The Dream of the Organ

No. 13

Our church has had an organ for use in worship at least since the 1870s when elder Titus Fry resigned his post and left the church in protest of the introduction of a musical instrument into worship (see vignette #5).  This was probably a pump-organ, all right in its way, but certainly not to be compared to a pipe-organ.  After the construction of our new building in 1886, interest began to increase in installing a pipe-organ in the new building.  Pipe-organs, however, were and are expensive.  You don’t go down to your local pipe-organ store and say, “I’ll take that one.”  Planning and patience were required, and a benefactor would help out also.

It wasn’t until the late 1890s that serious planning began to purchase a pipe-organ.  Alice Dow, the wife of the minister, organized a women’s group, known as WMBs (We Mean Business!).  The women’s group was primarily a missionary society, but it had other agenda items as well, one of which was to raise enough money to purchase the long-desired pipe-organ.  For over ten years they patiently raised money.  By 1910 they had saved $1600, a very sizeable sum in those days.  It was still not enough, however, to buy the size and quality of organ that they dreamed of.

By coincidence, in 1908, both the Baptist and the Methodist churches in Iowa City had purchased pipe-organs.  They had taken advantage of an offer by one of the great philanthropists of the day, Andrew Carnegie.  Everyone knows that Andrew Carnegie donated money to construct public libraries all over the United States.  What few people know, is that because Carnegie loved organ music, he also donated money to over 7000 churches to help purchase pipe-organs.  His standing arrangement with churches was that he would pay for half of any organ the church wanted, regardless of cost, provided that the church had already raised the other half.  In that way, he felt, no one would take advantage of him, and he could be assured that any church to whom he donated was serious about it.

So, in 1910, First Christian Church applied to Carnegie for a donation.  Carnegie approved and donated $1200 to the church.  While it does not say anwhere directly what the cost of the organ was, in keeping with the usual terms of a Carnegie donation, it must have cost about $2400.  Despite his generosity to churches, Carnegie was an atheist.  When someone asked him why, if he was an unbeliever, he funded church organs, he replied, “I give money for church organs in the hope the organ music will distract the congregation’s attention from the rest of the service.”

The organ served First Christian for fifty-seven years, until 1967.  When plans were underway to build a new building, the congregation decided that the organ was in too poor a condition to make it worth restoring.  Instead they opted to purchase a new pipe-organ, and advertised the old organ for sale.  Robert Shedenheim of Cedar Rapids, who was a professional organ repairman and restorer, saw the ad and convinced his own congregation, Eden United Church of Christ, to purchase the organ for their own use.  This they did for $500.  That congregation, which was located near Cedar Christian Church, closed their doors (along with Cedar Christian) not long after our congregation helped them clean up following the flood in 2008.