Wednesday 4 April 2018

The Presbyterian Church Instrumental Music Controversy pt15


We interrupted our narrative of the movement towards peace and unity on the instrumental music question for the purpose of recalling the great event of the jubilee of the march towards unity in the Irish Presbyterian Church. As the union of the Synod of Ulster and the Secession Synod constituting the General Assembly was a red letter day in the history of the church in the first half of the last century, the jubilee was a red letter day in the second half. As the outcome of the movement towards union was the occasion of conflict and prayer ending in harmony, so was the movement toward peace and unity on the instrumental music question. And in one case as in the other, the result made for peace and well-being of the Church and the success of its great work of harmony, peace, and progress.

As the truce on the question that had lasted for three years came to an end in 1891, the question came up for reconsideration. The committee, of which the Rev. Dr. Heron was convener, brought up a report of their final effort to effect the object of their appointment. Dr. H. B. Wilson and Dr. D. A. Taylor, who had visited several of the Southern congregations, reported that in Clonmel, Waterford, Parsonstown, and Carlow the ministers and congregations regarded the instrument as a necessity, and could not give it up; Wexford would give up the instrument if all other congregations did the same; Mountmellick had tried to do with a precentor, and had failed; but if the Assembly would get them a precenter they would consider the question of trying it again. The two deputies added this sentence to their report — “It is due to the ministers and congregations referred to in this report to acknowledge that while in every case we failed to obtain an absolute promise that the harmonium would be discontinued, we became assured that the action of the congregations we visited resulted from their deep conviction that to give up the use of their musical instrument would be practically to silence the voice of the congregational praise in them and to peril their existence.” No deputation was sent to Queenstown, as Mr. Simpson “would not co-operate.” The session and committee of Newtonbreda submitted to the Assembly’s committee “that with their convictions and experience, it would be inexpedient to disturb existing arrangements in regard to the praise service at a time when they are engaged in the serious work of building the church.” A decision similar in substance was come to by the congregations of Enniskillen and Longford. Since the appointment of the committee it was stated that instrumental aid had been dispensed with in Magheramorne, Kilkenny, and Tullamore.

In 1891 the Rev. Wm. Park was succeeded in the chair by the Rev. Dr. N. M.. Brown, Limavady, who was one of the leading supporters of the anti-instrumental party, and one who as minister and citizen had taken a great part in the political life of the province, especially in connection with the land question and the Home Rule question. On the latter, it may not be without interest to quote one or two sentences from his opening address as indicative of the feeling and the interest on it. “Our Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen are a genial, generous, and warm-hearted race, whose battles we have fought along with our own, and whose burdens and disabilities we helped to remove that we might have justice, equality, and fair play all round. But we have not the slightest notion of following the political vagaries of reckless, selfish, and designing men who have duped too many of the credulous and unwary by such cries as ‘Ireland for the Irish,’ ‘Ireland a Nation,’ and ‘Home Rule,’ all of which, translated into simple English, undoubtedly means a new tyranny in Ireland and the dismemberment of the British Empire. We are privileged and honoured citizens at present of an Empire on which the sun never sets; and we are not going to barter away such a birthright for a mess of pottage however cunningly cooked or deftly served.

The Rev. Dr. Johnston, who had been a great worker for harmony in the whole movement, brought up the report, and tabled the resolutions of the committee. These recorded thankfulness to God for the peace arrived at by the arrangement of ’86, expressed satisfaction that each party to the truce had kept faith, and no new instruments had been introduced; and having regard to the happy, arrangements, resolved to continue the arrangement for another five year, “in the hope that by the end of that time a way may be found out of the difficulty without injury to the peace or welfare of the Church;” meantime urging the brethren to consider the circumstances of the Church and the country, to avoid divisive courses, and to cultivate a spirit of mutual forbearance. Of the committee appointed to watch over the matter, only the following are alive — Dr. Heron, Dr. Wylie, Dr. D. A. Taylor, Dr. John MacDermott, Dr. Wm. Park, Dr. Samuel Prenter, and Professor Dr. Hamill.

Dr. Johnston, in his brief conciliatory speech, made reference to the thundercloud represented by Dr. Petticrew’s notice of motion to rescind the resolutions of ’83 and ’84. Rev. Archibald Robinson, who at this time had become professor of the Assembly’s College and D.D., took, exception to the tone of some of Dr. Wilson’s remarks; but, taking tip the parable of the thunderbolt, be said — “There was now no thundercloud at all. He did not like a thundercloud. He was afraid when any great man or small told him that he had plucked the bolt out of it. He would rather that person stood under it than he (the speaker). He wanted no thundercloud, without bolt or with one. He wanted a sunny firmament such as they had had during the last five years. During these five years they had enjoyed a prosperity which had not been known for a generation. He wanted five years more at anyrate in which the Church would be able to put forth all her energies to the great work of the Lord instead of fighting with one another in that Assembly on a question which should never have been in it.”

At the close of Professor Robinson’s speech, the Moderator was about to put the resolution, when the Rev. Dr. A. C. Murphy ascended the platform amid cries of “Pass, pass,” and, taking off his coat, seemed resolved to be heard and to move an amendment. Professor Robinson thought Dr. Murphy should be heard; but the Rev. Wm. Simpson, Queenstown, who said that he was called a firebrand and a stormy petrel, to content himself, as he would by entering his dissent. Ultimately Dr. Murphy delivered a speech, in which he said he could not agree to the resolution, as he believed the Assembly should give the congregations liberty, and he tabled his dissent. Ultimately, the closure was carried unanimously, the Moderator put the motion, and only about a dozen hands were held up against it. The Moderator, in declaring the resolution carried, said nothing in the Assembly had cheered his heart more than that finding. He congratulated the Assembly and the entire Church upon the pacific finding they had arrived at — a resolution that would go forth as a note of rejoicing over the length and breadth of the Church. A couple of verses of the 91st Psalm were then sung, and the Rev. Dr. Johnston led in prayer, and the old committee on instrumental music was discharged.

From The Witness, 5th April 1918.

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