History Of Instruments In Worship

Charles J. Aebi

Dear Aebi: When and by whom were instruments of music introduced into Christian worship?

Instruments of music were used in the Old Testament (2 Chronicles 29:25; Psalm 150; Exodus 15:20) but were not used in Christian worship in the churches for about 1,000 years. The American Encyclopedia and some other encyclopedias say that Pope Vitalian first used it in 670 A.D. [in his private worship]. There are references to its non-use around the beginning of the 5th century by several writers (like Theodoret, Niceta, Chrysostom, and Eusebius) who condemned it as belonging to pagan worship and to the Old Testament worship with animal sacrifices. There are many references to Christian worship by early Christian writers. They speak of singing and other acts of worship but never mention instruments of music. Some authors misuse statements of certain 2nd 4th century church writers to imply that they did endorse the use of instruments in singing Psalms. If they would read more closely, they would see that the instruments mentioned in the Psalms are allegorized by these writers to say that the strings of the harp are actually the strings of the heart, or the emotions accompanying the words of the songs.

Everett Ferguson, an authority on church history, in A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church, said, "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. This makes instrumental music one of the late innovations of the medieval Catholic church. 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" (p. 81). He says songs were not accompanied by instrumental music until new styles of music were developed. McClintock and Strong's Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastic Literature quotes Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1250 A.D.) as saying, "Our Church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize" (VIII, 739).

Most Protestant Reformers (Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, Wesley, Smythe, and others) rejected instrumental music as a Roman Catholic innovation copied from the Old Testament temple worship. Episcopalians and Lutherans used instruments, but they were not used by the Reformed Church, the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Church of the Brethren, Mennonites, and others until the 19th century. The Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Catholics rejected its use until the late 20th century. Even the Jewish synagogues rejected instrumental music, their first use being in Germany in 1910, according to The Jewish Encyclopedia. When instruments were introduced into Protestant churches, they were fought vehemently. A Presbyterian theology seminary professor, John L. Girardeau in 1888 wrote a book, Instrumental Music in the Public Worship, in which he argued forcefully that if Presbyterians put instrumental music into their worship they would be going back to Roman Catholicism.

The Restoration leaders refused instrumental music as foreign to the gospel. The first church of Christ in modern times on record to use instrumental music was the church at Midway, KY, where L. L. Pinkerton, their preacher, installed a melodeon (a small pedal-operated keyboard organ) in 1859. Aylette Raines, minister at Millersburg, KY, successfully opposed the introduction of a melodeon there in 1851. Some in the church wanted to copy actions then being taken in some denominations, and the same bitter controversies and divisions resulted. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, churches of Christ lost much of their power for good as a result of this and related issues that divided and devastated them. Is it happening again a century later? -2660 Layman Rd., Vincent, OH 45784-9730. cjandi@juno.com


Return to West Virginia Christian