Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
January 29, 1959
NUMBER 38, PAGE 1,9b-10a

McGarvey, And The Course Of Digression At Lexington, Kentucky-(I)

Henry S. Ficklin, Owingsville, Kentucky

(Editor's note: And who is Henry Ficklin? See brief article in this issue by Robert H. Farish.)

In March of this year (1958) I spoke at the mid-week service of the University Heights Church of Christ in Lexington, Kentucky. By way of introduction to this sermon, I recounted my previous experiences at Lexington, and, in particular, I told about some things that occurred when I was a student at Transylvania and the College. Of The Bible when McGarvey was President of the College of the Bible. And I related that I was present at Broadway Christian Church when the congregation voted to introduce the organ into its worship.

I have been asked to write out these experiences, so that this account may be published. Since McGarvey was by far the most prominent person in this significant and tragic turn of events, I have chosen as the title of this article: "McGarvey and the Course of Digression at Lexington." In spite of his opposition, the organ was introduced.

For five years I was a student at Transylvania College and the College Of The Bible — 1902-1903, 1904-1905, 1905-1906, 1906-1907 and 1907-1908. During all of these years McGarvey was president of the College of the Bible, and he continued in this capacity until his death, in 1911. These were eventful years. Great changes were taking place, and the tide of digression was running strongly.

McGarvey And The Introduction Of The Organ At Broadway

As I have said, I was present at the service at the Broadway Christian Church on the morning of November 23, 1902, when the congregation voted to introduce the organ into its worship. Before I tell what took place that Morning, I want to tell of some events that had occurred among the Christian Churches in the years preceding the vote by the Broadway congregation. About 50 years before this date, an organ had been introduced into the worship of the Christian Church at Midway, Kentucky. And, at about the same time, the American Christian Missionary Society had been organized at Cincinnati with Alexander Campbell as its first President. And during those years digression had been gathering momentum. More and more churches had begun to work with the Missionary Society, and more and more of them had introduced the organ into their worship. These departures were in harmony with the spirit of the age, and contrary to Gospel Simplicity and purity. Now, the Broadway Christian Church was one of the few large congregations that had not introduced mechanical instruments into their worship. The pressure upon Broadway of compromise and worldliness was great. McGarvey had preached regularly to this congregation from 1871 to 1882, and had continued to be an elder until 1902. He was, without doubt, the most influential member of the congregation. It was largely on account of his influence that the use of mechanical instruments had not begun before this time. But the agitation for this innovation continued to grow. On November 9th a resolution to post-pone action indefinitely out of consideration for McGarvey was defeated, with 140 voting against this resolution and 112 voting for it, with a number not voting. Then, on that date, it was voted to postpone action until November 23rd.

McGarvey had realized that the congregation would finally decide to introduce mechanical instruments into their worship, and he had asked and received letters from the church for himself and his wife, and had become a member at the Chestnut Street congregation. W. C. Mono, in his book "Brother. McGarvey", relates that when Brother McGarvey and his wife came forward to be received as members, Brother I. B. Grubbs said: "Brother McGarvey, we would rather have you than ten thousand aids to worship".

Although I was not yet of age when the vote on the organ was taken at Broadway on November 23rd, 1902, I was a very thoughtful listener that morning, and I recall vividly the service. I had not yet decided to preach the gospel, and I did not then understand the meaning of what took place as I do now, but the service made a deep impression on me. Mark Collis was then preaching regularly to the congregation. I remember what he said before the congregation started to vote on the resolution to begin the use of mechanical instruments in the worship. He told them that he had prayed much about the decision they were going to make. And, he added: "I have not prayed that the decision will be made to introduce the organ. Nor, have I prayed that the decision will be made against using it. But I have prayed that God's will may be done in this decision." Even at that early age, that seemed to me to be a very weak statement to make. Like Baleen, he was praying over a matter that had already been settled by the Lord.

Sheets of paper were handed to the members of the congregation, to be used as ballots. I vividly recall that a girl about 15 years of age, in the pew next in front of me, had a ballot, and was voting. Had McGarvey been there, the ballot that he had could have been offset by the ballot of this young girl. Thus, early, I realized the folly of submitting matters of faith and worship to a popular vote. The vote for the introduction of the organ prevailed by a majority of 149.

Now, it was decided that the organ was to be used, and one was installed. But, who was to play it? As I recall, no member of the congregation was chosen to play it, but a member of another religious body, a member of the Episcopal Church, I believe. They had to get some one from Babylon to play Babylon's instrument. Very soon a quartette was secured to sing. And I remember that one member of the quartette threw away his cigarette as he was entering the building one evening for the service, and then sang a song about Jesus: "Hail Him who Comes Bringing Salvation". I was shocked then, when lips so unclean with the taint of cigarettes were used to give 'lip service' to Jesus. And, I am very sorry to say that I am still shocked to see elders and deacons and members of congregations advocating pure New Testament worship hurry out to light a cigarette. When will this stop? When the prophet Isaiah in a vision beheld the glory and holiness of the Lord he said: "Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips". Then flew one of the seraphim, having a live coal in his hand which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar and, touching the prophet's lips, he said to him: "Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin forgiven." (Isaiah 6:7.) We cannot effectively, or consistently, condemn the sin of digression, brethren, while we are impure ourselves.

