The Amazing History of Instrumental Music in Christian Worship

by Allen Webster

"I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also" (I Corinthians 14:15).

In the average person's mind, gospel singing and organ music go together like "rock" and "roll" or "blues" and "rhythm" or "hip" and "hop." It is assumed, expected, even celebrated.

Most would be genuinely surprised to find that "their" church once had no instrument, and amazed that its founders and most famous preachers strongly taught against its use. The Catholic Church debated it for five hundred years. As recently as the 1800s, most protestant churches sang congregationally, and preached against "praising God with machinery."

Intrigued? Read on.

John Spencer Curwen, a member of the Royal Academy of Music and President of a college in London, wrote in 1880, "Men still living can remember the time when organs were very seldom found out of the Church of England. The Methodists, Independents, and Baptists rarely had them, and by the Presbyterians they were stoutly opposed." [John Spencer Curwen, Studies in Worship Music, (London Carwen, & Sons 1880) 179.]

Let's start with the history of instrumental music in the Catholic Church.

THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA. Gerhard Gictmann wrote in The Catholic Encyclopedia,

Although Josephus tells of the wonderful effects produced in the Temple by the use of instruments, the first Christians were of too spiritual a fibre to substitute lifeless instruments for or to use them to accompany the human voice. Clement of Alexandria severely condemns the use of instruments even at Christian banquets (P.G., VIII, 440).
[Vol 10, p 648-652, "Ecclesiastical Music," Transcribed by Michael C. Tinkle, Volume X, Copyright 1911 by Robed Appleton Company, Online Edition Copyright 2000 by K Knight Nihit Obstat October 1, 1911 Remy Lafort. S.T, D, Censor, Imprimatur + John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.]

How long did the practice of singing a cappella continue? Joseph Otten, in The Catholic Encyclopedia, wrote,

For almost a thousand years Gregorian chant, without any instrumental or harmonic addition, was the only music used in connection with the liturgy. The organ, in its primitive and rude form, was the first, and for a long time the sole, instrument used to accompany the chant. . . . The Church has never encouraged, and at most only tolerated, the use of instruments. She enjoins in the 'Caeremoniale Episcoporum' that permission for their use should first be obtained from the ordinary. She holds up as her ideal the unaccompanied chant and polyphonic, a capella, style. The Sistine Chapel has not even an organ.
["Musical Instruments in Church Services," Transcribed by Ferruccio Germani. Volume X. p 657-688]

From where did the practice originate? Did God reveal it in the Scriptures? Writing on the subject of "candles," Herbert Thurston wrote in The Catholic Encyclopedia,

We need not shrink from admitting that candles, like incense and lust-al water, were commonly employed in pagan worship and in the rites paid to the dead. But the Church from a very early period took them into her service, just as she adopted many other things indifferent in themselves, which seemed proper to enhance the splendour of religious ceremonial. We must not forget that most of these adjuncts to worship, like music, lights, perfumes, ablutions, floral decorations, canopies, fans, screens, bells, vestments, etc. were not identified with any idolatrous cult in particular; they were common to almost all cults. They are, in fact, part of the natural language of mystical expression, and such things belong quite as much to secular ceremonial as they do to religion."
["Candles," The Catholic Encylopedia,Volume III]

THOMAS AQUINAS. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that Thomas Aquinas was a "philosopher, theologian, doctor of the Church (Angelicus Doctor), patron of Catholic universities, colleges, and schools." He was born at Rocca Secca in the Kingdom of Naples, 1225 or 1227, and died at Fossa Nuova, 7 March 1274. In a lengthy article on Aquinas' life and work, D. J. Kennedy wrote of the "influence of St. Thomas (appreciation)." He said,

The esteem in which he was held during his life has not been diminished, but rather increased, in the course of the six centuries that have elapsed since his death. The position which he occupies in the Church is well explained by that great scholar Leo XIII, in the Encyclical `Aeterni Patris,' recommending the study of Scholastic philosophy: 'It is known that nearly all the founders and framers of laws of religious orders commanded their societies to study and religiously adhere to the teachings of St. Thomas ... The Paris doctors called him the morning star, the luminous sun, the light of the whole Church. Stephen, Bishop of Paris, repressing those who dared to attack the doctrine of `that most excellent Doctor, the blessed Thomas,' calls him `the great luminary of the Catholic Church, the precious stone of the priesthood, the flower of doctors, and the bright mirror of the University of Paris' (Drane, op. cit., p. 431). In the old Louvain University the doctors were required to uncover and bow their heads when they pronounced the name of Thomas (Goudin, op. cit., p. 21). ["St. Thomas Aquinas," Transcribed by Kevin Cawley. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV. 1912.]

Regarding the instrument, Thomas Aquinas wrote, "Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize." [William Swan Plumer, Studies in the Book of Psalms, J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1866, p. 412].

So, as late as 1250, at least some Catholic churches were not using musical instruments. Even as late as the sixteenth century there was enough protest within the Roman church that the Council of Trent (1545) came very close to abolishing their use. ["Sacred Music," Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, vol. 10, 153.]

David wrote, "Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise His name, and proclaim his salvation day after day" (Psalm 96:1-2). In the history of the world's religions, only two have developed the art of music to a great degree of proficiency: Judaism and Christianity. These have developed music as an integral part of their worship. In many religions, we find the dirge (a lament and mourning for the dead) and the chant used. But nothing like the songs of praise, worship, and joy found in honor of Jehovah. The nations which have given the world its greatest music are those that have embraced the teachings of Jesus Christ.

