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J. W. McGarvey and the Instrument

NOTE: The following article appeared originally in the Forest Park Newsletter in Atlanta. It was later reprinted in the bulletin published by the North Jackson congregation in Jackson, TN, and now it is reproduced here.


2006 marked the centennial of the official split between the Christian Church and the Churches of Christ. One key difference then and now is the issue of instrumental music in the worship. Two stories surrounding J. W. McGarvey are presented below in the hopes that we may learn from his experiences over 100 years ago.

William Woodson tells the following in the May 5, 1996 issue of Vigil. First, it was recalled that in the early 1870’s, with the knowledge and approval of J. W. McGarvey as one of the elders, a small instrument was placed in the basement of the building of the Lexington Christian church not to be used in the worship services.


“Years went by; the youngsters grew up and took their places in the church. And so it occurred that in November, 1902 a move was made to introduce instrumental music into the worship services, and McGarvey's sensitive conscience in this matter forbade his remaining with the Broadway Church. The vote taken - 370 for and 202 against - meant that what had been refused a few years before was allowed, and the McGarveys went elsewhere.


One may admire McGarvey's action on principle in 1902, but that allowance and approval of the organ in the basement in the early 1870’s remains a troubling fact. It is not known how many of the youngsters who had been trained in singing with the organ in worship, but the likelihood is that few who were so trained voted against its use in 1902."


Mike Winkler adds the following in his book Successful Christian Living in Today's World. This account is from a conversation between Jesse P. Sewell and J. W. McGarvey in January, 1903, at the Pearl and Bryan Street Church of Christ in Dallas, Texas. “While sitting on the front seat, waiting to speak, brother McGarvey leaned over to brother Sewell and said, 'Brother Sewell, I want to say something to you, if you will accept it in the spirit in which I mean it.' Brother Sewell assured him that he would and brother McGarvey continued, 'You are on the right road, and whatever you do, do not let anybody persuade you that you can successfully combat error by fellowshipping it and going along with it. I have tried. I believed at the start that was the only way to do it. I have never held membership in a congregation that used instrumental music. I have, however, accepted invitations to preach without distinctions between churches that use it and churches that do not.”


“I have gone along with their papers and magazines and things of that sort. During all these years I have taught the truth as the New Testament teaches it to every young preacher who has passed through the College of the Bible. Yet, I do not know of more than six of those men who are preaching the truth today.' He then affirmed, ”It will not work."


(end of reprint)


The struggles of the past are being forgotten. Hard fought battles, important to the church, are fading into history and unknown largely today.


About 30 years ago I attended a discussion/debate on the campus of Freed-Hardeman. The topic was whether instrumental music in worship was a matter of faith or opinion. Well known arguments were advanced by both sides.


The most memorable thoughts for me did not occur during the formal presentations but after. During the prepared arguments the growing popularity of contemporary religious music, then being called gospel rock, was addressed. The men arguing that instrumental music in worship was a matter of opinion were also promoting contemporary religious music as a preferred alternative for christian young people. They said our youth were better served listening to rock bands singing about God, faith, virtues, etc. than non-religious music with it’s filthy language and themes. A sentiment which is shared by many today and is not completely without merit. But it’s a Trojan horse.


At the conclusion of the prepared speeches, the floor was opened up for questions from the audience. A man stepped to the microphone and asked the men who argued that instrumental music in worship was an opinion alone. “Do you believe that widespread listening to contemporary gospel music among our youth will blur the religious line? If they become fond of this religious instrumental music won’t it make them much more likely to want to use instrumental music in the actual public worship of God?” -- They boldly responded, “We sure hope so!”


Increasingly, our children raised in homes where such music is readily accepted privately are growing up to seek such music in the public worship. In this quest, many are turning to denominations to satisfy their personal desire for instrumental music that was planted and nurtured in their youth. It was predictable.


- Tim Orbison

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