Sears, Sommerism, and Selection

I have more than one book from my Ritchie grandparents’ library.  One of them is the autobiography of L.C. Sears (later the dean at Harding College).  I inherited this particular book, I think, because the children wanted each grandchild to have at least one book.

My general impressions of “Dean Sears” are scant, but here they are:   1) although in his 90s, he is the one I think I remember walking around the Harding campus while I was a student, 2) I think he was well respected and liked as a gentleman, as a leader, and as a Christian, and 3) #2 must be somewhat true, because a Harding dorm was named after him.  Since I was interested in knowing more about this man who was a major player in Harding’s early and middle years, I read on.

Here is a passage from the early childhood section of the autobiography:

We attended church regularly every Sunday at Odon, but I noticed that wpid-img_20150520_112801_637.jpgmy father and mother were beginning to worry.  There was a lot of talking after church while we children waited impatiently to go home.  I saw some people crying.  I finally learned that some in the church wanted to buy an organ and play it as we sang.  This was the new development which was becoming quite fashionable among the churches.  My father and a number of others, however, protested that the early church never used any musical instruments, and that the apostles urged us only to sing.  In spite of their objections, however, one Sunday the organ was there.  My father and a number of others talked together, and the next Sunday we had a meeting in our home.  Then my father closed the country store and with the help of others turned it into a church building.

– L.C. Sears, What Is Your Life? An Autobiography, p. 15

On the succeeding page, Sears describes, with no detectable emotional charge, the influence of Daniel and Austin Sommer on this new, split-off church in Baille, IN.  Now, some have used the label “Sommerism” to describe divisiveness (in some cases, harsh-spirited rancor) founded on what I take as sincere but overwrought convictions — notably, those scruples related to mechanical instruments, and particularly around 1900.

If I had lived in the time of Sears’s youth, I imagine I would have been in the non-organ faction¹ by birth.  I dearly hope, though, that I would have been less dogmatically exclusive and more irenic than RM non-instrumentalists tend to be.

Having known of places in which I felt the hyper-pejorative label “inbred” was not too strong a descriptor, I found curious these lines from the chapter on the 1940-1955 era:

By “selective” inbreeding, however, we could draw as many teachers as possible from our other Christian colleges and then choose, as we had been doing, from our own graduates those who would add greatest strength to our institution.  They would be as competent as any we could find elsewhere, and because they knew and loved the school they would be more willing to accept the salaries we could offer.  (p. 148)

There is something to be said for a sacrificial mode of operation.  It certainly breeds loyalty, if the town or institution or business survives.  In the midst of the lean times, though, morale can be dismal.  I would speculate that the above-mentioned method of cherry-picking CofCers to be faculty members would be frowned on by 21st-century regulators and accreditors.  That doesn’t mean such inbreeding doesn’t exist today; it only means folks aren’t likely to be as transparent about it as Sears was.

Sears had the rare, unenviable position of being involved in college administration through both the first and second World Wars, not to mention the early operation of the Selective Service.  I was impressed with his even-handed mentions of both a) those who served in the military and b) those who were conscientious objectors on some level.  One conscience-driven man — Ben Randolph, who was Sears’s roommate — was put in jail for a period of years for refusing to accept a non-combatant position.  As a dean, Sears was called on to advocate the interests and consciences of young men on both sides of the complicated, charged questions of military service; he seems to have communicated with non-preferential, dignified treatment of all.

As I made my way through the book, I found confirmed my general impressions that L.C. “Cline” Sears was a man worthy of emulation.  He happened to have married into influence — becoming the son-in-law of J.N. Armstrong, who was, by most accounts, the first president of Harding.  Armstrong, in turn, was son-in-law to James A. Harding, who had been a student under Alexander Campbell at Bethany College, and who was key in the beginnings of both David Lipscomb College and Harding College.

My father was unaware, or had forgotten, that his own letter was quoted by Sears among notes received at the dean’s retirement.  I’ll close this brief look with my father’s words from his student days in 1960:

There couldn’t be a more humble man than you.  Thank you for two wonderful classroom experiences. . . .  You are one of the real leaders at Harding. . . .  – Gerald W. Casey (p. 169)


¹ Frankly, I am in the non-organ faction today, but for different reasons:  I simply don’t like most of the (overwhelming) sounds that instrument makes, and I am disturbed by the inhibition of congregational participation.


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