Historical Study Of Controversy Over Instrumental Music In Worship (2)

By Bob Tuten

The Dawning of Instruments In Worship

It appears from available evidence that the church in Midway, Kentucky was the first to use instrumental music in its worship.

The introduction of the instrument owed its inception to the deplorable singing the congregation did. This singing had degenerated into screeching and bawling that would, as Pinkerton said, “scare even the rats from worship.” At first it was suggested that a meeting be held on Saturday night to practice the songs. Shortly afterwards, someone brought in a melodeon to be used in getting the right pitch. Before long, one of the sisters was accompanying the singing with her playing on the melodeon. The group observed that the effect of the use of the melodeon was good on the singing, and so it was decided to try to use the instrument in the Lord’s Day worship. Thompson Parrish, son of James Ware Parrish, one of the founders of the Midway Female Orphan School, played the instrument at the worship.

The presence of the instrument caused considerable friction. The most effective opposition came from Adam Hibler, one of the elders. Late one night Hibler pushed one of his colored slaves by the name of Reuben through a window. Reuben passed the melodeon through, and Hibler took it home with him. But another instrument was afterwards brought in, and continued in use by the church.(1)

By 1860 then, instruments were being used by at least one, and perhaps more churches claiming to follow the N.T. pattern. The use of the instrument at Midway gained widespread attention when L.L. Pinkerton, then preaching at Midway, expressed his views which favored its use. Pinkerton spoke out in answer to Ben Franklin’s article listing permissible conditions of the use of instruments. Both articles appeared in the American Christian Review as follows. Franklin said there might be occasions where the instrument would be permissible such as:

1. Where a church never had or has lost the Spirit of Christ.

2. If a church has a preacher who never had, or has lost the Spirit of Christ, who has become a dry, prosing and lifeless speaker, so as to be entirely incapable of commanding and interesting an audience, it is thought that instrumental music would draw out and interest the people . . . .

3. If a church only intends being a fashionable society, a mere place of amusement and secular entertainment, and abandoning all idea of religion and worship, instrumental music would be a very pleasant and agreeable part of such entertainment.(2)

Pinkerton replied:

So far as known to me, or, I presume, to you, I am the only “preacher” in Kentucky of our brotherhood who has publicly advocated the propriety of employing instrumental music in some churches, and that the church of God in Midway is the only church that has yet made a decided effort to introduce it. The calls for your opinion, it is probable, came from these regions.(3)

Pinkerton, himself, did not suggest the use of the instrument at Midway, although the persons responsible undoubtedly knew his opinion and that he would not oppose its introduction even before it was brought in. Of the melodeon used at Midway, A.T. DeGroot said: “. . .The instrument in question has recently been found by Edgar C. Riley, Business Director of the Kentucky Female Orphan School, at Midway, where it is now preserved. A brief account of the discovery of the historic melodeon, given to this writer by Mr. Riley, is worthy of recording here.

Historic Melodeon Found

`In the home of the Nugent sisters at the Crossroads on Shadylane between Versailles and Midway, Kentucky, was found recently the first musical instrument used by the Christian church in the world . . . . Dr. L.L. Pinkerton, one of the founders of Kentucky Female Orphan School, was the pastor of the little church at Midway. He introduced a melodeon into the worship service. “(4)

The introduction of the instrument at Midway served to pave the way for many other churches throughout the nation who followed suit. During the disasterous War between the States (1861-1865) the controversy over the instrument diminished as the war demanded the attention of the brotherhood for consideration of more important matters. The musical instrument controversy was not destined to remain quiet for very long, however.

