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The History of Musical Worship


Two types of worship service are increasingly offered to the public to satisfy the desires of two distinct groups of worshipers: traditional and contemporary. The contemporary worship may have a powerful band, equipped with electric guitars, drums, driving vocals, and other attire borrowed from modern "rock and roll". The more traditional service typically offers musical praise directed by an organ or piano, and accompanied by a choir or other vocal soloists. It is rare that one stumbles across a church practicing congregational, "a cappella" music.

The disparate proportions lead one to believe that those who restrain from using instrumental music must be in grievous error, since they appear to be numbered in the scandalous minority. Surprisingly, history shows that it is not always been the case. In fact, instrumental music is a relatively modern addition to the services of those who would worship God.

The point of this article is not to "prove" that instrumental music is against God’s will. Instead, this article illuminates the fact that the instrumentalist view is both modern and "risky" in the context of history. It is possible that the instrumentalist is correct, and the majority of Christians from the first century through the 19th century worshiped God in error, but opposition to this majority view should give the instrumentalist pause for thought. It is hoped these quotes will help to break up the icebergs of prejudice, nothing more.

Additionally, this article examines God’s revealed will on the matter, as it has been delivered down through history. In so doing, we learn that God’s command has changed through the ages, necessitating that we closely study His revelation for the covenant under which we live. Also, by studying God’s language used in times past, when instrumental music was clearly authorized, we can develop a standard for analyzing the language of the new covenant and thereby determine if instrumental music is authorized in a similar, clear expression for us today.

Patriarchal Age

Compared with uninspired historical documents, the Bible provides us with the best insight into how the ancient saints served God. However, as one scans the pages of Scripture, looking for references to music of any kind, he, or she, will find very few references to any form of music that occurred before the giving of the Law of Moses. During this ancient time, when God directly dealt with the heads of the households, the patriarchs, we find a few miscellaneous references to music: Genesis 4:21, 23; 31:27. The first of the two references from Genesis 4 mentions Jubal, the one who invented instrumental music. The second verse contains the first transcribed song, although it is unrelated to worship. The passage in Genesis 31:27, also unrelated to worship, merely confirms that instrumental music was associated with times of social merriment.

In addition to these, we find a single occasion of inspired praise that involved song, instruments, and dance:

Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the LORD, and spoke, saying: "I will sing to the LORD, For He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea! ..."

For the horses of Pharaoh went with his chariots and his horsemen into the sea, and the LORD brought back the waters of the sea upon them. But the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea. Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them: "Sing to the LORD, For He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea!" (Exodus 15:1-21)

Although this transpires shortly before the giving of the Mosaical law, it technically transpired before this age-dividing event, providing us a single glimpse of an accepted form of worship during the patriarchal age. Therefore, we learn that accepted praise during this time could include:

The regulation of these expressions were not recorded for us, so we cannot elaborate much on these points.

Mosaical Age - Pre-Davidic

God’s dealing with His people fundamentally changed when He provided the Law of Moses. No other nation had ever enjoyed God being so close, or enjoyed a divine law and covenant that detailed guidance for all aspects of life, religious and social (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). In this old law, God gave specific instructions for worshiping Him. As a warning, God set forth Nadab and Abihu as examples for all who would presume to violate His directions (Leviticus 10:1-3). In relation to what might remotely be considered musical instruments, He gave specific instructions for the fashioning of special signal trumpets and their use (Numbers 31:6):

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

"Make two silver trumpets for yourself; you shall make them of hammered work; you shall use them for calling the congregation and for directing the movement of the camps. When they blow both of them, all the congregation shall gather before you at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. But if they blow only one, then the leaders, the heads of the divisions of Israel, shall gather to you. When you sound the advance, the camps that lie on the east side shall then begin their journey. When you sound the advance the second time, then the camps that lie on the south side shall begin their journey; they shall sound the call for them to begin their journeys. And when the assembly is to be gathered together, you shall blow, but not sound the advance. The sons of Aaron, the priests, shall blow the trumpets; and these shall be to you as an ordinance forever throughout your generations. When you go to war in your land against the enemy who oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets, and you will be remembered before the LORD your God, and you will be saved from your enemies. Also in the day of your gladness, in your appointed feasts, and at the beginning of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; and they shall be a memorial for you before your God: I am the LORD your God." (Numbers 10:1-10)

These trumpets were used by the Israelites as instructed for moving the camp, sounding battle alarms, and announcing holy days and sacrifices; however, please note that these trumpets were not "played". They were not used to praise God in music. In fact, the "blowing of trumpets" was for the Israelites' benefit - "they shall be a memorial for you before your God". Since praise is primarily directed toward God, this blowing of trumpets on holy days should not be considered praise, much less the praise of instrumental music.

