Daniel Sommer on the Public Religious “Duties and Privileges” of Women

Daniel Sommer (1850-1940), a graduate of Bethany College and the heralded successor of Benjamin Franklin among northern conservatives, lived and worked among congregations of Churches of Christ who were more open to the public voice of women than their southern counterparts.  In particular, at least in the article below, Sommer is quite explicit about the “priviledge” of women to publicly read Scripture and exhort the congregation in their worship assemblies.  Southern congregations, particularly in the Tennessee Tradition of David Lipscomb and James A. Harding, opposed any public reading and exhortation of women in the assembly.  In this the northern conservatives, often more “right-wing” than the southerners, are more progressive (or biblical?) than the southerners. In fact, the Tennesee folk are one the “extremes” to which Sommer refers.

Daniel Sommer, “Woman’s Religious Duties and Privileges in Public,” Octographic Review 44.34 (20 August 1901) 1,

Extreme begets extremes in all departments of life, and at all angles of religious thought. As a result we are requested to write in regard to woman’s public religious duties and privileges.

What woman is divinely commanded to do is no doubt her duty regardless of what any human being may think or wish, approve or disapprove. That she is commanded to become a Christian just as publicly as the circumstances of her obedience may suggest is admitted by all who read the New Testament aright, also by many others. That woman is likewise commanded to worship publicly as a Christian is likewise admitted by all who think seriously on the subject. Thus we need not quote scripture on the subject, nor reason thereon in any measure or degree. Moreover, that it is the woman’s duty as a Christian to obey the scripture which says, ‘I suffer not a woman to teach nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence,” (1 Tim. 2:12), is likewise admitted, as well as the reasons which Paul gives for such restrictions.

But what do these restrictions embrace? Here is the only question to be decided and this is not difficult if we be unbiased. Certainly they do not restrict women in regard to her worship, and thus she is not restricted in regard to communing, singing, and praying in public. Any reasoning which will prevent woman from praying in public will prevent her from communing and singing.

But may a woman who is a Christian in good standing arise in a congregation and publicly read in audible tones a portion of scripture without comment? The answer to this depends on whether reading is in the New Testament called teaching. In 1 Tim. 4:13 Paul says, “ Till I come give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.” The revised version gives the word “teaching” instead of “doctrine.” This ought to settle the question and enable all to understand that a woman may without comment read any part of the Bible publicly without thereby becoming a public teacher. But when a woman comments on scripture, applying and enforcing its meaning, she then and there becomes a public teacher and falls under condemnation of Paul’s restriction.

But may a woman teach a class in this meeting house without falling under condemnation? The question is troubling some congregations. Its answer depends on whether Paul’s restriction on women in regard to speaking did or did not refer to the public congregation when assembled. In 1 Cor. 14:34, 35 Paul says, “Let your women keep silence in the churches…For it is a shame for a woman to speak in the church.” The translation called “Living Oracles” gives us “congregations” and “congregation” in the foregoing scriptures, and this is correct. The “silence” which Paul enjoined on woman was therefore in the “congregation” when assembled, and in regard to teaching and authority. But teaching a class, especially a class of children, in a meeting house does not conflict with such restriction. Therefore, we conclude that it is woman’s privilege to teach a class in a meeting house.

Woman is the first divinely ordained teacher of children. She is made thus by nature, and God is the author of nature. Besides, Timothy’s mother and grandmother are honorably mentioned in connection with the mention that is made of the faith that was in him. (2 Tim. 1:5.)  Finally, aged women are required to be teachers of young women. (Titus 2:3-5.) Yet they must do such teaching in such manner and circumstances of Paul’s restriction. But that restriction simply forbids a woman being a teacher in the public congregation and forbids her usurping authority over the man. Up to this restriction woman may go; beyond this restriction she should not go.

