By “THE MAN IN THE STREET.”
In my last article we took leave of the Assembly and the Instrumental Music question in 1873 with the statement of the intention and hope of the body that the compromise arranged — the passing of no law on the one side against the use of instruments and the refraining from their introduction or uses on the other — would be not for a year, but for all time. But the best laid schemes of Assemblies, like those of mice and men, gang aft agley. The ex-Moderator, Rev. Wm. Johnston, during the year put himself into communication with the several congregations using the instrument — these now numbered six or seven, chiefly in the South and West — but it was whispered during the year, that these had only resulted in a partial compliance with the resolution, and the tocsin of war was again sounded, with the result that there was a great gathering of- all the clans at the meeting and a renewal of the controversy anticipated. And it was so.
The Assembly of this year was held in St. Enoch's, which had then come into being, and was regarded with the pride which continues to this day. The Moderater of the year was a Southern minister, the Rev. Wm. Magill, of Cork, one of the most saintly and eloquent ministers of his time, a man of piety and power, whose ascent to the Chair was welcomed as a special tribute not only to himself, but the Southern provinces, whose Presbyterianism he so worthily represented and sustained. There was a large attendance of elders — 183 — but it was not so large as at some subsequent stages of the controversy. When the fateful Friday arrived — for the Instrumental Music question seemed to have been fated for that day, which was called fighting Friday — Rev. Mr. Johnston, the ex-Moderator, gave an account of his instrumental stewardship for the year. It may be interesting to record briefly the results — Wicklow (Rev. Mr. Porter) — No instrument since October. Mountmellick (Rev. R. H. Hanshow) — Carrying out resolution as far as in his power. Tullamore (Rev. Mr. Smyth) — Harmony of congregation depended on continuance of instrumental music. Clonmel (Rev. H. H. Beatty) — Complying with resolution if precentor paid. Disuse would silence voice of praise. Enniskillen (Rev. Mr. Maclatchey) — Resolved to continue. Queenstown (Rev. W. Simpson) — Cling to instruments as necessary to their very existence. Carlow (Rev. Mr. Coffey) — Still using the instrument, as minister not having been present at Assembly resolution not binding. In making these intimations Mr. Johnston added that a rumour had prevailed that Fisherwick Place Church had used a harmonium,, but that Mr. Wm. L. Finlay, a respected elder of the congregation, had informed him that no instrument had been used, but only a tuning fork, and that had been discarded. He then moved a resolution expressing grave disapproval of the action of the congregations that did not harmonise their praise in compliance with the resolution, while sympathising with their difficulties, requiring that the deliverance of 1873 should be carried out in all the congregations, that deputations be appointed to visit the congregations to exhort ministers and congregations to yield obedience in the Lord to the Courts of the Church, and that it be remitted to congregations to look after the matter and report. Mr. Thomas Sinclair seconded the resolution, and while expressing sympathy with the difficulties of the congregations he asked them to obey the Church. Rev. Archd. Robinson said as his party could have the previous year carried a resolution against instruments and refrained, he thought the congregations were bound to carry out the honourable arrangement, as Mr. Sinclair had held they should do. Rev. Dr. Wilson, Cookstown, moved a less restrictive amendment, but for the peace of the Church withdrew it. The question of discipline arose, but Mr. Johnston said he did not entertain the idea of discipline. The resolution was carried by a show of hands, only twelve voting against it, but Mr. Maclatchey, Mr. Waren, and Mr. Simpson protested.
So ends the question so far as the Assembly of 1874 with regard to the Instrumental Music question is concerned. But it was only the beginning of my own connection with it and also with that of “The Witness.” And I am free to say that if the controversy gave trouble to the Assembly for this and many after years, it gave quite as much to me. I was assisted in the work of “The Witness” by the then Rev. Thomas Hamilton, now the venerable Vice-Chancellor of the Belfast University. It was their desire, as well as that of my directors and myself, that, having regard to the marked division of the Assembly on the question, the paper should not be committed to any side in that controversy, but steer an even keel and give fairness and freedom to both. It was, to say the least of it, a trying task. As my two clerical guides were in favour of “Liberty” on the question, and as Mr. Sinclair was known to be a director of the paper it was difficult to make the “Purity Party,” as the opponents of instrumental music became known, understand that an even hand could or would be held out. Apart, however, from the honourable character of those to whom I was responsible, there was the fact that not having been gifted with a musical taste or enthusiasm I was personally very much of a Gallio in the matter, though I must admit that my sympathies and associations were with the “Liberty Party.” And I treasured more than any compliment I ever received a letter voluntary sent me by Dr. Petticrew, in which he acknowledged that, as far as it was possible for a human being to do, I had dealt fairly and impartially with the controversy in the paper. I admit frankly my difficulty was not so much to be impartial as to convince the “Purity” extremists that I could be from my Belfast associations. And though I fear Dr. Petticrew’s verdict may not have been accepted by all his followers, I believe it was by the majority.
When it is remembered that simultaneously with this controversy we had a Bible wine controversy and a hymn controversy, the trouble of an Editor as well as of the Church can be realised. Our space was limited and the demands on it from all sides of these controversies unlimited, so that I think the conductors of a newspaper like “The Witness” had almost as many difficulties to encounter and as many sections to satisfy as the governors of Ireland at the present time. During the year 1874 it became abundantly evident that the controversy had not ended; indeed, that it was only beginning. And we decided that on the eve of the Assembly we would give a limited number of the leaders on both sides a free hand to discuss the question in our columns. This began in May, continued till the Assembly of ’75, and was resumed after it, extending into the month of October. The Purity of Worship Party had prepared and published in the spring or early summer a full statement of their case in a pamphlet. On the 30th April the Rev. T. Y. Killen opened the controversial ball by a letter of three columns in length. The Rev. Joseph Corkey replied on May 14th with a letter a column add a half in length, and Mr. Killen replied to him on May 21 to the then very modest length of a column. On May 21, and 28 the Rev. Archd. Robinson took Mr. Killen to task in two and a half columns on the first day and three and a half columns on the second. On June 4, the eve of the Assembly, Mr. Killen had a four-column reply to Mr. Robinson, and Mr. Corkey had a two-and-a-quarter-column reply to Mr. Killen’s previous letter. Then the Rev. James Heron came on the scene with a four-column article — the first of a series on “Christian Liberty” directed to the same controversy. Silence prevailed in the controversial columns of “The Witness” till after the Assembly. On the 25th June the Rev. Mr. Corkey resumed his examination of Mr. Killen's examination of the “Purity” pamphlet, with attention also to Mr. Heron, to the extent of three columns. While Mr. Heron followed up his introduction with a three-column article, Mr. Killen replied the following week in a column. In July the Rev. Wm. Dobbin, of Anaghlone, opened up a reply to Mr. Heron, entitling his series, “The Danger of Elastic Principles.” This series extended to August 13, and amounted in the aggregate to six newspaper columns. Then Mr. Heron replied to Mr. Dobbin on the 20th August, and continued till 17th September, the aggregate representing five and a half columns. Mr. Dobbin replied to Mr. Heron in two articles of one and a half columns each, and Mr. Heron replied on the 15th and 22nd October in two articles aggregating two and a half columns. As an instance of the chivalrous spirit of the controversy, Mr. Heron in his final letter (for the time) said — “I conclude by returning Mr. Dobbin’s salaam, and by thanking him very cordially for the fresh opportunity he has given me of putting the subject before the readers of ‘The Witness.’” The controversy then ended, so far as “The Witness” was concerned, til the following spring, when, I am sure, it was resumed, though at the time of writing I have not looked up the files.
From The Witness, 9th November 1917.