From A Cappella to Accompaniment: The 19th Century Journey of Southern Presbyterians

R. Andrew Myers is the website manager for Log College Press. He has a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He served as editor of the Matthew Poole Project (2006-2012), and enjoys the study of church history and historical theology. He is a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA).

For centuries the public and stated worship of Presbyterians in Europe and America was a cappella (Italian for “in the manner of the chapel”), that is to say, praise without the use of musical instruments. This was consistent with the views and practice of the historic Congregational and Baptist branches (also descended from the Puritans) of the Protestant church as well.

Calvin had been opposed to the use of musical instruments in public worship on the grounds that it distracted the worshippers’ minds from the meaning of what they sung. None of the Reformed Confessions had sanctioned the use of musical instruments. The Westminster Divines had caused the great organs of St. Paul and St. Peters in Westminster to be removed and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had approved. Leading Calvinistic divines in recent times had remained opposed to the use of organs, among them [Thomas] Chalmers in Scotland, [Charles] Spurgeon in England, [James H.] Thornwell in America.[1]

In the 21st century, to survey Presbyterian churches in America – excepting the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and a few other groups which still adhere to a cappella worship – musical accompaniment is the rule. The transition between these diverse practices can be dated to the 19th century, but there was resistance among Southern Presbyterians and others who held to the historic a cappella position and practice. This article briefly examines the body of literature generated by 19th century Southern Presbyterian debates that took place over this key aspect of worship.

The first Puritan church in America to introduce the organ (the ecclesiastically-preferred modern musical instrument) into its public worship was First Congregational Church in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1770. Some of the earliest Presbyterian churches in America to follow suit were First Presbyterian Church of Alexandria, Virginia (1817); Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia (1820); First Presbyterian Church of Rochester, New York (1830); First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (c. 1845); First Presbyterian Church of Chicago (1852); and Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina (1856). Tabb Street Church of Petersburg, Virginia (1870); First Presbyterian Church of Lynchburg, Virginia (c. 1871); College Church of Hampden-Sydney, Virginia (1890); and the First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee, Florida (1891), are later examples of the introduction of organs into public Presbyterian worship. In the case of the College Church at Hampden-Sydney, the building was designed in 1860 by its pastor, Robert L. Dabney, specifically to have entrances narrow enough that pipe organs could not get through. “When a pipe organ was installed in 1920, in the generation following his death, its parts were painstakingly taken up the slave gallery steps, piece-by-piece, and assembled in the balcony.”[2]

Dabney played an important role in the debates which played out in 19th century religious journals and newspapers. A flurry of letters to the editor of the Richmond, Virginia, Watchman and Observer in 1849 included writings by “H” in support of the use of musical instruments (which necessitated a letter by Moses Drury Hoge to deny that he was the author of H’s correspondence), as well as by “Simplex,” “Inquirer” and “Rusticus” in opposition to their use, along with a February 22, 1849, letter by Dabney, using the pseudonym “Chorepiscopus,” in which he argued against “this Popish mode of worship” (the organ).[3]

Robert J. Breckinridge issued a pamphlet in 1851 in which, while allowing Christian liberty for believers to use musical instruments for edification in private, he too identified the use of instrumental music in public worship as “a relapse towards Rome.”[4]

In 1855, John Douglas wrote the first of a series of articles on this topic which appeared in The Southern Presbyterian Review. He memorably began his argument thus: “If we agitate this subject, and seek to expel from the house and worship of God, all the lovers and devotees of Jubal, who was a descendant of that wicked one, Cain, it is simply because we know the beginning of evil is as the letting forth of water.”[5]

Thomas E. Peck published articles in The Critic (November and December 1855) titled “Liturgies, Instrumental Music and Architecture” and “General Principles Touching the Worship of God” in which he argued that the question was a matter of principle:

…a Christian may find it to edification to use a musical instrument in his private or domestic worship, as the sweet singer of Israel seems to have done, and as Martin Luther did; but it is a very different affair to introduce apparatus of this sort into the public worship of God. Before it can be done, there must be a covenant to do it; and before such a covenant can be righteously made, the word of God must be consulted; a thing it would be well for those to do who laugh, in the fulness of their self-conceit, at their brethren for seeing any principle in the matter.[6]

