"A Quaker's View" first appeared in 1990, as a column in the WHF newsletter. Articles from that column are now available online (though some have been lost).

Nothing here is meant to be the last word in Quaker Orthodoxy. It is, after all, "A Quaker's View."


Hello Friends and friends of Friends! I am your host, Pendle Hill, with yet another Quaker's View. In this column, we take a Quaker's View of music.

Quakers have a rather dismal history when it comes to music. In order to understand our deficiency in this regard, it is helpful to remember what the early Friends did well.

The early Friends turned society on its head. Quaker worship was conducted without priests, without the traditional props of outward sacraments and without liturgy. Even outside of their meetings for worship, the early Friends spoke differently, dressed differently and conducted business differently than the vast majority of their neighbors.

The early Friends were not afraid to be different. In fact, being different helped the Quakers feel "set apart." If Quakers were different, it was because they were minding the Light while those around them pursued the affairs of this world.

As time went on, Friends came to focus more and more of their attention on avoiding the affairs of this world. They seemed to believe (like the Puritans before them), that moving farther and farther from "the world" ushered one into God's presence by process of elimination.

Not too surprisingly, drunkenness, gambling and ostentatious displays of wealth were rejected as worldly pursuits. Sadly, Friends also rejected music. "Fiddling" was the worst musical offense, since it was linked to dancing.

Then, in the middle part of the 19th Century, Friends began to relax their ancient mistrust of outsiders. The railroad and the telegraph were crisscrossing the world, making distant places (and ideas) more accessible. Here in America, Friends migrated to the sparsely populated frontier, where the arguments that divided people back east no longer seemed so relevant. For a variety of reasons, many Quakers found themselves open to influences from the broader Christian world.

The most dynamic element of American Christianity during the middle part of the 19th Century was unfolding on sawdust covered campsites and beneath the cover of canvas tents. By the thousands, people committed themselves to Christ during these "tent revivals."

Some Friends felt a strong affinity toward the revival movement. Outwardly, a revival meeting may look very different from a traditional Quaker meeting, but behind the outward form is a very similar spiritual impulse. Both Friends and revivalists urged people to pursue a powerful and direct spiritual experience. Both emphasized personal transformation. And, like the revivalists, the early Quakers had an unwavering zeal for proclamation

Hoping to inject some spiritual intensity into their own calcified meetings for worship, some Friends happily borrowed from the methods of the revivalists. One element that found its way into Friends worship was music.

In revival meetings, music had a specific purpose. The very point of a revival meeting was to bring it's participants to a "moment of decision" (where people surrendered their lives to Christ or accepted the consequences for failing to do so). Revivalists had few qualms about using emotional manipulation, peer pressure, or whatever device was necessary in order to bring about their desired result.

The dismal conclusion is this: after rejecting music as a worldly pursuit, music was later restored to Quaker worship by those who saw it as an effective tool for spiritual manipulation. It's no wonder we lack clarity on the subject.

Perhaps later historians will write of the Taize influence on Quaker worship music. Although the Taize style of worship has its roots in Roman Catholicism, many Friends are attracted to the way it uses music as an aid to centering prayer.

In any case, a definitive Quaker approach to music has yet to be written.

Here are questions to consider:

1. What do you want music to do for you in the context of worship? How do you judge whether or not worship music has been a success?

2. To this day, Friends are suspicious of worship music that comes across as a "performance." Friends are also suspicious of music (or anything else) that seems manipulative. What are the dangers of music in worship? How do we avoid them?

3. Music is unique in that we all sing together. Those who speak do so as a direct response to God's nudge to them as individuals. What do you think about the corporate nature of music? What makes a good "music leader" (as opposed to a good "musician")?