Wednesday, 24 January 2018

The Presbyterian Church Instrumental Music Controversy pt 10


It was with a pleased surprise, when introduced last week quite casually to a gentleman in Dublin, whom I had never met before and who had never met me, the first question he asked was had I stopped my reminiscences of the instrumental music question, as there were none in the previous week’s “Witness.” It was gratifying to me to find in this way not only evidence of “The Witness” circulation in the capital, but of interest in my recollections therein. I assured my new and appreciative friend that the threads were only temporarily broken, and would be put together again soon. And I now fulfil my part of the promise. I may here state also that scarcely a week passes without receiving, as we do at the end of the year, the subscriptions from new readers in the United States and Canada and the other Colonies; and I am proud to say we have in all congratulatory references to “The Witness,” and not least to these reminiscences. As I had got into my mind the fear that these were becoming wearisome, I now take up the broken threads with greater satisfaction and pleasure.

In my references to the decision of the Assembly in 1881 sustaining the appeal against the decision of the Synod in having refused to entertain the protests and appeal of certain members of the Newtonbreda Church and the Presbytery against the action of the Presbytery, and referring the matter simpliciter to the Assembly, and again prohibiting the use of the organ, I omitted to state that about eighty ministers and elders signed a protest for themselves and as many as would join with them against the decision. In 1882 the Assembly met in May Street, when the Rev. T. Y. Killen (afterwards D.D.), Duncairn, was elected Moderator. It was reported to the Assembly that no progress in the direction of the cessation of instruments had been made in the congregations of Enniskillen or Queenstown, but that the instruments had been discontinued in Carlow and Bray. At the previous meeting two overtures had been put on the books, one asking that the Assembly should sanction instrumental music, and the other that it should come to a definite decision as to whether instrumental music is sanctioned or prohibited by the Word of God. In connection with these overtures, the reports of the judgment of three Presbyteries were read, two of which, Cork and Dublin, were in favour of an affirmative or sanctioning decision, and the third, that of Glendermott, in favour of a prohibitive or prohibitory decision. A motion was made in the Assembly that the first overture, which gave several reasons in favour of the use of the instruments, should be adopted, and the Assembly declare the use of instrumental accompaniment in praise is in harmony with the teaching of Scripture, and that it was expedient to give permission to use the instruments subject to such regulation end restriction as the Assembly might in its wisdom prescribe. To this an amendment was proposed stating that, as the mode of worship hitherto sanctioned was the mode adopted in the Christian Church when under the guidance of the inspired apostles; and as those in favour of the use of instruments professed to believe, it was not obligatory, but optional — a thing indifferent — and as those who opposed it believed it an authorised addition to worship, permission for which would grieve the consciences of many ministers, elders, and members of the Church, and prolong and embitter the existing controversies, the Assembly should direct Presbyteries to give special attention to this matter, recall the decision, of the Assembly on the subject, and take steps to have the resolution carried into effect. After a debate which extended over two sederunts, a vote was taken, with the result that 360 voted for the amendment, and 345 against, giving a majority of fifteen in favour of the anti-instrumental party. Rev. Dr. H. W. Williamson and others protested against this decision.

At the opening of the Assembly the Moderator made a suggestion with diffidence, and to chosen from both parties should meet before Friday, and see if they could come to some arrangement that would meet the unanimous approval of the Assembly. Dr. Petticrew, however, with all respect to the Chair, declined to accept it, as he said they had too many attempts, futile and vain, to settle the question; and the Rev. Dr. G. L. Morrell feared there would be such a divergence of opinion that there could be no unanimous recommendation; and the Moderator replied that it would be better to let the matter drop. And so fighting Friday came, and with it its fight. Rev. Dr. H. B. Wilson, Cookstown, moved the adoption of the “Liberty” resolution as above in a speech which occupied nearly seven columns of “The Witness.” Rev. Dr. Petticrew’s speech in support of the amendment occupied nearly five columns. These speeches practically occupied the morning sederunt. In the evening Rev. J. Maxwell Rogers, Derry, seconded Dr. Petticrew’s amendment, after which the Rev. Mr. Simpson, Queenstown, delivered one of his speeches with characteristic flashes of humour and slashes of criticism. It was on this occasion that he uttered the following personal comment, which created considerable amusement at the time — “The Rev. N. M. Brown was unrivalled for audibility — (laughter) — Rev. Mr. Crawford for strong statement — (renewed laughter) — Rev. Dr. Petticrew unrivalled for repetition, for continued dropping would wear away stones — (laughter) — and Rev. Geo. Magill entertained the House with spontaneous indignation — (loud laughter) — which is a powerful element in oratory.” This ended the question in the Assembly of ’82.

