A couple of years later the whole Sommer family moved to Hartford County, Maryland, and there the adolescent Daniel went to work for a man named John Dallas Everett, who happened to be associated with the Stone-Campbell Movement. Everett spent a considerable amount of time in study and conversation with the young Sommer about spiritual matters. A few years later, in 1869, Daniel Sommer was baptized during a meeting held by A.T. Crenshaw of Middletown, Pennsylvania. This was just three short years after the death of Alexander Campbell, one of the pioneers of the movement.
That same year, Sommer decided to enter Campbell’s school — Bethany College, which was located in West Virginia. This school was founded in 1840, and was one of the most highly regarded schools for higher education in the movement. Sommer attended from 1869-1872, during which time the school was directed by the son-in-law of Alexander Campbell — William Kimbrough Pendleton. During his three years at Bethany College Daniel Sommer began to formulate his personal theology, and he clearly detected that the movement had some very diverse thinking within it. Although exposed to the full spectrum of that theological diversity, he soon gravitated toward the ultra-conservative wing of the restoration movement. “Sommer became disenchanted with both doctrinal and social trends he saw emerging among the part of the Movement that would become the Disciples of Christ” (The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 692). These views were just too “liberal” for Sommer. Instead, he found the conservative views of the preacher Benjamin Franklin (1812-1878) far more to his liking.
Bro. Larry Miles, from Kentucky, in his study of the life and times of Daniel Sommer, wrote, “It was while a student at Bethany that Sommer began what others would call being a ‘watchdog’ for the brotherhood. If he saw what he deemed a deviation from the apostolic order, he felt compelled to attack it.” One of his biographers actually suggested he had a “schizophrenic doctrinal personality” (Matthew C. Morrison, Like A Lion: Daniel Sommer’s Seventy Years of Preaching, p. 159). There were times when he could be rather tolerant of others and affirming, but then he could also be extremely narrow-minded and dogmatic. Toward the end of his life he became far more characterized by the former, but in his early years, while at Bethany College, and through much of his ministry, he was most definitely of the latter mindset. Indeed, some have called him a theological “ax man.”
As an early example of this militant intolerance, consider the following account which occurred while he was still a student at Bethany College. The ladies of the church there decided to raise some money so they could make some improvements to the building (new curtains, painting, etc.). An elder in the congregation, Bro. C.L. Loos, favored the plan and encouraged it during one of his talks before the assembled members. Thus, the women organized a Ladies Mite Society. The “hat” would be passed among the congregation during their assemblies so that each member might contribute “a mite” to this project. Sommer did not believe this was something that should be happening “in the church.” His opportunity came when he was asked to speak at one of the Sunday evening assemblies (there was a tradition of having the students take turns speaking at the evening service).
- Sommer took full advantage of that opportunity. He preached his sermon that night on Psalm 1, and at the close of the lesson he blasted the Ladies Mite Society from the pulpit. This caused a huge uproar at the school, and his popularity declined as a result of his attack on these women, but his comments achieved the desired effect — within days the ladies disbanded their group and abandoned their project. Although he had gained the disfavor of a great many for his effort, it nevertheless left him with a sense of power and purpose. Many years later, in his Apostolic Review, Sommer recalled the incident — “I denounced publicly the first deviation from apostolic simplicity that I found among the ‘disciples,’ and I have been acting on the same principle ever since” (Feb. 2, 1937).
It was while a student at Bethany College that Sommer first met the popular restorationist evangelist Benjamin Franklin. He was in West Virginia conducting a series of meetings, and Sommer managed to get permission to miss his classes at the college so he might meet and spend time with Franklin. They soon became close friends; a friendship that lasted the rest of Franklin’s life. Before his death in 1878, Franklin in essence conferred upon the young Daniel Sommer (who was only 28 years old) the mantle of spokesman for the ultra-conservative wing of the so-called restoration movement. Franklin advised him to occupy “the most radical ground” possible, and to stand in bold opposition to all innovations and digressions in the church whenever and wherever they happened to appear (Morrison, Like A Lion, p. 87).
