When Was The Instrument Of Music First Introduced Into Christian Worship?

By Brooks Cochran

The story is told of a new husband who was watching his wife prepare her first ham for the oven. He noticed that she cut off a few inches from the end. When asked her reason for doing such, her only reply was that her mother always did it that way. Upon calling her mother they found she could give no other reason except that her mother had always prepared her hams that way. Finally, they called the grandmother, who told them she always cut a few inches off because her pan was too small.

This story reminds us of the fact that people may do things a certain way simply because they have always been done that way; i.e., they do things out of tradition. This is especially true in matters of religion. Many times the only reason a person can give for believing or practicing a certain thing is, “That’s the way we’ve always believed or done things.” Jesus, in Mark 7:6-9, warns us against following the customs and traditions of men.

One such example of this would be the use of instrumental music in worship to God. The only reason some people can give for the use of the instrument is that they have always used them. In fact, many may live their entire life without -ever giving any serious thought about the matter. But, has the instrument always been a part of man’s worship to God? If not, when did it become a part and who authorized such?

In this lesson we will see that the instrument was not always used in worship to God. During the early years of the church’s existence, there were no instruments of music used in the worship of the church. It was several hundred years later that the instrument made its way into the worship. This being the case, exactly when did the instrument become a part of Christian worship?

Introduced In 666 A.D.

Most reference works ascribe the introduction of the instrument into worship to Pope Vitalian I (657-672):

The organ is said to have been first introduced into church worship by Pope Vitalian I, in 666 (Chambers’ Encyclopedia, Vol. 7, p. 112).

The organ is said to have been first employed in the church during the time of Pope Vitaliam I (c. 666 A.D.) (New International Encyclopedia, Vol. XIII, p. 446).

Pope Vitalian is related to have first introduced organs into some of the churches of Western Europe . . . (The American Cyclopedia, Vol. XII, p. 688).

Introduced Later Than 666 A.D.

However, not all agree with the above statements. Some tend to place the introduction of the instrument much later. Everett Ferguson states that “it is quite late before there is evidence of instrumental music, first the organ, employed in public worship of the church. Recent studies put the introduction of instrumental music even later than the dates found in ,reference books. It was perhaps as late as the tenth century when the organ was played as part of the service . . . When introduced in the Middle Ages, the organ was still not part of the liturgy proper. That is, it did not initially accompany the hymn service, but was a separate item in the service” (A Cappella Music In The Public Worship of the Church, p. 81).

The Catholic .Encyclopedia .(1913 edition) states that “according to Plating (`De vitis Pontificum’, Cologne, 1593), Pope’ Vitalian (657-72) introduced the organ into the church service. This, however, is very doubtful. At all events, a strong objection to the organ in church service remained pretty general down to the twelfth century, which may be accounted for partly by the imperfection of tone in organs of that time. But from the twelfth century on, the organ became the privileged church instrument . . .” (Vol. XI, pp. 300-301).

Edward Dickinson states that “since harmony was unknown during the first one thousand years or more of the Christian era, and instrumental music had no independent existence, the whole vast system of chant melodies was purely unison and unaccompanied, its rhythm usually subordinated to that of the text” (Music in the History of the Western Church, p. 129).

As can be seen from the above quotes, it is apparent that there is a question in the mind of some, as to whether or not the instrument was introduced into the worship of the church during the seventh century.

Introduced Prior To 666 A.D.

Yet, there are some who reject both the seventh and tenth century dates and place the introduction of the instrument as far back as the third, fourth, or fifth century. Though this would be too early a date for the organ, it is argued that the lute and/or lyre were used in the worship.

To support this claim an appeal is made to Clement of Alexander. He wrote around 200 A.D. He said, “And even if you wish to sing and play to the harp or lyre, there is no blame.” But, as James Bales points out, “Clement is not discussing the assembly, or even a private devotional service, but `How to Conduct Ourselves at Feasts.’ Second, he spoke of the use of musical instruments at banquets and called them `instruments of delusion”‘ (Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship, p. 262).

M.C. Kurfees states that “with no other light on the case except that thrown on it by these bare words themselves, we submit that it would be utterly impossible to tell whether the author of the passage meant that these instruments might be used by Christians in the worship of God, or as a mere entertainment outside of that worship. The passage itself does not specify either, while the context is decidedly in favor of the latter view” (Instrumental Music In The Worship, p. 124).

Joseph Bingham states that Clement “speaks not of what was then in use in Christian churches, but of what might lawfully be used by any private Christian, if they were disposed to use it; which rather argues that instrumental music, the lute and the harp, of which he speaks, was not in use in the public churches” (Antiquities of the Christian Church, Vol. 2, p. 485).

By a careful study of Clement’s statement one would be hard pressed to prove he had the public worship of the church under consideration when he wrote these words. (For those wishing to study his statement in light of its context, see the following: Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II, pp. 248-249, American reprint of the Edinburgh edition.)

[Note: Though both Kurfees and Bingham refer to the use of the instrument at home, it should be pointed out that to sing hymns to God with an instrument, whether collectively in public worship with a group of Christians in a private home, and/or by by oneself would be sinful. Any hymn singing must be done without the addition of the instrument for it to be acceptable to God.]

