Thursday, October 8, 2009

What Is It about Quakers and Music?

Please explain -- what is the deal about Quakers and music? Is it true that music is considered sinful? Why? If music is bad, how do you explain the video “Dance Party Erupts at Quaker Meeting for Worship” at

What IS the deal about Quakers and music? This relationship has been a challenge. For programmed Friends (mostly in the midwest and western states), whose traditions since the 1800s have included pastors and prepared liturgies,[see comments re this word--ed.] hymn singing is regularly included in the service. For Friends whose tradition is “open” worship [see below], music is not part of the traditional practice, although some meetings (congregations) have introduced a custom of singing before or after worship. At times in open worship individuals may offer ministry in the form of song, and may even welcome others to sing with them. My meeting –- one of a handful I know –- ends with the singing of a particular hymn, As We Leave this Friendly Place, which was developed as a closing hymn during the 1900s.

[NOTE: “Open worship” begins in silence and has no prepared format and no appointed clergy. Friends wait expectantly in stillness for the presence of the Divine Light, and offer messages to other worshipers when led by the Spirit to do so. It is also called “unprogrammed” or “silent” worship. For more information on the programmed and unprogrammed branches of Quakerism, see –ed.]

Worship in Song is a Friends hymnal developed through Friends General Conference. FGC has served unprogrammed Friends since the late 1800s, and music has always had a place in the social events it sponsors. Worship In Song was created to be used for group singing and for personal devotional use, because the practice of group singing in open worship is not established--yet many Friends love to sing!

Friends have not generally described music as being “sinful.” Yet our actions can give that impression, as wonderfully portrayed in the movie Friendly Persuasion. In that movie, the family tries to keep secret from the Quaker elders that they have a musical instrument hidden in their attic.

Early feelings about music arise in the writings of George Fox, a founding Quaker and journal writer from the 1600s. His journal notes –- with no particular animus –- the music that his wife and stepdaughters regularly played. He writes that at a particularly hard time in prison, he “sang,” presumably in prayer. In another place he strongly condemns the sound of psalm-singing. His condemnation of street music and his warnings about the power of music are timeless. I assume that early Friends paid a lot of attention to these strong messages. Music in the church was a likely target for early Friends in their general critique of the Church -– which they were trying to change. In that early time of establishing Friends traditions and ministry, music became for some an element to sharply dismiss. I am grateful we are moving on.

The concern about music has focused mostly on two assumptions: music is a power that raises emotions in ways not conducive to worship; and congregational singing as part of liturgy does not have a place in open Quaker worship. As a Friend in the unprogrammed tradition and as a “singing Quaker,” I’ve long held a conviction that these two assumptions, based on early Quaker writings and practice, were not the whole story, and there are many “singing Quakers” who share my unease with our long, silent dismissal of the value of music for Friends in worship.

I find music very conducive to worship. I have been opened by music that I’ve heard sung both in and out of worship, and in worship have sometimes sung myself. Music connects us to each other and to Spirit by an invisible thread. Hymn singing before worship helps me to “center down” and helps me be more in tune and open to the Spirit, rather than to distractions. I am not alone in this experience.

It is, then, with joy that many Friends have viewed the video from Jon Watts that you linked to your question. It is edgy, particularly for unprogrammed Friends, because it is rhythmic, even including dance. It reminds me of the revival tent in its energy, something that pastoral Friends may relate to as part of their tradition. But in this case it comes out of Friends’ other tradition of open (nonliturgical) worship, and many Friends in this tradition are responding with enthusiasm. Jon’s lyrics express his experience, his life in connection with his faith. The video opens up a possibility for a kind of message we do not often hear -- either musically or in words -- in open worship. Does the performance engage emotions in ways that block experience of God or Spirit? Is it self serving? These are questions we can keep in mind as we respond to the message.

There are some Quakers who may dismiss Jon's ministry. There are some who still feel the weight of our old assumptions about music. If we are true to our tradition, we will engage with Jon’s ministry and listen to him. Through that experience of engagement we may learn more of God's truth.

Joan Broadfield


  1. Joan -- Thank you for your response to this question. It is a topic I don't feel I am equal to. This comment is my promised response to a difference of opinion that we had about terminology as I was preparing to post it for you. -- We decided we would each write a comment on the topic.

