The Melodeon

Midway University has benefited throughout the years from the generosity of thousands of individuals. Many fine gifts have been donated to the college, but perhaps the item with the most colorful and interesting history is the wooden melodeon housed in the Little Memorial Library on campus.

The melodeon is believed to have originated a controversy that eventually split the Campbell-Stone religious reform into two separate churches: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Church of Christ.

In the early 19th century, there was much discord among the various denominations on the American frontier. In an effort to mitigate some of the sectarian controversies, Alexander Campbell suggested that Christians should be able to exercise their own freedom of choice in matters that were not essential to Christian faith. He did hold, however, that worship should be patterned after the simple example indicated in the New Testament.

These two principles seemed to come into conflict when, around the mid-19th century, musical instruments played during worship were introduced. Since the New Testament did not explicitly permit musical instruments, some believed that their use was a dangerous, unscriptural practice that would turn plain worship into a farcical show. For others, choosing to play an instrument during worship was a matter of preference in which Christian liberty should rule. The chief founder of Midway College, Dr. Lewis Letig Pinkerton, believed this.

A progressive and controversial figure in the mid 1800’s, Pinkerton was also the pastor of the Midway Christian Church. He believed that instrumental music could be a joyous means of expressing faith as well as a way to improve congregational singing.

As far as can be determined, the melodeon that appeared one Sunday in the Midway Christian Church was the first musical instrument used in service in any congregation that was associated with the Campbell-Stone reform movement. Pinkerton requested that Thompson Parrish, son of James Ware Parrish, co-founder of Midway College, play the melodeon at worship services.

Gradually, as the other congregations introduced pianos and organs in the service of worship, their use became very controversial and a test of fellowship. Generally speaking, congregations that used instruments tended to call themselves a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and congregations that did not, Churches of Christ.

The melodeon was referred to as the “instrument of Satan” by dissenting church members. The tension surrounding the melodeon finally erupted in the 1860’s when Adam Hibler, an elder of the church, removed the melodeon during the night. Hibler was assisted by his servant, Reuben, who passed the instrument through the window to Hibler.

The fate of the musical instrument was obscured until the early 1900’s when it was discovered at the home of Mary and Elizabeth Nugent. The Nugent sisters of Versailles were the daughters of James Nugent, a friend of Hibler. The Nugent family maintained that the melodeon was purchased at sale for $1.65. It is possible that Hibler gave the melodeon to Nugent, or that Robert Alexander, a mutual friend of the two men, acquired the instrument and gave it to Nugent at a later date.

Midway University officials at the time were satisfied that the musical instrument found in the Nugent’s home was indeed the original melodeon first played at the Midway Christian Church. A local entrepreneur and friend of the college, James Ware Parrish II, son of Thompson Parrish, was captivated by the “instrument of Satan” and its historical significance. He donated the necessary funds for the purchase of the melodeon so that it might be housed at the college.

Since its return to the Midway University campus, the melodeon has attracted thousands of visitors. These interested individuals want to view the musical instrument that became a symbol of the division that ultimately resulted in the establishment of two separate and distinct churches: The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the Church of Christ, which to this day prohibits the use of instrumental music in worship.

If you plan to visit campus to see the melodeon, please call the library at (859) 846-5316 to let us know you are coming and to confirm library hours.

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