Historical Study Of Controversy Over Instrumental Music In Worship

By Bob Tuten

When God-fearing men of yesteryear embraced the ancient order of religious things, it would seem that nothing or no one could have hindered their purpose. One would assume only unity and peace could result from such desires among men. Yet a glance at the history of the restoration movement between 1827 and 1875 reveals that such was not the case. The bond of peace and unity of the spirit were disrupted almost before the movement was well under way. Many fine men and women who influenced thousands to forsake the sin of denominationalism for the truth of God’s Word, lived to witness a digression in another direction.

Prior to the year 1860, the innovation of the missionary society caused considerable dissension among disciples of Christ. But with the passing of time the use of instruments of music in worship took precedence over the societies and soon became the spearhead of division. And divide it did! “Division came not all at once, but gradually and surely. By 1875 the cleavage was a reality.”(1) The results of the innovation of instruments in worship stemmed from one thing: the abandonment of those attitudes toward the scriptures which motivated courage to reach out for the original pattern.

Instrumental music in Christian worship is a modern innovation, even in the Roman Catholic Church, which is the mother of all innovations. It was first introduced into that hot-bed of spiritual corruptions in the seventh century, under Pope Vitalian and it is today but a stolen idol from that sanctuary.

While the first instrument was introduced in the seventh century, there was no general adoption of it, even in corrupt Romanism, until late in the thirteenth century; which makes it a most modern innovation. Thus history pronounces: “The organ is said to have been first introduced into church music by Pope Vitalian I in 666. In 757, a great organ was sent as a present to Pepin by the Byzantine emperor, Constantine Copronymus, and placed in the church of St. Corneille at Compiegne.”(2)

Instruments were unheard of in this connection with the restoration until early in the Nineteenth Century. Reference was made to it as early as 1827 in the United States General Conference in which Barton W. Stone played a leading role. “In 1827 it passed resolutions condemning the use of the title `Reverend’ and the employment of instrumental music in public worship.”(3) There appears to have been some controversy over the question of its use as early as 1851 according to an article in the Ecclesiastical Reformer. Earl West refers to the incident by saying, “There was a brief flare-up of the issue in Kentucky as early as 1851. This affair, while it was brief, yet it was intense.”(4) Mr. West further stated that on February 22, 1851 a man who signed his name “W” wrote to J.B. Henshall, associate editor of the Ecclesiastical Reformer, the following letter: “Brother Henshall – What say you of instrumental music in our churches? Should not the Christian Church have organs or Bass Viols that the great object of Psalmody might be consummated? Would not such instruments add greatly to the solemnity of worship, and cause the hearts of the saints to be raised to a higher state of devotion while the deep toned organ would swell its notes of `awful sound’?” I think it is high time that we awaken to the importance of this church music. I hope, therefore, that you will give your views in extense, on this much neglected subject.”(5)

Through the columns of the Ecclesiastical Reformer of March 15, 1851, Henshall replied by saying:

In proportion as men become worldly minded, provided they have not entirely lost the fear of God, do they begin to require helps to their devotion. That they could require such helps under a dark dispensation where they were rather led into the use of symbolic rites, than inwardly illuminated by God’s word and spirit, is not at all astonishing; but to say that we need them who live in the full light of the gospel privileges, and enjoy God’s mercies and providence over us, is to say that we have no gratitude in our hearts, and that we are every way unworthy of these benefits.(6)

After having read two of the articles written by Mr. “W” favoring instruments, one John Rogers wrote Alexander Campbell requesting him to speak out against it. John Rogers was a convert of Barton W. Stone and devoted to restoring New Testament Christianity. His letter to Campbell was as follows: “But my brother, a popular preacher has come out in two numbers in the Ecclesiastical Reformer in favor of instrumental music in the church and social dancing in our families.”(7)

Mr. Campbell replied to the letter in the next issue of the paper, with the exception of the question on instrumental music; he made no allusion to it. Later that year (October), however, he replied to an article signed “G” in which he expressed himself fully and clearly on the subject; his language being characteristic of the vigorous manner of his writings.(8)

Campbell’s reply appeared in the October 1851 issue of the Millennial Harbinger as follows:

The argument drawn from the Psalms in favor of instrumental music, is exceedingly apposite to the Roman Catholic, English Protestant, and Scotch Presbyterian churches, and even to the Methodist communities. Their church having all the world in them – that is, all the fleshly progeny of all the communicants, and being founded on the Jewish pattern of things – baptism being given to all born into the world of these politico-ecclesiastic communities – I wonder not, then, that an organ, a fiddle, or a Jews-harp, should be requisite to stir up their carnal hearts, and work into ecstasy their animal souls, else “hosannas languish or their tongues and their devotions die” and that all persons who have no spiritual discernment, taste or relish for their spiritual meditations, consolations and sympathies of renewed hearts, should call for such aid, is but natural. Pure water from the flintly rock has no attractions for the mere toper or wine-bibber. A little alcohol, or genuine Cognac brandy, or good old Madeira, is essential to the beverage to make it truly refreshing. So to those who have no real devotion or spirituality in them, and whose animal nature flags under the oppression of church service, I think with Mr. G., that instrumental music would be not only a desideratum, but an essential prerequisite to fire up their souls, to even animal devotion. But I presume, to all spiritually-minded Christians such aids would be as a cow bell in a concert.(9)


1. Homer Hailey, Attitudes and Consequences (Old Paths Book Club: Rosemead, California, 1952), p. 197.

2. E.C. Fuqua, “Instrumental Music in Worship is Sinful” (Fort Worth, Texas), p. 1.

3. W.E. Garrison, Religion Follows the Frontier, p. 236.

4. Earl West, The Search for the Ancient Order (Gospel Advocate Company: Nashville, Tennessee, 1949), Vol. 1, p. 309.

5. J.B. Henshall, “Instrumental Music,” Ecclesiastical Reformer, Vol. IV, No. 6 (March 15, 1851), p. 171.

6. J.B. Henshall, “Instrumental Music,” Ecclesiastical Reformer, Vol. IV, No. 6 (March 15, 1851), p. 171.

7. John Rogers, “Dancing”, Millennial Harbinger, Fourth Series, Vol. I, No. 8 (August 1851), p. 467.

8. Hailey, op. sit., p. 202

9. Alexander Campbell, “Instrumental Music,” Millennial Harbinger, Fourth Series, Vol. I., No. 10 (October, 1851), pp. 581, 582.

Truth Magazine XXIII: 47, pp. 761-762
November 29, 1979