This article looks at the place of musical instruments in worship throughout church history.

Source: The Monthly Record, 1990. 4 pages.

Musical Instruments in Worship

The Early Church🔗

The early Church did not use musical instruments in its worship. It was not until the eighth century that musical instruments were first introduced into the worship of the Western Church.

The early Church fathers had strong views on the use of musical instruments in worship. They considered the practice as pagan or Jewish rather than Christian. Dr Hughes Oliphant Old, in his work on The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, says:

As is well known, the ancient Church did not admit the use of instrumental music in worship. It was looked upon as a form of worship which like the sacrifices of the Jerusalem temple pre­figured the worship in spirit and truth. Some Fathers regarded it as pagan practice. Even today the Eastern Orthodox Church does not permit organs.(p. 363)

Many passages could be quoted from the fathers to show this. For example, we find the following in an unknown father of the second century. The treatise is in question-and-answer form:

Q. If songs were invented by unbelievers with a design of deceiving (probably a reference to Genesis 4:21), and were appointed under the law because of the childishness of their minds, why do they who have received the perfect instructions of grace, which are most contrary to the foresaid customs, nevertheless sing in the Churches, as they did who were children under the law?

A. Plain singing is not childish, but only the singing with lifeless organs, with dancing and cymbals, etc. Whence the use of such instruments, and other things fit for children, is laid aside, and plain singing only retained.

We also find Gregory of Nazianzus commenting on how much better it is in the Church that hymns and psalms replace the flutes and drums of the pagans. John Chrysostom adds his voice with the statement that instrumental worship "was only permitted to the Jews, like sacrifice, for the imbecility and grossness of their souls, God condescending to their weakness because they were only just drawn off idols," Augustine, the father we honour most in the West, was so worried about the distracting effect of melody — people enjoying the tune of the hymn rather than its truths — that he even suggested replacing singing by simple reciting.

This concern for the distinctiveness of New Testament worship, and for spirituality as its central feature, was typical of the early Church fathers. In harmony with this, the situation in early Church worship was one of the "plain" or unaccompanied singing of psalms and hymns. The use of musical instruments was rejected as contrary to the tradition of the Apostles — a feature of sensuous pagan or Old Testament Jewish worship, but not of spiritual Christian worship.

The Middle Ages🔗

The organ first seems to have come into Christian worship in the Western Church in the year 757, court­esy of the Frankish King Pepin. It was presented to him as a gift by the Byzantine emperor Constantine V. Pepin in turn presented it to the Church of St Corneille in Compiegne (north of Paris). But this did not lead to widespread or regular use of the organ in worship. For that, the Western Church had to wait another six hundred years.

Musical instruments in worship were condemned by various medieval theologians. The greatest of them, Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century) put it like this:

The Church does not use musical instruments such as the harp or lyre when praising God, lest she should seem to lapse into Judaism ... As Aristotle says, "Flutes ought not to be introduced into teaching, nor any artificial instrument such as the harp, nor anything of the kind, but only such things as make men good (or possibly, 'foster attentive listeners')." For musical instruments usually move the soul more to pleasure than create a good internal disposi­tion. But in the Old Testament, instruments of this kind were used, both because the people were more coarse and carnal, so that they needed to be aroused by such instruments and with temporal promises, and also because these bodily instruments were figurative of something.Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae, 91

Aquinas' opening words show that musical instruments were not, in his experience, used in the Church's worship even at that late date (Aquinas died in 1274).

However, from the eighth century onwards, some musical instruments do seem to have been used from time to time in some Western churches. As well as the organ, we find the harp, violin and cithern depicted in ancient manuscripts. At first, the instrument was probably used simply to give the tone to the priest or choir. At any rate, it was not until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that instrumental music became a widespread and regular feature of Western worship. In the Eastern Church singing remained unaccompanied, as it is at the present day.

