Quakers on the Arts, 1658-1995

All ye poets, jesters, rhymers, makers of verses and ballads, who bend your wits to please novelties, light minds, who delight in jests and toys, more than in the simple naked truth which you should be united to, you are for the undoing of many poor souls, it is your work to tickle up the ears of people with your jests and toys; this proceeds from a wrong heart where dwells the lust, and feeds the wrong heart and mind and wits, which brings them to the grave and dust, and there buries the minds and clogs the nature, which is a shame to all that be in the modesty and pure sincerity and truth and clearness of mind. . . .

—George Fox, 1658

And therefore, all friends and people, pluck down your images; I say, pluck them out of your houses, walls, and signs, or other places, that none of you be found imitators of his Creator, whom you should serve and worship; and not observe the idle lazy mind, that would go invent and make things like a Creator and Maker. . . .

—George Fox, ca. 1670

It is not lawful for Christians to use games, sports, plays, comedies, or other recreations which are inconsistent with Christian silence, gravity, or sobriety. Laughter, sports, games, mockery, or jests, useless conversation, and similar matters are neither Christian liberty nor harmless mirth.

—Robert Barclay, 1676

How many plays did Jesus Christ and His Apostles recreate themselves at? What poets, romances, comedies, and the like did the Apostles and saints make, or use to pass away their time withal? I know, they did redeem their time, to avoid foolish talking, vain jesting, profane babblings, and fabulous stories.

—William Penn, 1682

Christ Jesus bids us consider the lilies how they grow, in more royalty than Solomon. But contrary to this, we must look at no colors, nor make anything that is changeable colors as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear them; but we must be all in one dress and one color; this is a silly poor Gospel. It is more fit for us, to be covered with God’s Eternal Spirit, and clothed with his Eternal Light, which leads us and guides us into righteousness.

—Margaret Fell, 1700

There came a man to Mount Holly who had previously published a printed advertisement that at a certain public- house he would show many wonderful operations, which were therein enumerated. At the appointed time he did, by sleight of hand, perform sundry things which appeared strange to the spectators. Understanding that the show was to be repeated the next night, and that the people were to meet about sunset, I felt an exercise on that account. So I went to the public-house in the evening, and told the man of the house that I had an inclination to spend a part of the evening there; with which he signified that he was content. Then, sitting down by the door, I spoke to the people in the fear of the Lord, as they came together, concerning this show, and labored to convince them that their thus assembling to see these sleight-of-hand tricks, and bestowing their money to support men who, in that capacity, were of no use to the world, was contrary to the nature of the Christian religion. One of the company endeavored to show by arguments the reasonableness of their proceedings herein; but after considering some texts of Scripture and calmly debating the matter he gave up the point. After spending about an hour among them, and feeling my mind easy, I departed.

—John Woolman, 1763

Frequent and earnest have been the advices of former yearly meetings, that all under our name may avoid the attendance of vain sports, and places of amusement, which divert the mind from serious reflection, and incline it to wantonness and vanity. Understanding that diversions of this kind are spreading, and playhouses increasing in various places, we are concerned to renew a caution on this subject: being clearly convinced of the pernicious effects of these evil practices, the inventions of degenerate man.

—London Yearly Meeting, 1785

Soon after I appeared in the ministry, I dropped my pen in regard to verses. I do not say it was a sacrifice required; but the continuing of the practice might have proved a snare some way: it might have engaged my attention too much, or tended to make me popular, which I have ever guarded against, perhaps too much so in some points.

—Catherine Phillips, 1798

As our time passeth swiftly away, and our delight ought to be in the law of the Lord; it is advised that a watchful care be exercised over our youth, to prevent their going to stage-plays, horse-races, music, dancing, or any such vain sports and pastimes. . . .

—Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1806

Ungrateful man! to error prone;
Why thus thy Maker’s goodness wrong?
And deem a luxury alone,
His great and noble gift of song.

Hast thou not known, or felt, or heard,
How oft the poet’s heav’n-born art,
Feeling and thought afresh have stirr’d,
To touch, and purify the heart?

—Bernard Barton, 1832

My observation of human nature and the different things that affect it frequently leads me to regret that we as a Society so wholly give up delighting the ear by sound. Surely He who formed the ear and the heart would not have given these tastes and powers without some purpose for them.

—Elizabeth Fry, 1833

Banish poetry and allow no scope for the imagination and men would be, what it is indeed needless that they should be, much more essentially selfish than they are at present.

—Richard Batt, 1836

We believe [music] to be both in its acquisition and its practice, unfavorable to the health of the soul. . . . Serious is the waste of time of those who give themselves up to it. . . . It not unfrequently leads into unprofitable, and even pernicious associations, and in some instances to a general indulgence in the vain amusements of the world.