In 1872 Sommer left Bethany College and began preaching in Baltimore, Maryland. It was at this time that he began to write for Benjamin Franklin’s American Christian Review. Two years later he moved to Kelton, Pennsylvania. In 1880 he moved to the state of Ohio, preaching first at Reynoldsburg, then four years later moving to Richwood, where he compelled the church there to abandon their use of instrumental music. In 1894 Sommer moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. It was here that he would live for the remainder of his life, serving as both the evangelist and one of the elders of the North Indianapolis Church of Christ. Although this was to be his “home church,” Sommer spent the bulk of his time traveling. He kept numerous speaking engagements throughout the country, holding meetings and engaging in debates in many locations. In spite of his many decades preaching, “he was nonetheless always uneasy in the pulpit” (Dr. Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 389). Indeed, he once lamented that he had spent many years in the ministry before he ever earned the kind of money he had made while cutting cord-wood for 75 cents a cord (Daniel Sommer, A Record of My Life).
- On January 28, 1873 he married Kate Way. They had seven children, one of whom died in infancy. Daniel and Kate had a long life together, being married for 51 years before she passed away on May 31, 1924. Three years later, on July 8, 1927, he married Esther Letitia White. She died less than four years later, on April 5, 1931, at the age of seventy. Sommer’s views caused much turmoil in the Movement, and this even spilled over into his own family (more about this later on in the article).
“Though Sommer was a powerful preacher, without doubt his greatest influence was through his writings. Through writing, he could reach thousands. For more than half a century, Daniel Sommer visited in the homes of thousands of brethren through his journals, tracts, booklets, and his dozen or so volumes. Being a man of strong convictions, and articulate in expressing these convictions, he by his efforts made great contributions to the spiritual conscience of multitudes of his brethren” (Cecil Willis, “The Saga of Daniel Sommer,” Truth Magazine, October 1, 1970). In 1856 Benjamin Franklin established a periodical which he named the American Christian Review. Sommer wrote his first article for Franklin’s paper in 1872. This publication, “under Benjamin Franklin’s editorship, had been one of the most important journals in the Stone-Campbell Movement after Alexander Campbell’s death” (The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 693). The historian Louis Cochran wrote that this journal “was to play a significant role for twenty years in shaping the thought of the Movement” (Captives of the Word, p. 142). He also observed that among the more conservatively inclined brethren of the Movement, it clearly provided “the loudest voice” (ibid, p. 158).
After Franklin’s death in 1878, however, this publication declined in subscribers and influence under the leadership of a series of other editors. It was during this time that Daniel Sommer began his own editorial work. In 1883, along with L.F. Bittle, he established the monthly paper known as the Octograph (based on his conviction that there were only eight writers of the NT documents). Three years later, in 1886, he purchased the faltering American Christian Review. As to why he purchased this paper, he wrote, on March 17, 1887, “One of our purposes was to save the enterprise of Benjamin Franklin’s grand life from ruin; another was to occupy a position in which we could do the greatest possible good, and in order to do this our purpose was to lift the Review out of its entanglements.” One of those “entanglements” was that the paper was owned, at the time Sommer purchased it, by Edwin Alden, who was not even a Christian, but who was merely using the paper as a medium for advertising. Later that year Sommer changed the name of the paper to the Octographic Review. In 1914 he changed the name to the Apostolic Review. It remained thus until his death in 1940, at which time the publishers changed it back to the original American Christian Review. It finally ceased publication in 1965.
