Daniel Sommer was one of the most controversial figures to grace the pages of Restoration history. He was an outstanding preacher of the Gospel who was dedicated to seeking after the Ancient Order of Things. In this essay, we want to chronicle his life from 1889 until his death in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1940.
Sommer was the "spokesman" for the ultra conservative brethren who were mostly centered in the Midwest states. He was the editor of the Octographic Review, later called the Apostolic Review. He was able to wield great influence in editing a religious periodical.
Considering the influence that bro. Sommer and other editors like him excerted Carl Ketcherside wrote these words in Restoration Review, April 1977.
"Although I did not realize at the time I was baptized, this historical movement was already fractured into fragments because of the legalistic concept which had captured the minds of its adherents. Divisions do not happen. They are caused. Parties form around men who promote the separation and insist upon the segregation of their adherents. In the movement growing out of the ideal of restoration enunciated by Alexander Campbell, most of the divisions centered around men of prominence. In almost every instance they were editors of journals. They could use their papers as propaganda media and the United States mails as a distribution method. No party could long endure without an editor and a "loyal paper."
Isaac Errett wielded influence through the Christian Standard. David Lipscomb edited the Gospel ,Advocate. Austin McGary edited the Firm Foundation. Daniel Sommer edited the American Christian Review. The name of this paper was changed at various times to Octographic Review, Apostolic Review, and back again to the American Christian Review. It was into this segment of the 'disciple fellowship' represented by the Apostolic Review that I was introduced when baptized. At the time I did not know that there were others. I supposed in my childhood idealism, that all Christians were together, united in a common bond of faith, and that wherever you saw a meetinghouse with 'Church of Christ' over the door you would find a welcome hand of fellowship to cheer you."
The first event we want to mention is one of great importance. The tide of liberalism among Disciples of Christ was rising. Daniel Sommer decided to call the hands of the digresives in Illinois and in all the land. The place chosen was Sand Creek, Illinois. Every year a mass meeting was held there. In 1889 it was estimated that there were close to 6000 disciples present to hear Daniel Sommer.
Sand Creek, Illinois on August 18, 1889 will go down in our history as a day when the lines of demarcation were drawn. One historian, Dr. Leroy Garrett, has even suggested that if we are looking for a date to tell us when what we today call the "Church of Christ" started, then we need look no farther than this date.
West, in Search for The Ancient Order, has this to say.
"On Sunday, August 18, 1889, six thousand members of the church gathered in Shelby County, Illinois at the site of the old Salem congregation in a great mass meeting. Since 1873, large masses of brethren had congregated at this site to enjoy a few days of fellowship, and have the opportunity of hearing prominent preachers. With the passing of the years the general condition of the church had a tendency to reflect itself on this gathering, so they came somberly together contemplating the rising threat of division within the church.
On this Sunday in 1889 the taciturn audience listened for an hour and forty minutes as Daniel Sommer spoke on the condition of the church. Sommer charged the innovators" with being responsible for all the division, discord, bitterness and strife within the church. He claimed they had constantly asked these men not to push their innovations, but they had been refused. The Missionary Society and Instrumental Music were being pushed into the churches, driving a wedge between the brethren. What then was to be done?"
As you will recall, one of the most important of the non-inspired writing was Thomas Campbell's Declaration and Address. In it he called for recognizing all Christians as God's children. In contrast, the Address and Declaration given on August 18, 1889 and read by Elder P. D. Warren calls for division. We want to give you the last paragraph of this document. In the Christian Leader, dated, September 10, 1889, we read the following.
"It is, therefore, with this view, if possible, of counteracting the usage's and practices that have crept into the churches that this effort on the part of the congregations from now on named is made. And now, in closing up this address and declaration, we state that we are impelled from a sense of duty to say that all such as are guilty of teaching or allowing and practicing the many innovations and corruptions to which we have referred, after having had sufficient time for meditation and reflection, if they will not turn away from such abominations, THAT WE CANNOT AND WILL NOT REGARD THEM AS BRETHREN."
What were some reactions to Sommer's sermon at Sand Creek and to the Address and Declaration? We want to cite two responses. Writing in the Christian Standard of June 18, 1892, Russell Errett wrote the following.