Difficulties and complications seemed to increase, as disclosed by the Minutes and proceedings of 1883. While the Dublin Presbytery had nothing new to report, the Clogher Presbytery reported that the worship in Enniskillen had been conducted without the harmonium; the Cork Presbytery reported that in Queenstown its use was continued; the Belfast Presbytery reported that it had been reported to it that instrumental music had been used in the public worship in the congregations of Elmwood, Fitzroy Avenue, Fisherwick Place, Rosemary Street, St. Enoch’s, Dundela, Newtonbreda, Newington, and other congregations in the Presbytery, and transmitted the fact, confirmed by several of the ministers, to the Assembly. Before the debate opened facilities were offered to the brethren specified to explain their action if disposed; but no brother availed himself of the opportunity. Mention was made that the attention of the Assembly having been called to the deliberate disregard of the Assembly’s prohibition, the Assembly declaring the conduct of these ministers as utterly un-Presbyterian and deliberately subversive of order and government, enjoining ministers where instruments are used to give them up forthwith, and appointing a committee with Assembly powers with instructions to take charge of this whole matter, to correspond with these ministers, and in the event of their continued disobedience to deal with them in accordance with the laws of the Church made and provided in case of obstinacy. To this an amendment was moved that, in view of all the circumstances of the case, and of the gravity of the issues involved, the Assembly decline to appoint the committee proposed in the motion or take any steps which will involve discipline. The debate was continued during the evening sederunt, and towards midnight the vote was taken, with the result that 320 verted for the amendment, and 309 against. This was a turn of the tide with a vengeance. This was the first occasion on which Dr. Petticrew and his party met with defeat. The majority of fifteen in their favour of the previous year was turned into a majority of eleven against them. Dr. Petticrew and his friends appealed against the decision, and entered reasons of dissent.

In some respects this was the most intense debate of the Assembly up to that time, though not as protracted as some of the others. There was greater uncertainty as to the division than on other occasions. Though as far as I can remember, the “Liberty” party did not expect a victory, there was a feeling that with the declining majorities in favour of Dr. Petticrew the voting might be close. The jubilation among the Instrumentalists, who, no doubt, formed a large part of the galleries, when the result of the vote was announced, was loud and enthusiastic. There were those among the majority, however, whose feelings of jubilation were modified by feelings of sympathy for Dr. Petticrew, who had been the head and front of the “Purity ” party and movement, and whose conscientious feelings and convictions were respected by all his opponents. As one who might have been described as a neutral sympathiser with the instrumentalists – music in church and out of it being one of my many weak points — I remember turning my eyes towards him as the vote was announced, and I could say with much greater sincerity than the Kaiser said later about Louvain, that my heart bled for him. Personally and ecclesiastically, he represented a stately column, and it was now shaken for the first time in the controversy. What might be said to have been his great life work had ended in defeat. But there was real nobility about him, and if he felt his defeat as an ecclesiastic, he bore it as a man and as a gentleman. His chief lieutenant, the Rev. A. Robinson, then of Broughshane — his D.D. and professorship came afterwards — was no less dispirited personally, though joining in the regret that the Church had departed from what he regarded as its true lines. I had a long and confidential conversation with him the following morning over the whole question. And this I will say for him. He showed no bitter feeling. He was disappointed, of course, but he was a Presbyterian to the core, and such he remained to the last day of his life. I may just add here that while the jubilations were being indulged in the Moderator expressed the hope that the question was now buried, and would have no resurrection; and Mr. Robinson said he had no objection to the triumph of his friends — they had won one victory in fifteen years, and why should they not rejoice? The Rev. Dr. Geo. Magill is the only hero of that fight now alive, and I can say this of him, that no man was more earnest or more able in his advocacy of the cause, which was near and dear to his heart. I do not think I am misrepresenting him in saying that he would have wished for another ending of the controversy, and that he still holds firm to his historic views on the question. But he can look back to the past with the sincere conviction that he did his duty and played his part in it ably and well, and that as a great hearted thorough Presbyterian he retains the respect of all who know him, and we all rejoice that his exemplary life has been prolonged into a period when the old controversies have ceased to be. Personally I regret that age prevents him taking the part in the new that I am sure his convictions and his feelings would lead him. And let me add also among the older generation of the band of stalwarts now surviving the name of my friend, Mr. J. D. Boyd, of Limavady, who was a keen and enthusiastic supporter of the cause both on the platform and in other ways. He has established his existence and his consistency of opinion in the letter that appeared in our columns a couple of weeks ago. At the moment I cannot recall any others surviving who took an important part in the controversy.