The Address and Declaration
Daniel Sommer was a man well-known during his time for some very extreme positions regarding the nature and labor of the Lord’s church. Although he served for many years as one himself, he was strongly opposed to the “located preacher” system. He was known to refer to such men as “hired imported pastors.” Sommer was not alone in his disgust for this practice. Austin McGary, who was the founder of the religious paper Firm Foundation (which is still in publication), was in full agreement with Sommer on this particular point. On March 9, 1915 Austin McGary wrote the following to Daniel Sommer — “You call the Bible College of today a ‘preacher factory,’ and it is. It is a veritable ‘pastor’ factory. And the devil is right now knocking at the door of every church in the land with his ‘pastor’ system under his arm … The Bible Colleges are the incubators of the one-man ‘pastor’ system.” Sommer felt a far better alternative to “located preachers” was the practice of “mutual edification” (which some sarcastically regarded as “more mutual than edifying”). Instead of a “paid hireling,” the men of the congregation would assume the responsibility for the preaching and teaching.
Daniel Sommer was convinced that the “tide of liberalism” was swiftly rising, and he was determined, single-handedly if need be, to stem that tide. Thus, he became the voice of ultra-conservatism within the Movement, and his voice was heard loudly and persistently. He went after the digressives, liberals and innovators with a passion, and insisted that they could not be tolerated in the church, and that “the faithful” must distance themselves from all such godless men and women. “Sommer was one of the first to advocate separation of those who opposed instrumental music and church-supported missionary societies from churches that would not abandon such practices” (The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 693). Yet, in his extremism one sees the glaring inconsistency that far too often characterizes such militant radicals. “While he himself was bitterly opposed to societies, Bible colleges, the pastor system, and instrumental music, he was grossly impatient with those who opposed other innovations of which he approved, such as Sunday schools and multiple cups for the Communion” (Dr. Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 389).
This call for division among brethren was perhaps heard most powerfully and dramatically at the Sand Creek church, located in Shelby County, Illinois, on Sunday, August 18, 1889. Since 1873, large numbers of brethren had been gathering each year to this site for several days of fellowship, and also to hear some of the more prominent preachers in the land. On this particular Sunday there were said to besix thousand gathered to listen to Daniel Sommer. He preached for an hour and forty minutes on the condition of the church, as he saw it. Sommer charged the “innovators” with being the ones who were dividing the church. He had repeatedly asked them to cease their use of such innovations, and they had refused to bow to his demands, so they were the ones to blame when he pulled “the faithful” away. Such, by the way, has always been the reasoning of the militant ultra-conservatives. They will split the church a hundred different ways, and then blame the division on those who refused to submit to their legalistic whims.
Following his lengthy sermon, during which he blasted the “liberals” for their many “sins,” a prepared document was read to the assembled crowd by elder Peter Warren. This powerful document, whose chief author was Sommer himself, is known as the Address and Declaration. It is an obvious play on the “Declaration and Address” which was authored and published in 1809 by Thomas Campbell and was a platform, contained in thirteen propositions, for unity among all believers. Sommer’s “Sand Creek Manifesto,” however, was just the opposite. It was a call for division. Larry Miles, in his study of Sommer’s life, noted that this day “will go down in our history as a day when the lines of demarcation were drawn.” Dr. Leroy Garrett seems to agree — “The date was Sunday, August 18, 1889, and while it is risky to attempt to pinpoint the origin of any church, this would be a suitable date for the beginning of the Churches of Christ” (The Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 392). Sommer was determined to lead the faithful away from the larger body of Disciples of Christ, and he came to refer to those loyal to his own plea as the “Church of Christ,” whereas all others were the “So-called Christian Church.” He was condemned for this in the Christian Standard — “Daniel Sommer is trying to get control of some of our congregations, and form a distinct religious body. He would thus start a new sect. Its bond and union would be its opposition to certain methods of Christian work done by us.” Thus, Sommer’s followers came to be referred to as “anti brethren,” since they were opposed to so many things. Sommer also frequently insisted that his people were the “only Church of Christ in town.” With extremism always comes exclusivism.
