The excitements and interests of the present occupied so much of my mind and time for the past fortnight that I found it impossible to concentrate my attention, sufficiently on part of the instrumental controversy to do justice to it either for myself or my readers. Now, however, that we have a temporary lull between the departure of Sir Edward Carson and the coming of Mr. Lloyd George as master of our fate, I pass from the new paths and the new excitements to the old. In my last we took leave of the question and the Assembly of 1883 with a decision for the first time adverse to the views of Dr. Petticrew and his friends. With the new year came new developments. Hitherto the battleground, so far at least as the facts, the casus belli, were concerned, was mainly in the South. But this year the North came into the limelight, and occupied the stage, almost to the exclusion of the South. The Rev. Dr. Workman had succeeded in transferring the attack largely from the small and scattered congregations in the South to the citadel of Presbyterianism in Belfast. The organ continued in full swing in Newtonbreda. But not only that, the Belfast Presbytery seems to have had its eyes opened and its conscience troubled by the fact that instrumental music was used in other churches as well. It replied that “during the past year instrumental music had been frequently used in public worship in Elmwood, Fitzroy Avenue, Rosemary Street, St. Enoch’s, Dundela, Newtonbreda, Newington, and other congregations in connection with the Presbytery; and this report having been confirmed by the testimony of several of the ministers in these congregations, the Presbytery desires that the facts in relation to the question should be in possession of the Supreme Court, decides to transmit the report to the General Assembly.” There was practically no change in the attitude of the Southern congregations regarding the instruments; but in all our minds and in the minds of Dr. Petticrew and his friends the Belfast organ had swallowed up all the other organs. There were some questionings and some cavalier answers from some of the Southern ministers, which Dr. Petticrew regarded as trifling with the Assembly. After a little heated introduction, Dr. Petticrew mounted the platform, and tabled his resolutions, arraigning all the ministers, and declaring that their conduct was utterly un-Presbyterian, and directly subversive of order and government, and asking the Assembly to appoint a commission to correspond with the ministers, “and in the event of their continued disobedience to deal with the laws of the Church made and provided in the case of contumacy.” Dr. Petticrew’s motion was seconded by the Rev. J. D. Crawford. To this an amendment was proposed by the Rev. C. L. Morrell, and seconded by the Rev. R. J. Lynd, declaring that in view of all the circumstances and Of the gravity of the issues involved, the Assembly declines to appoint the commission proposed in the motion or to take any steps which would involve disruption or the rending of the Church. The debate occupied the entire morning sederunt and till ten o’clock of the evening sederunt. As that hour approached, impatience for a vote was manifested. Mr. Thomas M’Elderry, the well known elder from Ballymoney, spoke with much vigour, but amid considerable interruption; but when the Rev. Dr. Watts got up to reply the cries of “Vote, vote,” increased, and the Moderator (Rev. Dr. T. Y. Killen) asked Dr. Watts to desist, and called on Mr. Morrell to reply, which he did briefly. On a vote being taken, it was found that 320 had voted for the amendment, and 309 against it. As the vote then was open, the names of the voters were published at the time, and an analysis made, which showed that 237 ministers had voted for the amendment and 135 against leaving a clerical majority of 102 for the amendment. The elder vote was 83 amend, and 174 not amend, giving an elder majority against the amendment of 91. This left the net majority in favour of the amendment and the Liberty side of the question of eleven as stated.
In the Assembly of 1884 the main question was, for a time, camouflaged — the word has not come into being, but the idea is very old — by a discussion on procedure, in connection with which the Belfast Presbytery came in for a good deal of criticism and ultimate censure. The meeting took place this year in Derry, which might have, in some respects, suggested a calmer atmosphere; but then the Glendermott Presbytery was (and is still) in the district, and where it reigned there was, at all events, strength and determination. The Purity party had a grievance against the Belfast Presbytery for refusing to hear a motion of the Rev. J. D. Crawford calling attention to the use of an instrument in Newtonbreda, and against the Synod of Belfast for having referred the matter simpliciter to the Assembly without entering into the merits of the case. The Rev. David Hunter was the principal representative of an appeal against the action, of the Synod, and the Assembly unanimously sustained the appeal, declaring that the Synod had acted irregularly and reversed their decision. The Assembly at the same time removed into the Assembly the appeal of the Revs. J. D. Crawford, John Meneely, and David Hunter against the decision of the Belfast Presbytery refusing to receive a notice of motion on the question of the use of the instrument in Newtonbreda. This appeal was discussed at some length, and with some heat; and in the end the Assembly sustained the appeal, and reversed the decision of the Presbytery, being of opinion that in the circumstances of the case it would have been judicious in the Presbytery to have accepted the notice of motion. Thus Belfast (Presbytery and Synod) got one knock in Derry. And the worst of it is I was in Derry on the occasion on which it was given, but was unable to save Belfast from the apostolic blows in my old city.