One of the most significant essays in defense of the use of musical instruments in worship was Thomas Smyth’s 1868 response to John Douglas in The Southern Presbyterian Review. He makes the case that the sound of the musical instrument served as legitimate auxiliary aid to human praise, and is justified in Christian worship today on the basis of God’s approval of such in the Old Testament.[7]

Thomas Smyth’s article called forth an anonymously-authored response by John Bailey Adger the following year. Adger takes issue with Smyth’s conjecture that the harp and organ were associated with divine public worship “under every economy [italics used by Smyth and Adger] of the church militant” from the time of Jubal. Adger further responds to Smyth directly:

This plea of the organ’s being a mere circumstance of worship, whilst it may be offered by others, is not and could not be employed by Dr. Smyth. With characteristic frankness he boldly defends the organ as a competent part of the worship of God under the New Testament. This is the only manly and fair position its advocates can take. But whenever they do take it, they have to encounter the condemnation which awaits those who presume to add to God’s commands respecting his worship. [8]

John L. Girardeau was finally called upon by his students to put his views on the matter in print. His 1888 treatise Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church is perhaps the most enduring work by either side of the 19th century debate and has been often republished since. Girardeau thoroughly covers both the Scriptural principles at issue and the ecclesiastical history of musical instruments from the perspective of the historic Reformed church.

The question was discussed at length and from various angles but was based on the general proposition that whatever is not commanded by God as part of his worship is thereby forbidden. Instruments of music were indeed used in the Temple worship (as distinct from the Tabernacle and later the synagogue) but all elements of the Temple worship, Dr. Girardeau argued, pointed to Christ, and were elements in the old dispensation done away with in Christ.

Dr. Girardeau realized, however, that he was fighting a losing cause, as indeed he was….The church at large...rejected Dr. Girardeau’s argument and was not disturbed by Dr. Dabney’s warning.[9]

Girardeau further addresses the several classes of arguments in favor of the use of musical instruments in worship, including those from his fellow Presbyterians who claimed adherence to the Biblical and Confessional regulative principle of worship, but assigned the place of musical instruments to the category of “circumstances,” about which the church clearly has discretionary power, rather than “elements,” which require positive warrant from the Scriptures to be employed and otherwise constitute a binding of the conscience to the traditions of men, a distinction also found both in Scripture and in the Confession. After noting that men such as R.J. Breckinridge and J.H. Thornwell were barely in their graves before organs began to be used in their very own churches, Girardeau emphasizes the importance of understanding the “Doctrine of Circumstances.” As Girardeau argues, borrowing from the Scottish Presbyterian George Gillespie as well as from Thornwell, the church has only ministerial and declarative authority, not legislative, and thus, to understand where instruments fit in and the bounds of the church’s discretionary authority, it is necessary that we comprehend that “[c]ircumstances are those concomitants of an action without which it either cannot be done at all, or cannot be done with decency and decorum.” Girardeau argues that, given the fact that ceremonial worship is abrogated and only that worship which is moral and spiritual remains for the Christian to offer, the use of instruments, unlike the selection of a place of worship (a necessary adjunct to performing the elements of worship), is not a necessary adjunct to praise. Therefore, its use falls under the rubric of “element,” which makes it unauthorized, rather than “circumstance.”[10]

Dabney had again joined the battle with an 1889 review of Girardeau’s treatise,[11] but significant Southern Presbyterian resistance to the use of musical instruments in public worship largely ended in 1898 with the death of both men. With their pens set down for good, the basis of theological opposition to the use of musical instruments in Presbyterian places of worship seemed to disappear with them. As mentioned above, other dissenting groups of Presbyterians continued, and some still continue, to sing praises to God a cappella, and there is an important body of literature produced by American Reformed Presbyterians and others which continues to witness to the practice.[12] But as for the Southern Presbyterian Church, with the passing of these two theological giants in particular in one year, the tide had turned.  

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[1] Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1973), 2:429.

