Quaker View of Music

[This is taken from Thomas Clarkson's A Portraiture of Quakerism.]


Section 1.

Music forbidden — general apology for the Quakers on account of their prohibition of so delightful a science — music particularly abused at the present day — herein this abuse consists — present use of it almost inseparable from the abuse.

Plato, when he formed what he called his pure republic, would not allow music to have any place in it. George Fox and his followers were of the opinion that it could not be admitted in a system of pure Christianity.  The modern Quakers have not differed from their predecessors on this subject; and therefore music is understood to be prohibited throughout the society at the present day.

It will doubtless appear strange that there should be found people, to object to an art, which is capable of being made productive of so much pleasurable feeling, and which, if it be estimated either by the extent or the rapidity of its progress, is gaining in the reputation of the world. But it may be observed that “all that glitters is not gold.” So neither is all, that pleases the ear, perfectly salubrious to the mind.  There are few customs, against which some argument or other may not be advanced: few in short, which man has not perverted, and where the use has not become, in an undue measure, connected with the abuse.

Providence gave originally to man a beautiful and a perfect world. He filled it with things necessary and things delightful. And yet man has often turned these from their true and original design. The very wood on the surface of the earth he has cut down, and the very stone and metal in its bowels he has hewn and cast, and converted into a graven image, and worshipped in the place of his beneficent Creator. The food, which has been given him for his nourishment, he has frequently converted by his intemperance into the means of injuring his health. The wine that was designed to make his heart glad on reasonable and necessary occasions, he has used often to the stupefaction of his senses, and the degradation of his moral character. The very raiment, which has been afforded him for his body, he has abused also, so that it has frequently become a source for the excitement of his pride.

Just so it has been, and so it is, with music at the present day.

Music acts upon our senses, and may be made productive of a kind of natural delight, for in the same manner as we receive, through the organ of the eye, a kind of involuntary pleasure, when we look at beautiful arrangements, or combinations, or proportions, in nature, and the pleasure may be said to be natural, so the pleasure is neither less, nor less involuntary, nor less natural, which we receive, through the organ of the ear, from a combination of sounds flowing in musical progression.

The latter pleasure, as it seems natural, so, under certain limitations, it seems innocent. The first tendency of music, I mean of instrumental, is to calm and tranquillize the passions. The ideas, which it excites, are of the social, benevolent, and pleasant kind. It leads occasionally to joy, to grief, to tenderness, to sympathy, but never to malevolence, ingratitude, anger, cruelty, or revenge. For no combination of musical sounds can be invented, by which the latter passions can be excited in the mind, without the intervention of the human voice.

But notwithstanding that music may be thus made the means both of innocent and pleasurable feeling, yet it has been the misfortune of man, as mother cases, to abuse it, and never probably more than in the present age. For the use of it, as it is at present taught, is almost inseparable from its abuse. Music has been so generally cultivated, and to such perfection, that it now ceases to delight the ear, unless it comes from the fingers of the proficient. But great proficiency cannot be obtained in this science, without great sacrifices of time. If young females are to be brought up to it, rather as to a profession, than introduced to it as a source of occasional innocent recreation, or if their education is thought most perfect, where their musical attainments are the highest, not only hours, but even years, must be devoted to the pursuit. Such a devotion to this one object must, it is obvious, leave less time than is proper for others, that are more important. The knowledge of domestic occupations, and the various sorts of knowledge, that are acquired by reading, must be abridged, in proportion as this science is cultivated to professional precision. And hence, independently of any arguments, which the Quakers may advance against it, it must be acknowledged by the sober world to be chargeable with a criminal waste of time. And this waste of time is the more to be deprecated, because it frequently happens, that, when young females marry, music is thrown aside, after all the years that have been spent in its acquisition, as an employment, either then unnecessary, or as an employment, which, amidst the new cares of a family, they have not leisure to follow.

Another serious charge may be advanced against music, as it is practiced at the present day. Great proficiency, without which music now ceases to be delightful, cannot, as I have just observed, be made without great application, or the application of some years. Now all this long application is of a sedentary nature. But all occupations of a sedentary nature are injurious to the human constitution, and weaken and disorder it in time. But in proportion as the body is thus weakened by the sedentary nature of the employment, it is weakened again by the enervating powers of the art. Thus the nervous system is acted upon by two enemies at once, and in the course of the long education necessary for this science, the different disorders of hysteria are produced.  Hence the females of the present age, amongst whom this art has been cultivated to excess, are generally found to have a weak and languid constitution, and to be disqualified, more than others, from becoming healthy wives, or healthy mothers, or the parents of a healthy progeny.