In the larger city congregations the introduction of the instrument generally was accompanied with considerable anxiety in the brotherhood. In 1867 the church in St. Louis purchased a new building from the Episcopalians. The building was located on the corner of Seventeenth and Olive Streets. In the deal was a three thousand dollar organ. The question of what to do with the organ immediately arose. A staunch group, led by Dr. Hiram Christopher, brother-in-law of J.W. McGarvey, opposed the instrument, and so, it was not immediately brought into the worship. For two years the agitation continued. At this time the church had one elder, A. Johnson, who favored the organ. A meeting was held the first of the year, 1869, to vote on.the matter. Seventy-eight voted for it, and ten voted against it, but the elder recommended putting off using it until after the spring semi-annual of the American Christian Missionary Society which was scheduled to be held in St. Louis in May, that year. A popular vote was later taken which showed that one hundred and four favored using the instrument and twenty-four opposed it. The opposition, although in the minority, was determined enough that for two years the instrument was rarely used. A gathering storm indicated division was on the way. Late in 1870, Robert Graham, Isaac Errett, Alexander Proctor, I.N. Rogers went to St. Louis to quiet the trouble. A compromise was reached whereby the instrument, for the sake of peace, was kept out. This lasted only a few years when the advocates of the organ took control, and those who opposed it were forced to leave and establish another congregation.(5)

About the same time a similar situation occured in Akron, Ohio, involving the well-known Ben Franklin. Franklin had been invited to hold a meeting for the congregation in Akron which had on occasions used the instrument but never”-in Franklin’s presence. On this occasion, however, the instrument was used to the surprise of Franklin. He was naturally faced with the problem of what to do, being opposed to it as he was. In the following quotation he tells of his thoughts during those few moments:

We have not been more tried in a long time. While this was going off, we reflected and turned the matter in every way possible. What was to be done? We never felt more unhappy. Are brethren determined, we involuntarily thought, to deteriorate the worship into music, and compel us to endorse it? If we refuse to preach, it may, we further thought create a lasting trouble, and some may blame us for it. We decided to preach, and did so, but with a heavy heart, in view of the worship having been thus degenerated before our face.(6)

He further said:

We have no prejudice against an organ, melodean, piano, violin, or Jews’ harp, but we do not intend to worship with any of these, or even tacitly to endorse the use of them, or any one of them in worship . . . . We intend no man shall quote us, while we are living nor when we are gone, as endorsing or in any way giving countenance to the evil complained of. If brethren will introduce the instrument into worship, they shall themselves be held responsible. We shall not be. We, therefore, desire brethren not to invite us to hold a meeting for them, if they intend to play on an instrument in their worship. We know positively that it is sale to keep it out.(7)

In January, 1869 a congregation moved into a new building at Chicago, Illinois and placed an organ in it over the protest of the minister, D.P. Henderson. In the summer of 1870 an instrument was placed in the church at Memphis, Tennessee. The Christian Chapel of Cincinnati underwent a change. Eight thousand dollars was spent for an organ. By this time it was evident that instrumental music was, to those who protested, the little leaven that leaveneth the whole lump. J.W. McGarvey, a leading scholar of his day, had this to say concerning its growing popularity:

This question of instrumental music is becoming a serious one. There are many who favor it, and who will listen to no argument against it. By the cry of progress and conformity, it is making its way over the heads and hearts of many of our best brethren and sisters.(8)

One year later (1869) McGarvey wrote an article in the Apostolic Times describing the growing situation.

We are moving; we are progressing; at least some among us are advancing. Whether you think the movement forward or backward depends very much upon the way you are going yourself. Once we had no men among us who were known to tolerate instrumental music in worship. After that there arose some who contended that whether we use it or not is a mere matter of expedience. More recently, a few churches have actually used it, and their preachers have approved, but have not often ventured publicly to defend it.(9)


1. West, op. cit., Vol. l., p. 312.

2. Ben Franklin, “Instrumental Music in Churches,” American Christian Review, Vol. III., No. 5 (January 31, 1860), p. 19.

3. L.L. Pinkerton, “Instrumental Music in Churches,” American Christian Review, Vol. III, No. 9 (February 28, 1860), p. 34.

4. A.T. DeGroot, The Grounds of Division Among the Disciples of Christ, pp. 117-118.

5. West, op. cit., Vol. II, p, 81.

6. Ben Franklin, “Notes by the Way,” American Christian Review, Vol. XI, No. 20 (May 19, 1868), p. 156.

7. Ibid.

8. J.W. McGarvey, “Bro. Hayden on Expediency and Progress,” Millennial Harbinger, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4 (April, 1868), p. 216.

9. J. W. McGarvey “A Little Farther Along,” Apostolic Times, Vol. L, No. 2 (April 22, 1869), p. 13.

Truth Magazine XXIII: 48, pp. 776-777
December 6, 1979