Faith in Focus

The Organ and the Organist in Reformed Worship- Part I




We read in Isaiah, chapter 52 verse 14 to chapter 53 verse 3

Just as many were appalled at you, so His visage was marred  more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men; so shall He startle many nations.  Kings shall shut their mouths  at Him; for what had not been told them, they shall see; and what they had not heard, they shall consider. Who has believed our report?  And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?  For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground.  He has no form or comeliness, and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him.  He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
I am very glad to have the opportunity to speak to you in this particular interior, which I shall explain in a little while. I have been asked by our minister, Rev. Vaatstra, to speak on the subject of worship.  I have chosen the title "the organ and organist in reformed worship," as organs and organists are a particular study of mine, but I will be touching on many other things as well, all to the end of asking the question "is our worship really reformed?"  I have no theological qualifications or authority, and this talk certainly isn't a sermon, but I hope that you will find it interesting and challenging.
My PhD thesis, which is presently being examined, looks at the various cultural contexts of organ building in New Zealand, attempting to answer the question "why were so many pipe organs built in New Zealand from 1895 to 1930?"  What I found was that in
the nineteenth century, contemporary with a move towards what we now call "liberal" theology, there was a trend in Protestant churches towards what I call "aesthetic worship."  It was this new style of worship, widespread throughout the various nonconformist denominations (such as Baptist, Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, even  Unitarian), and widespread throughout the English-speaking world, which created a huge demand for pipe organs.  The "aesthetic worship" movement peaked from around 1895
to around 1910, and it would seem that practically every Protestant church built or remodelled by the end of that period, certainly in New Zealand, and the style of worship conducted in those buildings, was to varying extents modelled on aesthetic worship ideals.  As I had never come across this phenomenon before, I decided that it was worth digging a little deeper to try and determine why this movement was so powerful, and why it has been all but forgotten today.  I won't bore you with every last little discovery, but I wish to start by bringing before you various facets that bear upon our subject tonight.

Not all Christian
The philosophical basis for the aesthetic worship movement was not at all Christian, but a mix of various eastern religious ideas, particularly from Hinduism and Buddhism.  These influences did not bear directly on the Christian church of the  nineteenth century, but came via the medium of secular German philosophy, commonly
known as German romanticism.  After the failure of the French Revolution, German intellectuals retreated from their pursuit of rationalism to create an escapist cult of subjectivity, or transcendentalism, and found ready-made formulations in their
study of hinduistic writings.  They dispensed with the concept of the objective existence of God as the central factor in their systems, and replaced it with various self-projected human Ideals or Infinites, the most powerful and long-lasting of which was the Will; in other words, they deified the human will.  The leaders, however, were generally employed in Protestant universities, so in order to protect their positions, they disguised the pagan and seemingly Catholic aspects of their writings with the use of familiar religious language, some even claiming that in their philosophy they were simply taking the principles of the Reformation to their logical conclusion!  In this manner they were
able to influence generations of students in such areas as metaphysics, aesthetics, and theology.  The areas of their writings which deal with aesthetics (that is, defining art, and
our response to art) are also very interesting, and show that a confusion arose between aesthetics and spirituality and morality; that is, not only was beauty seen to be inherently good (so experiencing a beautiful piece of music or art made you into a good person) but it was also seen to be inherently spiritual, so one also had a spiritual experience.  Music, which in classical philosophy from the ancient Greeks right up to the eighteenth century was merely an adjunct to astronomy and mathematics, was suddenly accorded the place of highest honour amongst all the arts, and the written word was relegated to the lowest.  As one writer said: 
   
   Romantic art springs from man's attempt to transcend the sphere
   of cognition, to experience higher, more spiritual things, and
   to sense the presence of the ineffable.  No aesthetic material
   is better suited to the expression of the ineffable than is
   sound... The proper realm of true music only begins where
   speech leaves off.

