The Church Divided

May 24, 2006

The pot boiled over in 1889.

The controversy had simmered in the Restoration Movement churches for decades. Were churches free to introduce practices like instrumental music, choirs, missionary societies, preaching colleges, hired preacher-pastors, various types of fundraisers, and the like, despite the absence of mention of such practices in the New Testament? The “innovators” who advocated these practices were increasingly successful in establishing them in congregations over the loud objections of others who saw themselves as defending the “ancient order.” Church after church split over these issues. For example, regarding instrumental music, J. W. McGarvey wrote:

That a vast amount of evil has been occasioned by the introduction of instrumental music into Christian worship is undeniable. Beginning with the first instance of it among us which I can remember—that which caused a schism in the church in St. Louis in the year 1869—its progress has been attended by strife, alienation, and division, with all their attendant evils, in hundreds of congregations.

By 1889, the conservatives decided it was time to “draw a line of demarkation between the churches of Christ and our innovating brethren.” The action could have been taken in many different places, but the Sand Creek church first took the fateful step. It was decided to make the proclamation at the annual congregational reunion at Sand Creek in August 1889.

A conference of leaders from nearby churches gathered to produce the now-infamous document. Some were sent as delegates with consent to speak for their congregations, while others came merely representing themselves. By most accounts the document was the work of Daniel Sommer, with the local delegates basically providing their assent. In either case, that group produced and signed the document that was subsequently read after Daniel Sommer’s address.

A crowd estimated at 5000 gathered outdoors on the church grounds for the event. Sommer began his address by establishing some points that were well accepted by his audience, defining the differences between the “disciples and their religious neighbors”. At each point he emphasized that the matter is true precisely because of the “divine testimony” of scripture. He mentioned faith, repentance, and baptism as illustrations. Then he addressed human opinions, inferences, speculations, etc, and said we cannot have faith in these things because there is no divine testimony on those points. To illustrate these he cited church names, creeds, and baptism by sprinkling.

Then he turned his attention to those inside the churches of Christ who had been introducing “humanisms” into the practice of the church. Using “divine testimony” as the standard, he challenged those who hire a pastor-preacher rather than appointing a plurality of elders. Then he challenged the missionary society, fundraising techniques, and musical instruments in worship.

Asserting that we cannot have faith in a practice for which there is no “divine testimony,” and that whatever does not proceed from faith is sin, he designated the aforementioned innovations as sin. He then charged the innovators, in seven enumerated points, with responsibility for all the conflict, pain, cost, and every other consequence of the controversies over the innovations. Closing his address he said, “The time is come that judgment must begin at the household of God.

Then Elder P. P. Warren took the stand and delivered the Address and Declaration.

There were two versions of the Address and Declaration. One was published in Sommer’s Octographic Review, September 5, 1889. The second was published a week later in J. L. Rowe’s Christian Leader. They differ only slightly, but significantly in that only the latter mentions instrumental music. The reason for the difference may be lost to history. It is not known which version was delivered at the public assembly in August. Regardless, the issue of instrumental music was apparently addressed that day in Sommer’s sermon.

The gauntlet was thrown down in the final paragraph of the Declaration:

It is therefore, with the view, if possible, of counteracting the usages and practices that have crept into the church, that this effort on the part of the congregations hereafter 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 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.

I think that suffices as a summary of what transpired that day in Sand Creek. Next we will turn our attention to the analysis of what happened, both by contemporaries and more recent commentors.

Click for the complete series on Scriptures, Creeds, and Sand Creek

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