[2] Bruce C. Daniels, Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995), 59; John Price, Old Light on New Worship: Musical Instruments and The Worship of God, A Theological, Historical and Psychological Study (Avinger, Texas: Simpson Publishing Company, 2005), 133; Julius Melton, Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns Since 1787 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 35; Lowry Axley, Holding Aloft the Torch: A History of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia (Savannah: Publication Committee of the Independent Presbyterian Church, 1958), 46; Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, 2:430-431; Jonathan Jakob Hehn, “American Presbyterian Worship And The Organ” (2013), 29-30, 66, 109, accessed on February 21, 2019, http://purl.flvc.org/fsu/fd/FSU_migr_etd-7417. Thompson, citing Richard McIlwaine, Memories of Three Score Years and Ten (New York and Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1908), 262, places the date of the introduction of an organ into the College Church as 1890, but the College Presbyterian Church at Hampden-Sydney website says this took place in 1920 (http://people.hsc.edu/organizations/collegechurch/history/history2.shtml).

[3] The Blue Banner 3, nos. 1-2 (January-February 1994): 1-11; Robert Lewis Dabney, Discussions (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1999), 5:311.

[4] Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, A Protest Against the Use of Instrumental Music in the State Worship of God on the Lord’s Day (Liverpool: D. Marples, 1856), 8.

[5] John Douglas, “On Organs,” The Southern Presbyterian Review 9, no. 2 (October 1855): 224-225.

[6] Thomas Ephraim Peck, Miscellanies (Richmond, Virginia: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1895), 1:73, 85-89.

[7] Thomas Smyth, “The Scriptural and Divine Right for Using Mechanical as well as Vocal Instruments in the Worship of God,” The Southern Presbyterian Review 19, no. 4 (October 1868): 517-556.

[8] John Bailey Adger, “A Denial of Divine Right for Organs in Worship,” The Southern Presbyterian Review 20, no. 1 (January 1869): 101-102.

[9] Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, 2:430.

[10] John Lafayette Girardeau, Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church (Richmond, Virginia: Whittet & Shepperson, 1888), 135-154, 188-199; James Henley Thornwell, Collected Writings (Richmond, Virginia: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1873), 4:244-248.

[11] Robert Lewis Dabney, “A Review of Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church, by Dr. John L. Girardeau,” The Presbyterian Quarterly III, no. 9 (July 1889), 462-469.

[12] See, for example,  Alexander Cameron Blaikie (ARP), A Catechism of Praise (Boston: S.K. Whipple and Co., 1849, 1854) and The Organ and Other Musical Instruments as Noted in the Holy Scriptures (Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1865); Robert Johnson (RPCNA), A Discourse on Instrumental Music in Public Worship (Burlington, Iowa: Osborn, Snow & Co., 1871); William Wishart (UPCNA), “Psallo,” The Evangelical Repository LIX (First Series), no. 13, IX (Fourth Series), no. 18 (June 1882); Proceedings of the Convention of United Presbyterians [UPCNA] Opposed to Instrumental Music in the Worship of God (Pittsburgh: Myers, Shinkle & Co., 1883); and Robert J. George, Instrumental Music a Corruption of New Testament Worship (Pittsburgh: The Witness Committee of the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, n.d).

Robert Lewis Dabney on "The Attractions of Popery"

Christopher A. Hutchinson is the Senior Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Blacksburg, Virginia, and the author of Rediscovering Humility (New Growth Press, 2018). He graduated with an A.B. from Duke University and an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

In her collection of essays, Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard explains that she began attending Roman Catholic Mass “simply and solely to escape Protestant guitars.”[1] Many of us have felt similar sentiments or have friends who became so fed up with evangelical fads or blandness that they have ended up “swimming the Tiber” to Rome. I am sympathetic with those who have a longing for greater grandeur, beauty and tradition in worship. They rightly judge that much of contemporary American Protestantism has so enmeshed itself in our surrounding culture that it can almost be considered a syncretistic religion. Money, numbers, emotion, and the constant desire to be deemed acceptable and successful by their unbelieving peers have so watered down many evangelicals’ concept of the Gospel, that it is no wonder serious Christians look elsewhere for a more authentic expression of the faith.

