The Organist's Role in the Colonial Anglican Church

By Radloff, Nancy Saultz | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2004 | Go to article overview

The Organist's Role in the Colonial Anglican Church

Radloff, Nancy Saultz, Anglican and Episcopal History

The Episcopal church has a rich tradition of music in worship that is rooted in the Church of England, was adapted to life in colonial America, and has evolved to that which we experience today. Anglican colonists were often surprisingly quick-considering other issues of survival that must have taken precedence-to establish churches, form vestries, and hire priests. Once those tasks were finished, they turned their attention to details of worship such as hiring organists and installing instruments. The performance practice of music in worship was dictated by church rubrics, the patterns established in England, and colonial resources.


Like their English counterparts, colonial parishes had two services on Sundays and holy days: Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Existing documentation indicates that colonial organists followed the English parish tradition of services which included organ music. King's Chapel, Boston is believed to have been the first American Anglican church to install an organ.1 Their agreement with Edward Enstone, the English organist hired by the parish's agent in 1714, stated that he was expected to "at all proper and usuall times of Divine service Officiate as Organist in the said Chappell,"2 implying a tradition of" using the organ for both regular and special services.

The vestry of St. Philip's, Charleston, in the vestry minutes of its 6 March 1758 meeting, outlined the role of the organ in their parish:

The duty required of an Organist here is to play the Organ on all Sundays at Morning and Evening Service & on all Church Holy Days at morning Service and two mornings in the yr at the opening of the assembly, and at no other times, except at great funerals at the desire of the relations of the deceased.3

These responsibilities remained constant in pre-revolutionary Charleston. The following is an excerpt of Peter Valton's first contract with the parish in 1764:

This Agreement Indented, made and Concluded in London the Twenty-first day of August, in the year of Our Lord, One Thousand Seven hundred Sixty four, Between Richard Grubb and William Greenwood of London...acting for and in the Behalf of...the present Vestry of Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Philip in Charles Town, in the province of South Carolina...and Peter Valton, of the parish of St. George, Hanover Square in the County of Middlesex, Organist...To wit, The Said Peter Valton...doth hereby Covenant and play the Organ in the Church of the Said parish, On every Sunday throughout the year at Morning and evening Service; On all Festivals and Church Holidays at Morning Service only; Twice in every Year in the forenoon at the Session, and at funerals if requested by the relations of the deceased upon their paying for such Service, for the time and space of three years, to commence and be accounted from the day of his Arrival at Charles Town in South Carolina...during which time the Said Peter Valton, shall to the best of his Skill and Judg'ment, do perform and execute...Employment of Organist...4

These documents clearly indicate that the organist participated in both regular and special worship services. In general, the organist had three tasks: to accompany congregational song, to accompany choral anthems when a choir was present, and to provide instrumental solos as required within the service.


The Forty-ninth Injunction of 1559 officially permitted the use of vocal music in worship in the Church of England and indicated both the proper style of singing and the placement of song in worship:

For the comforting of such as delight in music, it may be permitted that in the beginning or end of Common Prayer either at Morning or Evening, there may be sung an hymn or such like song to the praise of the Almighty God in the best melody and music that may be devised, having respect that the sentence of the hymn may be understood and received. …

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