The Instrumental Music Controversy in the Restoration Movement

By Daniel Petty

One of the greatest battles ever fought during the Restoration Movement of the nineteenth century was the controversy over the introduction of instrumental music in the worship of the church. It is the purpose of this paper to 1)resent the controversy as it first began, to notice the arguments concerning the silence of the scriptures and the question of expediency, and to show how it finally became with many a test of fellowship, which ultimately led to division within the Movement.

An Innovation

The origin of the controversy goes back as early as 1851, when there was a brief flare-up of the issue in Kentucky. On February 22 of that year, a man who signed his name “W” wrote a letter to J. B. Henshall, associate editor of the Ecclesiastical Reformer. In that letter, Henshall was asked to state his views on the subject of instrumental music, in view of the fact that all of the denominations were using them. Henshall replied by saying that when people begin to desire such “helps” in their devotion to God, then this is a sign of worldly mindedness and a lack of real spirituality on the part of such people. This particular article is indicative of others to appear in the Ecclesiastical Reformer during these early years. All of these articles show a trend that was beginning to exist. On the one hand, there were some who felt that the denominations were using instruments, and the brethren were falling behind in the “progress” of the day. Others felt that instruments belonged to those lacking real spirituality.

John Rogers, an old preacher from Kentucky, became greatly concerned over these articles, and in August of 1851, wrote to Alexander Campbell, urging him to commit himself on the subject of instrumental music in the worship in the churches and dancing in the home. Concerning the past efforts of the Restoration, he asked the question: “Has the object of this warfare, for more than a quarter of a century been to introduce instrumental music into our meetinghouses, and the elegant, healthful, inoffensive, improving practice of social dancing into our families?”1 Later that year, Campbell wrote a short essay on the subject in which he attributed the use of the instrument by the denominations to their “carnal hearts” and their lack of Aspiritual discernment.” He than said: “But I presume, to all spiritually-minded Christians such aids would be as a cow bell in a concert.” 2

The subject arose briefly in Millersburg, Kentucky. Aylette Raines, who kept a diary for many years, made the following entry April 27, 1851: “Brother S(aunders) wishes to introduce the melodeon into the church.”3 However, Raines was bitterly opposed to all innovations, so the melodeon was not introduced. This was the prevailing attitude during the 1850’s. Instrumental music was not a strong issue, and most of those men who ever spoke out on the subject considered it an innovation which was brought in by those destitute of spirituality, and as a mockery of those things which were sacred. In an 1856 issue of the Gospel Advocate, Tolbert Fanning said that he “regarded the organ and violin worship, and even the fashionable choir singing of our country, as mockery of all that is sacred.”4

Very little was said about the subject until 1860. At this time, a letter was written to Ben Franklin, asking him to express his views on the use of the instrument. Franklin was then editor of the American Christian Review, a paper which came to play an important role in the controversy. His first article against the instrument appeared in the Review in January, 1860. Ironically, he suggested some cases where the use of the instrument might prove to be an advantage; for instance, “Where the church never had, or have lost the spirit of Christ,” or “If the church only intends being a fashionable society, a mere place of amusement.” 5 Shortly after the appearance of Franklin’s article, he heard from L. L. Pinkerton of Midway, Kentucky. Pinkerton said in that letter:

So far as is 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.6

The church at Midway is the first congregation on record to use the instrument, though it is impossible to state whether it was the first congregation among the Disciples to do so. It is generally accepted that the instrument, a melodeon, was introduced at Midway, about the year 1859.7 This case marks the beginning of the controversy. Up to this time, as we have seen, the instrument was almost universally rejected among the Disciples, and would continue to be considered by many as “a grievous innovation in the Christian Church that our Heavenly Father does not approve of.” 8

Silence of the Scriptures

In the 1860’s, the issue began to grow hotter. Men began to reject the instrument for other reasons than because of its offensiveness. In 1861, Isaac Errett spoke out in an article in which he seemed to oppose the instrument. He said the instrument was “born of pride, begets pride, and tends to formalism.”9 The melody in the heart was to be sought rather than that which would appeal to the sensuous attractions. He thought the instrument would be a hindrance rather than an aid in the worship of the heart. But he made a rather significant statement when he said “the New Testament knows nothing of choir singing and instrumental music.”10 This statement formed the basis for most argumentation of those opposed to the instrument.