Nevertheless, I have often cautioned my Reformed friends who feel the need for a change to stop their pendulum swing somewhere north of the Tiber, and to try to stay on this side of the Thames or the Rhine; that is, to become Anglican or Lutheran if they must. Better yet would be to rediscover the simplicity and beauty of classic Reformed worship and ecclesiology, along with the latter addition of instrumentation and hymns for greater balance and catholicity. There is harm in going all the way over to Rome, whose official doctrines since Trent officially water down the grace of the Gospel, and which itself is a syncretistic mixture of Scripture and culture, albeit the culture of a dying Roman empire from a millennium ago. Just because it is older and feels grander does not make it any less corrupt than our contemporary evangelical mess. All means of clutter still serve to obscure the Gospel that comes by faith, not sight.

It may surprise readers that this dilemma is not new. Robert Lewis Dabney discusses the tendency of some Protestants to head to Rome in his 1894 essay, “The Attractions of Popery.”[2] While this essay belongs to an earlier, more polemic age, and one that was pre-Vatican II, which greatly softened Rome’s errors and stance towards us “separated brethren,” it nevertheless offers insights that ring true today. Indeed, it is refreshing to find in such polemics the actual idea that truth matters and that people should decide matters by precept rather than by sentiment. Moreover, we find Dabney to be not so much critical of Rome (which of course he is), but frustrated with the state of his contemporary Protestantism that made Roman Catholicism such an attraction option.

For instance, Dabney critiques not only “democratic Protestantism,” which has declined into “Jacobin libertinism,” but also “rationalistic and skeptical Protestantism.”[3] Both have so failed to guard truth and godliness that Rome appears as a relative bastion of stability and morality. Never mind that Rome is able to adjust her teaching when she sees fit, according to her own processes, since she rejects sola scriptura; in comparison to revivalistic and liberal Protestantism, she appears to be the conservative alternative.

In contrast to all this Protestant weakness, Dabney writes, “Meantime, Rome gets up no spurious revivals; she works her system with the steadiness and perseverance which used to characterize pastoral effort and family religion among Presbyterians. Her worship is liturgical, but her liturgies, however erroneous in doctrine, are at least, genteel, and marked by aesthetic dignity.”[4] In other words, worse than the superstitious Roman piety is the practical atheism of the typical Protestant.

And yet, Dabney insists that Rome is not the answer, despite the attractions it offers. He delineates six of these attractions which were a powerful draw in the American Gilded Age: 1) the political power that accompanies a “permanently endowed” institution; 2) an appeal to the natural “aristocracy” each man craves; 3) the show of a more “spectacular and ritualistic” worship with its “architectural pomps and operatic music;” 4) a half-way station to man’s natural polytheism and image worship via the “intermediate gods” of saint veneration; 5) the replacement of spiritual salvation with concrete, material and spectacular rituals; and 6) the offer of Purgatory as a more “reasonable” doctrine than the immutable fate of eternal heaven or hell.[5]

While some of these attractions may have held particular force in the late 19th century, I think we can agree that even in a post-Vatican II world, the basic thrusts of the attractions remain the same in our day. Particularly telling and dangerous are the last two attractions, ones that must be resisted by souls who love the doctrines of grace, and who know that their only hope remains in an absolute pardon founded upon the full propitiation of the substitutionary atonement, which is accessed by faith alone. As Dabney writes, rituals better suit the sinful, selfish soul that does not wish to part with its sins, and also does not wish to go to hell. “It is less irksome to the carnal mind to do twelve dozen pater-nosters by the beads than to do a few moments of real heart-work.”[6] But those who know the depths of their own sin and the sufficiency of Christ’s blood would rather do real heart-work than settle for a half-justification which, in the end, provides little comfort or assurance. Despite any sentiment we may feel towards propriety in worship, abandoning sola fide is never the answer.

In that regard, Dabney’s essay represents the best of theology, one that both addresses particular problems in its own age, and yet advances principles that are timeless, and an aid to all generations. And thus in our own age of such rampant evangelical errors, his essay remains a help to those who sense the urge to take the plunge into the cold Tiber. The far shore may look attractive from afar, but a closer examination reveals much healthier grounds closer to home, if yet distinct from what now dominates the landscape.

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[1] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 59.

[2] Robert Lewis Dabney, Discussions (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1994), 4:540-567.

[3] Ibid., 544-5.

[4] Ibid., 546.

[5] Ibid., 550-567.

[6] Ibid., 563.