by “THE MAN IN THE STREET.”
Now that the holidays are over and “Southern Presbyterian” is himself again, I feel stimulated to resume some of my old activities and take up the thread of my musings, which the General Assembly interrupted. I felt for the time that the work and interest of the present Assembly was enough for my readers and myself, and I am not quite sure that either of us has discharged our full duty to it. But, I fear, as it has been in the beginning is now, and ever shall be, failure of duty will be the badge of too many of the sons of men, and even the sons of the Presbyterian Church.
While I was thinking over what branch or period of the past Assembly life and work I should take up a clerical friend suggested that the instrumental music controversy had become sufficiently ancient history to be discussed with ecclesiastical and philosophic calm, and, at the same time, sufficiently modern and interesting to make the controversy and its personages and incidents interesting to the present generation. To those who knew the great men of that day the story might recall interesting memories, and to those of the new generation it might be of interest to know something of the giants of the old day, and how they wrought and fought for what each believed to be the right. Looking back over that controversy extending over two decades, thinking of the feeling that produced it and the heat it inspired, the sanctity of use and wont on the one side, and the stimulus of new ideas and ideals on the other, I often wonder how it came to an end without a rupture and leaving so few bitter memories behind it. It is when men think strongly and feel strongly they speak strongly, and there was as much strong speaking and writing during this controversy as ever marked any controversy, ecclesiastical or political. And yet amid it all so powerful was respect for honest conviction and so deep the respect and veneration of the leaders in the controversy for each other’s sincerity, and reverence for God and the Church, that I do not think a private friendship was broken during the entire period, or a word uttered — except now and then in the heat of debate, and at once apologised for — that left any embittering memories behind it. Apart from what the general public knew of this, I can bear testimony such as few others could have had opportunity of doing. I was, perhaps, thrown more into personal contact with the leaders of both sides than the average man. I had most familiar and intimate converse with them not only in regard to the controversy, but in regard to the opponents of each in the controversy, and I can say this, that I never once heard the leaders on either side speak with anything but the greatest respect of the spirit and the motives of those on the other side. In the old days Professors Killen and Watts, Dr. Heron, Rev. Dr. T. Y. Killen, and other, leaders of what was called the Instrumental Music Party dropped into my office for a chat, as did also Dr. Petticrew, Dr. Corkey, Rev. Dr. George Magill, and others on the other side, and frequently some of the friendly rivals met and discussed matters together in my room. And they discussed it on all occasions like Christian gentlemen, each respecting the other's position, and each dealing with the question from the point of view of principle and the interests of the Church and truth. But I can go further and say that each of these and many others that I could name, in speaking of their opponents on the question, never once spoke disrespectfully or unappreciatively of the other, and if I had no other means of forming an estimate of the tone, character, and dignity of the leaders of the Church at that time, I had ample to satisfy me that the leaders of that time, and not least the leaders in this great controversy, were men of whom the Church had reason be proud. Their ability and example were not only great, but inspiring.
As the source of great rivers are found in mountain streams, the great controversy had its fountain and origin in two simple-looking lines hidden away in the report of the Synod of Armagh and Monaghan. The Synod reported inter alia that “they agreed to refer to the Assembly the case of Enniskillen Presbyterian Church, where instrumental music was employed in the celebration of the praise of God during public worship.” I doubt if many at the time realised how great a storm this little breath of music was create. It is said of troubles that they do not come alone. So far as the Assembly of 1868 is concerned, it had to do with questions compared to which this seemed little indeed. The whole question of the threatened Regium Donum was to be raised, and the ministers and elders had come up from all parts of the Church to consider the attitude on that great question. That issue excited and divided the Assembly, and raised controversies which lasted many years. But these, like that on instrumental music, have all mingled with the azure of the past, and newer and different issues, some, however, no less far-reaching, now occupy the attention of the Church.
There was little more than skirmishing on this first occasion, parties having apparently not got quite in line, but the trend of feeling on one side, at least, may be gathered from a statement of the Rev. J. B. Rentoul, that when other Churches are running Rome-wards he thought it was their interest to adhere closely to the principles of their forefathers and worship God in their simple style. After some skirmishing, the Rev. John Rogers, Comber, moved “That a committee be now appointed, with powers to suspend action in this case, to examine the simple question of the use of instrumental music in public worship, declare the whole law of the Church in this matter, with the course that should be pursued, and report to the next Assembly.”