From The Witness, 25th January 1918.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Angels’ Song

Over a world of sorrow
Are angels bending low,
Stooping to soothe and comfort
Hearts that are filled with woe.

Piercing the war cloud’s thunder,
They come from the realms of light;
They have heard the sighs and groanings
In the gloom of sorrow’s night.

Over the din of battle.
With its cries of grief and pain,
The angels of peace are singing
That wonderful refrain.

They sing of the Prince of Glory
Who came as a little child;
They tell once again the story
Of Christ the undefiled.

And many a weary warrior
Pauses to think and pray;
Rememb’ring loved ones waiting
In homes so far away.

And far from the scenes of battle.
In fancy oft they roam,
Seeing their dear ones spending
Christinas in home, sweet home.

While mothers cease their weeping
To hear the angels’ song,
And hearts oppressed by sorrow,
Echo the cry, “how long!”

How long, O Lord, till strivings
And wars for ever cease?
How long till the war-clouds scatter
Before the star of peace?


Poem: The Witness, 28th December 1917.
Image: Postcard image found at

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Presbyterian Church Instrumental Music Controversy pt 9


Sir, — A recent article in “The Witness” on the instrumental music controversy of some forty years ago prompts me to request from you space for a brief reference to the same and kindred innovations of that period. The tone of the article indicates that the writer attaches no more importance to the controversies than that they furnished matter for exciting debates; but as one of the very few who took part in the opposition to the innovations then being surreptitiously introduced, and who (unlike the great majority of my colleagues) has been spared to note the march of events consequent on the struggle to be freed from irksome restrictions, I would like space to point out to the new generation of Irish Presbyterians (now habituated to the teaching of the apostles of so-called liberty) that, even admitting there is no inherent evil in the use of instruments in public praise service, and that their use might be justified, could the plea be sustained that their use would make more general the vocal expression of praise in the congregations — which assumption has certainly not been verified, and that as regards hymns, were they Scriptural — which many of them are not, and only a very few in keeping with what the more majestic public worship of this great Creator demands; nor could serious objection be taken to the wearing of the Geneva gown in the pulpit, if it added to the efficacy of the Divine message; but the objection to all these, which, in my rough way, I expressed in the Assembly debates, lies in the fact that one and all of them were so many indications of ecclesiastical, spiritual, and worldly pride, and a craven and unworthy desire to ape the practices of the semi-deformed and more aristocratic Prelatic Church, and by their adoption made it easy to slide into conformity to the false doctrines of the latter. By the adoption as a Church of these forms and practices in our public worship we have incurred the humiliating pity of those we are bent on imitating, and they are justified in saying — as they do — “You ill-instructed and plebeian Christians are, at long-last, recognising that, in your ignorance, you have, throughout all your Church history, rejected so much that is true and beautiful in worship, and are now, in your cheap, tawdry way, trying to imitate us. To my mind and that of many — even of, the Conformist Presbyterians of the present day — the latest aping of the Prelatic Churches in dubbing the Moderator of Assembly “Right reverend” marks another and, so far, the most contemptible sign of declension from the old Christian manliness of the Irish Presbyterian Church, What next? — I am, &c.,

Barley Park, Limavady, January 8, 1918.

[We insert this letter out of respect to Mr. Boyd, whom we remember as one of the most prominent opponents of instruments during the controversy, but it will be understood that in the historical retrospect of the discussion in the Assembly we had no intention or wish to revive the subject, and we cannot publish any other letter that might have that effect – Ed. “W.”]

From The Witness, 11th January 1918.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Presbyterian Church Instrumental Music Controversy pt 8


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.