September 10 Organ Note

Organ Melodies and Puritan Consciences in Colonial Boston

Thomas Brattle’s Organ at King’s Chapel, Boston

When it came to organs, the Puritans of Massachusetts drew the line. Cotton Mather (1663-1728), the minister of North Church, Boston, decreed against organs in his mammoth treatise, The Glorious Works of Christ in America (1702). According to Mather, God had thunderously rejected the organ, saying “I will not hear the melody of your Organs!”

But not everyone agreed. In 1698 Thomas Brattle (1658-1713) visited England where, for the first time in his life, he heard a pipe organ. It must have impressed him, since he brought an organ back with him and installed it in his house. It was the first pipe organ imported to New England and it became the first organ installed in a church.

Brattle was a wealthy Boston merchant and teacher, and the treasurer of Harvard. Like Mather, he was a Puritan. But he was also an open minded man who had publicly opposed the Salem witchcraft trials, challenged traditional religious orthodoxies, and welcomed modern advances in science and philosophy. He had incurred Mather’s wrath by founding and funding the Manifesto Church which espoused a liberal form of Puritanism and which today is known by his name as the Brattle Street Church. He might have hoped that his bequest of his organ in 1713 would loosen the strictures against instrumental music in general and organs in particular in church settings.

But it was not to be. Until 1790, Puritan worship permitted music only in the form of metric psalmody. Psalms were set in rhyming patterns and sung in unison in ballad-like meters. Psalmody was regarded as a form of spiritual discipline for the congregation. Choirs, soloists and instruments were banned from church settings.

After its rejection by the Manifesto Church, Brattle’s organ was installed in King’s Chapel, Boston, where it is still housed and is playable today. A single manual instrument, it was highly regarded by the Anglican congregation of King’s Chapel. Upon receiving the organ in 1713, its vestry created a professional post for a church organist. Through a representative in England, the vestry hired Edward Enstone and secured his transatlantic passage to Boston. Sometime in 1714 Edward Enstone was ensconced at the bench of Brattle’s organ.

Cotton Mather had warned that playing the organ would lead to ungodly behavior such as “Dancing!” and worse. Enstone proved him right. Enstone augmented his church salary by teaching dance lessons. Then he went further by opening a dancing school, further still by arranging a fancy ball, and furthest of all by living with a woman in an unmarried state.

King’s Chapel ultimately gave up on Enstone. However, it did not give up on the organ. In 1909 it installed a Skinner organ; in 1963 it installed its current Fisk organ. Today, King’s Chapel supports a Tuesday recital program and an evening concert program. At Christ Church, we will, like King’s Chapel, have a Skinner organ. Our virtual Aeolian-Skinner instrument will allow us to experience the joy of music and, perhaps, break into dance.