Section 2.

Instrumental forbidden — Quakers cannot learn it on the motives of the world — it is not conducive to the improvement of the moral character — affords no solid ground of comfort — nor of true elevation of mind — a sensual gratification — remarks of Cowper — and, if encouraged, would interfere with the duty recommended by the Quakers, of frequent religious retirement.

The reader must always bear it in his mind, if the Quakers should differ from him on any particular subject, that they set themselves apart as a Christian community, aiming at Christian perfection: that it is their wish to educate their children, not as moralists or as philosophers, but as Christians; and that therefore, in determining the propriety of a practice, they will frequently judge of it by an estimate, very different from that of the world.

The Quakers do not deny that instrumental music is capable of exciting delight. They are not insensible either of its power or of its charms.  They throw no imputation on its innocence, when viewed abstractly by itself; but they do not see anything in it sufficiently useful, to make it an object of education, or so useful, as to counterbalance other considerations, which make for its disuse.

The Quakers would think it wrong to indulge in their families the usual motives for the acquisition of this science. Self-gratification, which is one of them, and reputation in the world, which is the other, are not allowable in the Christian system. Add to which that where there is a desire for such reputation, an emulative disposition is generally cherished, and envy and vain glory are often excited in the pursuit.

They are of opinion also, that the learning of this art does not tend to promote the most important object of education, the improvement of the mind. When a person is taught the use of letters, he is put into the way of acquiring natural, historical, religious, and other branches of knowledge, and of course of improving his intellectual and moral character. But music has no pretensions, in the opinion of the Quakers, to the production of such an end. Polybius, indeed relates, that he could give no solid reason, why one tribe of the Arcadians should have been so civilized, and the others so barbarous, but that the former were fond, and the latter were ignorant of music. But the Quakers would argue, that if music had any effect in the civilization, this effect would be seen in the manners, and not in the morals of mankind. Musical Italians are esteemed a soft and effeminate, but they are generally reputed a depraved people. Music, in short, though it breathes soft influences, cannot yet breathe morality into the mind. It may do to soften savages, but a Christian community, in the opinion of the Quakers, can admit of no better civilization, than that which the spirit of the supreme being, and an observance of the pure precepts of Christianity, can produce.

Music, again, does not appear to the Quakers to be the foundation of any solid comfort in life. It may give spirits for the moment as strong liquor does, but when the effect of the liquor is over, the spirits flag, and the mind is again torpid. It can give no solid encouragement nor hope, nor prospects. It can afford no anchorage ground, which shall hold the mind in a storm. The early Christians, imprisoned, beaten and persecuted even to death, would have had but poor consolation, if they had not had a better friend than music to have relied upon in the hour of their distress. And here I think the Quakers would particularly condemn music, if they thought it could be resorted to in the hour of affliction, in as much as it would then have a tendency to divert the mind from its true and only support.

Music, again, does not appear to them to be productive of elevated thoughts, that is, of such thoughts as raise the mind to sublime and spiritual things, abstracted from the inclinations, the temper, and the prejudices of the world. The most melodious sounds that human instruments can make, are from the earth earthly. But nothing can rise higher than its own origin. All true elevation therefore can only come, in the opinion of the Quakers, from the divine source.

The Quakers therefore, seeing no moral utility in music, cannot make it a part of their education. But there are other considerations, of a different nature, which influence them in the same way.

Music, in the first place, is a sensual gratification. Even those who run after sacred music, never consider themselves as going to a place of devotion, but where, in full concert, they may hear the performance of the master pieces of the art. This attention to religious compositions, for the sake of the music, has been noticed by one of our best poets.

“and ten thousand sit,
Patiently present at a sacred song,
Commemoration-mad, content to hear,
O wonderful effect of music’s power,
Messiah’s eulogy for Handel’s sake!”

But the Quakers believe, that all sensual desires should be held in due subordination to the pure principle, or that sensual pleasures should be discouraged, to much as possible, as being opposed to those spiritual feeling, which constitute the only perfect enjoyment of a Christian.

Music, again, if it were encouraged in the society, would be considered as depriving those of maturer years of hours of comfort, which they now frequently enjoy, in the service of religion. Retirement is considered by the Quakers as a Christian duty. The members therefore of this society are expected to wait in silence, not only in their places of worship, but occasionally in their families, or in their private chambers, in the intervals of their daily occupations, that, in stillness of heart, and in freedom from the active contrivance of their own wills, they may acquire both directions and strength for the performance of the duties of life. The Quakers therefore are of opinion, that, if instrumental music were admitted as a gratification in leisure hours, it would take the place of many of these serious retirements, and become very injurious to their interests and their character as Christians.