The Chestnut Street Christian Church did not use the organ and, on this account, brother and sister McGarvey became members there, as I have said. This is where I worshipped while I was a student at Lexington. But it seemed to me that the congregation refrained from the use of mechanical instruments in the worship more out of respect for McGarvey and Grubbs, and a few others, than from convictions of their own against innovations.

McGarvey had opposed the use of the organ in worship during all of his long ministry. He wrote against it and spoke against it, and when he spoke he used arguments that were irrefutable. I remember what one of the students of the College Of The Bible said one day when the argument was at its height: "I don't agree with Brother McGarvey about the organ, but I don't want to argue with the old man about it." No one would dare to debate with him about it. Just before the Broadway Christian Church took the vote on the resolution, McGarvey wrote an article for the Leader, the Lexington evening newspaper, setting forth the Scriptural argument against its use. But McGarvey could no more stop Broadway from introducing it than Samuel could dissuade Israel from having a king. A large part of the Restoration Movement, which had begun so devoutly 100 years before, had now "gone with the wind."

Yet, as much as I loved McGarvey, candor requires me to say that he did not oppose the use of mechanical instruments in worship as effectively as he should have done. He was weak in the course that he pursued. And he did not oppose it consistently. Before the Broadway congregation voted as a body to introduce the organ into the worship, there had been much agitation for its use. Professor Morro, in his life of McGarvey writes about it as follows: "One of the superintendents of the Sunday School insisted that she must have an instrument for her department. The situation was submitted to McGarvey and inasmuch as this was the Sunday School, and not the worship of the church, he consented. A second department also asked and received." (P. 221.) This was a weak position, from one so able in the Scriptures as McGarvey. Subsequent history shows that this was not the last time that the organ came into the worship by way of the Sunday School. And, let us not overlook the fact that this is one proof of the unscripturalness of the Sunday School, as an organization apart from the church.

Brother McGarvey often voiced his opposition to the use of the organ in worship, and all understood his convictions on the matter. However, he often worshipped with congregations which used it. This, of course, weakened the force of his argument against it. Besides, while he opposed the use of mechanical instruments in worship, he endorsed the organization of the American Christian Missionary Society, and spoke strongly in its behalf. He was a strong advocate of missions, and co-operated fully with the workers and officers of the Missionary Societies. His fellowship was with churches which used mechanical instruments in the worship, and which supported the Missionary Societies. And, it has been said that when he was away from Lexington, he would not attend regularly the worship of congregations that did not use mechanical instruments in the worship and did not endorse the Missionary Societies, but would attend services where both were endorsed. And it has been well said — by Brother Sewell, I think — that his influence went with his fellowship, and not with his arguments.

Even before McGarvey's death, in 1911, the Missionary Societies which he upheld fell into the hands of modernists. And the modernists finally began to advocate receiving the un-immersed into congregations professedly advocating New Testament Christianity. This was a matter of grief to McGarvey, as I know. But he should have realized that there is a natural kinship between digression and modernism. They both spring from the same evil root — unbelief. It would have been well if McGarvey, after seeing where this digression was leading to, had come out strongly against it. After his death, modernists connected with the Missionary Societies had a large part in turning over the College Of The Bible, which was so dear to his heart, to unbelief. The account of that sordid, shameless, betrayal I hope to tell you about later. But, do not forget that modernism has no conscience. And it is not controlled by Scripture, or even by fixed principles, but by self-interest.

We speak of the men who, 150 years ago, urged the return to New Testament Christianity — Campbell, Stone, Milligan, and McGarvey — as "Pioneers". This is certainly a very careless way of speaking; the only real pioneers are the apostles, and their converts. The preachers whom we call "Pioneers" were able men of God, but they were fallible. They did a great work, but they also made mistakes. Take, for instance, their use of the term "Christian Church". And there were other unsound practices which they sanctioned, such as the Missionary Society, and the organization of women's societies. Coming out of Babylon, they were blinded by its mists and fog. Let us rejoice in their good work, as far as Scriptural, but let us guard against their error. Let us build no shrines at their homes. For, we are not going back to Cane Ridge, or Bethany, or Lexington, or Nashville, but to Jerusalem.

I have dwelt at length on McGarvey's position against the use of the organ, and his connection with that controversy. For this account points up many great lessons for us today. I now wish to describe McGarvey as a teacher at the College Of The Bible, and as a preacher. Hearing him teach and preach was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I wish that each of you could have heard him. To me, "he, being dead, yet speaketh" (Hebrews 11:4). Why did people want to hear him? It is easily explained.

(To be continued)