It was with a pleased surprise, when introduced last week quite casually to a gentleman in Dublin, whom I had never met before and who had never met me, the first question he asked was had I stopped my reminiscences of the instrumental music question, as there were none in the previous week’s “Witness.” It was gratifying to me to find in this way not only evidence of “The Witness” circulation in the capital, but of interest in my recollections therein. I assured my new and appreciative friend that the threads were only temporarily broken, and would be put together again soon. And I now fulfil my part of the promise. I may here state also that scarcely a week passes without receiving, as we do at the end of the year, the subscriptions from new readers in the United States and Canada and the other Colonies; and I am proud to say we have in all congratulatory references to “The Witness,” and not least to these reminiscences. As I had got into my mind the fear that these were becoming wearisome, I now take up the broken threads with greater satisfaction and pleasure.
In my references to the decision of the Assembly in 1881 sustaining the appeal against the decision of the Synod in having refused to entertain the protests and appeal of certain members of the Newtonbreda Church and the Presbytery against the action of the Presbytery, and referring the matter simpliciter to the Assembly, and again prohibiting the use of the organ, I omitted to state that about eighty ministers and elders signed a protest for themselves and as many as would join with them against the decision. In 1882 the Assembly met in May Street, when the Rev. T. Y. Killen (afterwards D.D.), Duncairn, was elected Moderator. It was reported to the Assembly that no progress in the direction of the cessation of instruments had been made in the congregations of Enniskillen or Queenstown, but that the instruments had been discontinued in Carlow and Bray. At the previous meeting two overtures had been put on the books, one asking that the Assembly should sanction instrumental music, and the other that it should come to a definite decision as to whether instrumental music is sanctioned or prohibited by the Word of God. In connection with these overtures, the reports of the judgment of three Presbyteries were read, two of which, Cork and Dublin, were in favour of an affirmative or sanctioning decision, and the third, that of Glendermott, in favour of a prohibitive or prohibitory decision. A motion was made in the Assembly that the first overture, which gave several reasons in favour of the use of the instruments, should be adopted, and the Assembly declare the use of instrumental accompaniment in praise is in harmony with the teaching of Scripture, and that it was expedient to give permission to use the instruments subject to such regulation end restriction as the Assembly might in its wisdom prescribe. To this an amendment was proposed stating that, as the mode of worship hitherto sanctioned was the mode adopted in the Christian Church when under the guidance of the inspired apostles; and as those in favour of the use of instruments professed to believe, it was not obligatory, but optional — a thing indifferent — and as those who opposed it believed it an authorised addition to worship, permission for which would grieve the consciences of many ministers, elders, and members of the Church, and prolong and embitter the existing controversies, the Assembly should direct Presbyteries to give special attention to this matter, recall the decision, of the Assembly on the subject, and take steps to have the resolution carried into effect. After a debate which extended over two sederunts, a vote was taken, with the result that 360 voted for the amendment, and 345 against, giving a majority of fifteen in favour of the anti-instrumental party. Rev. Dr. H. W. Williamson and others protested against this decision.
At the opening of the Assembly the Moderator made a suggestion with diffidence, and to chosen from both parties should meet before Friday, and see if they could come to some arrangement that would meet the unanimous approval of the Assembly. Dr. Petticrew, however, with all respect to the Chair, declined to accept it, as he said they had too many attempts, futile and vain, to settle the question; and the Rev. Dr. G. L. Morrell feared there would be such a divergence of opinion that there could be no unanimous recommendation; and the Moderator replied that it would be better to let the matter drop. And so fighting Friday came, and with it its fight. Rev. Dr. H. B. Wilson, Cookstown, moved the adoption of the “Liberty” resolution as above in a speech which occupied nearly seven columns of “The Witness.” Rev. Dr. Petticrew’s speech in support of the amendment occupied nearly five columns. These speeches practically occupied the morning sederunt. In the evening Rev. J. Maxwell Rogers, Derry, seconded Dr. Petticrew’s amendment, after which the Rev. Mr. Simpson, Queenstown, delivered one of his speeches with characteristic flashes of humour and slashes of criticism. It was on this occasion that he uttered the following personal comment, which created considerable amusement at the time — “The Rev. N. M. Brown was unrivalled for audibility — (laughter) — Rev. Mr. Crawford for strong statement — (renewed laughter) — Rev. Dr. Petticrew unrivalled for repetition, for continued dropping would wear away stones — (laughter) — and Rev. Geo. Magill entertained the House with spontaneous indignation — (loud laughter) — which is a powerful element in oratory.” This ended the question in the Assembly of ’82.
