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Quakers and Music

Quakers (known formally as the Religious Society of Friends) are a small denomination founded by George Fox in England in the 17th century. Friends place special emphasis on the direct ongoing access that they believe all people have to God within the heart. Over the past 350 years, Friends have developed some unique ways of attending to this divine voice in worship and in group decision-making. Quakers also have been known for their strong social "testimonies" for peace, equality, simplicity, integrity, and care for the Earth.

In the beginning, Friends (like the Puritans) were opposed to instrumental music. They also opposed singing psalms and hymns during worship because they considered this an empty form that got in the way of God directing worship spontaneously. These traditional positions (reflected in the film Friendly Persuasion where a group of elders to to visit a Quaker family because they have heard rumors that they have acquired an organ) has almost entirely disappeared today, other than resistance to choral singing during worship among many Friends. 

In the 1956 film Friendly Persuasion (based on the novel by Jessamyn West), Gary Cooper chafes at this early Quaker attitude towards musical instruments and acquires an organ, which he hides in his attic. He has a major scare when several elders from his local Quaker congregation come to visit and one of his children begins playing the organ. To his relief the elders believe the sounds they hear during silent prayer are actually strains of music from heaven!

This opposition to musical instruments and choral singing gradually disappeared during the 19th century.  Quakers today no longer oppose in any way either group singing or the use of musical instruments.  In those Quaker meetings holding "unprogrammed" worship (where those gathered wait upon the Spirit in silence), any singing done during actual worship services is usually done individually and a capella. (Note: there are also other branches of Friends that utilize a form of worship more similar to Protestant worship services with pre-planned hymn singing utilized as part of the service.)

Peter wrote an article in Friends Journal about the history of Music Among FGC Quakers.  The article focuses especially on group singing among "unprogrammed meetings & at FGC gatherings (week-long gatherings of about 1500 Friends mainly from this branch of Friends held on a college campus in the US each summer). 

The fact that Quaker opposition to music-making has thoroughly disappeared is reflected in the rich array of Quaker musicians today.  

See the Directory of Quaker (Folk) Musicians. (this Directory will be moved to this site in the future.)

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