The Reformation🔗

The musical paraphernalia which had been introduced into Christian worship in the Western Church by the sixteenth century were regarded by many Christians as grave abuse. Erasmus, for example, expressed his concern thus:

We have brought a cumbersome and theatrical music into our Churches, such a confused disorderly chattering of some words, as I think was never heard in any of the Greek or Roman theatres. The Church rings with the noise of trumpets, pipes and dulcimers, and human voices strive to bear their part with them. Men run to Church as to a theatre, to have their ears tickled. And for this end, organ-makers are hired with great salaries, and a company of boys who waste all their time in learning these whining tones. Pray now compute how many poor people in great extremity might be maintained by the salaries of these singers. Commenting on 1 Corinthians 14: 19. Quoted by Candlish's The Organ Question, pp. 118-9

This view was shared by the Reformed wing of the Reformation, in distinction from the Lutherans who tended to retain much of the ritual of later medieval Catholicism. The heart of the Reformed objection to instrumental worship lay in the "regulative principle that the elements of Christian worship must be authorised by New Testament teaching or example. Instrumental music failed to pass this simple test.

As proof of the Reformed rejection of instru­mental worship, we may turn — perhaps surprisingly — to the Reformers of the Anglican Church. Doctrinally, these men were Calvinists, and they at least intended to purify their Church from instrumental music in worship. In the Second Book of Homilies (1563), which gave the official Anglican view in Elizabeth I's reign, we read the following. An ungodly woman is represented as saying to her neighbour:

Alas! Gossip, what shall we now do at Church, since all the Saints are taken away; since all the goodly sights we were wont to have are gone; since we cannot hear the like Piping, Singing, Chaunting, and playing upon the Organs, that we could before! But, dearly beloved, we ought greatly to rejoice and give thanks that our Churches are delivered out of all those things which displeased God so sore, and filthily defiled his holy house and his place of prayer.Homily on the Place and Time of Prayer

On the Continent, the Reformed wing of Protestantism had its spiritual home in Switzerland, first in Zurich under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli, then in Geneva under that of John Calvin. Both Zwingli and Calvin believed that instrumental music in Christian worship was an error. Zwingli had the organ in Zurich's Great Minster destroyed in 1527, and replaced the elaborate musical ritual of Roman Catholicism with the simple congregational reading of the Scriptures. Even unaccompanied singing was not practised. But this was a temporary measure, for Zwingli is on record as having expressed approval of congregational singing.

Zwingli's example set the tone for Reformed Protestantism, which was greatly reinforced by the far more influential teaching of John Calvin. The Genevan Reformer saw the abolition of the use of musical instruments in worship, and the introduction of plain congregational singing of the Psalms, some other Scriptural passages and the Apostles' Creed. Calvin's position on instrumental music was that of the early Church fathers, and can be found in numerous places in his writings. For example:

In Popery there was a ridiculous and unsuitable imitation (of the Jews). While they adorned their temples, and valued themselves as having made the worship of God more splendid and inviting, they employed organs, and many other such ludicrous things, by which the Word and worship of God are exceedingly profaned, the people being much more attached to those rites than to the understanding of the divine Word. We know, however, that where such understanding is not, there can be no edification, as the Apostle Paul teaches, "How can a person give testimony to the faith, and how can he say Amen at the giving of thanks, if he does not understand?" Wherefore, in that same place, he exhorts the faithful, whether they pray or sing, they should pray and sing with understanding, not in an unknown tongue, but in that which is vulgar and intelligible, that edification may be in the Church. What, therefore, was in use under the Law is by no means entitled to our practice under the Gospel; and these things being not only superfluous, but useless, are to be abstained from, because pure and simple modulation is sufficient for the praise of God, if it is sung with the heart and with the mouth. We know that our Lord Jesus Christ has appeared, and by His advent has abolished these legal shadows. Instrumental music, we therefore maintain, was only tolerated on account of the times and the people, because they were as boys, as the sacred Scripture speaks, whose condition required these puerile rudiments. But in Gospel times we must not have recourse to these, unless we wish to destroy the evangelical perfection, and to obscure the meridian light which we enjoy in Christ our Lord.Sermon on 1 Samuel 18:1-9

Calvin was certainly not opposed to music in the worship of God — the music of singing — but only to instrumental music. This he regarded as an obsolete feature of Jewish temple worship, having no place in the more spiritual dispensation of the New Covenant.

