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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Scotland's First Church Organ

Looking Back

Drawing of different types of organ pipes. From William Henry Stone, Elementary Lessons on Sound, 1879
Drawing of different types of organ pipes. From William Henry Stone, Elementary Lessons on Sound, 1879


Friday August 14 2020

Looking Back: Scotland's First Church Organ

This article from August 1913 recalls the controversy when Old Greyfriars Church installed its organ nearly half a century before.




SCARCE an echo of the once famous ‘Organ Controversy’ now survives. But few ecclesiastical controversies were ever waged more acrimoniously. And after fifty years it is interesting to recall some incidents of the struggle.

By a curious irony of events, the storm centre of the strife was the historic Edinburgh church of Old Greyfriars, the sanctuary within whose walls the National Covenant had been signed, and beneath whose shadow many of the covenanting martyrs sleep. Of this church Dr. Robert Lee became minister at the Disruption in 1843. Dr. Lee undoubtedly possessed one of the most original, vigorous, and aggressive minds in Edinburgh. And as his opinions developed and were fearlessly expressed, he gathered around him one of the most thoughtful and cultured congregations in that city. It soon came to be remarked that Old Greyfriars was the only church in Edinburgh in which the male element considerably preponderated over the female.

That the honour of martyrdom should have been meted out to such a man appears to us to-day the more remarkable, since Dr. Lee was in no sense unorthodox. Had his so-called Innovations been the symbols of perilous views upon matters of vital doctrine or belief, the opposition, though scarcely the rancour, of his critics might have been condoned. But the essentials of the Faith were not involved. All that was attempted was the application of modern conceptions of refinement and taste to the bald austerities of worship, which the Scottish people through long usage had come to regard as in themselves of divine appointment.

In 1862 he introduced a harmonium to accompany the praise of Greyfriars Church. This modest instrument was the real pioneer of all our Scottish church organs of to-day.

The instrument was installed behind a screen in the vestibule. And one evening, while the choir were practising, Dr. Lee came in. An excellent musician himself, and in full sympathy with his precentor’s efforts to improve the musical side of the service, he was so impressed by the blending of the harmonium with the voices of the choir that he at once discussed with his choir-leader the idea of employing the instrument during worship. The project was carried into effect almost immediately.

The occasion was a Sunday when the Lord Provost and Magistrates of Edinburgh attended  in their robes of office. It was resolved that no one – not even the choir – should be apprised beforehand of the coming innovation. When the service of praise began, the effect was electrical. Every one in the congregation – then one of the most influential in Edinburgh – was taken by surprise: the more so as the instrument was concealed behind the curtain. A few professed to be put out. But the general sense pronounced the new departure a success. And thus was a far-reaching musical reform begun. The harmonium was soon emancipated from its place of hiding, and became a regular part of the church’s equipment. An organ fund was at once started; and on 22nd April 1865 the organ was formally ‘opened’ and used in the Church service. The news of the innovation spread, and few visitors spent the week-end in Edinburgh without going to Old Greyfriars on Sunday to hear the minister preach and the choir sing.

It was not to be expected that these doings at Old Greyfriars should pass unnoticed in the high places of the Church, and Dr Lee was vigorously assailed by reproaches. He was about to be summoned before the Supreme Court. He had just published “A Letter to the Members of the ensuing Assembly,” in which he powerfully defended his position. And within a week from its publication – indeed on the very day before the Fathers and Brethren were to meet – in the act of riding into Edinburgh he fell from his horse, stricken by paralysis. He lingered in weakness for about a year; but his labours were at an end.

The dramatic occurrence, appealing strongly as it did to the popular imagination, was more effectual in subduing the acrimony of the impending controversy than the most eloquent of disputations. The weapons of war were laid aside. And the Church felt that the conflict might now be decently buried in the vigorous reformer’s grave.

What the introduction of the historic little harmonium on that Sunday afternoon in Old Greyfriars meant to Scotland cannot easily be estimated. But it certainly marked the inception of a movement which, in barely fifty years, has transformed the character of Scottish worship.


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