The Organ and a Divided Church

No. 5

Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the scriptures are silent, we are silent.

--Alexander Campbell

Margaret and Robert Hedges report a curious incident that took place in our congregation in 1876.  It happened about the time that the congregation installed its first organ.  They quote the [now missing] board minutes, saying “Titus [Ray] took place again in congregation with understanding that he did not thereby indorse use of an organ.”   Such a position seems puzzling, if not ludicrous to us today.  We not only use an organ, but we use a piano, guitars, violins, basses, flutes, harps, drums and any other instrument which may seem appropriate to our worship.  Why did Mr. Titus object to an organ?  To answer that question requires a major detour through nineteenth-century Disciples history.

Unlike most major denominations in America, the Disciples did not split into separate north and south bodies before or during the Civil War.  That does not mean, however, that there was not great tension and conflict between the northern and southern churches in our fellowship.  That tension continued after the end of the war, when many northern churches shared in the great burst of economic and social progress which animated the north.  Many churches in the north at this time began to build beautiful new buildings (such as our 1887 building), to install expensive organs and in other ways to reflect the prosperity of the north.

On the other hand, churches and many church members in the rural south were struggling to survive the ravages and destruction of war.  Feeling was bitter against the north and what some saw as triumphalism in the northern churches.  To make matters worse for southern Disciples, the American Christian Missionary Society, the Disciples’ only national organization at that time supported the north in the war, even branding in 1863 all who fought for the south as “armed traitors.”

Transforming this bitterness into theological division was relatively easy.  Long before the war, there had been controversy over the meaning of the motto quoted above.  Liberals interpreted it as permissive, conservatives as restrictive.  Thus, conservatives, particularly in the south, could read the New Testament, find no reference to organs, and thus forbid them.  This was not strictly a north-south split, but it was the southern churches who gave power to this movement.  This struggle ultimately resulted by 1906 in the division into two separate denominations, the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ (Anti-Organ).

Our church had at least a brush with this controversy in 1876 when Mr. Titus Ray protested the installation of an organ.  But what I find most interesting is that Mr. Ray valued the fellowship of the church enough that he returned even though he disagreed with the church, and that the church accepted his return, without demanding that he change his beliefs.  That seems almost a trivial observation today, but it certainly was not in 1876.  This is the earliest example I have seen from our congregation in which theological differences take second place to maintaining the fellowship.  All hail, Mr. Ray!