A number of these philosophers said that music was the most direct expression of their particular Infinite and therefore by listening to music we are put in direct touch with that Infinite.  One philosopher even said that even if the world did not exist, music would.  All agreed that music itself was inherently spiritual, and that if we wanted to get in touch with the Infinite, we should listen to music.  The key phrase which is reiterated over and over in German romantic philosophy is, "music elevates the soul to the infinite."  Further study shows that German transcendentalism was strongly Gnostic, and was basically the New Age Movement of last century, a point which is not picked up on in recent books on the subject. These Gnostic and Hinduistic ideas infiltrated British culture and churches through various means.  Writers such as Carlyle and Meredith studied with German philosophers and writers, musicians such as Sullivan, Elgar and our own Alfred Hill were sent to Germany to train, and Germans went to Britain where they were given positions of influence.  The marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg gave the royal seal of approval to all things Germanic, and this showed in their patronage of
musicians such as Mendelssohn and, later, Wagner.  Presbyterians, particularly Scots Presbyterians, were highly intellectual in their approach to Christianity, and because English universities such as Oxford and Cambridge required students to subscribe to
Anglican beliefs, they sent their sons to Germany to study at the great Universities there, where they picked up the latest ideas in philosophy and theology, particularly the new rationalistic techniques of Bible study known as "higher criticism," and brought them back home and on to the colonies. 
The single most important way in which the hinduistic ideas of the German transcendentalists came to influence Protestant church worship, was through the provision of a model on which the new cultural forms could be constructed.  This was the
gesamtkunstwerk, or total art work, in which various art forms are synthesised into a new, supposedly higher art form.  This concept was brought to its peak in the work of Richard Wagner, whose musikdrama was a synthesis of literature, stage production, set
design, the architecture of his own theatre, and symphonic and vocal music, all subordinated to his own will.  Wagner came to this point after reading the philosophy of Artur Schopenhauer, a student of eastern transcendentalism and nihilism, particularly
his The World as Will and Idea, and a comparison of the two men leaves no doubt that the work of one was firmly based on the other.  By the end of the nineteenth century, Schopenhauer and Wagner were required reading and listening for every trendy young
person. 

Contemporary cultural forms
When we study church history, it is usually the theology of the church we turn to to understand why things were the way they were. When we study the history of worship, however, it is not only theology we must turn to to understand things, but also contemporary cultural forms.  For the nineteenth-century church, we can look at the theological aspects of Spurgeon's fight against the Baptist Down-grade movement, or Ryle's battle with the Anglican High-church movement, but in fact they were concerned as much with contemporary trends in  worship as they were with combating heresies.  What basically was happening in the churches, was a profound shift from objectivity in theology and worship, to subjectivity, from classicism to romanticism.  This is seen in the undermining of perceptions of the objective existence of God (until God was simply a projection of aspects of one's own self or subconscious), of Scripture, the creeds and confessions, and classical forms of worship, and the overwhelming turn to aesthetics as a substitute for true, spiritual worship.  It is of course worship we want to concentrate on tonight, and the Presbyterians provide us with the best case study, as their formerly classicist position most resembles that of the Reformed churches today, and their intellectualism meant that copious source materials still exist.  Indeed, the worship issues which most vexed the Presbyterians were the introduction of hymns and instrumental music, and by focusing on this we can easily chart the move from classicism to  romanticism in worship, and also see much that troubled the English-speaking protestant churches last century.

The regulative principle
One of the most important things that distinguished the worship of the reformed denominations (such as the Presbyterians, the Reformed churches of northern Europe, and the Calvinist branches of the Congregationalist, Baptist and Methodist churches) from the evangelical denominations (such as the low church Lutheran and Anglicans) from the time of the Reformation, was the regulative principle of worship.  The Lutherans did not allow anything into worship that was forbidden in Scripture, and the Anglicans did not allow anything into worship that was inconsistent with Scripture, but the reformed churches did not allow anything into worship that wasn't commanded in Scripture.  This is expressed in the Westminster Confession, chapter 21:

   The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath
   lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doeth good unto
   all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called
   upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all
   the soul, and with all the might.  But the acceptable way of
   worshipping the true God, is instituted by Himself, and so
   limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped
   according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the
   suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any
   other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

