I cannot say how my readers feel, but as I turn my mind and pen to the instrumental music controversy I sometimes think I am delving into a remote past at a time when digging in the present and preparing for the future would be more appropriate work. Even though I have reached the ’eighties in my tortoise-like progress, and that represents only a little more than a generation, I occasionally feel that I am dealing with a period of history as remote as the early Georges, and that interest in it has vanished. It is like mimic warfare in the midst of a great war or recording the memories of old history while we are making new. And yet the times and the story have a fascination for me, and its memories make me proud that I lived in and through such times and mingled with such men. It was in its own way, so far at least as the Church is concerned, a period of war. But it was different from the present war in that it was a contest for principles, not for power; for truth rather than victory, for the faith delivered to the saints as each side understood it. The supporters of one side inscribed “Liberty” on their standards, and the friends of the other inscribed “Purity” on their Banner; and under each they fought with an intensity of earnestness and feeling which the present generation could not realise, and with a sincerity of conviction that gave a crown to the conflict. While the friends of liberty disclaimed the monopoly of purity by their opponents, the friends of purity disclaimed any interference with liberty except in so far as in their judgment liberty meant an encroachment on what they regarded as Bible truth. And when the time came that the warfare came to an end the defeated party laid down its arms with the consciousness that they had done their duty and made their hopeless protest.
I am afraid I have spoiled the story in the telling, and lost that sense of perspective and prospective that should mark the historian, and have dwelt too long on the earlier period and incidents at the sacrifice of the general interest and proportionate importance. My excuse for that is that I lived and grew up in the midst of it; and as I looked over the Minutes and the files of “The Witness” so many of the passing incidents rose to my mind not in their relative, but in their actual proportions, with all their original significance and importance. In consequence I have now only reached the central stage of the controversy — namely, the beginning of the ’eighties. The question first came before the Assembly in 1868, and it was not till we were well advanced in the ’nineties that instrumental music ceased to figure in the Minutes’ index. But the real struggle ended in 1885, when, by a majority of twenty-one, the Assembly refused to enforce discipline, after which there were two periods of truce, failure on the part of the congregations using the instruments to abandon them, and the condition of things with which the present generation is familiar, in which liberty and purity, in the best sense of both words, reign supreme.
In 1880 there was the usual large attendance and strong feeling. The subject of discipline had passed from the air to May Street, and while the Purity party did not regard it with pleasure, their opponents dreaded alike its difficulties and its consequences. But Dr. Petticrew made one of his forceful and earnest speeches on the occasion, named Enniskillen, Queenstown, Carlow, and Bray as guilty of un-Presbyterian conduct, directly subversive of order and government, and that if further persevered in would be accounted and dealt with as contumacy. The Rev. J. D. Crawford seconded this motion, to which the Rev. John Macnaughtan and Rev. Dr. Murphy moved and seconded the previous question. It was during this debate that the Rev. Mr. Simpson, of Queenstown, delivered one of his speeches which were always characterised by much humour and originality, and enlivened, though they did not appear at the time to have convinced the Assembly. One of his points was that the Assembly did not adhere to the resolution of 1873, but that he did, he had stuck to his harmonium. He maintained that Divine sanction for instruments had been withdrawn nowhere that no knew of “save in the Gospel of St. Francis of Faughanvale, the Epistles of St. Archibald of Broughshane, the Acts of the Purity of Worship Association, or in the Apochryphal writings of the “Christian Banner.’” In the result only 250 voted for the previous question, and 265 against, so that Dr. Petticrew scored once again, and the morning sitting of the Fighting Friday came to an end.
In the evening Dr. Wilson, of Cookstown, moved, and the Rev. Dr. Murphy seconded another amendment, regretting the continued non-compliance with the order of Assembly, and making another appeal, at the same time stating that as the Assembly had passed no law the exercise of discipline would be a violation of the pledge, and inexpedient. Rev. Dr. Robb followed, stating that the question was whether the congregations were to be Presbyterian or Independent. Dr. Watts got up to continue the debate, but amid cries of “Vote” and some excitement he desisted. The vote was a very close one, 250 having voted amend, and 251 motion. A third amendment, declaring that as the use of instrumental music was a grievous offence to very many brethren, and the means to induce congregations to desist had failed, the Assembly again appeal to the brethren in the spirit of Christian charity and brotherly love to give up the instruments, was proposed and accepted as the declaration of the Assembly.
