History that is exciting in the making may become cold and tame in the recording. We have now in our running record reached the end of the ten years’ conflict over the instrumental music question. But I am afraid the chronicle gives but a poor idea of the feeling and the Spirit of the excitement of the time. Then the story of the “Ten Years’ Conflict” that ended in the severance of the union of the Established Church of Scotland and in the formation of the Free Church was familiar from its freshness, and pointed a moral. In some respects the union of the Irish Presbyterian Church was at stake in this conflict, and in the tenth year the question had approached, if it had not reached, a critical stage. While the issues and the principles at stake were not as momentous as those which had disturbed and divided the Mother Church, they were sufficiently great to affect the life and harmony, if not the unity of the Irish Presbyterian Church. There were some among its members who feared that the controversy might end in disruption, and were continually praying and pleading that it might be avoided. But there were others who had greater faith in Irish Presbyterian faith and loyalty than to anticipate such a division. As events proved they were in the right. Loyalty to Church and Empire and Presbyterianism go hand-in-hand, and in Church and State where Presbyterianism prevails loyalty and duty and union are certain to prevail. It prevailed in Church forty years ago, and would prevail in the State if its people and its principles held free sway.
In 1878 it was becoming apparent that while in some cases in which ministers and congregations could be peacefully persuaded into compliance with the decrees of the Assembly, there were others that were hopelessly and persistently recalcitrant, for reasons which no doubt satisfied themselves, but did not commend themselves even to those sections of the instrumentalists who put loyalty to the Church before any consideration of party and policy. It was becoming apparent that only by the exercise of discipline that authority could be enforced, and this was an idea repellant, I may say, to both sides. The Instrumentalists did not relish the application of coercion to brethren with whose principles they were in sympathy while disapproving of their policy, and the Purity party did not relish its application, realising the difficulty and danger of enforcing it, yet hesitated to insist upon its application. But at the same time from this forward the question of “discipline” or “no discipline” became the issue, and it was round this the controversy mainly raged.
In 1877, on the suggestion and appeal of the Rev. John Macnaughten, who was one of the commanding figures of the Assembly, and a leader of the instrumental party, the Assembly decided to appoint a committee, composed chiefly if not altogether of instrumental members, to confer with the ministers and congregations that had not fallen in with the resolution of the body. On the fighting day of the Assembly, the first Friday of its meeting, Mr. Macnaughten reported the result of the labours of the committee. He said that practically only two congregations held out — Queenstown and Enniskillen — and one (Enniskillen) had one leg in, as it had decided, that it would give up the instrument if the Assembly would require the removal of musical instruments from all Sabbath-schools. He thought that if the Queenstown members of congregation had not refused permission to the commission to visit them they might have been able to influence them in harmony with the Assembly’s decision. But they refused. He declared, however, that if the Assembly would insist upon discipline, and which would involve the cutting off of these congregations, the voluntary agreement would go to the winds, and he for his part would take no further action. He made no suggestion, but left the matter in the hands of the Assembly, contenting himself with moving the report. The Rev. Mr. Elliott, Armagh, suggested, and the Rev. A. Patton, then of Ballymoney, afterwards of Bangor, supported a motion that a committee should be appointed to confer with the two ministers. But the Rev. Mr. Simpson, who had mounted the platform, took off his coat, and laying a bundle of papers on the table, insisted upon being heard. The Assembly complied, for apart from his apparent dourness in the matter of the instrument, Mr. Simpson had the saving grace of humour developed in a high degree, and his appearances were always welcome on that account.
It is wonderful how the passing of time affects both rhetoric and humour. I have read over again many of the speeches that stirred me to the depths at the time, and yet I read them to-day with the blood cold, and as if the interest was as dead as Queen Ann. I read carefully the speech of Mr. Simpson, which many a time and oft kept myself and the House in a roar of rapturous laughter, and I almost wonder how it ever stirred me. Not that the humour was not bubbling and his anecdotes and allusions apposite and pointed. But the spirit and the personalities have all largely disappeared, and the associations faded. I quote a couple of his anecdotes by way of illustration, though they may appear flat and laboured at the present time. One of Mr. Simpson’s points was that the Assembly allowed musical instruments in Sabbath-schools and objected to them in the church:—
The conduct of his opponents reminded him of a story he had heard of a Scotch divine who was sent some centuries ago to rebuke a Royal prince because he had been seen kissing a young lady at the window of the palace. (Laughter.) The officer asked innocently. “Is it a sin, doctor, to kiss a pretty girl if she makes no objection?” “Certainly not,” said the venerable divine, “but surely you could keep away from the window,” (Great laughter.) It would seem as if it was no harm to use the instrument if they kept away from the window, (Hear, hear.) On the point of the threat of discipline he related the following anecdote – Some years ago a fine old Irishman, Barney Brohan, was arraigned before a bench of magistrates for breaking the skull of an old friend of his called Joseph Gimlett. After the facts had been deposed to, he said, “Your worships, the fact is that my Ebenezer happened to fall on his hat a little more heavily than I intended.” (Laughter.) “Oh, Mr. Brohan,” said the chairman, “that is what is alleged against you. We want to know if you have any defence.” “Well, then, your worships,” said he, “I was trying to inspire him with some blessed truths that should warm the heart of any Christian that had a soul in his body, and instead of listening he kept on crying, ‘Prove it, prove it.’ ‘Indeed,’ said I, ‘I have plenty of proof,’ so I lifted my Ebenezer and let it fall on his ridge board, and it settled the whole question and satisfied his mind completely, and from that hour to this he had heard no more of ‘prove it.' ” (Great laughter.) There were several Barney Brohans in that Assembly. (Laughter.) His worthy friend, Mr. Robinson, of Broughshane, was a Barney Brohan – (great laughter) — and Mr. Petticrew was another. He (Mr. Simpson) wanted Scriptural proof that he should give up instruments, and they said. “We will settle the question by a crack of the ecclesiastical cudgel.” (Great laughter and applause.) Here was his principle in the worship of God — the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible (Loud applause.) (Would they vote for it? (Laughter and applause) Would they vote for the Bible of Barney Brohan? (More laughter.)
At the close of the speech the Moderator (Rev. Professor Witherow) said he had allowed Mr. Simpson, as he was on his defensive, a latitude he would not have allowed to any member of the Assembly, but reminded the House of the question that was immediately before them – namely, whether or not, they is should appoint the committee. The Rev. F. Petticrew replied, needless to say, in a more grave and reverent style than Mr. Simpson, but what his speech lacked in humour it supplied in gravity, earnestness, and the force which was the outcome alike of his ability and earnestness. An amendment to the motion appointing the committee to retire was moved, adopting the report and re-appointing the committee with some additional names to deal with the ministers and congregations, and report to next Assembly. Thus time was marked from year to year.
From The Witness, 30th November 1917.