The Rev. Dr. Cooke, who appeared in this Assembly for the last time this year, moved the following amendment — “That the common law of the Church excludes the use of instrumental music in the public worship of God, and that Presbyteries be requested to conform to the law.” The amendment was carried. I cannot say how far the personal influence of Dr. Cooke may have been responsible for this. I well remember his appearance on the occasion. His voice was feeble, but his spirit was as strong as ever. It must have been saddening to the old of the time that the venerable leader who had so often commanded that and other Assemblies by his eloquence was only able to utter a few sentences. But they were clear and crisp, and carried great weight at the time, and the words of the amendment that the common law of the Church was against instrumental music rang in speeches and re-appeared in pamphlets for many years. The next General Assembly had to chronicle the illustrious leader’s death, and pass, as it did, most appreciative resolutions as to his worth and services.
The Rev. Mr. Maclatchy, a very fine, cultivated minister, venerable in years, and strong in personality, was minister of Enniskillen Church. It was freely stated at the time that he had been obliged to use the instrument on account of the difficulty that was found to get the praise service properly conducted otherwise. And I find that in the following Assembly, that of 1869, he said that he had determinedly objected to the use of a harmonium, but had difficulty in getting a precentor, and frequently had been unable to have any praise at all. It was the Clogher Presbytery that first raised the issue, and I do not think I am doing any injustice to his memory or to the facts in stating that the Rev. J. Gardiner Robb, who for years was one of the most brilliant opponents of instrumental music, was responsible for the introduction of the question into the Clogher Presbytery, from which it extended to the Synod and the Assembly. He certainly held strong opinions on the subject, and defended his opinions in the Assembly while he lived with a vigour and eloquence worthy of any man or any Assembly.
The next year the congregation of Enniskillen sent up a memorial to the Assembly explaining their difficulties and asking permission to use the harmonium. The Rev. Kennedy M'Kay, a miracle of eccentricity and fluency, moved that the prayer of the memorial be dismissed, and that a commission be appointed to confer with the congregation. Rev. Dr. Knox moved an amendment that a commission be appointed to visit the congregation, and have a conference with a view to the removal of the instrument. A discussion in private followed, resulting in the carriage, in public Assembly, by a majority of 253 to 4, that a commission be appointed to take charge of the matter and report to next Assembly. This was done, and the next year, 1870, Dr. Knox reported that the commission had attended, and recommended that it would be inexpedient to interfere with the use of the harmonium in the congregation. The previous question was moved by Rev. Dr. J. M. Killen, Comber, and carried by 67 against 46. This just left matters as they were. This decision took place in the second week of the Assembly, which explains the comparatively small vote. In 1871 the subject again came up, and Dr. Knox repeated his motion, that it would be inexpedient to interfere with the use of the harmonium. Dr. Gardner Robb, who took a leading part in this question, demanded that if an instrument was to be introduced it should be done in a right way. Some advocated delay, but Rev. F. Petticrew (he was not D.D. at the time) opposed any delay or staving off, but the previous question was again carried.
In 1872 the first of the many really great debates on the issue took place. It was started on a report of the committee, presented by the Rev. Dr. Knox, which stated that “as the common law of the Church excluded the use of instrumental music, and that all congregations should conform to it, the committee was of opinion that no further legislation was necessary.” There was a very large attendance of ministers and elders from all parts of the Church, and the atmosphere was electrical. Feeling on the subject had been developed by speeches and pamphlets, and the excitement not only in Belfast, but throughout the Church was great. The Rev. Professor Smyth, then of Magee College, Derry, afterwards M.P. for the county, was the Moderator of the year. Arrangements had been made for a field day. And it was a field day. Not only a field day, but a field night. The debate opened on the first Wednesday of the Assembly and occupied the entire sederunt. It was then adjourned till Friday, the whole forenoon of which it occupied. In the evening there was an interval to hear the English deputation, which consisted of the Rev. Dr. J. Thain Davison, Rev. Dr. J. O. Dykes, and Mr. Ed. Jenkins, author of “Gink’s Baby,” a political brochure that commanded great attention at the time. Mr. Jenkins was member for Dundee, and a son-in-law of the late Mr. Philip Johnson, J.P., of Belfast. The instrumental debate was then resumed and continued without intermission till half-past five o’clock in the morning. The newspapers of the day and my own memory were more suggestive of six o’clock, but I accept the statement of the Minutes. At any rate, we all went home with the milk in the morning, women as well as men, for some noble and and enthusiastic women, if I remember aright, remained to the last. At least if they were not there in the flesh, they were in the spirit, for the women in many cases, and especially on the instrumental side, were, if possible, more earnest and enthusiastic than the men.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 5th October 1917.