The above passage and recorded examples of the Israelites obeying this statue are the closest references that could possibly be construed as referring to instrumental music. This is not much evidence to justify the use of instrumental music under the early Mosaical covenant. However, in regard to singing and in contrast to this lack of evidence for instrumental music, we have the following clear command for the Israelites to not just sing, but to learn a specific song to sing:

"Now therefore, write down this song for yourselves, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel. When I have brought them to the land flowing with milk and honey, of which I swore to their fathers, and they have eaten and filled themselves and grown fat, then they will turn to other gods and serve them; and they will provoke Me and break My covenant. Then it shall be, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify against them as a witness; for it will not be forgotten in the mouths of their descendants, for I know the inclination of their behavior today, even before I have brought them to the land of which I swore to give them."

Therefore Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it to the children of Israel. (Deuteronomy 31:19-22)

In addition to authorizing singing as a mode of praise, this passage gives us insight into one of the benefits of singing, which is the persistence of its message. Even though the Israelites would eventually become totally corrupt, they would still continue to teach their children this song, providing their children an opportunity to realize the evil of their parents' ways. It would take away their excuse, providing a "witness" to their knowledge of their own guilt. Even though this song served as a teaching tool to the benefit of future generations, like all songs of praise, it directly glorified God and exalted His name (Deuteronomy 31:30-32:52).

In addition to this command, we have some examples of the Israelites praising God in song (Numbers 21:16-18; Judges 5:1-31).

From these passages we see that singing was commanded as part of a specific song, and we learn that the Israelites continued to praise God in singing other songs. However, we do not read of instrumental music playing any part in the Jewish worship of God - until we come to the reign of David.

Mosaical Age - Post-Davidic

Next to Jesus, David was the greatest king to rule over Israel. Although his son, Solomon, acquired more wealth and prosperity for the nation (II Chronicles 9:1-31), David is always mentioned as the ancestor of the Messiah (Matthew 1:1, 22:42-46). However, for all his glory and the goodness of his heart (I Samuel 13:13-14), David was known for his impulsive sins and mistakes. For example, the following errors are recorded for our learning:

Other illustrations could be provided, but these are the most dramatic and illustrative of the point desiring to be made, which is that David often did what he wanted to do without thinking to "inquire of the Lord". Now this behavior was not ultimately characteristic of David, because it was not typical of David's overall life (I Samuel 22:10; 23:2-4; 30:8; II Samuel 2:1; 5:19-23; 21:1). However, these failings do illuminate a weakness in David, which may help to explain why he introduced instrumental music into the Mosaical, Jewish worship of God. In fact, the first reference to instrumental music being used to praise God under the Old Covenant is recorded in the following verses:

Then David consulted with the captains of thousands and hundreds, and with every leader. And David said to all the assembly of Israel,

"If it seems good to you, and if it is of the LORD our God, let us send out to our brethren everywhere who are left in all the land of Israel, and with them to the priests and Levites who are in their cities and their common-lands, that they may gather together to us; and let us bring the ark of our God back to us, for we have not inquired at it since the days of Saul."

Then all the assembly said that they would do so, for the thing was right in the eyes of all the people. So David gathered all Israel together, from Shihor in Egypt to as far as the entrance of Hamath, to bring the ark of God from Kirjath Jearim. And David and all Israel went up to Baalah, to Kirjath Jearim, which belonged to Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God the LORD, who dwells between the cherubim, where His name is proclaimed.

So they carried the ark of God on a new cart from the house of Abinadab, and Uzza and Ahio drove the cart. Then David and all Israel played music before God with all their might, with singing, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on cymbals, and with trumpets.

And when they came to Chidon's threshing floor, Uzza put out his hand to hold the ark, for the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the LORD was aroused against Uzza, and He struck him because he put his hand to the ark; and he died there before God.