Section 3.

Vocal music forbidden — singing in itself no more immoral than reading — but as vocal music articulates ideas, it may convey poison to the mind — some ideas in songs contrary to Quaker notions of morality — as in hunting songs — or in bacchanalian — or in martial — youth make no selection — but learn off that fall in their way.


It is an observation of Lactantius, that the “pleasures we receive through the organ of the ears, may be as injurious as those we receive, through the organ of the eyes.” He does not, however, consider the effect of instrumental music as much to be regarded, “because sounds, which proceed from air, are soon gone, and they give birth to no sentiments that can be recorded. Songs, on the other hand, or sounds from the voice, may have an injurious influence on the mind.”

The Quakers, in their view of this subject, make the same distinction as this ancient father of the church. They have a stronger objection, if it be possible, to vocal, than to instrumental music. Instrumental music, though it is considered to be productive of sensual delight, is yet considered as incapable, on account of its inability to articulate, or its inability to express complex ideas, of conveying either unjust or impure sentiments to the mind. Vocal, on the other hand, is capable of conveying to it poison of this sort. For vocal music consists of songs, or of words musically expressed by the human voice. But words are the representatives of ideas, and, as for as these ideas are pure or otherwise, so far may vocal music be rendered innocent or immoral.

The mere singing, it must be obvious, can be no more immoral than the reading, of the same song, singing is but another mode of expressing it.  The morality of the action will depend upon the words which it may contain. If the words in a song are pure, if the sentiments in it are just, and if it be the tendency of these to awaken generous and virtuous sympathies, the song will operate no otherwise than a lesson of morality. And will a lesson of morality be less serviceable to us, because it is dressed up in poetry and musically expressed by the human voice, than when it is conveyed to us in prose? But if, on the other hand, the words in a song are in themselves unchaste, if they inculcate false honor, if they lead to false opinions, if they suggest sentiments, that have a tendency to produce depraved feelings, then vocal music, by which these are conveyed in pleasing accents to the ear, becomes a destroyer of morals, and cannot therefore be encouraged by any, who consider parity of heart, as required by the Christian religion. Now the Quakers are of opinion, that the songs of the world contain a great deal of objectionable matter in these respects; and that if they were to be promiscuously taken up by children, who have no powers of discriminating between the good and the bad, and who generally lay hold of all that fall in their way, they would form a system of sentimental maxims, very injurious in their tendency to their moral character.

If we were to take a collection of songs as published in books, and were to examine these, we should find that such a system might easily be formed. And if, again, we were to examine the sentiments contained in many of these, by the known sentiments of the Quakers on the several subjects of each, we should find that, as a highly professing people, more objections would arise against vocal music among them, than among other people.

Let us, for example, just glance at that class of songs, which in the collection would be called hunting songs. In these men are invited to the pleasures of the chase, as to pleasures of a superior kind. The triumphs over the timid hare are celebrated in these with a kind of enthusiastic joy, and celebrated too as triumphs, worthy of the character of men. Glory Is even attached to these pursuits. But the Quakers, as it will appear in a future chapter, endeavor to prevent their youth from following any of the diversions of the field. They consider pleasures as placed on a false foundation, and triumphs as unmanly and inglorious, which are founded on circumstances, connected with the sufferings of the brute creation. They cannot therefore approve of songs of this order, because they consider them as disseminating sentiments that are both unreasonable and cruel.

Let us now go to another class, which may be found in the same collection; I mean the bacchanalian. Men are invited here to sacrifice frequently at the shrine of Bacchus. Joy, good humor, and fine spirits, are promised to those, who pour out their libations in a liberal manner.  An excessive use of wine, which injures the constitution, and stupefies the faculties, instead of being censured in these songs is sometimes recommended in them, as giving to nature that occasional stimulus, which is deemed necessary to health. Poets too, in their songs, have considered the day as made only for vulgar souls, but the night for the better sort of people, that they may the better pursue the pleasures of the bottle. Others have gone so far in their songs, as to promise long life as a consequence of drinking; while others, who confess that human life may be shortened by such means, take care to throw out, that, as a man’s life thus becomes proportionally abridged, it is rendered proportionally a merry one. Now the Quakers are so particularly careful with respect to the use of wine and spirituous liquors, that the society are annually and publicly admonished to beware of excess. Quakers are discouraged from going even to inns but for the purposes of business and refreshment, and are admonished to take care, that they stay there no longer than is necessary for such purposes. The Quakers therefore, cannot be supposed to approve of any of the songs of this class, as far as they recommend or promote drunkenness. And they cannot but consider them as containing sentiments injurious to the morals of their children.

