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The Amazing History of Instrumental Music in Christian Worship

"I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also" (1 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 1800's, most protestant churches sang congregationally, and preached against "praising God with machinery."

Intrigued? Read on.

John Spencer Curwen, 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."

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

THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA. Gerhard Gietmann 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).2

How long did the practice of singing a cappella continue? Joseph Often, in The Catholic Encyclopedia, wrote, For almost a thousand years Gregorian chant, without any instrumental or harmonic addition, was the only music used in connec-tion with the liturgy. The organ, in its primitive and rude form, was the first, and for a long time the sole, instrument used to ac-company 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. From where did the practice originate? Did God reveal it in the Scriptures? Writing on the subject of "candles," Hertbert Thurston wrote in The Catholic Encyclopedia, We need not shrink from admitting that candles, like incense and lustral 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 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."

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 Fosse 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 how their heads when they pronounced the name of Thomas (Goudin, op. cit., p. 21).

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." So, as late at 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.

Allen Webster
Glad Tidings of Good Things
Volume 11 (June 11, 2006), page 2