The matter effectively was brought to a head by one statement in particular on this occasion. Sommer declared, “In closing up this address and declaration, we state that we are impelled from a sense of duty to say, that all such innovations and corruptions to which we have referred, that after being admonished, and having had sufficient time for reflection, if they do not turn away from such abominations, that we can not and will not regard them as brethren.” The words had been uttered! “For the first time in its history a substantial segment of the Stone-Campbell Movement made a test of fellowship and a bond of union over issues that had generally been considered matters of opinion” (Dr. Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 392). Daniel Sommer was devoted to division, and on May 24, 1892, wrote in his Octographic Review, “The Sand Creek Declaration is being adopted, and those who will not do right are purged out as old leaven. In course of a few years the Church of Christ will be entirely separated from the Christian Church. Then there will be no more fellowship between them as there now is between the Church of Christ and any other branch of sectarianism. Hallelujah.” In other words,Praise God for this division of His people!!
This was a significant moment in the history of our Movement, “for a fire that no man could put out had been set ablaze by a relatively obscure man in Illinois named Daniel Sommer” (Louis Cochran, Captives of the Word, p. 205). The reaction to Daniel Sommer’s “Address and Declaration” was forceful. Perhaps it is stated best in the words of J.C. McQuiddy, “Well for our part, the Advocate needs no second call to express its sentiments on this momentous matter. The Sand Creek manifesto was manifest folly, and the Advocate emphatically denies any sympathy with Sommerism (whatever that is), Sand Creekism, Sand Lotism, or any other partyism in religion” (The Gospel Advocate, June 30, 1892). However, in spite of such opposition by noted leaders in the Movement, “by 1895 there were 200 to 500 Sommerite churches in the North, according to Joseph Franklin, which, he believed, should have been called ‘the Church of the Antis’ rather than the Church of Christ” (Dr. Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 392).
- David Lipscomb was not impressed with Daniel Sommer in the least. Indeed, he regarded Sommer as a sectarian. In a letter to Sommer dated in 1893, Lipscomb wrote, “You turn me off!” Lipscomb sought dialogue with Sommer, but the latter refused, which is another common trait among legalistic factionists. “Sommer’s refusal to allow free discussion in his journal rankled Lipscomb, who always had an open policy in the Gospel Advocate” (ibid, p. 395). This trait, sadly, still exists among a great many of the “Anti” brethren today. They learned well from their founding father. When “liberals” and “digressives” seek to have responsible, respectful dialogue with these “anti” men and women, whether it be in person, on their discussion groups, or in their journals, they find very quickly that there is aclosed door policy. Though most all brethren welcome dialogue with others in the One Body, the legalistic ultra-conservatives will almost always flee from dialogue with all who differ with them. Yes, it “rankled” David Lipscomb, and it “rankles” good brethren even to this day.
The Rough Draft for Christian Unity
There is a bit of good news here, though. With old age Daniel Sommer began to mellow out somewhat. His heart softened toward those he had for decades berated from the pulpit and in his journals. In his later years he actually began to reverse his position, and began working for unity among believers, even in the face of diversity of practice and conviction. This was a tremendous change for Sommer, and it was not always favorably received by his former factionists, or by his family (he was disfellowshipped by his own son). “Sommer’s later moves alienated him from some of his followers, even his own family. His son D. Austen Sommer started a rival publication, and his wife gained control of the Apostolic Review and refused to allow him to write for it” (The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 693). Sommer was beginning to realize that he should not be trying to force his opinions upon the rest of God’s people. He also began to realize that building walls, rather than building relationships, was not the will of the Lord. Thus, during his “golden years,” Daniel Sommer reversed the course of his life and began seeking to restore relationships with other believers, relationships he had spent the bulk of his life seeking to destroy.
