Postcard view of the Johnston organ case in Christ Church, Boston in around 1910. Note that the case was originally built with three towers and two flats, and the two outer towers are later additions
The author "P", writing on Organ-Building in New-England" in The New-England Magazine, Vol. 6 (1834), pp. 205-6, describes the organ that stood in the Old North Church in the latter half of the eighteenth century in the following terms:
In 1723, the second Episcopal church was founded, which is Christ Church.
It is stated, in the early records of Christ Church, that, in 1735, twelve years after the foundation of the church, that society was offered an organ, in Philadelphia, with eight stops. It is not said, where it was built. The society did not purchase it. In August, 1736, a person in Newport (a Mr. Clagget, if I do not misrecollect the name) offered to sell them an organ for four hundred pounds A committee was sent on, to examine it, who finally purchased it for three hundred pounds; and it was put up in the church in October, 1736. The record does not indicate the number of its stops, nor the place or country in which the instrument was built. From the expressions employed, it is pretty evident, that this was the first organ which had been used in this church.
On a further examination of these records, a vote is found, under date of May 16, 1738, permitting a Mr. Halliburton "to put up his organ in the belfry of the tower." It is sufficiently clear, that this was for the convenience of the proprietor, and not for the use of the church. It should seem, also, that this was larger than a chamber-organ, or he might have put it up in his house. Whether it was a foreign instrument, or one of his own construction, does not appear.
In 1752, we find, in these records of Christ Church, the first account of an American-built organ, which has come to the knowledge of the writer. It was voted, April, 1752, to pay Thomas Johnston ten pounds, old tenor, for three months use of an organ of his, which, it seems, he had put up in place of the old one . and they allowed him also thirty pounds, old tenor, for taking down the same, and [p.206] again putting up the old one. But if he should build a new organ for the church, this sum ol thirty pounds was to be deducted from the price.
Soon after this vote, another appears under date of August 11, 1752, reciting and sanctioning an agreement, that "Mr. Thomas Johnston might build an organ, with an echo, equal to that of Trinity Church ;"—that "he should be paid therefor, two hundred pounds lawful money ;"—and that "he might make a double diapason in the treble." This organ was built, and was probably finished and put up in the latter part of that year, or the beginning of the next.
When Boston was evacuated by the British troops, in the early part of the revolutionary war, and many or all of the Episcopal clergy, with their principal adherents, left the town, this church was closed, and the pipes were taken out of the organ, to be deposited in a place of greater probable safety. After the peace, when the church was again opened for public worship, such of the pipes as could be found were replaced in the organ. Some of them, however, were deficient; but enough were obtained to render nearly all the stops in the great organ complete, and the greater part of those in the swell.
A person, now living, who was well acquainted with this organ thirty or forty years ago, states, that the [stop list was]:
Sesquialter III ranks
Swell or Echo:
The three first stops of the swell were carried through in the bass, outside of the swell box, and thus formed a choir-organ and swell combined.
In the year 1805, it was voted to beautify the external part of the organ, and to put the trumpet in order. In 1807 or 1808, Mr. William M. Goodrich was employed to repair this organ. All or most of the old pipes that remained were taken out, and new ones were substituted. In April, 1821, it was voted, to engage Mr. William M. Goodrich to build them a new organ, except the case, and to pay him twelve hundred dollars therefor, with the old organ.
Mr. Thomas Johnson (or Johnston, as it was written in the old family-bible) has many descendants now living in this city. He had a son, who was a lieutenant in the revolutionary army, and who was wounded in the knee at the battle of Long-Island. This son afterwards became a portrait painter. He also commanded the only artillery company then in Boston. He is well remembered by most of our elderly citizens.
Mr. Johnston, the father, is supposed to have been a native of Boston. He was born about the year 1703, and died here about the year 1768. He owned a house, in which he resided many years, on the west side of Brattle-square, nearly opposite the tower of Brattle-street church, and his shop was in the yard back of his house. Previous to his becoming an organ-builder, he was an ornamental painter. He decorated clocks and other furniture, according to the fashion of the age, with that embossed or raised work, representing Chinese figures, gardens, &c. which is now sometimes found on old articles of that kind. He also painted or embossed those escutcheons, or coats of arms, which it was, at that period, customary, among the aristocracy, to place over the door of a dwelling-house, on the demise of the head of the family. He engraved music on copper; and he printed the old tunes then in most frequent use, in the form and size of the psalm-book, to be bound up with it. He was one of the leading singers at Brattle-street church; and the following passage from the records of that society refers to him :—" Sept. 10, 1739. A com-mittee, appointed to consider of a change of version of the psalms, made their report in the negative, that at present they could not advise to any new version. * * * Soon after, the committee met, and applied to our good brethren, Mr. Macom and Mr. Johnson, and prevailed with 'em to sit together, and lead us in the ordinance of singing."
The circumstances which induced Mr. Johnston to become an organ-builder, and the means by which he acquired any knowledge of the art, are now unknown. It is probable, that, being an ingenious man, fond of sacred music, and a singer of some consideration, he first undertook, as many others have done, to construct a small organ for himself, deriving his knowledge, as he proceeded, from the examination of the interior of some instrument to which he had access.