I have referred to the critical character of the controversy, and to the fact that for the first time Dr. Petticrew and his friends found themselves in a minority. But critical as it was at many times and in many features, it never was more critical than in the year of grace and of the instrumental controversy, 1885. One would have imagined that after sixteen or seventeen years of controversy the fires would begin to burn low. But instead, they burned more fiercely than ever, and the Church was never nearer the brink of division than it was this year. There were no fewer than eighty-seven memorials to be dealt with at the Assembly, of which sixty-one were connected with the controversy. Eleven of these, with 647 signatures, were opposed to prohibition; and forty-eight, with 181,592 signatures, were for enforcing prohibition. In the preceding year there were only forty-three memorials, and in the year before that only eighteen. The Moderator of the year was the Rev. J. W. Whigham, of Ballinasloe, whose unanimous election was a tribute not only to his own personal and ecclesiastical worth, but to the interest in and appreciation of the work in the West of Ireland with which Mr. (afterwards Dr.) Whigham had been prominently and successfully identified.
When all the preliminaries were arranged, and the combatants ready for the fray, the Rev. Dr. Morrell suggested that the Assembly should follow the precedent of the professorial election of the previous day (the election of the late Rev. J. L. Biggar to the Chair of Oriental Literature and Hermeneutics in Derry), and dispense with speeches, but this did not seem to commend itself to the Rev. A. Robinson, who said that he had no doubt Dr. Morrell’s speech would be as admirable as any that were not delivered. Then Dr. Jackson Smyth suggested a conference, but Dr. Petticrew thought it would be useless, and it did not seem to meet with any more acceptance. Then once more Dr. Petticrew added another to the many speeches he had delivered on this question, winding up, in accordance with notice given the previous year, with a resolution rescinding the resolution of the previous years, and repeating in brief form the declaration of the Assembly on the subject, and its determination not to tolerate any departure from the authorised form, and calling upon the Presbyteries to see that the prohibition should be enforced in any congregation using instruments. The Rev. Dr. G. W. Hamill, of Limavady (Limavady, like Glendermot, was strongly Purity), then moved an amendment, acknowledging the receipt of the memorials, but stating the inexpediency, of disturbing the decisions of 1883 and 1884, declining to take “such action as would involve the cutting off of congregations and the degradation of ministers and elders.” This was seconded by the Rev. Dr. Morrell, who, in the course of his brief speech, said the cry of the anti-instrumentalists was “give us discipline! give us discipline! or else we die.”
At the close of these speeches, Rev. Dr. Johnston, who had been all along a keen pacifist in this controversy, made an appeal to his friends, the Revs. Matthew Kerr, William Simpson, and Dr. Workman, to give up for the year the liberty of conscience for which they were fighting, and abandon the use of the instruments at least for the year. There was no response, however, and the Rev. Dr. Corkey, who with Dr. Petticrew sustained the “Christian Banner” and the Purity party for so many years, ascended the platform. But he was met with cries of “Vote,” “Vote," that so drowned his voice that it was impossible to hear what he said. The Moderator asked if the House wanted to hear Dr. Corkey, and there was a good deal of applause and a good deal of dissent. Dr. Petticrew tried to appeal, and the Rev. Mr. Simpson mounted the platform beside Dr. Corkey, so as to suggest that if anyone should be heard he would be heard. In the midst of the storm the Rev. J. D. Crawford suggested withdrawal, and the Rev. Mr. Robinson called on all who were in opposition to unauthorised ad unscriptural worship to withdraw from the House. The Revs. Dr. Petticrew, Crawford, Robinson, and others left the House. Meanwhile the Moderator said they were in a critical position, and he thought they should allow the discussion to continue a little longer. The Rev. Dr. N. M. Brown, who had not followed his friends, said he had as strong convictions as they, but did not like to do anything hastily, and he appealed to the Assembly to have them recalled and hear at least one speech on each side. The Rev. R. J. Lynd, who spoke with great feeling, appealed to the Assembly to let the discussion go on, adding that he would rather that every organ and harmonium should be swept out of the Church than that they should have a secession. Rev. T. Y. Killen suggested that the discussion should be resumed in the evening, and continued till a division; but Professor Rogers, D.D., thought there was enough inflammatory matter there now and there would be more in the evening, and suggesting a vote at once. The Rev. Dr. Wilson, Limerick, who said they had reached a solemn verge in the history of the Church, supported a suggestion of Rev. Dr. Wilson, of Cookstown, that the debate should be resumed in the evening, and closed at nine o’clock. Meantime the Rev. R. Jeffrey, of Portadown, entered the church and said the brethren who had left were holding a meeting in the schoolroom below, and he thought if a deputation of the Assembly went down it would be well. There were cries of “Hear, hear,” and “No, no,” at this. A very animated and exciting discussion followed, the details of which I cannot recall, but the general impression of it I can never forget, and in the end it was decided that the matter should be resumed in the evening.
From The Witness, 15th February 1918.