Church Music by


By Thomas Frost


Though the use of instrumental music in the services of the Church fell into disfavour after the Reformation, the existence of a sculptured representation of an organ in Melrose Abbey shows that instrument to have been known as early as the fourteenth century. That “regals,” as they were then called, were placed in some of the principal churches, and used in worship, is also evidenced by documents still in existence. That these, however inferior they may have been to similar instruments of the present day, were carefully constructed, and at considerable cost, appears from the payments made to William Calderwood for “a pair of organs” for the Chapel Royal at Stirling in 1537, and for “a set of organs” for the King’s Chapel at Holyrood in 1542. But the Reformation led to these instruments being everywhere discarded as partaking too much of Romanism to be acceptable to the followers of Knox.

The organs of the royal chapels kept their places for a time, but elsewhere the “kists of whistles,” as they then came to be called, were broken up and the materials sold in aid of the fund for the poor. But no long time elapsed before the Earl of Mar, as captain of Stirling Castle, caused the organ in the Royal Chapel to be removed and broken up; and in 1571 the Scottish Parliament expressed approval of the act. The prevailing feeling against the organ was intensified when, in 1617, orders were given by James VI. that carved figures of the Apostles should be affixed to the seats of the choir in the Chapel at Holyrood, where the organ was then being repaired, after a long period of disuse and neglect. Instrumental music thus became associated in the public mind with what was regarded as idolatry, and so much excitement prevailed that the bishops advised that the restoration of the organ and the choir stalls should be delayed until it subsided.

In 1631 Charles issued an order for the erection of an organ in every cathedral and principal church, and thereby renewed the agitation against the instrument. The order was disregarded, and in 1638, when popular opposition to the introduction of the Anglican prayer-book was being strongly manifested, the General Assembly ruled that the attempt to introduce instrumental music into the services of the Church should be resisted. Spalding, speaking of the agitation of that period, says that “the glorious organs of the Chapel Royal were masterfully broken down, nor no service used there, but the whole chaplains, choristers, and musicians discharged, and the costly organs altogether destroyed and unuseful.” Six years later, the General Assembly recorded in their minutes the gladness with which that body had received the news from their commissioners at Westminster of the taking down of the great organs of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

Psalmody was little more in favour than the gilded pipes of the organ. The Westminster Directory for Public Worship, adopted by the General Assembly in 1645, recommends that “for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.” Before this time, in 1642, there had been much controversy in the western Lowlands concerning the singing of the doxology at the end of a psalm, a practice which was popularly regarded as a commandment of men, not to be accepted as a divine ordinance. The General Assembly, in 1643, took the matter into consideration, and ordered the dispute to be dropped. In 1649, however, the subject was again before the Assembly, which then resolved that the singing of the doxology should be discontinued.

In 1647, a committee was named by the General Assembly to examine and revise Rous’s paraphrase of the Psalms, and Zachary Boyd was requested to make a metrical version of the other Biblical songs; but nothing was done in the latter direction, probably due to the desire for uniformity with the Presbyterian Church in England, and in 1650 the present metrical version was printed for use in public worship, without the addition of any hymns or paraphrases. Nothing further was done for the improvement of congregational singing for more than half a century.

The question of instrumental music was revived in 1687, by the erection in the Royal Chapel at Holyrood, by order of James II., of a large and magnificent organ, which was regarded as a step towards the introduction of the Romish service. So convinced were the people of this that the clergy of even the Episcopal churches discontinued the use of the organ in public worship. In the following year, when James had abdicated, and the fear of Popish devices had become allayed, the mob of Edinburgh testified to the national joy, and at the same time indulged their latent propensity to mischief by breaking down the organ and burning the materials.

As in England down to a much later period, so also in Scotland, a metrical version of the Psalms was alone in use in worship, though several attempts were made at different times in the last century to introduce hymns of a more distinctively Christian character, as well as more poetical than the old paraphrases of Hebrew psalmody. The matter was before the General Assembly in 1707, and again in 1742, when a committee was appointed to prepare some paraphrases of passages in the Bible, “to be joined with the Psalms of David, so as to enlarge the Psalmody.” Three years afterwards, some examples of religious poetry were submitted by the committee for the judgment of the Assembly; but, as before, nothing was done, and the matter remained in abeyance until 1775, when it was suggested by the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr that the Assembly should take such measures as might be judged necessary to introduce the paraphrases of 1751 into the Psalter of the Church. These were, in consequence, again examined and revised by a committee, but it was not until 1781 that the committee made their report and the Assembly ordered copies of the collection (which had been printed in 1751) to be submitted to the Presbyteries. Pending the Presbyterial judgment, the Assembly allowed the collection to be used in public worship “where the minister finds it for edification.”