Sir John Hawkins, in General History of Music, makes an appeal to Ambrose (340-397) Bishop of Milan to support the view that the instrument was in use in public worship prior to the seventh century: “T hough it is uncontroverted that Vitalianus introduced the organ into the service of the Romish church, yet the use of instruments in churches was much earlier; for we are told that St. Ambrose joined instruments of music with the public service in the Cathedral church of Milan, which example of his was so approved of, that by degrees it became the general practice of other churches, and has since obtained in almost all the Christian world besides. Nay, the antiquity of instrumental church music is still higher, if we may credit the testimony of Justin Martyr and Eusubius, the latter of whom lived fifty and the former two hundred years before the time of St. Ambrose” (Vol. 1, p. 147).

Hawkins, however; fails to support his claim. He gives no evidence as to whom it was that “told that” Ambrose introduced the instrument into the worship of the Cathedral church of Milan. He does make an appeal to the writings of Justin Martyr and Eusebius in support of his claim that the instrument was in general use before Ambrose. Yet; upon reading the writings of these men, one will not find any statement made by them favoring ttie use of the instrument in worship. Kurfees made it a point to read the writings of the two and found that they were void of any reference to the use of instruments in worship.

The weight of historical evidence is against any who would claim the instrument was used in Christian worship prior to 600 A.D.:

All our sources deal amply with vocal music of the church, but they are chary with mention of any other manifestation of musical art . . . T he development of Western music was decisively influenced by the exclusion of musical instruments from the early Christian Church (Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization, pp. 53, 54).

These chants – and the word chant (and not music) is used advisedly, for many centuries were to pass before instruments accompanied the sung melodies (Kurt Pahlen, Music of the World, p. 27). [Note: T he chant, which is a simple song in which a number of syllables or words are sung in a monotone, was the main form of music in the church from about the fifth century on.)

While the Greek and Roman songs were metrical, the Christian psalms were antiphons, prayers, responses, etc., were unmetrical; and while the pagan melodies were always sung to an instrumental accompaniment, the church chant was exclusively vocal . . . . Many of the fathers, speaking of religious song, make no mention of instruments in worship; others, refer to them only to denounce them . . . . The religious guides of the early Christians felt that there would be an incongruity, and even profanity, in the use of the sensuous nerve-exciting effects of instrumental sound in their mystical, spiritual worship. Their high religious and moral enthusiasm needed no aid from external stimulus; the pure vocal utterance was the more proper expression of their faith (Edward Dickinson, Music in the History of the Western Church, pp. 54, 55).

Musical instruments were not used. The pipe, tabret, and harp were associated so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in worship (E.E. Ryden, The Story of Christian Hymnody, p. 7).

Thus, to argue that the instrument, be it harp, lute, lyre, organ or whatever, was used in Christian worship prior to the seventh century is to do so with little or no historical evidence. The voice of history is against such. James W. McKinnon states that “many musicologists, while acknowledging that early church music was predominantly vocal, have tried to produce evidence that instruments were employed in the liturgy at various times and places. T he result of such attempts has been a history of misinterpretations and mistranslations” (Unpublished dissertation quoted by James Bales, Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship, p. 261). [Note: For further study on this subject see the following: James William McKinnon, “The Meaning of the Patristic Polemic Against Musical Instruments,” Current Musicology, Spring, 1965, published under the aegis of the Music Department, Columbia University, New York.]


Though we may not be able to determine the exact date the organ was first used in worship, we do know that it was several hundred years after the establishment of the church before it was introduced. However, due to opposition, it was another two or three hundred years before it became generally accepted. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Pope Vitalian introduced the organ into the worship of the church at Rome to improve the congregation singing. But, it was not until the ninth century that the organ was “consistently” used, and the thirteenth century before it was “in general use throughout the Latin Church” (Vol. 10, p. 746).

It would be fair to assume that the first known use of the instrument in worship occurred under Pope Vitalian, in the mid-seventh century. However, many years were to pass before it would be generally accepted and put into common usage.

We need to realize that the use of instruments in worship to God was never authorized or allowed in the Lord’s Church. Regardless of what church councils, creeds, dogmas, leaders, and/or traditions may say; the use of the instrument in worship is wrong. The New Testament does not command, authorize, or sanction its use. To do otherwise is to follow the teaching and commandments of men, and Christ condemned such in Mark 7:1-9.


  1. How do many people justify their religious practices when asked their reason(s) for doing so?
  2. Did the first century church use instruments in its worship? Why?
  3. What is the generally accepted date that is given for the introduction of the instrument into worship? Who introduced it? Check some major reference works and see if you can find some other things this man did.
  4. What reason(s) could one give in support of the view that the instrument was introduced into worship later than 666 A.D.?
  5. Is there any evidence that the instrument was used in worship prior to 666 A.D.?
  6. Who were Clement and Ambrose? What is their importance to us in this study?
  7. What arguments can be made for and/or against the use of the instrument in worship prior to 666 A.D.?
  8. Discuss the use of the instrument in the home. Would it be right to sing hymns at home with the addition of the instrument? Why?
  9. Discuss Mark 7:1-9 as it relates to this study. What do the following terms mean: a. Vain; b. Doctrines; c. Precepts of men; d. Tradition of men; e. Commandment of God. (See also: Matt. 21:23-27).
  10. Suppose that it could be shown from secular history that the instrument was used by some congregations in the first century. Would that make it right for us to use it today? Why?

Truth Magazine XXIV: 24, pp. 386-388
June 12, 1980