This idea, that we may not worship God in any way that is not commanded in Scripture, is what makes reformed worship distinctive.  I cannot speak for the history of the Dutch reformed churches, as I am ignorant, but the Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists and some others in Britain maintained their adherence to the regulative principle of public worship right from the time of the reformation to the nineteenth century.  Their
worship was simple: plain whitewashed interiors, central prominent pulpit, basic orders of service, unaccompanied singing of psalms, indeed, everything subordinated to the reading and preaching of the Word.  There was no place for the singing of hymns, or the
playing of organs.  This was also true of many Anglican parish churches, but the history of music in the Anglican churches is outside the scope of this talk.  The various nonconformist denominations may have had different forms of baptism and government, but their adherence to the regulative principle resulted in forms of worship which we today would find difficult to distinguish.
The move toward subjective theology undermined the adherence to any form of written guideline, whether it be Scripture or a creed or confession, and in 1893 the Declaratory Act (which excused ministers from adhering to the Westminster Confession on grounds of conscience) was approved of by Presbyterian Sessions throughout New Zealand.  The previous high regard for the spoken word, was replaced with a high regard for aesthetics, and one of the key factors in the rise of aesthetic worship, is the diminution of preaching, and the increased role of the organ, organist and choir.
The question of whether or not the regulative principle excludes instrumental music from public worship was a controversial one, and I wish now to present some historic arguments excluding instruments from public worship, which is the historic position of the reformed churches, at least in Britain.  While we find that the Psalms exhort us to praise God with instruments, this was seen by the reformers to have been part of the elaborate Temple worship ordained by God in the Old Testament; there is no evidence that synagogues used such worship at all.  With the rending of the veil of the Temple, the requirements of the Temple worship came to an end, along with its instrumental music, and as there is no direct command regarding the use of instruments (or even hymns) for Christian worship in the New Testament, the application of the
regulative principle would mean that there is no place for it in public worship today.
In our day of every possible musical entertainment being produced in the name of worship, the issue seems irrelevant to the point that it may surprise you to know that it was considered one of the most divisive issues in Presbyterian churches in the nineteenth
century.  In New Zealand, the various home-grown Presbyteries decided to form themselves into a national body by organising a General Assembly in 1862.  At this Assembly, however, the issue of whether or not instruments might be allowed into worship was considered, and it was decided that the choice was up to each individual congregation.  As a result of this decision, the churches south of the Waitaki River refused to recognise the authority of the Assembly, and in 1867 formed their own Synod of Otago and Southland.  Union between the two churches was not achieved until 1901.  The northern churches embraced organs, choirs, hymns and other innovations with ease, Napier introducing the first reed organ in 1862 and the first pipe organ in 1877.
It was not simply that those who favoured purity of worship believed that music was bad.  Rather, from a close reading of the multitude of sources relating to the issue, it is clear that they identified the introduction of instrumental music as a visible manifestation of more sinister innovations in theology and worship.  They, being predominantly uneducated laymen and unable to combat the subtle intellectualism and sophisticated aestheticism of the progressive element, took up this issue as their way of fighting for the truth, and their arguments were based exclusively on scripture and the regulative principle.  The progressives, however, used any and every excuse they could come up with to introduce organs and other aesthetic devices.  One correspondent from South Auckland even claimed that the weather was the reason their church had to adopt a reed organ: 

   There can be no doubt but that in this climate the voice needs
   to be sustained by an instrument, even more than in the home
   climate, and perhaps, even more in Auckland than in Otago.

Those who stood by the regulative principle were labelled as backward, troublemakers, narrow-minded, even worse: 

   If our hearts are right, God will prosper us, with or without
   instrumental music; and it is worse than idle for any man to
   pretend that he cannot enjoy religion in a house of worship
   which holds an organ or an harmonium.  In such cases the devil
   is not in the instrument, but he has managed to get into the
   heart of the person complaining.


An apple of discord
When the issue was first brought up in the southern churches in 1874, one Session declared that they were "unanimously of the opinion that the use of such is both inexpedient and unscriptural and think that those who have ventured to cast the apple of
discord into our midst have much to answer for," and another considered that the introduction of organs "into the public worship of God is dangerous to the peace and purity of the Church."  The debate at the next Synod was the largest up until then, and the innovation was passed by a very slim majority.  The dissents, appeals and protests lasted a few years, but the issue was finally settled in 1877, the final dissent reiterating once
more the regulative principle and concluding that it was "giving a place to instrumental music hitherto unknown to the worship of this Church."  The last church on the Taieri plain to have an organ introduced was East Taieri, near Mosgiel, in 1894.  To a number of members, it was "equal to a sentence of excommunication," they now having "no Presbyterian church near Dunedin to which they can have access."
As church after church applied for sanction to introduce organs, the resignations of elders and members grew, all recorded reasons referring to the regulative principle, and some including warnings of impending trouble: "from every observation that I have been able to make, the tendency is to formality, and often engenders pride, and destroys the spirituality of Divine worship."  During a canvass of Knox church in Dunedin in 1882 a member stated that he "would look upon the introduction with much dread as leading to
ritualism."  A very large and expensive organ was purchased for this church, and a few years later it was stated that so extremely favourable was the impression made that the last    vestiges of opposition died away.  Even those who had stood out    most strongly against it were melted into a warm approval. 
The question, however, was not as simple as "shall we have organs or shall we not?"  There were other factors to be considered, greater forces involved, and this last quote gives us an important clue: classicism loses its resolve under the influence of
aestheticism.  We mentioned before that the gesamtkunstwerk of the German romantics provided the model for Protestant aesthetic worship, and it is this that I would like us to turn our attention to next time.
Ronald G. Newton.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised April 1998 / Copyright 1998