by Michael D. “Mike” Greene
The decade of the 1850’s began with the admission of California to the union on September 9, 1850. The United States was continuing to grow and expand. Two more states beyond the Mississippi would be added before the decade was over. Much of what is now the western United States held territory status.
However, on the eastern end of the union, the institution of slavery and talk of secession threatened the very existence of the grand experiment in liberty and democracy. President after President failed to resolve the divisive issues.
Lincoln’s election in 1860 prompted South Carolina to begin the parade of secession. Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina, April 12, 1861. A brutal and bloody war began that devastated the land for four long years.
Discord among those seeking the restoration of the ancient order of things likewise threatened the very existence of the now great brotherhood. The establishment of the American Christian Missionary Society in 1849, was but the first skirmish in the conflict that would result in a division that continues today.
As the country matured and the boundaries of the nation moved west, churches which had been at one time frontier, and wilderness churches, now found themselves in prosperous cities and communities with all the amenities of a finer and more cultured society.
The churches themselves were growing more settled and prosperous. As they observed other religious groups with their fine houses of worship, some members began to press for similar accoutrements to their worship, including instrumental music.
The subject was broached in 1851 by an inquiry concerning instrumental music in the churches to the Ecclesiastical Reformer, a brotherhood paper edited by J.B. Henshall. Henshall replied that only a worldly church would require such helps to their worship. A few months later, a letter to Alexander Campbell urged him to make his views know in the Millennial Harbinger.
Campbell’s response was similar to Henshall’s. He rejected the argument that sought authority for instrumental music in New Testament worship from the Psalms. Campbell concluded his article; “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…, that instrumental music (in the worship, MG) would be not only a desideratum, but an essential prerequisite to fire up the souls to even animal devotion. But I presume, to all spiritually-minded Christians such aids would be as a cow bell in a concert.”/1
The first church among the disciples to be on record as using the instrument in worship was the Midway Christian Church in Midway, Kentucky. L.L. Pinkerton was the preacher. The year was 1859. All did not accept the innovation.
As the story goes, the singing at the Midway Christian Church was so bad it would “scare even the rats away.” At first a melodeon was brought in to a Saturday night song practice to get the right pitch for the songs. Soon a sister was accompanying the singing with her playing. The singing improved and it was decided to use the melodeon in the Lord’s Day service.
Late one night, one of the elders who opposed the use of the instrument, Adam Hibler, helped one of his slaves, named Reuben, through a window of the meeting house. The melodeon was passed out the window to Hibler who took it home with him. However, another melodeon was brought in and its use continued over the objections of Hibler and others./2
It is probable that other churches also introduced the instrument to the worship. Midway and L.L. Pinkerton are the first on record as having done so.
Now along with the American Christian Missionary Society, whether the use of an instrument of music was scriptural became a matter for discussion. Several papers were begun to oppose the innovations and/or to discuss the issues completely. The “American Christian Review,” edited by Ben Franklin and based in Cincinnati, appeared in 1856 and soon became one of the leading, if not the leading paper, in the brotherhood. Franklin was an ardent opponent of the instrument.
Likewise in 1856, in Nashville, Tennessee, Tolbert Fanning and William Lipscomb issued the Gospel Advocate, which continues today, to discuss and eventually oppose the innovations of the missionary society and instrumental music.
In 1869, The Apostolic Times, edited by Moses Lard and J.W. McGarvey, two of the most respected preachers of the day, began in Lexington, Kentucky. It likewise opposed the instrument. Other editors and papers lined up in support of both the society and instrument.
However, the resolution to these and other religious issues would be delayed by the more pressing bloody conflict known as the Civil War. Prior to the war, talk of the war overshadowed society. During the war, survival was a primary interest. It would not be until after the war that attention to religious matters would once again gain the attention of the masses.
1/Campbell, Alexander, “Instrumental Music,” Millennial Harbinger, Fourth Series, Vol. 1, No. 10, (October, 1851), pp. 582, as quoted in: West, Earl Irvin, The Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 1, 1974, Gospel Advocate, Co. Nashville, TN., 310.
2/ Ibid., 311-312. Note: What happened to the original melodeon is a matter of some historical interest. Some say Hibler destroyed it. I have not been able to substantiate that claim. Others said he eventually stored it in a barn, where it was for a time forgotten. It was presumably discovered around 1938 and is now on display in the library of Midway College, a college for women affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, in Midway, Kentucky. For more information on the melodeon, go to: http://www.midway.edu/library/melodeon
by Michael D. “Mike” Greene