By “THE MAN IN THE STREET.”
The Assembly of 1875 was held in Derry, the Rev. Professor J. L. Porter, LL.D., D.D., being Moderator in every sense of the word, being dignified both in person and in office. The instrumental music question, of course, came up, but it was not the real exciting question of the Assembly. What was then called the Bible wine controversy was at its height, and the debate on the subject taking the form of the question whether the wine used at Communion should be fermented or unfermented, lasted until two o'clock in the morning. The Rev. Wm. Johnston’s report of the work of the committee for the year did not suggest that much progress had been made by the committee in getting the instruments taken out. In fact, he admitted that the committee had failed, and proposed a renewal of the resolution of last Assembly, with an earnest appeal to have the compact carried out fairly and honourably. Rev. Dr. Watts seconded that resolution, which was warmly supported by Mr. Thomas Sinclair, Rev. F. Petticrew, and Rev. A. Robinson. The general feeling of the Assembly seemed to be that the Presbyteries should get another try. And they got it.
They seemed to have been more successful the next year, 1876. In all cases, except Enniskillen and Queenstown, the Presbyteries had succeeded in securing, under promise of assistance in precentorship or otherwise, compliance with the finding of 1875. There was some discussion and separate division in regard to the action of the Presbyteries and the congregations in some of the cases, the principal of which related to the action of the Presbytery of Cork in not insisting upon holding a visitation in Clonmel, the congregation having written that they would close the harmonium when the Assembly obtained and paid a precentor. Rev. J. M. Rogers, Derry, moved, and the Rev. J. Macnaughtan seconded, a resolution that the Presbytery had discharged its duty faithfully; but the Rev. F. Petticrew did not think so, and moved an amendment declaring that the Assembly do not approve. On a show of hands the amendment was lost, 202 voting in favour of it and 240 against it. After the Assembly had disposed of the action of the Presbyteries, finding that they had faithfully discharged their duty, the Rev. Mr. Johnston, after the Rev. Dr. Kirkpatrick had engaged in prayer at the request of the Moderator, opened up the discussion on the main question by some severe strictures on the recalcitrant congregations, and moving a series of resolutions reiterating the finding of 1873, and expressing disapproval of the action of the ministers and congregations of Enniskillen and Queenstown, and leaving to the Presbyteries to look after the subject and the congregations during the year. He expressed the hope that these two congregations would not continue to place themselves in conflict with the Church. The Rev. W. Fleming Stevenson seconded this resolution, appealing on the one hand for forbearance; but, at the same time, insisting that the authority of the Church should be maintained.
The Rev. Mr. Simpson, of Queenstown, resented the resolution and the attack. He was a man of strong individuality and gifted with a great sense of humour, and his speeches on this and other occasions, however much in their spirit they may have been defiant, were so brimful of humour that they gave a delightful variety to the debates. He declared there was no law forbidding him from doing what he did. There was only a deliverance, and he did not see why he should be badgered. He was met with cries of “Order,” and he said, “We’re punished or threatened with punishment.” The Assembly, he said, could not make a law. Rev. A. Robinson here cried “Order,” and Mr. Simpson said if they did not hear him he would go out of the Assembly and disobey it. (“Oh.”) Rev. Mr. Robinson demanded that the Clerk should take down that threat of disobedience. The Moderator asked Mr. Simpson — “Did you not at your ordination agree to obey the Church?” Mr. Simpson — “I did; but not out of the Lord. Another reason against the resolution is that I have your own authority for using the instruments. (“Oh, oh,” and laughter.) You have authorised the metrical version of the Psalms, and the Psalms authorise the instruments. (Laughter.) If I thought there was no Scriptural authority for the instrument, I would kick it out. (Laughter.) I will now define my Scriptural position.” The Moderator, who was this year the Rev. John Meneely, ruled this put of order, and Mr. Simpson retired. The Rev. John Macnaughtan suggested that one of the resolutions, which seemed to hold out a threat to the two congregations, should be modified, but Mr. Robinson protested, and claimed that they were entitled to take up the full position of the previous year. He said that Mr. Macnaughtan had described a suggestion of Mr. A. C. Murphy as milk-and-water; but his own were precisely similar, and it would be a long time before a person of any degree of healthy constitution would be benefited by Mr. Macnaughtan’s milk. Ultimately the resolutions as proposed, with a modification on the lines suggested by Mr. Macnaughtan, were adopted. So one sederunt disposed of the question this year — 1876 — in the Assembly.