And David became angry because of the LORD's outbreak against Uzza; therefore that place is called Perez Uzza to this day. David was afraid of God that day, saying, "How can I bring the ark of God to me?" (I Chronicles 13:1-13)

David organized a huge production to bring the ark of covenant to the capital, including 30,000 people (II Samuel 6:1-9). However, as we learn later, David did not consult God on the "proper order". Instead he primarily consulted his advisers and the Israelites. This tragic mistake lead to the ark being transported incorrectly on a new ox cart, instead of on special poles, carried on the shoulders of the Levite priests. No human was to directly touch the ark (Numbers 4:15-20), and when Uzza did touch it, God struck Him dead for his irreverence (II Samuel 6:6-7).

Not only did David introduce a new form of carrying the ark of the covenant, it appears that he also introduced a new form of musical worship - instrumental accompaniment. Please note that David was sincere. The text says that he "played with all his might"; moreover, he was displeased with God’s judgment on Uzza, because it was unexpected and not understood by David. In spite of David's earnestness, instrumental music was still a form of praise that was unknown to the ancient Scriptures.

How do we know that David introduced instrumental music? The chronicles of the kings clearly records when instrumental praise was first ordained:

Now these are the men whom David appointed over the service of song in the house of the LORD, after the ark came to rest. They were ministering with music before the dwelling place of the tabernacle of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of the LORD in Jerusalem, and they served in their office according to their order. (I Chronicles 6:31-32)

The narrative of this event is recorded in I Chronicles 15. Apparently at some point David inquired of the Lord to learn what he did wrong in moving the ark. While appointing these priests to serve in song, David chastised the Levites for their failure to comply with God’s "proper order". (The Levites were directly responsible for moving the ark, see passage below, while David was only indirectly responsible as king and originator of the ceremonial move.) At this point in history, David ordained families of the Levites to be devoted to singing in choirs, while others were to accompany the singing with instrumental music:

Then David said, "No one may carry the ark of God but the Levites, for the LORD has chosen them to carry the ark of God and to minister before Him forever." And David gathered all Israel together at Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the LORD to its place, which he had prepared for it. Then David assembled the children of Aaron and the Levites: ...

He said to them, "You are the heads of the fathers' houses of the Levites; sanctify yourselves, you and your brethren, that you may bring up the ark of the LORD God of Israel to the place I have prepared for it. For because you did not do it the first time, the LORD our God broke out against us, because we did not consult Him about the proper order."

So the priests and the Levites sanctified themselves to bring up the ark of the LORD God of Israel. And the children of the Levites bore the ark of God on their shoulders, by its poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the LORD.

Then David spoke to the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers accompanied by instruments of music, stringed instruments, harps, and cymbals, by raising the voice with resounding joy. ...

So he left Asaph and his brothers there before the ark of the covenant of the LORD to minister before the ark regularly, as every day's work required; ... and with them Heman and Jeduthun and the rest who were chosen, who were designated by name, to give thanks to the LORD, because His mercy endures forever; and with them Heman and Jeduthun, to sound aloud with trumpets and cymbals and the musical instruments of God. (I Chronicles 16:1-42)

From this point forward, the "musical instruments of God" are frequently mentioned throughout the pages of Scripture. Now between the giving of the Law of Moses and David's reign, only 3-5 references are made to any form of musical praise. None refer to instrumental music. However, in the remainder of the Old Testament, over 50 references are made to instrumental music. What made the difference?

And he stationed the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, with stringed instruments, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, of Gad the king's seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for thus was the commandment of the LORD by his prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded them to offer the burnt offering on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the LORD also began, with the trumpets and with the instruments of David king of Israel. So all the assembly worshiped, the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded; all this continued until the burnt offering was finished. (II Chronicles 29:25-28)

Dear friend, the point should be clear. For the Old Law, God first authorized vocal music, but remained silent on instrumental music, neither approving it nor condemning it. According to the historical record of Scripture, the Jews practiced singing, but no approved example is provided of instrumental music. Later, the Lord by specific commandment authorized instrumental music. If in the Old Testament, a specific command was required to authorize instrumental music, overriding the previous command to sing, why would a specific command not be required to override the original New Testament command to sing? Dear friend, before you decide to step out on thin air and use instruments anyway, please think about the example of Uzza and his presumption. Please heed the warning God has provided for you (I Corinthians 10:11-12; Romans 15:4).