The views of Zwingli and Calvin were shared by the Reformed branch of Protestantism as a whole. The pattern of worship in Reformed churches has historically been one of congregational singing unaccompanied by musical instruments. Only in the Dutch Reformed Church did the organ remain, and there its use was limited to playing purely instrumental pieces before and after the service; the psalm-singing was still unaccompanied. Even this strictly limited use of the organ in their Church was strongly opposed by the Dutch Reformed pastors, who were, however, prevented by the civil authorities from abolishing the organ's use altogether.


The Scottish Reformation saw the end of instrumental music in Church worship. In line with Reformed teaching, this practice was seen as a breach of the regulative principle. Unaccompanied singing led by a precentor became the Presbyterian norm.

The first recorded incident of a musical instrument being used in Scottish Presbyterian worship was in 1807, when Dr William Ritchie, minister of St Andrew's Church, Glasgow, installed a chamber organ. The Lord Provost of the city reported the matter to Glasgow Presbytery, which declared organ music in worship to be "contrary to the law of the land, and to the law and constitution of our Established Church" (quoted by R. S. Candlish, The Organ Question, p. 26). A similar incident took place in the Relief Church in 1829, with similar results.

The first organ ever authorised in the worship of a Scottish Presbyterian or Congregational church seems to have been in the North Dundas Street Evangelical Union Church, Glasgow, in 1851. In the 1860s organs also began to make their appearance in Congre­gational Union churches, championed by W. Lindsay Alexander.

In the Church of Scotland, the question came up again in 1863, when Robert Lee installed a harmonium into Old Greyfriars, Edinburgh, and then in 1865 an organ, as part of his liturgical reform program. In spite of stiff opposition, the General Assembly effectively authorised the practice in 1866 by remitting the matter to the discretion of presbyteries. The "organ movement" gathered pace, and by the 1870s the use of an organ in worship was no longer an innovation as far as the Church of Scotland was concerned. The United Presbyterian Church followed the Church of Scotland's lead and authorised the use of organs in 1877.

The most lively debate on the subject took place in the Free Church. When two Glasgow congregations petitioned the Free Church Assembly of 1882 for the freedom to use organs, James Begg submitted a formal protest. Begg and his supporters held to the traditional Reformed position that instrumental music in worship was ruled out by the regulative principle. In the 1883 Assembly, however, the majority voted to permit instrumental music. They held that no real innovation was being made. An organ, they argued, was just a way of sustaining congregational singing, similar to the role of a precentor, a tuning-pipe and music books. This decision was reversed by the continuing Free Church after the majority had gone into the United Free Church in 1900.

Apart from staunch conservatives, Lowland Scots proved ready for instrumental worship, and by 1900 there were few congregations without an organ of some sort. It was different in the Highlands, where the Free Church strength ensured that organs continued to be viewed as a dangerous departure from the purity of New Testament worship. This made Highland worship, by and large, distinctive in its adherence to the original Scottish Reformed pattern of unaccompanied singing.


The Eastern Church to the present day, the whole Church to the thirteenth century (with minor exceptions in the West), and the Reformed Churches of the Reformation, have all been distinguished by the rejection of musical instruments in Christian worship. When Reformed churches today employ such instruments, they should at least be aware that they are acting against the clear practice of the early Church and the first thousand years of Christianity, and (more particularly) against the ideals of their Reforming fathers. It should provide Calvin's spiritual offspring with strong food for thought to reflect that, for whatever reasons, many of them have abandoned one of the fundamental principles of Calvinist worship.

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