J. W. McGarvey was one who based his objections on this principle. In 1864, he spoke out, saying that if the Bible taught instrumental music, he wanted to have the scriptures. In one article, he dealt with the common attempts at justification of the practice through the Old Testament. His argument was as follows:

How, then, are we to decide whether a certain element in Jewish worship, or in the worship of heaven, is acceptable in the Christian church? Undoubtedly we are to decide it by the teaching of the New Testament, which is the only rule of practice for Christians. Whatever is authorized by this teaching is right, and1whatever it condemns is wrong. in us, whether it belongs to the service of the Jews or the service of angels.11

McGarvey held that in the Christian dispensation, the New Testament is the only rule of practice for Christians. Any attempts to justify instrumental music from the Old Testament were, as he saw it, made of no account by, virtue of the simple fact that the New Testament said nothing of the practice regarding Christians. He continues:

We cannot, therefore, by any possibility, know that a certain element of worship is acceptable to God in the Christian dispensation, when the Scriptures which speak of that dispensation are silent in reference to it. To introduce any such element is unscriptural ana presumptuous.12

The first to answer McGarvey was A. S. Hayden. Hayden said that he was not advocating the use of the instrument, but considered it to be in the realm of expediency. His objection was rather because he objected to McGarvey’s argument on the silence of the scripture. He maintained that this argument was “suspicious” and that the silence of the scripture was not sufficient ground for rejecting it.

McGarvey wrote again in order to reply to Hayden’s objections, and essentially repeated his position,

The scriptures, however, which speak of the acts of worship under the Christian dispensation are silent in reference to this element; they furnish no authority for it; therefore it is will-worship to make use of it.13

To McGarvey, the silence of the scripture on instrumental music answered the arguments made by some that it was practiced in the Old Testament, or that it was a matter of expediency.

Moses E. Lard was also very quick in voicing his objection to the instrument. His argument was also the silence of the scripture. He says:

….. what defense can be urged for the introduction into some of our congregations of instrumental music? The answer which thunders into my ear from every page of the New Testament is, none.14

To Lard, anyone who would attempt to introduce instrumental music into the church should be considered “an insultor of the authority of Christ, and as a defiant and impious innovator of the simplicity and purity of the ancient worship.”15 It is evident that these men who opposed the instrument on the grounds of silence of scripture had come to accept this silence as being just as authoritative as a direct command, and to violate this authority was to break the law of God, just as much as breaking a positive, direct command.

Isaiah Boone Grubbs objected to the instrument on the same grounds as the above men. He noted that Christians are to keep the ordinances of the apostles, namely Paul, as though they were the ordinances of Christ. To Grubbs, singing was one of these ordinances, and must be preserved just as we received it from the apostle. Nothing should be instituted that would be a substitute or an addition to this ordinance. He wrote:

As all things in Christian worship, as in every other department of the Christian religion, are thus to be done “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” or by his authority, it follows that “inflexibility extends to public worship.”16

The sentiment seen in Grubbs, and all the other men above mentioned who opposed the instrument, was the sentiment inherent in the slogan of the Restoration Movement, first initiated by Thomas Campbell: “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.”17


On the other side, those who favored the instrument based their whole apology for its use upon the matter of expediency. They did not consider silence sufficient reason not to use the instrument. Though he later came out stronger against the instrument, W. K. Pendleton in 1864 looked upon it as a matter of expediency. He admitted the silence of the scripture and the fact that the early-church did not practice it. Yet he did not consider this as being a conclusive argument against it. He said,

But this does not settle the questions after all-for there are many things established and right, in the practical affairs of the church in this 19th century, that were not introduced in the days, nor by the authority of the apostle-questions of mere expediency.18

Pendleton thought of the instrument in the same sense as using a meeting house or a song book. J. S. Lamar, in response to the previously mentioned article by I. B. Grubbs, said in 1868 that “what the Scriptures declare. or necessarily imply, is law, anything not inconsistent with law, belongs to the domain of freedom.”19

The champion of this line of reason came to be Isaac Errett. In his paper, the Christian Standard, he stated:

The New Testament furnishes no standard of music, the melody of the heart being made emphatic. But the requirement to sing, implies whatever is necessary to the performance of it. Hence’we have hymn books, tune books, tuning forks, choirs, etc., not because these are commanded, but because we are commanded to sing, and these are necessary to enable us to sing to edification. 20

He insisted that the difference between the two parties was not a difference of faith or of walking in God’s law, but a difference of opinion as to the means necessary to obey the precept to sing. But though he considered it an expedient, proposed to aid in carrying out the duty of singing, he 11 advised against it as not necessary to that end, and as tending to create strife in many of our churches.”21

We have seen one view of expediency; there was no law against the use of instrumental music, so it was permitted by expediency. But there was another view of expediency. Robert Richardson pointed out that expediency was not without the law, but within it. Before there could be expediency, there must be law. In 1869, J. B. Briney wrote an article in Apostolic Times entitled, “The Doctrine of Ex. pediency.” He said in this article that expediency did not give the prerogative to say in what manner an ordinance should be carried out. As to singing, this should be done with the human voice. Expediency could determine whether the person sung bass or tenor, but it could not go further to add to or subtract from the ordinance. To Briney, the instrument could not be called an expedient because it was such an addition to the ordinance. Briney also denied the expediency of the instrument on the grounds that it was “an accompaniment of pride, and of fashion, and vanity, and of dancing, and theater going, and the like,”22 rather than an appeal to one’s true spirituality. C. L. Loos said that the question of the expediency of the instrument had been tested by experience. It could not be considered an expedient, because of the division and strife which it had caused, and because it attracted the idle, irreligious “runabouts” who assembled for no other reason than to hear a musical performance.