But as exhortation and teaching are different the question arises, May a woman exhort in the public congregation? This question is sometimes asked, and should be answered. In response thereto we state that where Paul had “no command” of the Lord he simply gave his “judgment” as one that had “obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful.” (1 Cor. 7:25.) We do the same, and our “judgment” is that if a sister in good standing wishes to arise in a congregation and offer an exhortation it is her privilege to do so, but let her be careful not to become a teacher. She should simply exhort on the basis of what has been taught, or on what is generally understood in the assembly, and at all times, both publicly and privately, she should avoid usurping authority over man. This needs to be emphasized, especially in the United States, where woman is so highly praised that, in many instances, she forgets the word of God, and becomes a dictator.

But may not a woman lead a woman’s prayer meeting or even preside at the Lord’s table when no mean are present who are capable of so doing? Here again we have no command but our “judgment.” A woman’s prayer meeting is not the kind of “congregation” of which Paul was writing in 1 Cor. 14th chapter. It is not a public assembly. Neither should an assembly of women on the Lord’s day to break bread be thus regarded. Men—godly men—are divinely intended to be the public teachers, and regulators of established congregations, and the public preachers to build up congregations. But with these exceptions, women—godly women—are privileged, and, in most particulars, are duty bound, to be partakers with godly men in their religious work. Priscilla helped her husband to teach a preacher named Apollos the way of the Lord more fully (Acts 18:24-26), and they were among Paul’s “helpers in Christ Jesus.” Rom. 16:3. But this does not mean that Priscilla was a public teacher or a preacher. All that she is reported as having don could have been accomplished by her without one public speech.

The foregoing paragraphs are submitted to our readers, not as an exhaustive discussion, anticipating all possible objections of gainsayers, but as sufficient to indicate the public duties and privileges of godly woman [sic] in the public congregation.


14 Responses to “Daniel Sommer on the Public Religious “Duties and Privileges” of Women”

  1.   Jeff Cozzens, Ed.D. Says:

    John Mark you keep pushes the boundaries of tradition. As usual your arguments are logical, cogent and loaded with scriptural context that makes since to me. I try to learn and grow……………

  2.   rich constant Says:

    John Mark you have so many wonderful studies on this website,that it is almost impossible NOT to bring this to everyone’s attention that might not know about classes on woman.

    We(THE CHURCH) as imitators of the Lord should be on the cutting edge, of cultural development, instead of being on the cultural edge of ontological traditional THEOLOGY.

    THESE GUYS STEPPED OUT “did not abide by fallen social conventions. they were radical in relation to social and cultural conventions.”[a quote taken from below]

    i love this blog
    you push every one that reads (to me)to confront there own biases of tradition/religion in the face if THE NARRATIVE.

    2. Jesus did not abide by fallen social conventions. Jesus was a radical in relation to social and cultural conventions. It would seem this is one place where Jesus could have reversed social conventions and pressed for the liberation of women. Jesus transgressed social barriers and conventions on many occasions which raises the question of why he did not do so in this particular instance. Indeed, many believe—as evidenced above—that Jesus was a radical reformer of widely-held attitudes toward women, but still did not appoint any female apostles.



    •   rich constant Says:

      john mark:
      a note:
      just because i throw a proverbial shoe at you,(the inference being that i might be perceived as putting you on a pedestal[which is not the case]).

      By way of reminder I’m your elder 🙂 been in the church longer than you too…:-).


      🙂 🙂

  3.   Randall Says:

    Thanks for the post John Mark. As I am sure you are aware, Leroy Garrett has a substantial section on Sommer in his history of the S-C movement.

  4.   Clark Coleman Says:

    It is interesting to hear that we should beware of trying to enforce our inferences from scripture on others, especially as the chain of inferences grows in length, and then read the rather lengthy chain of inferences employed by brother Sommer. Yet brother Sommer’s reasoning apparently finds much favor with those who would otherwise caution against the pitfalls of such a chain of inferences that only lightly touches on scriptural commands and examples.

