Monday, February 16, 2009

The History of Musical Instruments in American Churches

The question is sometimes asked, when were musical instruments first employed in American churches? Here are the results of some of my research in this area.

Bruce C. Daniels, Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England, p. 59:

[Thomas] Brattle, a devout Puritan and the treasurer of Harvard College, imported the first organ into New England in 1708; he played it in his home to the delight of many friends. At his death in 1713, Brattle willed the organ to the Brattle Square Church, the most liberal Congregational church in town [Boston, Massachusetts]. The church trustees faced a difficult choice -- one that Thomas Brattle must have anticipated -- and planned to force Puritans to rethink their position on the use of instruments in worship. Not surprisingly, the trustees compromised. "With all due respect," they wrote, "[we] do think it proper to use the same [the organ] in the public worship of God." But they were indeed respectful, not scandalized -- and they gave the organ to King's Chapel, one of the Anglican churches in Boston. Thus, through the good offices of a leading Puritan and of a Puritan board of church elders, organ music was introduced to religious worship. Brattle's remained the sole organ in New England for two decades, until an Anglican parish in Newport imported another in 1733. Shortly after, two more appeared in Boston, one each at the other two Anglican parishes, and then in rapid-fire succession a couple of dozen Anglican parishes elsewhere in Massachusetts and Connecticut bought and installed them. In the 1750s, organs began appearing among the household possessions of many merchants, dissenters and Congregationalists alike, and in 1770, the first Puritan church to allow one, the Congregational Church of Providence, installed an organ of two hundred pipes, a truly magnificent instrument for its time. Providence's Anglican church, piqued at being upstaged by the Congregationalists, immediately ordered one, which was installed the following year. The two Providence parishes engaged distinguished organists, Benjamin West being hired by the Congregationalists and Andrew Law by the Anglicans. The breakthrough became nearly complete when the Brattle Square Church, had refused the first organ in New England, bought one in 1790.15

15. Owen, "Eighteenth-Century Organs," 656, 677-681; Hoover, "Epilogue to Sacred Music," 738-39; Sinclair Hitchings, "The Musical Pursuits of William Price and Thomas Johnson," in Lambert, ed., Music in Colonial Massachusetts, vol. 2, 631-32; Joyce Ellen Mangler, "Early Music in Rhode Island Churches: Music in the First Congregational Church, Providence, 1770-1850," RIH, 17 (1958), 1-3; William Dinneen, "Early Music in Rhode Island Churches: Music in the First Baptist Church, Providence," RIH, 17 (1958), 33-38.

Julius Melton, Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns Since 1787, pp. 35, 150:

Some churches which early took the controversial step of installing an organ were First Presbyterian Church of Alexandria, Virginia, in 1817; Independent Presbyterian of Savannah, Georgia, by the 1820's; and First Presbyterian of Rochester, New York, by 1830. Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, went through a stormy controversy over using a choir and instruments -- highlighted by the padlocking of the cello by some conservatives -- before it finally secured an organ in 1856.[21]

It is worth noting that American Presbyterians preceded those in Scotland by a number of years in making this change in their common inherited pattern of church music. There was no successful introduction of an organ in Scottish Presbyterianism until 1860.[22]

[21] Daniel W. Hollis, Look to the Rock: One Hundred Ante-bellum Presbyterian Churches of the South (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1961), p. 129
[22] William D. Maxwell, A History of Worship in the Church of Scotland (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 167

John Price, Old Light on New Worship: Musical Instruments and The Worship of God, A Theological, Historical and Psychological Study, pp. 133-135:

The first Puritan church to have an organ was the First Congregational Church in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1770.[222]

[222] Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams, ed., Encylopedia of the American Religious Experience, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988), Vol. 3, 1292.

Even among the Anglicans, who often had an organ, there were some who stood against its use into the late 1700s. Dr. Tho. Bradbury Chandler, a New England Episcopalian minister, had resisted an organ against the increasing pressure of his congregation. After his farewell sermon in 1785, realizing that the end of his life was near, he told his people, "that it would not be long before he was in his grave -- he knew that before his head was cold there, they would have an Organ -- and they might do as they pleased."[225]

In America, the Baptists were among the last to give way before the rising flood of the use of organs. David Benedict (1779-1874), a New England Baptist pastor and historian, states that the first organ in a Baptist church was about 1820 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

[225] Ezra Stiles, The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, ed. Franklin Bowditch Dexter, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1901), Vol. 3, 162.

The Scottish Presbyterian churches, founded by John Knox in the 16th century, maintained their no-instrumental convictions for well over three hundred years, nearly one hundred years longer than their brethren in England and America. It was not until the late 19th century that the organ began to enter the worship of the Scottish Reformed churches. The famous American revivalist team of Moody and Sankey seems to have been one means of eroding the convictions of these churches. In 1873, Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey began an evangelistic tour of the British Isles. Sankey sang solo gospel songs while accompanying himself with a portable organ.


  1. I like to read about the history of musical instruments in American churches... It's really interesting!!

  2. I'm glad you found it interesting. :) Blessings!