The Organ Question – J.W. McGarvey

J.W. McGarvey

Up to the year 1869 the churches of disciples, with possibly a few obscure exceptions had abstained from the use of instrumental music in their public worship, and the preachers with no publicly known exceptions were opposed to it. It was opposed by some as being inexpedient, and by others as being unscriptural. In the year 1864 I published an article in the Millennial Harbinger for November advocating the latter position. Early in the next year, A.S. Hayden, a distinguished brother in Ohio, replied, and the subject was pretty fully discussed in the Harbinger by several writers during the year 1865. All these writers held the practice to be inexpedient, but some denied that the Scriptures condemn it. This was the beginning of the discussion of the question among us. It had been a subject of protracted dissension among Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists for a generation previous, the practice gradually gaining ground, first in the cities, then in the villages, and finally in country congregations. As the disciples were set for the restoration of Primitive Christianity which was universally known to be free from the practice, they were the last religious body in this country to think of resorting to it. But the influence of surrounding examples gradually wrought a change in the feeling of the rank and file of the membership, and this leavened the sentiments of the preachers until there grew up in city congregations a decided inclination to be like their religious neighbors.

This inclination developed into action in the city of St. Louis in the year 1869, when the congregation meeting on Olive Street, in a building purchased from the Episcopalians with a pipe organ in it, resolved to use the organ in its worship, whereupon a considerable number of prominent and influential members withdrew and held meetings elsewhere. The affair awakened intense interest throughout the brotherhood, and was regarded as seriously imperiling the unity that had hitherto prevailed in the body at large. Prudent counsels however were brought to bear, and the parties to the division in St. Louis were induced to call in a Committee of eminent brethren to adjudge the case, and decide what should be done. The Committee consisted of Robert Graham, Isaac Errett, Alexander Procter and J.K. Rogers. They decided that the use of the organ should be discontinued, and that the members who had withdrawn should thereupon resume their places in the church. Peace for awhile prevailed and it was generally hoped the controversy would spread no farther. But after a few months the members of the St. Louis church who favored the organ obtained letters of withdrawal, organized another congregation, and resumed the use of the instrument. In the meantime various brethren in other States, who were enamored of the instrument commenced its public advocacy, and it was rapidly introduced into the churches though in hundreds of instances its introduction was the occasion of strife and bitterness.

McG. having antagonized the first writer among us who defended the practice, continued the controversy as others took the field on that side, and published many articles through a period of about 20 years, chiefly in the American Christian Review, whose editor, Benjamin Franklin, continued to do the same to the day of his death. But the party for the innovation proved to be the popular party, and they finally succeeded in winning to their cause so nearly all of the preachers and congregations, that it appeared to McG. Useless to continue repeating arguments and evidences which were unheeded, so he turned his pen to other subjects and contented himself with the hope that the congregation with which he was identified, and which had grown principally through his ministrations, to be one of the largest and most influential in the brotherhood, would abstain from the innovation during the remnant of his life. In this, however, he was painfully disappointed. After he resigned his place in the pulpit it was occupied by brethren who had no scruples on the subject, and the private members were left to drift on the current of surrounding influences until, in the spring of 1903, the officers of the church informed McG. that it was the fixed purpose of an overwhelming majority to introduce an organ, and plead with him to waive his well known objections or content himself with a mere public protest, and acquiesce in the change. This he could not do so long as there was another congregation within his reach with which he could worship in the apostolic method. He told the elders that he would make no public opposition to the movement, seeing that it would be in vain, but would ask for a letter of commendation and unite with the congregation meeting on Chestnut Street, in the founding of which he had taken the leading part, and which was in a flourishing condition. This he did, and a few other most excellent members, including the venerable Prof. H.H. White, did the same. When the question of using the organ came to a vote in Broadway church, a large minority of the members voted against it, chiefly on the ground that they held it to be unchristian to drive me and a few others away from them for the sake of the instrument. Those of the majority who spoke publicly on the subject claimed equal respect for me but claimed that the future prosperity of the church was at stake and this should not be sacrificed through respect for a single brother. This dereliction on the part of the church to which he had given the best work of his life as a preacher and an elder, and which still contained a large number of his most devoted friends, was a severe blow to his feelings but he swallowed his disappointment, and went quietly on in the Chestnut Street church, which received him with open arms. (Autobiography of J. W. McGarvey, pp. 43-45).

NOTE: “McG” is the way that brother McGarvey referred to himself.

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