The year 1885 was a memorable year not only in the history of the country, but in the history of the Church so far as the instrumental music question is concerned. Mr. Gladstone, by his surrender to the Nationalists and the introduction of his Home Rule Bill, had sowed the seeds of a movement for the disintegration of this country as well as of the United Kingdom, whose bitter harvest we are still reaping after forty years. The country and the Church were perturbed as they had not been for generations. A new element of division and cleavage, of which we had enough in the country, was introduced, and the great issue involved swallowed up all other issues save those affecting the spiritual life, of the Church, which was maintained in the old form, and spirit. The very night on which the Assembly met in 1886 was the night on which the division on the second reading of the first Home Rule Bill was taken, and while the Assembly was holding its opening session the Parliament was holding its closing Home Rule session. I hope many in the Assembly who, like myself, were, I fear, thinking more of the State than the Church during the meeting, have already been forgiven. At any rate, for myself as I waited for the fateful result of the division, I am afraid my thoughts wandered from the Church, and when the news came that the first Home Rule Bill had been defeated by thirty votes I am afraid that even the instrumental music controversy fell into a subordinate place.
But not only was the general aspect of this question both in the Church and country great, but locally its effect was felt. On the eve of the meeting of the Assembly riots broke out in Belfast, and did not conclude for some months, leaving behind them memories of sacrifice of order and life and character, which were not soon forgotten. It will be obvious that the Assembly meeting at such a time was impressed with the momentous gravity of the stale of the country, and with a desire for avoiding, as far as possible, any controversy in the Church. And one happy incident prepared the members hopefully in this direction. “The Witness” of Tuesday morning, the special issue on the morrow of the opening meeting, contained a telegram from Cork announcing that the congregation of Queen Street, Cork, at the earnest solicitation of their pastor, the Rev. Matthew Kerr, one of the most interesting and earnest ministers of the Church, had unanimously consented to discontinue the use of instrumental music an public worship. “The members for the most part” — the telegram added — “felt strongly that in doing this they were making a great sacrifice, which may seriously interfere with the interests of the congregation; but in view of the interests of the Church at large they were willing to sacrifice their own interests, holding, however, that whilst doing so, they had an undoubted Scriptural right to use instrumental music in public worship.” The outgoing Moderator that year was the Rev. J. W, Whigham (afterwards D.D.), of Ballinasloe, one of the ablest and staunchest of the upholders of the standard of the Church in the West, a man who was beloved and honoured in his own part of the country as over the whole Church. The new Moderator was the Rev. Dr. Robert Ross, of Derry, a minister of the highest culture and character, at once eloquent and earnest, and who, while a staunch and consistent supporter of instrumental music by voice and pen, was a man of the gentlest disposition and of the kindliest Christian spirit.
It was with no surprise that while the order of business, with its provision for the consideration of the burning question for Friday, the Rev. Dr. C. L. Morrell got up, and in his suave and happy way suggested that with the necessity of unity so clamantly demanded in the interests of the country, there should be even no appearance of division in the Church; and with that view he suggested the postponement of the entire subject, to which the Rev. Dr. Petticrew said he would consent if Dr. Morrell’s friends would agree to abandon the use of instruments in the meantime. Dr. Morrell did not think that would be fair, whereupon the Rev. Dr. T. Y. Killen moved the appointment of a committee representing both sides to see if an amicable conclusion could be arrived at. This proposal was ultimately agreed to, and such was the spirit of the time that on the evening of Thursday, the day before that fixed for receiving the report, the Moderator was able to make the gratifying announcement that a unanimous finding had been arrived at. So that we had the assurance in advance that, for the first time for years, there would be no “fighting Friday," but a pacific Friday in the Assembly.
On the Friday Dr. Killen brought forward the unanimous decision of the committee, which, in substance, was that for five years the instrumental music question should not be reopened; that a committee (composed of leading instrumentalists) should be appointed to use their utmost endeavour to induce ministers and congregations using instruments to discontinue their use; that in the event of failure those opposed to the use of instruments would not reopen the question for at least three years, the resolution of inaction for five years would cease to be binding, they in the meantime using their efforts to dissolve associations against instrumental music; and expressing satisfaction with those ministers and congregations that had given up the instruments, and hoping that other brethren would follow their example.
The Rev. Dr. Morrell moved the adoption ot these resolutions, and congratulated the Assembly on their unanimous acceptance by the committee. He hoped he was bidding farewell, and farewell for ever, to an “old friend of seventeen years’ standing.” Referring to the pledge of the Purity party about using their best exertions to bring about the dissolution of their association, he said “the best endeavours of Dr. Petticrew, Mr. Robinson, and Dr. Corkey meant that they would accomplish their object. They were really omnipotent. ‘When the great Ajax lifts his spear the trembling hosts obey.’” This good-humoured sally, which was in harmony with the feeling and spirit of the leaders on both sides was only a pleasant retort to the statement of Rev. Archibald Robinson in the earlier part of the discussion, that “if Dr. Wilson, Dr. Killen, and Dr. Morrell would only bring to bear that electricity of theirs on the minds and consciences of the brethren using instruments they might have the whole matter disposed of in a year or so.”
Mr. Robinson seconded the resolution, remarking inter alia that he was sick, sore, and tired of the whole controversy, and that if it had been a friend to Dr. Morrell for seventeen years it had been, no friend to him. The Rev. Wm. Simpson and the Rev. R. Workman asked leave to dissent. Mr. Workman said he could not conscientiously be a party to the carrying of the report unanimously, and he hoped it would be understood that it would only be moral influence that would be brought to bear. Rev. A. Robinson said that from what he knew of the moral character of the committee he was sure they would not do anything immoral. Still good humour and native humour as well, as the reader will see.
The resolutions were carried with three dissentients. — Revs. Messrs. Workman, Simpson, and J. G. Kirkpatrick (Dunluce). In declaring the resolutions passed, the Moderator said he did So with a feeling of heartfelt gratitude such as never existed in his heart before. At the request of the Moderator, the Rev. Dr. Wilson, Limerick, led the Assembly in prayer. There were a large number of memorials on the subject; but they were all held in retentis. Thus happily and hopefully the Assembly passed from the instrumental music question in 1866.
From The Witness, 8th March 1918.