by Michael D. “Mike” Greene
For four long years the Civil War pitted north against South, brother against brother, and in some cases church member against church member. The conflict was so severe that even President Lincoln wondered whether a nation of the people, for the people and by the people could long endure.
When Lee surrendered at Appomattox courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1865, the long nightmare of war was finally over. The nation then turned its energies to healing the division.
Among those who made up the group variously known as the Disciples, Christians, churches of Christ, or who were members of what Alexander Campbell had called the “current reformation,” or what historians call the Restoration Movement, the dark cloud of division over the “innovations” (the American Christian Missionary Society and the use of instrumental music in worship) loomed large on the horizon and would not dissipate until the division became a reality.
Prior to the war there were few congregations who had introduced the instrument into the worship. After the war the trickle of churches using the instrument soon grew to a rising flood. How was the introduction of the instrument defended, and how was it opposed?
Those who defended the instrument (and the Missionary Society) placed its use in the realm of expediency. It was defended as an aid to the worship, not an addition to the worship, just as the Society was an aid to better accomplish the work of the church, the instrument was but an aid to the improvement of the worship of the church.
Those who opposed the innovations opposed them because they could find no authority for either in the scriptures. The ground that they had occupied since the beginning of the movement was to do only that which the scriptures enjoined, as Thomas Campbell had said in the Declaration and Address; “in either express terms or approved precedent.”/1
That principle, when combined with another expressed in the motto: “Where the scriptures speak we speak, where the scriptures are silent we are silent,” had allowed them to seek and, in many minds, to find the ancient order of things, the pure simple New Testament Christianity that had been sought since the early days of the movement.
Robert Richardson, who was a close associate of Alexander Campbell, argued forcefully that a thing can only be expedient only if it is first authorized:
“As it regards the use of musical instruments in church worship, the case is wholly different. This can never be a question of expediency, for the simple reason that there is no law prescribing or authorizing it. If it were anywhere said in the New Testament that Christians should use instruments, then it would become a question of expediency what kind of instruments was to be used, whether an organ or melodeon, the ‘loud-sounding cymbals,’ or the ‘light guitar’; . . . The use of musical instruments in church worship can never be a question of expediency, for the simple reason that there is no law prescribing or authorizing it.”/2
That the introduction of the instrument was a more divisive issue than the missionary society soon became evident as those who opposed it could not in good conscience worship with it, as it violated the principle of authority.
Moses Lard wrote:
“The question of instrumental music in the churches of Christ involves a great and sacred principle. . . That principle is the right of men to introduce innovations into the prescribed worship of God. This right we utterly deny. The advocates of instrumental music affirm it. This makes the issue.”/3
The use of the instrument soon became a test of fellowship among preachers, churches and individuals. Ben Franklin, editor of the American Christian Review, summed up the matter well:
“We put it (the use of the instrument, MG) on no grounds of opinion or expediency. The acts of 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 worshippers. It is useless to tell us, It is not to be made a test. If you impose it on the conscience of 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? They stand on the old ground, where the first Christians stood, as we all admit, and where we have all stood. If you press the instrument into the worship, we care not whether you call it an element in the worship or an aid and drive them away, because they cannot conscientiously worship with the instrument, you cause division–You are the aggressor–the innovator–you do this, too, for the accompaniment of corruption and apostasy, admitting at the same time that you have no conscience in the matter. (Italics in original, MG)/4
By 1870 the lines of demarcation had been clearly drawn. Preachers, congregations and individuals declared their convictions, either for the instrument and society or against what were called “the innovations.” By then, all astute observers knew that division was inevitable. A movement that began with a plea for unity of all believers based upon the scriptures itself was becoming hopelessly divided.
1/ Campbell, Thomas, Declaration and Address, (The Bethany Press, St. Louis, Mo., 1955), 45.
2/Robert Richardson, “Expediency,” Christian Standard, Vol. III (1868), p. 409.
3/Moses E. Lard, Lard’s Quarterly, Vol. IV, No. 4.
4/Ben Franklin, “Two Standards,” American Christian Review, Vol. XIII, No 24, (June 14, 1870), p. 188.