Few poets of the 19th century had as many of their poems set to music during their lifetimes as Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). His poetical works set to music span the gamut from social causes of the day to religious meditations. Though not directly involved in the production of musical works, his willingness to allow his poems to be set to music and the later adoption of some of these works by Friends might rightly make Whittier the father of American Quaker hymnody.

In the early 20th century Quakers began to consider music’s rightful place in worship. Unprogrammed Friends, those meetings that worship in silence found mostly in the eastern United States, developed three songbooks for music that is usually performed outside of worship. Programmed Friends, the majority of American Quaker yearly meetings, began to use hymns as a part of worship, but borrowed from other denominations initially.

All Friends have also increasingly used popular religious folk-hymn for fellowship in recent years. The most recent transformation is that of putting the words of the earliest Friends into musical arrangements. It seems ironic but fitting that those who professed singing only when in the spirit should now be the subject and demonstration of evolving Quaker understanding of music that encourages spirit.

In this letter of 1856, Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier writes to one Seth Webb regarding his poem, “We’re free, we’re free,” and his sister's poem, “Who’ll follow, who’ll follow,” both of which were to be set to music and used as campaign songs for Republican candidate Colonel John Fremont. The texts of both poems concern the abolition of slavery, and as Fremont lost to Millard Fillmore in ’56, they were handily turned into new campaign songs four years later by substituting the name of Abraham Lincoln.


In 1902 the Five Years Meeting, a programmed yearly meeting held in Indianapolis, authorized the publication of The Friends Hymnal in response to Friends’ needs for song. This publication already existed for the use of other denominations, however, and includes music to celebrate services and observances not used by Friends.


FGC is a body of Quaker yearly and monthly meetings that follow the tradition of unprogrammed worship. A hymnal was first developed by this group in 1919 out of a need requested from educators of young Friends.

A Hymnal for Friends, 1942 and 1955 continued to meet the needs of religious education for spiritual enrichment although the audience was widening to include all members. Music was not a part of worship itself but was used at times of fellowship. Interestingly, eight of these hymns are Whittier poems set to music. The 1955 hymnal was prefaced with a woodcut by Quaker illustrator, Fritz Eichenberg; note David singing psalms in the foreground.

Worship in Song, 1996, responds to the recognition that the religious experience of Friends had become varied and valued. “Worshipping in song” is recognized and affirmed as a significant part of Friends’ experience of God. In the United States Quakers’ use of music is turning in a larger circle - still seeking to unite with spirit in worship, yet acknowledging the place of music in doing so.


Quakers began to use song books for times of fellowship at conferences and programs in the early 20th century. Young Friends of the 1960s and 70s incorporated the cultural emphasis on music of the time. Songs of the Spirit (1978) was written to supplement the dated FGC Hymnal for Friends and to help eastern meetings “celebrate life and worship in the fullest sense.” Rise Up Singing continues this development. Developed and presented by individual Quakers it is widely used in meetings and fellowship groups today.


Current Quaker authors Bertha May Nicholson and Esther Greenleaf Mürer write about the value of music to Friends today in deepening their spiritual lives.

John Davison, November, text by Mary Hoxie Jones (1985)
How Can I Keep From Singing? (mid 19th-century)
Michael Miller, A Peace Cantata (2001)
Donald Swann, Requiem for the Living (1971)

A surprising amount of British and American Quaker choral music has been written in the last 30 years. This includes music on texts by Quakers and music by Quaker composers. In England, a Quaker arts group known as the Leaveners has been largely responsible for the output through their Quaker Festival Chorus concerts. In America, Quaker composers around the country have made individual contributions to the genre. Many of these compositions from both England and America have been published by Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, under the editorship of choral director Daniel Graves.


Born to Quaker parents in Richmond, Indiana, Ned Rorem has been hailed as “the world’s best composer of art songs” and “the most compelling musical character still at work.” He is equally well known for his many published diaries, beginning with The Paris Diary in 1966 and continuing up to the present with Lies: A Diary in 2000. His work for solo organ, A Quaker Reader, was composed in 1977 and is comprised of 11 movements, each headed with an epigraph from the writings of various Friends.

[ listen ]

In “The World of Silence,” the fifth piece in The Quaker Reader, composer Ned Rorem contrasts the words of Quaker mystic Rufus Jones with thoughts of his own on the subject of silence.

Jones: “There must be a hush from the din of the world's noises before the soul can hear the inward Voice; ... a closing of the eyes to the glare and dazzle of the world’s sights before the inward eye can see that which is eternally Real.”

Rorem:“One of my definitions of silence: Activity within the brain during the low-decibel hour of a Friends’ meeting. The activity is not always serene (could it be today?) and sometimes calls forth noisy chords.”

[ listen ]

The song How Can I Keep From Singing was taught to folklorist Pete Seeger in 1956 by a woman who claimed she had learned it from her Quaker grandmother, who said “it had been written during the early days of the Quaker church, 250 or more years ago.” In actuality, the hymn was written by the Rev. Robert Lowrey, who published it for the first time in an 1869 Protestant hymnal. The song was popularized by Seeger in his recordings, musical publications, and especially as he used it as the closing number in his concerts from the 60s and 70s. Still, it speaks to many modern Quakers, both in its mention of sufferings and in its emphasis on singing what is in one’s soul. It has appeared in Quaker musical publications since the late 1960s.

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