That the question had been stirring certain sections of the Church during the year was proved at the Assembly of 1877, with eight memorials chiefly directed against the use of instruments (and some including uninspired hymns). It seemed that while the use of the harmonium had been discontinued in Ennis, and that in Tullamore the minister had stated that they would give up the harmonium if the Assembly would pay £30 a year for a precentor, the congregations of Enniskillen, Queenstown, Clonmel, Carlow, and Mountmellick continued to use it. Rev. Wm. Johnston moved a resolution expressing satisfaction with the congregation of Ennis, regretting that, notwithstanding their professed willingness, the congregations of Tullamore, Mountmellick, Carlow, and Clonmel were yet in a position of at least apparent opposition to the Assembly; expressing strong condemnation of the minister and congregations of Enniskillen and Queenstown in still resisting the Assembly, renewing their offer of aid, and renewing also the append to congregations to comply with the law. Rev. John Meneely seconded the resolution and Rev. John Macnaughtan said before he would move an amendment he would like to hear Mr. Maclatchy (Enniskillen), who set out by describing the resolution as the resolution of Mr. Johnston and not of the Assembly, which statement was protested against; but Mr. Maclatchy said he would not have been there if he did not believe it. He subsequently withdrew the statement, and concluded a speech, which met with much interruption by asking them to pass a law against the organ, and not endeavour to get rid of it by a side wind. Rev. Mr. Macnaughtan followed with an amendment, which modified the expression of “strong condemnation” to one of disappointment, and asking the Presbyteries to continue to deal with these congregations, and to try to get them to comply with the law. Rev. Mr. Robinson thought Mr. Johnston's resolutions were as moderate as the circumstance demanded, and said there seemed to be on one side of the House a disposition to connive at the obstinacy and contumacy of certain congregations. The debate was adjourned to the evening sederunt — as usual, it took place on a Friday — in order that the deputation of the Free Church of Scotland might be heard. Mr. Wm. Shaw (elder), in the evening, said he did not see what good Mr. Johnston’s resolution would do unless they were prepared to say next year that they would discipline the congregation that refused to comply with the order. Mr. N. M. Brown (Limavady) would let the matter remain for another year, and exhaust forbearance, keeping in remembrance that thorough conformity and obedience should be insisted on. Mr. Johnston said he would propose a last trial of the principle of love, and, therefore he would withdraw his resolution in favour of Mr. Macnaughtan’s amendment. Mr. Macnaughtan said he had all along been indisposed to resort to the force of law, and if the House would permit he would undertake the duty of making the law of love to operate. Both Professor Rogers and Mr. Robinson attempted to address the House; but it seemed determined to have the matter ended there and then, and so they had to desist, and Mr. Macnaughtan’s resolution was declared carried by an overwhelming majority. Revs. L. E. Berkeley, W. C. M‘Cullough, C. L. Morrell, and Dr. Watts, all strong advocates of “liberty,” were appointed as a committee to carry out the resolution.
It was at this Assembly that the question of discipline, or possible discipline, of recalcitrant congregations appeared prominently on the horizon. It seemed as if the leading spirits of the “Purity” party were contemplating discipline as a painful, but inevitable development; but that did not become a direct issue for a year or two afterwards. Neither party regarded the exercise of discipline with favour; but it was becoming evident that the anti-instrumentalists were reaching a stage at which it would become necessary if the authority of the Assembly and the principles were to be maintained. On the other hand, the leaders of the Instrumentalists were earnestly working to get the order of the Assembly carried out so as to “relieve them from the difficulty of discipline and the danger of a definite decision against instruments, which looked not improbable, with the feeling and constitution of the Assembly at the time.
From The Witness, 23rd November 1917.