Is there something wrong with using drums?
Along with you, I don’t have much confidence in the conspiracy theories. I do not believe that we should let our practices be driven by them because I consider them questionable. I also believe you are correct when you suggest that the issue really is not drums but how they are used.
You asked what Ellen G. White meant in the statement that you cited about drums at the Indiana camp meeting in 1900. It is always a bit risky to venture to tell someone what Mrs. White meant. In this case, we have eyewitness accounts regarding what was going on at the camp meeting. They are illuminating.
There is a great power that goes with the movement [Holy Flesh] that is on foot there. It would almost bring anybody within its scope, if they are at all conscientious, and sit and listen with the least degree of favor; because of the music that is brought to play in the ceremony. They have an organ, one bass viol, three fiddles, two flutes, three tambourines, three horns, and a big bass drum, and perhaps other instruments which I have not mentioned. . . . When they get on a high key, you cannot hear a word from the congregation in their singing, nor hear anything, unless it be shrieks of those who are half insane. . . .
After an appeal to come forward for prayers, a few of the leading ones would always come forward, to lead others to come; and then they would begin to play on the musical instruments, until you could not hear yourself think; and under the excitement of this strain, they get a large proportion of the congregation forward over and over again.—S. N. Haskell report to E. G. White, September 25, 1900. . . .
I attended the camp meeting in September of 1900, which was held at Muncie, where I witnessed first-hand the fanatical excitement and activities of these people. . . . When these fanatics conducted the services in the large pavilion, they worked themselves up to a high pitch of excitement by the use of musical instruments, such as: trumpets, flutes, stringed instruments, tambourines, an organ, and a big bass drum. They shouted and sang their lively songs with the aid of musical instruments until they became really hysterical. Many times I saw them after these morning meetings, as they came to the dining tent fairly shaking as though they had the palsy.—Burton Wade account to A. L. White, January 12, 1962.
With that background, let me return to your point about how drums are used. When I was in college in the 1960s, I played in the college band. We did a little touring and even played for the Sabbath morning church services in a number of places. Some of the sacred pieces we did included a judicious use of snare drums, as well as bass drum, tympani, and cymbals. I think I recall an arrangement of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” for instance, in which the snare drums helped to provide the ambiance of marching. There was nothing irreverent or inappropriate about this, in my opinion. The music was sacred and dignified. Further, I recall that even Handel’s “Hallelujah” from Messiah uses timpani. So, in my opinion, the issue is not drums, but how they are used.
The problem in Mrs. White’s day in Indiana, as I understand it, was that the instruments were used to stir up an excitement among the people that had little to do with the moving of the Holy Spirit. . . . The type of music used today in some churches may not be just the same as what was used there, but many things appear similar. Dance tunes applied to sacred words, music played loudly, excitement stirred up, and influences from theological currents foreign to Adventist teaching are some that come to mind. In addition, the performances accompanying these songs tend to elicit applause for the performer—like an entertainment—rather than appreciation for God. These things, rather than what instruments are used, seem to me to be the significant issues. If we settled these matters, we would not find much occasion to discuss whether drums are appropriate. I think that would take care of itself.