    I am not a fan of the term "open worship." I really hope it will not get a permanent toehold in our Quaker vocabulary. To me, it is an "inside" term that Quakers use with each other that is not meaningful to the larger world that recognizes our branch of Quakerism for our "silent worship."

    In worship we are "open" to the leadings and visitations of the Spirit, but that's not what the term says to me. I associate "open" with the idea that anyone can come participate (true, but I really hope that goes without saying), or else something I find more problematic: "open" to whatever interest catches your fancy. The word "open" suggests to me, "Say whatever you like, follow whatever whim drifts through your mind."

    I have attended too many Friends meetings where attenders didn't understand the difference between Friends worship and a 12-step meeting where everyone is encouraged to "share," and the point is for it to be therapeutic to the speakers rather than instructive or inspirational for the other worshipers.

    I expect a range in the "quality" of ministry at Quaker meeting -- we are all at different points in our spiritual evolution, and we have different gifts for putting our openings into words. I can be deeply moved my a nearly inarticulate message or awakened by a shabby old truism that someone has discovered new appreciation for. But I do have an expectation that we will test our messages before we speak them, that we will try to bring into our worship only those messages that we believe have come to us from a deeper well than the morning's paper, and that we understand to be ministry, not just self expression. In comparison to that expectation, the term "open worship" suggests something Ranterish to me.

  2. Thank you for these helpful posts. For newcomers especially, the role of music can be mystifying. (I also appreciate Chel's concerns about "open worship;" the natural desire to develop meaningful terminology so often results in jargon that is just as problematic.)

    I wanted to lift up two additional considerations about music to extend the discussion a bit: how music relates for Quakers to simplicity and community. These are two of five commonly cited core principles we often call "testimonies," which were classified as such only in the last century but provide a useful way of organizing key concepts.

    Joan's piece focuses on music and worship, understandably enough. I might add that some early Quakers delivered their vocal ministry with a "sing-song" voice. They also had a concern about "empty forms" or any programmed ritual that had lost its connection to a spiritual grounding.

    Still the historical relationship of Quakers with music goes beyond worship. While they would not have recognized the term "testimony of simplicity," they did have a witness against diversions and distractions. In this sense, simplicity was not about materialism per se, but avoiding worldliness that distracts from a focus on God. Music, or theater or card-playing for that matter, for the purpose of entertainment would have been viewed as distractions from God.

    Many modern Quakers, including me, recognize the incredible spiritual power that music can have and could never consider music of that sort to be a distraction from God. Still, it may help modern Quakers to consider the root of early Quaker concerns and ask ourselves whether and how our enjoyment of music draws us closer to God and whether it might sometimes draw us away.

    For modern Quakers, I think it worth highlighting that music, with both song and dance, can and does play a huge role in building community among us, though this is most prominently experienced in larger Quaker gatherings. Just as worship and potlucks are forms of communion that knit us together, singing together has a similarly powerful effect. As I understand it, this is really the core of the ministry of Peter and Annie Blood-Patterson, who developed the "Rise Up Singing" songbooks and teaching tapes. As a choral singer, it took me a while to get past the fact that this music does not have the same spiritual power for me as classic sacred works. But eventually I realized that's not what group singing is about, where lots of people may not be very good singers at all and don't have to be. It's about the shared joyful experience of making music together and enjoying the fellowship, and it has great power to build community.

    But "Rise Up Singing" and its folk tradition is only one of many musical styles that have taken solid hold among modern Quakers. At gatherings of Quakers, you can also find broadway singing, renaissance singing, shape-note (Sacred Harp) singing, and even doo-wop, as well as hymn singing. Contradancing and other forms of folk dancing are also popular fixtures at some Quaker gatherings.

    Mmmm. Early Quakers would be aghast. Certainly some of this is hard to describe as anything but worldly entertainment. But my experience is that it all builds bonds of community, and for me, that has pretty good spiritual value and power in itself. Also, anything that brings us joy, to my thinking, brings us closer to God, but perhaps it helps to be mindful that's our goal.

    Hope this helps.