A Test of Fellowship

Thus we see that there were two attitudes toward the instrument. One insisted that it was a matter of expediency, while the other insisted that it was an unauthorized, human innovation into a divine worship, and therefore, sinful. The inevitable result was the question of whether. the use or nonuse of the instrument should become a test of fellowship. Of course, to those who considered the instrument a matter of expediency or opinion, it would not be a test of fellowship. Isaac Errett held this opinion, and at the same time counseled against its use because it was to some a stumblingblock. In an 1870 issue of the Christian Standard, he said.

Before proceeding to give our reasons against instrumental music in public worship, we desire to elaborate more fully the thought presented in our last article on this subject, namely, that the real difference among us is a difference of opinion as to the expediency of instrumental music in public worship, and therefore, it is wrong to make this difference a test of fellowship, on one hand, or an occasion of stumbling, on the other. 23

Though Errett held this view, it is commendable that he was opposed to forcing it on those who objected to its use, thus causing division. Those who favored the instrument on the grounds of expediency readily admitted that they could worship just as well without it-But those who opposed the instrument could not say that it did not matter to them. With them, it was a matter of faith, and thus a sin to use it. Many began to draw the line of fellowship with those who continued to force the instrument into the churches.

Ben Franklin strongly wrote against the views of Errett:

We put it on no ground of opinion or expediency. The acts or worship are all prescribed in the law of God. If it is an act of worship, or an element in worship, it may not be added to it. If it is not an act of worship, or an element in the worship, it is most wicked and sinful to impose it on the worshipers. It is useless to tell us, It is not to be made a test. If you impose it on the conscience of the brethren and, by a majority vote, force it into the worship, are they bound to stifle their consciences? Have you a right to compel them to submit and worship with the instrument?24

Clearly, to Franklin instrumental music was no matter of opinion. Man had no-,right to add an element of human origin into the, worship. In reference to these, he felt that the brethren should “mark them who cause division.”

Isaac Errett and Ben Franklin are representatives of the two principal views. These views are poles apart. It was evident that there was no compromising or midway point between these two positions. As many churches continued to use the instrument, while others continued to oppose it, the division became greater, and the hope of reconciling the matter became smaller. The instrumental music Controversy eventually became one of the main factors causing the division among the churches of Christ.


1. John Rogers, “Dancing,” Millennial Harbinger, Fourth Series, I (Aug. 1, 1951), 467-468.

2. Alexander Campbell, “Instrumental Music,” Millennial Harbinger. Fourth Series, I (Oct., 1851), 581-582.

3. Alonzo Fortune, The Disciples in Kentucky (Lexington: Christian Churches, 1932), p. 373.

4. John T. Lewis, The Voice of the Pioneers on Instrumental Music and Societies (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 19321, p. 120.

5. Joseph Franklin and J. A. Headington, The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (St. Louis: John Burns, 1879), p. 409.

6. Franklin and Headington, pp. 409-410.

7. Homer Hailey, Attitudes and Consequences of the Restoration Movement (Rosemead, California: Old Paths, 1952), p. 201.

8. Selina Campbell, Home Life and Reminiscences of Alexander Camp bell (St. Louis: John Burns, 1882), p. 420.

9. Isaac Errett, “Church Music,” Millennial Harbinger, Fifth Series, IV (Oct., 1861), 558.

10. Ibid., 558.

11. J. W. McGarvey, “Instrumental Music in Churches,” Millennial Harbinger. Fifth Series, VII (March, 1864), 511.

12. Ibid., 512.

13. J.W. McGarvey, “Instrumental Music,” Millennial Harbinger, XXXIV (Jan., 1865), 89.

14. Moses E. Lard, “Instrumental Music in Churches and Dancing,” Lard Quarterly, I (March, 1964), 331.

15. Ibid.. 332.

16. Isaiah B. Grubbs, “The Generic Principle of the Christian Religion,” Millennial Harbinger, XXXIX (Nov., 1868), 628-633.

17. Earl West, The Search for the Ancient Order (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1965), 1, p. 47.

18. W.K. Pendleton. APew-Renting and Organ-Music.@ Millennial Harbinger, Fifth Series, VII (March 1964), 12b.

19. J.S. Lamar. AInstrumental Music,@ Millennial Harbinger, XXXIX (Dec. 1868), 666.

20. J.S. Lamar. Memoirs of Isaac Errett (Cincinnati: Standard, 1893), II.p.39.

21. M.C. Kurfees, Instrumental Music in the Worship (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1950), p. 224.

22. Lewis, p. 144

23, West, II, p. 88

24. West, II, p. 89.