But let us examine another class of songs, that may be found in the same collection. These may be denominated martial. Now what is generally the tenor of these songs? The authors celebrate victories. They endeavor, regardless of the question, whether their own cause be a right or a wrong one, to excite joy at the events, it is their aim frequently to rouse the soul to the performance of martial exploits, as to exploits the fullest of human glory. They frequently threaten enemies with new chastisements, and new victories, and breathe the spirit of revenge. But the Quakers consider all wars, whether offensive or defensive, as against the spirit of the Christian religion. They cannot contemplate scenes of victory but with the eye of pity, and the tear of compassion, for the sufferings of their fellow-creatures, whether countrymen or enemies, and for the devastation of the human race. They allow no glory to attach, nor do they give any thing like an honorable reputation, to the Alexanders, the Caesars, or the heroes either of ancient or modern date. They cannot therefore approve of songs of this class, because they conceive them to inculcate sentiments, totally contrary to the mild and peaceful spirit of the Christian religion.

If we were to examine the collection farther, we might pick out other songs, which might be reckoned of the class of the impure. Among these will be found ideas, so indelicate, that notwithstanding the gloss, which wit and humor had put over them, the chaste ear could not but be offended by their recital. It must be obvious, in this case also, that not only the Quakers, but all persons filling the stations of parents, would be sorry if their children were to come to the knowledge of some of these.

It is unnecessary to proceed farther upon this subject. For the reader must be aware that, while the Quakers hold such sentiments, they can never patronize such songs; and that if those who are taught or allowed to sing, generally lay hold of all the songs that come into their way, that is, promiscuously and without selection. The Quakers will have a strong ground as a Christian society, or as a society, who hold it necessary to be watchful over their words as well as their actions, for the rejection of vocal music.


Section 4.

The preceding are the arguments of the early Quakers — new state of music has produced new ones — instrumental now censurable for a waste of time — for leading into company — for its connection with vocal.

The arguments which have hitherto appeared against the admission of music into education, are those which were nearly coeval with the society itself. The incapability of music to answer moral ends, the sensuality of the gratification, the impediments it might throw in the way of religious retirement, the impurity it might convey to the mind, were in the mouths of the early Quakers. Music at that time was principally in the hands of those, who made a livelihood of the art.  Those who followed it as an accomplishment, or a recreation, were few and these followed it with moderation. But since those days, its progress has been immense. It has traversed the whole kingdom. It has got into almost all the families of rank and fortune. Many of the middle classes, in imitation of the higher, have received it; and, as it has undergone a revolution in the extent, so it has undergone another in the object of its practice. It is learned now, not as a source of occasional recreation, but as a complicated science, where perfection is insisted upon to make it worthy of pursuit. In this new state therefore of music new arguments have arisen on the part of the Quakers, which I shall now concisely detail.

The Quakers, in the first place, are of opinion, that the learning of music, as it is now learned, cannot be admitted by them as a Christian society, because, proficiency being now the object of it, as has been before observed, it would keep them longer employed, than is consistent with people, who are commanded to redeem their time.

They believe also that music in its present state, has an immediate tendency to leading into the company of the world. In former tunes, when music was followed with moderation, it was esteemed as a companion, or as a friend: it afforded relaxation after fatigue, and amusement in solitary hours. It drew a young person to his home, and hindered him from following many of the idle diversions of the times. But now, or since it has been practiced with a new object, it produces a different effect. It leads into company. It leads to trials of skill. It leads to the making up of festive parties. It leads, for its own gratification, to the various places of public resort. Now this tendency of leading into public is considered by the Quakers as a tendency big with the dissolution of their society. For they have many customs to keep up, which are quite at variance with those of the world. The former appear to be steep and difficult as common paths. Those of the world to be smooth and easy. The natural inclination of youth, more prone to self-gratification than to self-denial, would prefer to walk in the latter. And the influence of fashion would point to the same choice. The liberty too, which is allowed in the one case, seems more agreeable than the discipline imposed in the other. Hence it has been found, that in proportion as young Quakers mix with the world, they generally imbibe its spirit, and weaken themselves as members of their own body.

The Quakers again, have an objection to the learning of instrumental music on account of its almost inseparable connection with vocal, in consequence of which, it leads often to the impurity, which the latter has been shown to be capable of conveying to the mind.