In 1881 the Assembly met in Dublin. In the meantime the instrumental controversy had entered on a new phase, or at least a new instrument with a new issue had been introduced. Hitherto, with the exception of Enniskillen, all the congregations brought into the controversy were situated in the South of Ireland. But the Rev. Robert Workman, minister of Newtonbreda, and an enthusiastic advocate of Liberty, in conjunction with his session and committee, introduced an organ into Newtonbreda Church, and it had been employed in the evening service. It certainly was and is a fine instrument, but it brought on Dr. Workman a perfect sea of conflict and controversy. It led to controversy in the Press with certain members of the congregation who objected, and for weeks the columns of “The Witness” contained letters on the subject. It led to the raising of the issue through the use of the instrument at some services in the Belfast Presbytery. The majority of the Presbytery did not seem disposed to deal with the issue, and referred the whole question simpliciter to the Synod. When it came in due course to the Synod they referred it to the General Assembly. There was a protest and appeal against the decisions both of the Presbytery and the Synod, in which the Rev. Wm. Johnston, Rev T. Y. Killen, the Rev. George Magill, Rev J. D. Crawford, and others joined. In the Synod the motion dismissing the appeal and referring the matter to the Assembly was met by an amendment, one portion of which censured the minister and office-bearers of Newtonbreda for their action, and called on them to cease using the instrument. Nineteen ministers voted for the amendment and twenty-seven against, so that it was lost.
In the Assembly the Newtonbreda case took pre-eminence over the general question, and led to a most interesting and exciting discussion. It was noticeable that Dr. Johnston, who was regarded as a friend of liberty, but as the mover of the original motion maintained to the end the part more of a pacificator than an advocate: and Dr. T. Y. Killen, the Rev. John Macnaughtan, Mr. Thomas Sinclair, and others, who were all avowed friends of liberty, took exception to the action of Mr. Workman and Newtonbreda congregation. It must be said, however, that Mr. Workman made a strong and vigorous defence on the technical points raised as well as on the general principle, and justified his action with great ability. While in the eyes of the Purity party his action not only complicated the situation but nullified the efforts they were making to secure a cessation of the use of the instruments, Mr. Workman’s position, as explained at the time in private, and I think in public, too, was that as there was a question of principle as well as practise involved, it was better that it should be fought out on the direct issue and over a strong congregation than over a remote Southern congregation with side issues as to the difficulty of getting precentors were involved. There is no doubt the Newtonbreda organ played a considerable part in the later discussions, and I think was a help and encouragement to the Southern congregations that had so long borne the brunt of the battle.
In the Assembly Rev. Dr. H. B. Wilson moved the dismissal of the appeal and the sustaining of the action of the Presbytery and Synod, which was seconded by the Rev. Robt. Black, Dundalk. To this the Rev. C. L. Morrell moved an amendment sustaining the appeal, regretting the introduction of the organ against the wish and remonstrance of a considerable number of the members of the Church, and calling for the discontinuance of the instrument. Dr. Petticrew, Mr. Thomas Sinclair, J.P.; Rev. A. Robinson, Rev. A. C. Murphy, Mr. J. P. Corry, M.P.; Rev. Mr. Macnaughtan, and others took part in the debate, which resulted in a vote in favour of Mr. Morrell’s amendment of 206 and 185 against, leaving a majority of 21 in favour of the non-instrumentalists. Rev. Mr. Macnaughtan and others protested.
In regard to the other cases in which there had been no compliance with the order of the Assembly, Enniskillen, Queenstown, Carlow, and Bray, a resolution proposed by Dr. Robb, repeating the old resolution prohibiting the use of the instrument in these congregations, and calling on the respective Presbyteries to take the necessary steps to carry it out, was carried. There were three amendments, all of which were defeated, and finally the original motion was carried by 151 votes against 109. Here ended the question in 1881.
From The Witness, 4th January 1918.