"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."
J. C. McQuiddy wrote the following in the Gospel Advocate on June 30, 1892 as a reply to Daniel Sommer and as a reply to the Standard.
"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, Sans-culottism, Standards or any other partyism in religion. The Advocate is for Christ and His Church (chosen ones) and is in ardent sympathy with all who are drawing their life from Him who is the True Vine . . . It is not trying to build a church on the teachings of the Standard's Fathers, nor is it following anybody's Fathers."
In our last article on J. N. Armstrong, we promised you some remarks on Daniel Sommer's opposition to Christian Schools. Dr. West says that the war against Christian Schools was based on six fronts or arguments. The six were as follows.
On May 31, 1924, Daniel Sommer's wife Kate Way died. They had been married more than fifty years. On July 8, 1927, he married Esther Letitia White. She passed away on April 5, 11931 at the age of seventy. During all this time the editorship of the Apostolic Review remained in the Sommer family.
In an effort to help unite the fractured segments of the Restoration Movement, the publishers of the Review (Allen and Chester Sommer), submitted what was to be called the "Rough Draft." This was published in the June 21, 1932 issue of the Review. It was to meet great criticism. The ones who protested helped start another party. Two of the most vocal of the protesters were Daniel Sommer's son, D. Austen Sommer and W. Carl Ketcherside. After many years as the "champion" of what Allen R. Sommer called the "Macedonian Faction," Carl Ketcherside came to realize that he had sinned in helping start a new sect. He came to realize that all of God's children were his brothers and sisters in the Risen Lord. Nevertheless, we must return to 1932. We realize it is long, but we feel that should get an inkling of what caused the "so-called" controversy. So we give you the text of the "Rough Draft."
In 1933 Daniel Sommer, then eighty-three years of age made a preaching tour of the South. He spoke at David Lipscomb College and at many churches in the Southland. The time was coming when Daniel Sommer was beginning to realize that he should not force his opinions on others. This is not to say that he changed his views on anything, only to say that he put them in their proper perspective.
In the '30's and '40's there were efforts made to unite the parties of the Restoration Movement. James DeForrest Murch and Claude Witty led theses. They held Unity Meetings in many cities. Daniel Sommer was among the speakers. In his old age he still had all his mental faculties, although he was blind. Allen R. Sommer, writing in the American Christian Review, dated January, February, March 1965, writes the following.
"He had attended a Witty-Murch unity meeting of several days in this city (Indianapolis, Indiana, 1939). Spoke along with Morris, Murch, Boles, Witty, Errett and McMillian. Jorgenson led some singing. No instrumental music. It was in a Christian Church building, too. Some free-for-all discussions livened the occasion. When one such seemed getting out of control, Don Carlos Janes brought order when he pleaded, 'Brethren, let us pray.'"
So, Daniel Sommer ended his long and fruitful life pleading for the unity spoken of in the New Testament. He died in 1940. Dr. Frederick D. Kershner, Dean of the College of Religion at Butler University, wrote the following in Shane Quarterly, dated April 1940.
"Daniel Sommer was the last of the great pioneers of the Restoration Movement. Born in 1850, only twenty years after the dissolution of the Mahoning Association, his life stretched back to the days of the Campbells and spanned almost the entire circle of the growth and development of the movement. As the successor of Benjamin Franklin in the editorship of the American Christian Review, he became a dominant protagonist of the Right Wing among the Disciples and was usually regarded as the very tip of the wing . . .
When we reflect upon the fact that Alexander Campbell died after Daniel Sommer was sixteen years of age and that both Thomas Campbell and Walter Scott were at least partially contemporary with Mr. Sommer, we can understand something of the extraordinary character of his life. Isaac Errett and Benjamin Franklin were full contemporaries of this pioneer and his career stretched back to within two decades of the Mahoning Association which marked the real beginning of the historic career of the Disciples. Daniel Sommer was, therefore, almost a living epitome of the history of his communion. The fact that he belonged to the extreme Right Wing has nothing to do with his importance as a historical representative of the Movement. Nobody would question his loyalty as a Disciple or his interest in the cause to which he devoted his life."