“The thing that turned many of his own people against him, including some of his family, may well have been the noblest act of his volatile life. It was the publication of a unity document after the order of Haggard, Stone, and Thomas Campbell, called ‘The Rough Draft.’ Its theme was: ‘If we can search out the things we can agree on, and unite on them, and work together, we’ll have unity!’ In listing the items ‘necessary to a New Testament Church,’ Sommer now, at age 83, showed an attitude far different from Sand Creek. He made Bible colleges, orphan homes, Sunday Schools, and several other issues matters of individual opinion” (Dr. Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 394). This “Rough Draft” was first published in the June 21, 1932 issue of his Apostolic Review, and, as mentioned, it met with much opposition from those within the ultra-conservative faction Sommer had spent a lifetime developing. One of his most vocal critics was W. Carl Ketcherside, who later repented and also joined in the growing effort to proclaim liberty in Christ and unity with all true believers regardless of differing personal preferences and practices.
Sommer also began to participate in various Unity Meetings that were being held around the country among the various factions of the Stone-Campbell Movement in an effort to unite them once again in sweet fellowship. James DeForrest Murch and Claude Witty were the primary leaders of this effort during those years (the 1930’s and 1940’s). Sommer was often found speaking at these events, calling his former factionists to unity with all of God’s children. In his “Rough Draft” Sommer wrote, “Brotherly love is as much a command as ‘repent and be baptized,’ and, if exercised, would be the solution of many problems. ‘Come let us reason together,’ means reason, not quarrel.” Sadly, it was a matter of “too little, too late.” Daniel Sommer’s “Rough Draft,” his proposal for Christian unity, “was largely ignored by the Churches of Christ as a whole. Either they were suspicious of him or did not know how to handle gestures toward unity, or both. It is, after all, difficult for a lion to assume the role of peacemaker” (Dr. Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 394).
Sommer spent the latter years of his life grieving over the division in the church and his role in that dismembering of the One Body. He characterized it in some of his later writings as “a divided and disgraced brotherhood,” and gave the cause as men seeking to “strain certain scriptures.” One of his own statements “provided an ominous epitaph to his own life: The strainers have all come to grief sooner or later” (ibid). Although Sommer had personally sought a new direction, he could not, in the final years of his life, overcome the decades of division caused by his legalistic wrangling. To his own sense of shame, he left a legacy of schism in the One Body of Christ, and it is this for which he will largely be remembered. Daniel Sommer “suffered a stroke at age 90 during a train trip from Indianapolis to a preaching appointment. Put on a return train home by a conductor who recognized him, Sommer lingered on for a few days, then passed away on February 19, 1940. He is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana” (The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 694).
Beloved brethren, there are lessons to be learned from the life of Daniel Sommer. Few question his zeal or love for the Lord. He spent his life devoted to promoting his vision of God’s will for the church. Unfortunately, for the bulk of his life he had failed to grasp God’s purpose! Ignorant of His grace, and the freedom one has in Christ Jesus, he proclaimed a religion of rigidity, and perhaps did more than any other individual during the early years of our faith-heritage to bring about deep divisions. Like the apostle Peter, who wept bitterly after denying Jesus Christ, Sommer spent the latter days of his life lamenting his years of misguided maliciousness. Sadly, he was unable to undo the harm he had inflicted upon the church, and the fruit of his labor is still evident in the rigid, legalistic, patternistic wing of the Churches of Christ. Sommer sowed his seed well, and the tares that have grown up all around us today are the tragic result of his decades of devotion to division.
Many men and women within our faith-heritage today, myself included, are seeking diligently, and daily, to counter the effects of this man’s teaching. It is difficult work, and the opposition at times is fierce, but somehow I think Sommer would applaud our efforts, as would brother Ketcherside, who also came to his senses later in life. Although much damage was done by these few men, yet our Movement is not beyond repair, and the vision of our fathers in the faith is still just as valid. May God help us all to abandon these foolish, feuding factions, and may He guide us to the point of recapturing the vision of One Body united in the Lord Jesus Christ. To the Sommerites of today, I issue this plea: Let us reason together; let us dialogue; let us tear down the walls that divide us; let us all truly be One Family to the glory of our Father. I personally am willing to begin that responsible, respectful dialogue with any one of you for the purpose of ending the years of separation between spiritual siblings. Please, let me hear from you!