Difficulties and complications seemed to increase, as disclosed by the Minutes and proceedings of 1883. While the Dublin Presbytery had nothing new to report, the Clogher Presbytery reported that the worship in Enniskillen had been conducted without the harmonium; the Cork Presbytery reported that in Queenstown its use was continued; the Belfast Presbytery reported that it had been reported to it that instrumental music had been used in the public worship in the congregations of Elmwood, Fitzroy Avenue, Fisherwick Place, Rosemary Street, St. Enoch’s, Dundela, Newtonbreda, Newington, and other congregations in the Presbytery, and transmitted the fact, confirmed by several of the ministers, to the Assembly. Before the debate opened facilities were offered to the brethren specified to explain their action if disposed; but no brother availed himself of the opportunity. Mention was made that the attention of the Assembly having been called to the deliberate disregard of the Assembly’s prohibition, the Assembly declaring the conduct of these ministers as utterly un-Presbyterian and deliberately subversive of order and government, enjoining ministers where instruments are used to give them up forthwith, and appointing a committee with Assembly powers with instructions to take charge of this whole matter, to correspond with these ministers, and in the event of their continued disobedience to deal with them in accordance with the laws of the Church made and provided in case of obstinacy. To this an amendment was moved that, in view of all the circumstances of the case, and of the gravity of the issues involved, the Assembly decline to appoint the committee proposed in the motion or take any steps which will involve discipline. The debate was continued during the evening sederunt, and towards midnight the vote was taken, with the result that 320 verted for the amendment, and 309 against. This was a turn of the tide with a vengeance. This was the first occasion on which Dr. Petticrew and his party met with defeat. The majority of fifteen in their favour of the previous year was turned into a majority of eleven against them. Dr. Petticrew and his friends appealed against the decision, and entered reasons of dissent.
In some respects this was the most intense debate of the Assembly up to that time, though not as protracted as some of the others. There was greater uncertainty as to the division than on other occasions. Though as far as I can remember, the “Liberty” party did not expect a victory, there was a feeling that with the declining majorities in favour of Dr. Petticrew the voting might be close. The jubilation among the Instrumentalists, who, no doubt, formed a large part of the galleries, when the result of the vote was announced, was loud and enthusiastic. There were those among the majority, however, whose feelings of jubilation were modified by feelings of sympathy for Dr. Petticrew, who had been the head and front of the “Purity ” party and movement, and whose conscientious feelings and convictions were respected by all his opponents. As one who might have been described as a neutral sympathiser with the instrumentalists – music in church and out of it being one of my many weak points — I remember turning my eyes towards him as the vote was announced, and I could say with much greater sincerity than the Kaiser said later about Louvain, that my heart bled for him. Personally and ecclesiastically, he represented a stately column, and it was now shaken for the first time in the controversy. What might be said to have been his great life work had ended in defeat. But there was real nobility about him, and if he felt his defeat as an ecclesiastic, he bore it as a man and as a gentleman. His chief lieutenant, the Rev. A. Robinson, then of Broughshane — his D.D. and professorship came afterwards — was no less dispirited personally, though joining in the regret that the Church had departed from what he regarded as its true lines. I had a long and confidential conversation with him the following morning over the whole question. And this I will say for him. He showed no bitter feeling. He was disappointed, of course, but he was a Presbyterian to the core, and such he remained to the last day of his life. I may just add here that while the jubilations were being indulged in the Moderator expressed the hope that the question was now buried, and would have no resurrection; and Mr. Robinson said he had no objection to the triumph of his friends — they had won one victory in fifteen years, and why should they not rejoice? The Rev. Dr. Geo. Magill is the only hero of that fight now alive, and I can say this of him, that no man was more earnest or more able in his advocacy of the cause, which was near and dear to his heart. I do not think I am misrepresenting him in saying that he would have wished for another ending of the controversy, and that he still holds firm to his historic views on the question. But he can look back to the past with the sincere conviction that he did his duty and played his part in it ably and well, and that as a great hearted thorough Presbyterian he retains the respect of all who know him, and we all rejoice that his exemplary life has been prolonged into a period when the old controversies have ceased to be. Personally I regret that age prevents him taking the part in the new that I am sure his convictions and his feelings would lead him. And let me add also among the older generation of the band of stalwarts now surviving the name of my friend, Mr. J. D. Boyd, of Limavady, who was a keen and enthusiastic supporter of the cause both on the platform and in other ways. He has established his existence and his consistency of opinion in the letter that appeared in our columns a couple of weeks ago. At the moment I cannot recall any others surviving who took an important part in the controversy.
From The Witness, 25th January 1918.