As a side note, it appears that Solomon issued similar commands in transferring the relatively new musical responsibilities of the Levites from David's tabernacle to Solomon's temple (Nehemiah 12:45). Interestingly, the choirs and instrumental music eventually became associated with temple worship, as were all the other Levitical duties (Nehemiah 10:28, 39; 11:22). Consequently, once the temple was destroyed, it appears that the Jews ceased using instruments of music to praise God (Psalm 137:2-4). Apparently, such musical worship was not resumed until the temple was restored (Ezra 3:10; Nehemiah 12:27). Even up until recent centuries, synagogue worship has been limited to the human voice.

Christian Age

With Christ’s death upon the cross, the Old Covenant was done away, and its authority shattered (Romans 7:1-7). No longer would a person look to Moses and the prophets for authority, instead they were to look to Jesus, His apostles, and His prophets (Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Matthew 17:1-5; 28:18-20; Hebrews 1:1-2). Therefore, any command given to David to use instrumental music has long lost its power to authorize us to do the same.

The New Testament Scriptures contain sufficient instruction in worshiping God through music. However, this article is focused on placing these directions in their historical context, illuminating them against the backdrop of past practices. Therefore, we will pass over New Testament quotes in this article, focusing rather on the opinions of uninspired reformers, worshipers, and historians, who followed the apostles and prophets.

Era of the Ante-Nicaean Fathers

Closest to the time of the apostles, the Ante-Nicaean fathers (2nd and 3rd centuries) provide us the following quotes from their writings:

"The one instrument of peace, the word alone by which we honor God is what we employ. We no longer employ the ancient psaltery, the cymbal, the flute..." (Clement of Alexandria, 2nd century)

Clement defended the lack of instrumental music by explaining that it was how the Jews worshiped. Furthermore, he explained that it was a symbol of the true worship, not the reality.

A century later, Eusebius of Caeserea, who is generally regarded as the first church historian, wrote these words:

"The unison voices of Christians would be more acceptable to God than any musical instrument. Accordingly, in all the churches of God, we send up a unison melody" (Comments on Psalm 91, 3rd century)

Eusebius also spoke of Pliny's letter to Roman Emperor, Trajan, which states:

"the Christians arose with the sun, and sang to Christ as to a god..." (Ecclesiastical History, III, p.33 - c. AD 111)

A peer to Eusebius, John Chrysostom, explained:

"It was only permitted to the Jews as sacrifice was for the heaviness and grossness of their souls. God condescended to their weakness because they were lately drawn from idols. But now instead of organs, we may use our own bodies to praise Him with all."

The Dark Ages

Hundreds of years later, we find that the Catholic church as a whole, still rejected instrumental music. Even up to 1250 AD, from the writings of Thomas Aquinas, we glean this explanation:

"Our church does not use musical instruments as harps and psalteries to praise God withal that she may not seem to Judaeize." (Summa Theologica)

In the Roman Catholic Encyclopedia we find:

"Although Josephus tells of the wonderful effects produced in the Temple by the use of instruments, the first Christians were of too spiritual fibre to substitute lifeless instruments for or to use them to accompany the human voice. Clement of Alexandria severely condemns the use of instruments even at Christian banquets (P.G., VIII, 4440). St. Chrysostom sharply contrasts the customs of the Christians at the time when they had full freedom with those of the Jews of the Old Testament (ibid., LV, 494-7). Similarly write a series of early ecclesiastical writers down to St. Thomas (Summa, II-II, Q.xci,a.2)" ("Music," The Catholic Encyclopedia, X:651)

The Reformation Era

Eventually, the use of the organ became a central part of Catholic worship. However, many significant Protestant reformers rejected the use of the instrument. History records that Zwingli, and others, swiftly destroyed the church instruments as Catholic innovations and perversions, after their rise to power and influence. Zwingli accomplished the following reformation in Zurich, Switzerland, because he believed that all things not expressly authorized by the Bible should be abolished:

"The churches of the city were purged of pictures, relics, crucifixes, altars, candles, and all ornaments. The pictures were broken and burned. The bones of saints were buried. Even the organ was removed, and the Latin singing of the choir abolished, but fortunately afterward, replaced with congregational singing of psalms and hymns in the vernacular." (Schaff, Church History, vol.8)

John Calvin was a significant leader of the Reformation movement. His doctrines are entrenched in the foundations of most modern Protestant denominations. In his commentary on Psalm 33, he wrote:

"Musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews. Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostle is far more pleasing to Him."

