George Fox (1624-1691), founder of Quakerism, made statements concerning the place of music in a religious life that were to have great impact on the Society of Friends. As a young seeker he equated secular music with diversion and vanity and this point of view was incorporated by the earliest generation of Friends:

I was moved to cry also against all sorts of Musick, and against the Mountebanks playing tricks on their Stages, for they burdened the pure Life, and stirred up people’s minds to Vanity (Journal of George Fox, 1649).

As Fox gained experience and Friends suffered persecutions there were many times when song was an unstoppable expression of spirit and solidarity in meetings and prison. As Quakerism and Fox matured a distinction was made between music as a secular diversion and religious song and music. The latter were spontaneous expressions of spirit working in an individual, much as speaking in meeting. Written words, sung in unison in a religious setting, were seen as being man-made, not God inspired, and so false and lacking integrity. In an epistle of 1685 Fox clarified Friends’ understanding of music:

Now friends, who have denied the world’s songs and singing; sing ye in the spirit, and with grace, making melody in your hearts to the Lord.

The energy with which early Quakers wrote and spoke against secular music, however, created a firm connection between Friends and anti-music sentiments within popular culture and the Society of Friends themselves.

Eccles Music-lector

Solomon Eccles (1618-1683) came from a musical family of London and was an early convert to Quakerism. His life was one of zeal and eccentric actions as he enacted what he felt Spirit called on him to do. By 1659 Eccles had embraced all the beliefs of Quakers and renounced his musical profession by burning his instruments and books in a showy bonfire. In 1667 he wrote a clever presentation of the arguments surrounding music posed as a discussion between a musician, a Baptist and a Quaker in A Music-lector: or, the Art of Music discoursed.... Note that although he burned his instruments he acknowledges that Quakers approve of the “Musick that pleaseth God.”

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Richard Farnworth (d. 1666) was one of George Fox’s earliest converts. In 1653 he wrote An Easter Reckoning, a tract against living in pleasures and diversions, yet he presented music as an acceptable way to praise God when it was a natural outpouring of belief.

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Psalm - Title Page   Psalm - Page

The primary musical texts that the Quaker founders objected to were the 150 Psalms of David. Set in English metrical verse by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins, the psalms were extremely popular among English Protestants, especially for individual use in the home. Yet because one could not be in the condition of David as when the biblical poems were originally composed, their recitation or musical performance could not be authentic according to the early Quakers. The first psalm books to include music usually presented a single melodic line while many later editions had fully harmonized settings. The present edition of the Psalms was published in England in 1647, just a few years before George Fox, Richard Farnworth and others published their condemnations of this psalm-singing practice. (Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia Music Division).

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Banks Script

John Banks, in his A Gentle Correction for Singers: Such as Pretend to Sing David’s Psalms (London, 1709), writes against the practice of psalm singing as a false exercise. Banks follows Fox in promoting the appropriateness of song springing from an individual’s experience of spirit, rather than mouthing the words of another.

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[ listen ]

The piece heard here is a canticle from The Whole Booke of Psalmes by Thomas Este (1604). It appears as a single melodic line in the 1647 edition of the David’s Psalmes by Sternhold and Hopkins, but in this earlier edition its second and third verses are harmonized. Canticles typically appeared at the beginning and the end of the 150 psalms.

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Protestant Church Choir

A Village Choir, by Thomas Webster, 1847. This painting shows what might have been a typical scene of a rustic village church choir in mid-19th-century England. The original is housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


Prisons were a setting where Quakers and music harmonized. Accounts of persecutions and imprisonment of early Friends often mention the spontaneous songs of spirit that arose. Fox, himself, when imprisoned, was beaten by a cruel jailer so that he “was made to sing in the Lord's power” (Journal of George Fox, 1653). In response the jailer got his fiddle and tried to overpower the sound of Fox’s song to no avail.

Thomas Briggs relates how he was so filled with the power and presence of God when he was imprisoned he “sung for joy” (An account of some of the travels and sufferings of that faithful servant of the Lord, Thomas Briggs, London, 1685).

Elizabeth Gurney Fry (1780-1845) is well known for her concern for women in prison and was an advocate for reform in England. As a convinced Friend, music had been a part of her life before joining the Society and she continued to feel that music could be an important means to keep a healthy mental state even in prison. She regretted that the life of Friends forbade this expression: “Surely He who formed the ear and the heart would not have given these tastes and powers without some purpose for them” (Letter to her brother, Joseph J. Gurney, 2nd month 27, 1833).

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1856 Discipline

Quaker “Disciplines” provide guides for proper religious living. This example of the 1856 Discipline from New England Yearly Meeting, is typical of the eastern United States. Note that the statement concerning music as a wasteful diversion and cause for disownment mirrors the earliest concern of Fox, more than 200 years before. George Fox Tucker, author of A Quaker Home (Boston, 1891) recalled his grandmother, a Friend of the place and time of this Discipline, was so opposed to music that she believed it wrong to even listen to the caroling of a bird.

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Quakers in Meeting

Quaker Meeting, Anonymous. This scene, both primitive and sophisticated, was painted in the late 18th century of contemporary Pennsylvania Friends. The original is housed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

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[ listen ]

One method of “singing in the spirit” sometimes exhibited during Quaker worship was a form of singsong or intoned chant undertaken by those delivering a message. Documented from the 18th through the early 20th centuries, this practice has now died out, though a few examples have been recorded in sound.

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