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Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Aftermath: Daniel Sommer

The Sand Creek Address and Declaration of 1889 marked the beginning of division between the Churches of Christ and the Disciples / independent Christian churches. Dr. Leroy Garrett wrote that the churches of Christ as we know them today began with the words of Daniel Sommer at Sand Creek on that August day in 1889. There the pattern was established that, if a group of Christians understands certain things from the Bible, and other groups do not conform with that view, a division must occur. The pattern has been repeated innumerable times since that fateful day.

After the Sand Creek event, those with opposing viewpoints were no less eager to sever ties. According to Larry Miles' Reflections on the Restoration Movement, Russell Errett wrote in the Christian Standard in June 1892:
The churches should be on their guard. They should know that Daniel Sommer has abandoned apostolic ground and is no more identified with the Disciples of Christ than Sidney Rigdon.
Sidney Rigdon, of course, was a central figure in the Mormon church, so these were strong words indeed.

Even those in the middle ground took issue with the extreme postition of the Address and Declaration. J. C. McQuiddy co-editor of the Gospel Advocate, wrote (ibid):
The Sand Creek manifesto was manifest folly, and the Advocate emphatically denies any sympathy with Sommerism--whatever that is--Sand Creekism, Sand Lotism, Sans-culottism, Standards or any other partyism in religion.
So in 1906, when David Lipscomb informed the census bureau that the two groups had parted company and were now separate churches, he was merely stating the obvious. It had not been his desire to see this happen, and he had worked to prevent the division. But by 1906 it was a historical fact that the churches of Christ and the Disciples / independent Christian churches had gone their separate ways.

The sad irony of these events is that the man who did the most to bring them about, Daniel Sommer, spent the final years of his life trying to reverse what he had initiated. As often is the case, Sommer the old man had exchanged the hotheaded zeal of his youth for an attitude of humility and toleration. As the apostle John, once called the Son of Thunder, became the apostle of love in old age, so Sommer in his latter days called for common sense to prevail for the cause of unity. The positions in his paper began to moderate. One of his sons, Austen Sommer, started a rival paper to uphold the radical conservative line he felt his father was abandoning. Eventually Austen disfellowshipped his own father for supposedly losing his loyalty to the ancient faith. Austen was merely following in the opinionated footsteps of his father's younger years.

In those days, Daniel's paper published a piece titled, "Can't We Agree on Something?". The article began:
To those of the churches of Christ who desire a plan for Unity, we submit the following for your consideration. We cry 'Unity,' and say that Unity can be obtained only on a New testament basis. Yet the New Testament is the Book we disagree on. If we can search out the things we agree on, and unite on them, and work together, we'll have Unity!
From that opening statement, the article proceeded with a proposal for how churches could accomodate differing opinions on some of the most hotly disputed topics of the day without need for division. The article was immediately attacked by those who esteemed themselves "defenders of the ancient faith", including Austen Sommer as well as a young Carl Ketcherside, who wrote in his autobiography:
Although the publishers of the Review replied to the attack by saying it was simply a rough draft of suggestions intended to encourage a restudy of our divided state with a hope of alleviating it, the opposers (of whom I was one of the most vocal) labeled it a written creed. The description of it by the publishers gave us a handle and we called it "The Rough Draft" and this made it possible to identify the supporters and the denouncers of it. Daniel Sommer disclaimed any knowledge of the composition of the document but came to its defense when he became aware of the rabid opposition.
Daniel Sommer spent the fading days of his life trying to "put Humpty back together again." As he did so, the younger hot-headed conservatives took their shots at him. He was denounced by many as soft on doctrine, as one who had abandoned the true faith. In reality he never abandoned his convictions about what the scriptures teach on those controversial topics. But he added to that an understanding that God calls us to a kind of unity that includes toleration. Daniel Sommer died in 1940, without seeing success in his late efforts toward that kind of unity. What regret he must have felt, that he had led the way in the fracturing of the Restoration Movement! Though he repented personally, he could not undo all that he had done.

Still more ironically, one of Daniel Sommers' leading critics was to walk a similar path. In the next article of the series, we will look at how the Sand Creek Address and Declaration affected the life of another enigmatic personality, a leading Restoration Movement figure named W. Carl Ketcherside.