John Wesley was prominent in establishing the Methodist church, and he had profound influence on the Anglican church. He offered his opinion on instrumental music in this way:

"I have no objection to instruments of music in our chapels provided they are neither heard nor seen" (quoted in Adam Clarke's Commentary at Amos 6:5)

Although Luther accepted instrumental music, Mosheim, a prominent Lutheran, wrote:

"The Christian worship consisted in hymns, prayers, the reading of Scriptures, a discourse addressed to the people, and concluded with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper" (Ecclesiastical History, I:303, published AD 1755)

Neander, a German protestant (1789-1850), generally regarded as "the founder of modern Protestant historiography" (NIDCC, 696) said:

"Church psalmody, also passed over from the synagogue in the Christian Church. The Apostle Paul exhorts the primitive churches to sing spiritual songs. For this purpose were used the psalms of the Old Testament, and partly hymns composed expressly for this object, especially hymns of praise and of thanks to God and to Christ, such having been known to Pliny, as in customary use among the Christians of his time" (General Church History, I:414)

In 1888, John L. Girardeau, a professor at the Presbyterian Columbia Theological Seminary, wrote Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church to explain to his students why the Presbyterian church had previously rejected instrumental music. Among many notable quotes, he writes:

"It is heresy in the sphere of worship" (Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church, p.179)

"psallo never occurs in the New Testament, in its radical signification, to strike or play upon an instrument." (Music in the Church, pp.116-118)

Charles H. Spurgeon was a fiery, Baptist preacher, whose sermons are read by many even still today. In his comments on the Psalms, he writes:

""Praise the Lord with the harp." Israel was at school, and used childish things to help her learn. But in these days, when Jesus gives us spiritual food, one can make melody without strings and pipes. We do not need them. They would hinder rather than help our praise. Sing unto Him! This is the sweetest and best music. No instrument is like the human voice....

David appears to have had a peculiarly tender remembrance of the singing of the pilgrims, and assuredly it is the most delightful part of worship and that which comes nearest to the adoration of heaven. What a degradation to supplant the intelligent song of the whole congregation by the theatrical prettiness of a quartet, the refined niceties of a choir, or the blowing off of wind from the inanimate bellows and pipes! We might as well pray by machinery as praise by it" (The Treasury of David, comment on Psalm 42:4)

The Primitive Baptist church did not use instrumental music until recent days. The Free Methodist denomination did not use instrumental music until the 1940's. A branch of the Presbyterian church has still not implemented instrumental music until this day.

The Restoration Movement

Although Alexander Campbell opposed the acceptance of denominations and left the Baptist church because of such views, he became influential in what has become known as the "restoration movement". From which some have drifted back into denominationalism to form groups known as the Christian Church, or the Disciples of Christ. His biographer, Robert Richardson, stated that Campbell remained "utterly opposed" to the use of instrumental music in worship (Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, II:366). Additionally, Campbell himself wrote:

"The argument drawn from the Psalms in favor of instrumental music is exceedingly apposite to the Roman Catholic, English, Protestant, and Scotch Presbyterian churches, and even Methodist communities - their churches having all the world in them. ... To all spiritually minded Christians such aids would be as a cow-bell in a concert" (Millennial Harbinger, October 1851, p.582).

Interestingly, the use of instrumental music, along with missionary societies, helped to foster the division that lead to the creation of the Christian church and the Disciples of Christ denominations in the mid to late 19th century, after Campbell's death.


What does phrase, "a cappella" mean? Most modern dictionaries explain that this phrase refers to music without instrumental accompaniment - vocal music. However, this meaning has special significance to our study.

"A Cappella" is a Latin phrase that literally means "in the manner of the church (chapel)"! Why would this phrase be associated with vocal singing, if the church has always been engaged in instrumental music? The origin of this word summarizes the point of this article: Instrumental music was not typical of the ancient, Christian worship. In fact, it is a relatively modern addition to Christian worship.

"What does this prove?" Not much. We should make our decisions based on Scripture, not history. Although we may understand this academically, practically we may be lulled into accepting the instrumental position, because we feel secure in standing with the current majority. Please look into your heart and consider if you have let the consensus of the majority prejudice your intellect. History proves this majority do be a mirage of short-term observation. Additionally, please consider that no one is in the majority, when they are opposed to God’s instruction (I Samuel 14:1-26).


Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1994 by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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