This connection does not arise so much from the circumstance, that those, who learn to play, generally learn to sing, as from another consideration. Musical people, who have acquired skill and taste, are desirous of obtaining every new musical publication, as it comes out.  This desire is produced where there is an aim at perfection in this science. The professed novel reader, we know, waits with impatience for a new novel. The politician discovers anxiety for his morning paper.  Just so it is with the musical amateur with respect to a new tune. Now, though many of the new compositions come out for instrumental music only, yet others come out entirely as vocal. These consist of songs sung at our theatres, or at our public gardens, or at our other places of public resort, and are afterwards printed with their music, and exposed to sale. The words therefore, of these songs, as well as the music that is attached to them, fall into the hands of the young amateur. Now as such songs are not always chaste, or delicate, and as they frequently contain such sentiments, as I have shown the Quakers to disapprove, the young musician, if a Quaker, might have his modesty frequently put to the blush, or his delicacy frequently wounded, or his morality often broken in upon, by their perusal. Hence, though instrumental music might have no immoral tendency in itself, the Quakers have rejected it, among other reasons, on account of its almost inseparable connection with vocal.


Section 5.

Objection anticipated, that though the arguments, used by the Quakers in the preceding chapters, are generally fair and positive, yet an exceptionable one seems to have been introduced, by which it appears to be inculcated, that the use of a thing ought to be abandoned on account of its abuse — explanation of the distinction, made by the Quakers, in the use of this argument.


I purpose to stop for a while, and to make a distinction, which may now become necessary, with respect to the use of what may appear to be a Quaker principle of argument, before I proceed to a new subject.

It may have been observed by some of my readers, that though the Quakers have adduced arguments, which may be considered as fair and positive on the subjects, which have come before us, yet they appear to have adduced one, which is no other, than that of condemning the use of a thing on account of its abuse. Now this mode of reasoning, it will be said has been exploded by logicians, and for this, among other reasons, that if we were bound to relinquish customs in consequence of it, we should be obliged to give up many things that are connected with the comforts, and even with the existence of our lives.

To this observation I must reply, that the Quakers never recommend an abstinence from any custom, merely because the use of it may lead to its abuse.

Where a custom is simply liable to abuse, they satisfy themselves with recommending moderation in the use of it.

But where the abuse of a custom is either, in the first place, necessarily, or, in the second very generally connected with the use of it, they generally consider the omission of it as morally wise and prudent. It is in these two cases only that they apply, or that they lay any stress upon the species of argument described.

This species of argument, under these two limitations, they believe to be tenable in Christian morals, and they entertain this belief upon the following grounds.

It may be laid down as a position, that the abuse of any custom which is innocent in itself, is an evil, and that it may become a moral evil. And they conceive it to become a moral evil in the eye of Christianity, when it occasions either the destruction of the health of individuals, or the misapplication of their time, or the excitement of their worst passions, or the loss of their moral character.

If therefore the use of any custom be necessarily (which is the first of the two cases) connected with its abuse, and the abuse of it be the moral evil described, the user or practitioner cannot but incur a certain degree of guilt. This first case will comprehend all those uses of things, which go under the denomination of gaming.

If again, the use of a custom be either through the influence of fashion, or its own seductive nature, or any other cause, very generally (which is the second case) connected with its abuse, and the abuse be also of the nature supposed, then the user or practitioner, if the custom be unnecessary, throws himself wantonly into danger of evil, contrary to the watchfulness which Christianity enjoins in morals; and, if he falls, falls by his own fault. This watchfulness against moral danger the Quakers conceive to be equally incumbent upon Christians, as watchfulness upon persons against the common dangers of life. If two thirds of all the children, who had ever gone to the edge of a precipice to play, had fallen down and been injured, it would be a necessary prudence in parents to prohibit all such goings in future. So they conceive it to be only a necessary prudence in morals, to prohibit customs, where the use of them is very generally connected with a censurable abuse. This case will comprehend music, as practiced at the present day, because they believe it to be injurious to health, to occasion a waste of time, to create an emulative disposition, and to give an undue indulgence to sensual feeling.

And as the Quakers conceive this species of argument to be tenable in Christian morals, so they hold it to be absolutely necessary to be adopted in the education of youth. For grown up persons may have sufficient judgment to distinguish between the use of a thing and its abuse. They may discern the boundaries of each, and enjoy the one, while they avoid the other. But youth have no such power of discrimination.  Like inexperienced mariners, they know not where to look for the deep and the shallow water, and, allured by enchanting circumstances, they may, like those who are reported to have been enticed by the voices of the fabulous Sirens, easily overlook the danger, that assuredly awaits them in their course.





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