  5.   Jimmy Hinton Says:

    Dr. Hicks, this is fascinating. We stumbled upon 2 hand written letters by Daniel Sommer last year written in 1913 on a letterhead of the Octographic Review. They were discovered behind a fireplace mantle in Somerset (not named after Sommer). Sommer preached the first sermons when our building was built in 1916. Our records show that women were present and led prayers at the business meetings. First Christian across the street from us (started by Thomas Campbell and “the three marys” of Somerset)still have deaconesses. It’s interesting to see Sommer’s influence in these congregations, of course I don’t know that he would have influenced 1st Christian. Have you done any pieces on the Campbells’ stance toward this subject?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      You might want to read Bill Grasham’s article on Women in the RM which was published in RQ (1999), pp. 211-239 for a broad history, including Campbell. Indeed, it seems Sommer’s influence lingers in your region and history. Sommer did promote the role of deaconnesses. There are several articles in which he does this. I have not written myself on Campbell’s understanding of the “role of women.” Blessings, my friend.

      •   Jimmy Hinton Says:

        Thanks for the reply, Dr. Hicks. I will certainly read the article you recommended. I had fun going through our archives and the archives of 1st Christian. There’s a lot of good stuff burried in there that not many people have uncovered yet. It’s all fascinating!

  6.   Jerry Starling Says:

    [N]orthern conservatives…were more open to public voice of women than their southern counterparts.

    Do you have any theory regarding why this would have been so? Could it have been a general southern romantic view of women that generally separated them from leadership roles outside the family? If so, how much has that influenced current thought in the Church of Christ? How much should the changing cultural attitude toward women affect us in the church?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Jerry, my article on “Priviledge or Silence” which is under the “Academic” menu above analyzes some of this. I believe postbellum South was still quite under the influence of the “True Womanhood” movement which value domesticity above all. I give some references in the article. Sometimes culture leads the way when it should be Christians (e.g., Civil Rights or even the Slavery question in the 1850s).

  7.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    Daniel never ceases to surprise me.

  8.   eirenetheou Says:

    Within three years of the publication of this article, Uncle Daniel’s wife, Katharine Way Sommer (1850-1924), becomes the Publisher of Octographic Review on 9 August 1904. From 1914 until her death on 27 May 1924, K W Sommer will continue as the Publisher of Apostolic Review, getting it out every week — supervising all the editorial work and printing — and writing frequently and cogently. Only her name appeared on the masthead.

    After her death, Bessie Kate Sommer (1880-1975) and Chester Way Sommer (1875-1950), succeeded their mother, and would continue to edit and publish the Review as long as Daniel Sommer lived and long after he died on 19 February 1940. In the labour of Katharine Way Sommer and Bessie Kate Sommer we may see more fully a clear expression of the Sommers’ communal understanding of the work and service of women. We shall do well to learn from their ministry.

    God’s Peace to you.


  9.   Patricia Harrod-Wyrosdick Says:

    I might be misunderstanding what Sommer wrote, but he seems to conflict himself; however, it is probably I who have not clearly understood his words. He appears to state that a women is free – and possibly obligated with her talents – to serve the Lord in the public assembly. She can serve on the Lord’s Table, speak to exhort – but not teach, can pray, sing…What she can not do is teach or preach in the assembly. Then, near the end of the writing, it my understanding is that he says a woman can “example: serve at the Lord’s Table – but only if able men are not present.” So which is it? Did I misunderstand? Furthermore, if a woman is given permission by the Eldership to participate in the public assembly…is she then usurping authority. In addition, I have been taught in the past that these passages were based on the culture and not applicable to this age. Right or Wrong? I have recently been in a Church of Christ where a woman gave her testimony during the preacher’s “allotted” time. Right or Wrong? Manhattan Church of Christ in New York allow women to make announcements and serve on the Lord’s Table. I always appreciate your blog messages. They encourage me to think, study, and grow. Blessings to you!

  10.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I think he is saying that women certainly have the right if no men are present who are capable but that also it is not simply about women’s meetings. Rather, it is about the assembly of the congregation. I think he permits it with the exception of preaching/teaching and being an elder within the church.

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