In this study of the history of Christianity, we are examining the beliefs of leading thinkers on musical instruments in worship. These are not obscure and unimportant sources, but the opinions of the brightest luminaries among their respective religions.

AUGUSTINE: According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, "St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was one of the most prolific geniuses that humanity has ever known, and is admired not only for the number of his works but also for the variety of subjects, which traverse the whole realm of thought." It continues:

If Augustine occupies a place apart in the history of humanity, it is as a thinker, his influence being felt even outside the realm of theology, and playing a most potent part in the orientation Western thought. It is now universally conceded that, in the intellectual field, this influence is unrivalled even by that of Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine's teaching marks a distinct epoch in the history of Christian thought.... Peter the Venerable accurately summarized the general sentiment of the Middle Ages when he ranked Augustine immediately after the Apostles; and in modern times Bossuet, whose genius was most like that of Augustine, assigns him the first place among the Doctors, nor does he simply call him "the incomparable Augustine," but "the Eagle of Doctors," "the Doctor of Doctors." ... In the nineteenth century Stockl expressed the thought of all when he said, "Augustine has justly been called the greatest Doctor of the Catholic world." ["Teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo", Catholic Encyclopedia].

We do not profess to agree with this assessment, but it shows how much weight his words bear among the Catholics. Historian Philip Schaff called Augustine

the man with upturned eye, with pen in the left hand, and a burning heart in the right (as he is usually represented), is a philosophical and theological genius of the first order, towering like a pyramid above his age, and looking down commandingly upon succeeding centuries. He had a mind uncommonly fertile and deep, bold and soaring; and with it, what is better, a heart full of Christian love and humility. He stands of right by the side of the greatest philosophers of antiquity and of modern times. We meet him alike on the broad highways and the narrow footpaths, on the giddy Alpine heights and in the awful depths of speculation, wherever philosophical thinkers before him or after him have trod. As a theologian he is facile princeps, at least surpassed by no church father, scholastic, or reformer. With royal munificence he scattered ideas in passing, which have set in mighty motion other lands and later times. ["Church Falthers, and Theological Literature," History of the Christian Church.]

What did Augustine think of instrumental music? Did he use it? "Augustine describes the singing at Alexandria under Athanasius as 'more like speaking than singing.' Musical instruments were not used. The pipe, tabret, and harp were associated so intimately with the sensuous heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theatre and circus, that it is easy to understand the prejudice against their use in the Christian worship" [Ernest Edwin Ryden, Story of Our Hymns] [Note: original quote and citation by Webster corrected].

GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH: The Greek Orthodox Church was the third church, after the New Testament church, and the Roman Catholic Church. The Greek Church split from the Catholics in 1054 A.D. One of the disagreements was over instrumental music. "The execution of Byzantine church music by instruments or even the accompaniment of sacred chanting by instruments was ruled out by the Eastern Fathers as being incompatible with the pure, solemn, spiritual character of the religion of Christ." [G. I. Papadopoulos, A Historical Survey of Byzantine Ecclesiastical Music (in Greek), Athens, 1904, pgs. 10-11.]

To this day the Greek Orthodox Church (which claims to be "today the second largest organized body of Christians in the world") does not worship with the instruments.
[Dimitri Conomos, "Early Christian and Byzantine Music: History and Performance," 15 November 2012]

LUTHERAN CHURCH: Four hundred fifty years after his death, Martin Luther (1483-1546) is still a recognizable name to anyone familiar with church history, or even secular history. Initially an Augustinian Catholic priest, he began the Protestant Movement in 1517 A.D. He challenged the Roman church with his "95 Theses," a document that attacked papal abuses and the sale of indulgences. Luther's teaching deeply colored the doctrines and culture of the Lutherans and Protestants as a whole. After his death, his followers organized the Lutheran church. The Lutheran church acquired (and still celebrates) a reputation as "the singing church" but did not use instruments until the century following Luther's death. "Congregational singing with organ accompaniment was not common practice until the early eighteenth century" [Balint Karosi, "Music in the Lutheran Tradition," 14 April 2015].

What was Luther's opinion of the instrument in Christian worship? He believed strongly in the power of songs and singing. He wrote, "Music is an endowment and a gift of God, not a gift of men . . . I place music next to theology and give it the highest praise." [Edwald Plass, What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology, 1997. p. 980.]

Luther strongly supported the musical education of children in the schools and the musical education of preachers and teachers. He encouraged poets to write new hymns. He wrote new hymns himself, as well as "corrected and improved" traditional Gregorian melodies, making them more suitable for congregational singing. He provided new opportunities for congregations to participate through music that "praised God and proclaimed the Gospel." He encouraged the use of the vernacular language in song. ["Lutheran Music - 16th Century"]

Luther initially opposed the use of the pipe organ in worship -- probably because of its association with the Roman Catholic Church, though he later changed his mind. [Theo Van Wyk, "Martin Luther and the pipe organ – His true sentiments affirmed," December 2017.]

[Note: The original article had numerous misquotes or incorrect citations. I've endeavored to correct these and provide links to what I could find - Jeffrey W. Hamilton]

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