The permission to use this collection of Biblical paraphrases was never recalled by the Assembly, but it has also never been made a permanent act. It appears to have been given reluctantly, and only as a measure of policy, in concession to popular feeling in favour of the collection; for it appears to have been previously used in several churches. “Use and wont,” says Dr Edgar, in his “Old Church Life in Scotland,” “have now given as valid an authority for the singing of the paraphrases in church as a special Act of Assembly could do. The paraphrases have, on the strength of their own merits, established a secure place in the psalmody of all the Presbyterian churches in Scotland.”

Instrumental music had, in the meantime, continued to be banished from public worship. The psalm to be sung was announced by the minister, and the precentor, who occupied a smaller pulpit below him, placed in a slit in a lyre-shaped brass frame in front of him a card bearing the name of the tune in large letters, so as to be visible to all the congregation. The minister then repeated the first two lines of the verses to be sung, and the precentor struck his tuning-fork on the desk. It was a custom of long standing, probably dating from a time when few of the congregation could read, for the precentor to read and sing a line alternately, which must, to persons unaccustomed to it, have sounded strange, and certainly have destroyed what little harmony there might have been if the psalm had been sung differently.

It was not until the first decade of the present century that the organ was called to the aid of the volume of praise in the Scottish Church. To Dr Ritchie, minister of St. Andrew’s Church, Glasgow, belongs the honour of this innovation. With the approval of the congregation, he introduced an organ, which was played for the first time on the 23rd of August, 1807, not without producing a sensation and a protest. The Presbytery was convened, and the Lord Provost appeared before that grave body, at the head of a deputation of influential citizens, to protest against the minister’s innovation on long established custom. The Presbytery ruled, “that the use of organs in the public worship of God is contrary to the law of the land, and to the law and constitution of our Established Church.” The organ was summarily silenced, therefore, and the grand tones of that instrument were not again heard in accompaniment of sacred song in the Presbyterian churches of Scotland for more than twenty years.

The ineffective character of unaccompanied congregational singing was very slowly recognised. In 1829, however, the congregation of the Relief Church,[11] at Roxburgh Place, Edinburgh, with the approval of their minister, had an organ erected in their place of worship. The act was clamorously opposed outside his own following, and the Relief Presbytery called upon the minister, John Johnston, to remove the offending instrument, under pain of deprivation. The response of minister and congregation to this command was the severance of their connection with the Synod. In 1845, a Congregational Church in Edinburgh set up an organ in their place of worship, and as each congregation in that denomination is an independent body, no outside opposition or interference was in that case possible.

The progress of the movement continued, however, to be very slow. A large proportion of the older men in the ministry still regarded instrumental music in churches as associated with Romanism, and when Dr Lee, the minister of the Old Greyfriars’ Church, in Edinburgh, ventured, in 1863, to introduce a harmonium there, it was rumoured that he was a disguised Jesuit, seeking to Romanise the Reformed Church. He was well able to defend himself, however, and he did so with such ability and power that, in the following year, the General Assembly ruled that “such innovations should be put down only when they interfered with the peace of the Church and the harmony of congregations.” The cause was won. The Old Greyfriars’ congregation subscribed four hundred and fifty pounds for an organ, which replaced the harmonium in 1865.

The Free Church lingered long in the rear of the movement, mainly owing to the opposition of Dr Begg, but in 1883 the General Assembly recorded a resolution similar to that adopted by the Assembly of the Established Church of Scotland in 1864, and opposition to instrumental music is now practically at an end. The prejudice against it still lingers, however, in some districts remote from the life and light of the larger towns. A story is told of a lady of the old school of religious thought, that, having been induced by some friends to attend an Episcopalian service, and being asked on her return how she liked the music, she replied, “It was verra fine, but waes me! yon’s an awfu’ way of spending the Sawbath.”