    Ken Stockbridge
    Patapsco Friends Meeting
    Ellicott City, MD

  3. It is misleading to speak of programmed Friends meetings as "liturgical". The pastor comes to meeting with plans to call for certain hymns (or in these days, praise and worship songs) and a particular scripture to be used as the basis of the sermon. A choir may have a selection planned, or there may be a solo or duet. There usually is a period of "open" worship, varying from congregration to congregration from just a couple of minutes to fifteen minutes or more. However, there is no prayerbook to be followed. People I know in programmed meetings would be just as turned off by preplanned prayers and readings as are people in FGC and Conservative meetings. Programmed does not equal liturgical.

    Edward Pearce

  4. Edward, thanks for this clarification. I have wondered about the meaning of "liturgy" -- as an unprogrammed Q there are certain terms I'm not adept with. I did look it up in the dictionary before putting up this post, but I guess that definition wasn't specific enough. Can you suggest a better word? All I can think of is "agenda."

  5. As an unprogrammed conservative Friend, I may not be the best authority. It seems clear enough to me to simply say "programmed worship". However, if we were talking about a Mennonite worship service, I don't know how we would describe it; it certainly is not liturgical like a Catholic, Episcopal, or even Methodist service. It is probably better just to leave the word "liturgy" out, unless speaking of one of those groups with highly structured programs.
    I have heard FUM Friends refer to their meetings as "programmed by the Holy Spirit", meaning they will drop what they had prepared if something else seems more appropriate that day.
    Edward Pearce

  6. Ken, Glad you spoke up! Yes, to both 'sing-song' style of worship that is thought to have been a way early Friends gave vocal ministry; and that music in the church at that time was seen as empty (Fox has much more scathing descriptions in the Journal). But is is really hard to extrapolate from the past how Friends transplanted might be about the present. After all, there is mention in the Journal of the musical get togethers that were regular, that Margaret and her daughters were involved in.

    Edward, Thanks for your wisdom on the use of the term 'liturgy'. Most helpful!!

  7. Great conversation... good observations and insights from Joan!

    I wrote a paper during my time at Guilford College on the nature of the Early Friends' relationship with music, and my understanding of their objection is that it was twofold:
    1 - Social Leveling - that the high society baroque music of the Early Friends' day was only accessible to those who had the means and social capital. Solomon Eccles burned his violins and became a shoemaker in order to reject the inherant classhood of being a baroque composer
    2 - Direct Acces to God - the habitual singing of hymns that embodied a third party's relationship with God did not sit well with Friends who were striving to be present to their ongoing relationship with the inward Christ

    Unfortunately, many of the practices of the Early Friends were formalized in our Quietism period, thus Friends being disowned from their Meeting for the act of playing the piano, as depicted in the movie "Friendly Persuasion".

    For the paper I interviewed Max Carter on the subject and turned an edited version of our interview into the introduction and conclusion on a recording project. It can be heard and read at

    Another great resource is Haverford's "Sing Ye In the Spirit' project:


    1. I'm doing a paper on Colonial Quaker Music now. I come from Swarthmore/Philadelphia meeting. Would you be willing to send me the paper for reference?

  8. I have always felt very uncomfortable with singing in meeting, don't know why but it really bothers me.

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  15. Dear Joan,

    What are you referencing in terms of "street music"? There is this passage from Fox's autobiography:

    "About this time I was sorely exercised in going to their courts to cry for justice, in speaking and writing to judges and justices to do justly; in warning such as kept public houses for entertainment that they should not let people have more drink than would do them good; in testifying against wakes, feasts, May-games, sports, plays, and shows, which trained up people to vanity and looseness, and led them from the fear of God; and the days set forth for holidays were usually the times wherein they most dishonoured God by these things.

    In fairs, also, and in markets, I was made to declare against their deceitful merchandise, cheating, and cozening; warning all to deal justly, to speak the truth, to let their yea be yea, and their nay be nay, and to do unto others as they would have others do unto them; forewarning them of the great and terrible day of the Lord, which would come upon them all.

    I was moved, also, to cry against all sorts of music, and against the mountebanks playing tricks on their stages; for they burthened the pure life, and stirred up people's minds to vanity."

    I believe this is the only instance of the word "music" in at least one version of the autobiography.

    Are you referencing some other document or version of the journal/autobiography?

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  17. May I be bold enough to offer this musical tribute to the Quaker Spirit:
    Quaker Dawn
    Thank you
    John Bartels

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