The Bible School Controversy
Bible schools and Christian education are about as old as the Restoration movement among the followers of Christ. Early in the days of the call back to the Bible by the pioneers, we find Alexander Campbell setting up a school known as "Buffalo Seminary."
Campbell's idea was not only to teach and train both boys and girls in the literary branches, along with Bible instruction, but he felt an urgent need for a host of trained men to promulgate the Gospel of Christ to the lost of earth. Buffalo Seminary, however, was destined to live but a few years; for in that early day of 1818 the Restoration was a new thing, and the demand for pressing the "ancient order of things" to the general public was more in order than the operation of a school in any community. Hence, the school was closed, and a periodical known as the Christian Baptist was begun. This was in 1823. From then on, the rest of Campbell's life was spent in preaching and writing. But his zeal and desire for a school was never lost; and in 1840 Bethany College was opened with Campbell as its president.
By this time the ancient gospel had spread over the land, and the demand for schools in which the youth could be trained for life in harmony with the teachings of the Bible was sufficient that Bethany College, and other such institutions, quickly received wide general support. Bacon College had been opened up in Georgetown, Kentucky, in 1839. At Franklin, Tennessee, Tolbert Fanning opened up a school in 1842. J. M. Pickens began a school at Mountain Home in Lawrence County, Alabama, in 1858. The same year J. M. Barnes began a school farther south, at Strata, near Montgomery, Alabama. In Lauderdale County, at Mar's Hill, T. B. Larimore opened his famous school in 1870.
Up until this date I find no reference in the literature of the times to any controversy over the right of Christians to operate such schools.
But by this time the missionary societies had been started; and both Bethany College and the Kentucky University Bible college were top heavy with society men. At Bethany, Pendleton had been president for some time. He was a leading champion of the societies, and is generally credited with saving the movement from extinction following the Civil War. At Lexington, Kentucky, Robert Milligan was president of the Bible College, and J. B. Bowman was head of the Board of Regents, and both he and Milligan gave their influence in favor of the societies. Thus the two leading colleges among the brethren were in reality both digressive. At Lexington trouble and division arose within the school, and the brethren there were at war among themselves. These facts are briefly stated that we may understand the situation that existed, and the backgrounds out of which arose the first opposition to Bible schools as such.
B. F. Leonard, Jacob Creath, Jr., and Joseph Franklin were the first to openly attack the Bible schools. Daniel Sommer was a young preacher at this time, and he later joined in with these older men in the fight. The older men soon passed on, and Sommer became the champion of the anti-Bible college group, waging a relentless war against the schools until near the day of his passing in 1940. In justice to him (a man whom otherwise we consider one of the greatest preachers of his time), it is our candid opinion that in reality what he actually was fighting was what he had seen and known in the two schools with which he was most familiar — Bethany College and Kentucky Bible College. He was never able to get over the error and corruption he could so plainly see in these institutions, and he never realized that there might be a difference between them and other Bible colleges.
Sommer and those of like mind waged their opposition to the Bible colleges in all earnestness, and no doubt much of the opposition was more justified than many are willing to admit. But we hasten now to point out some of the charges that were hurled against the colleges, and to examine them on their own merits.
One charge that was urged by B. F. Leonard was that all the schools were worldly; that they were founded on money and not on the Bible. This is a severe charge, and if true, opposition against the schools was no, doubt justified. There cannot be much doubt that there was some justification in the charge as it applied to Bethany and Kentucky; but to say that all Bible colleges were of that sort is covering too much territory. This same charge could probably be leveled against some congregations — that they are worldly-minded, and that too much money has corrupted them. But to say that this is the case with all congregations is not to speak the truth at all. I think I know something about nearly all of the Bible schools now in operation, and this charge does not apply to them to my certain knowledge. Most of them started in debt, have operated in debt, and still remain in debt! They are operated at great sacrifice by all concerned.
Daniel Sommer was champion of the opposition to Bible schools, but his real opposition did not begin until about the turn of the century, after both Nashville Bible School and Potter Bible College had been started. Brother Sommer soon found himself engaged in serious debates with J. A. Harding and J. N. Armstrong and others over the right of Christians to operate such schools. One of his main arguments against the colleges was that their operation constituted a mis-use of the Lord's money. To make this argument he was forced to take the position that ALL the money coming into the hands of a Christian must go into the church treasury except that portion that is actually necessary for food, clothing, shelter, and taxes. Here are his own words:
"Faithful obedience to the divine doctrine of equality will place all the Lord's money in the church treasury, or in the hands of the Lord's needy ones. Rendering to God the things that are God's in His own appointed ways will take all of the Lord's money out of the hands of individual Christians." (Sommer - Armstrong Debate, p. 46.)
Brother Armstrong quickly took up the point and showed that Sommer's contention would mean that a Christian could not own any business, could not invest in land or property, and could not even own his own home. He further showed that Brother Sommer did not himself practice his own teaching; for he owned a religious paper and printing equipment worth some twelve or fifteen thousand dollars. If Sommer's doctrine were true, Armstrong contended, then Sommer himself had bought his property with money he had kept back from the Lord's treasury!
Another charge made by Brother Sommer was that the Bible college was sinful because it was the establishing of "an institution chiefly secular, to make opportunity to teach religion." (Page 43.) Sommer said that Paul had never so acted. But it was shown that this was the very thing Paul did do — as he himself states in Acts 20:34. This was also what Paul taught others to do. (Eph. 3:28) In fact, any work in which a child of God engages is simply done in order that he may do more in a religious way for the Lord. If Paul did not establish a school that he might preach the gospel, he most surely did make tents (secular work) that he might preach the gospel. Brother Armstrong, further pointed out that Sommer himself had established a paper, partly religious, partly secular, that he might more effectively spread the gospel.