—London Yearly Meeting, 1846

Sorrowful it is, that even some in conspicuous and influential stations, have actually "sat" for their portraits; and this, not for the hasty moment of the daguerreotypist (questionable as even this prevalent indulgence is), but patiently awaiting the slow business of the limner. Shallow indeed must be the religion of him who knows not that in himself, as a man, dwelleth no good thing. . . . We cannot suppose that our primitive Friends would for a moment have sanctioned so vain and weak an indulgence.

—The Friend (Philadelphia), 1848?

If the Christian world was in the real spirit of Christ, I do not believe there would be such a thing as a fine painter in Christendom. It appears clearly to me to be one of those trifling, insignificant arts, which has never been of any substantial advantage to mankind. But as the inseparable companion of voluptuousness and pride, it has presaged the downfall of empires and kingdoms; and in my view stands now enrolled among the premonitory symptoms of the rapid decline of the American Republic.

—Edward Hicks, 1851

But there is something of importance in the example of the primitive Christians and primitive Quakers, to mind their callings or business, and work with their own hands at such business as they are capable of, avoiding idleness and fanaticism. Had I my time to go over again I think I would take the advice given me by my old friend Abraham Chapman, a shrewd, sensible lawyer that lived with me about the time I was quitting painting: "Edward, thee has now the source of independence within thyself in thy peculiar talent for painting. Keep to it, within the bounds of innocence and usefulness, and thee can always be comfortable."
. . . And from my own observation and experience, I am rather disposed to believe that too many of those conscientious difficulties about our outward calling or business that we have learned as a trade . . . which are in themselves honest and innocent, have originated more in fanaticism than the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.

—Edward Hicks, 1851

The attitude assumed by the Friends towards the fine arts, furnishes another evidence (as it appears to the writer) of their imperfect apprehension of the dignity of all the feelings and emotions, originally implanted by the Creator in the constitution of man. . . .
Whilst the primitive Quakers did not purpose absolutely to banish these pursuits from the homes of themselves and their successors, they so far restrained the development of the aesthetic element, that acting in conjunction with the general subjective character of the system, Quakerism became (what the French denominate) a spécialité, without the elastic, adaptive qualities, which fit Christianity for every tribe of men. . . . Here, we imagine, lies the secret why Quakerism has made no progress amongst the aboriginal tribes it has befriended—amongst the Negroes whose liberties it has struggled for—or (with trivial exceptions) anywhere beyond the limits of the Anglo-Saxon family; and also why it has not proved a congenial home to that large class of persons whose characters are rather emotional, than intellectual or reflective.

—John Stephenson Rowntree, 1859

We would renewedly caution all our members against indulging in music, or having instruments of music in their houses, believing that the practice tends to promote a light and vain mind. . . . It becomes us to be living as strangers and pilgrims on Earth, seeking a better country, and to be diligently using [our time] for the great end for which it is lent to us . . . , and not in vain amusements or corrupting pleasures, but striving that "whether we eat or drink, or whatsoever we do, we may do all to the glory of God. . . ."

—Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox), 1873

It needs to be recognized that our Society has not escaped the tendency to narrow down spiritual action to certain prescribed ways as a substitute for the reality of the spiritual life. For example, while Friends have been among the pioneers of modern science they have, until recent years, repressed all taste for the fine arts. These, at their greatest, always contain some revelation of the Spirit of God, which is in the fullest harmony with our spiritual faith. In the fields of music, art, and literature, as in others, Friends may witness to the glory of God and advance that glory by their service. The "fulness of the whole earth is His glory," and we mar the beauty of this message by every limitation we set upon it.

—William Charles Braithwaite, 1895

There are many voices today which call us to enjoyment, to self-expression, or to contemplate and share in the beauty of creative art. These things need to be subordinated to the service of the Highest, and sometimes in that service they must be given up. There are some too who, listening to the still small voice, which makes clear to them a duty that may not rest upon all, will forgo pleasures and activities in themselves good, for the sake of other claims. We would not narrow unduly for any of our members the opportunities for sharing in the joys and activities of life, but in the midst of all we must hold fast the thought of God’s Kingdom, of which we are called to be part, and which we have to make real to others by our lives.

—London Yearly Meeting, 1925

We look back with mild pity on the generations of Haverford students who were deprived of the joy of music and art. The strong anti-aesthetic bias in the minds of the Quaker founders and the early managers was, I think, an unmitigated disaster.

—Rufus Jones, 1933

To identify religious practice with social reform may easily prove disastrous, for we may drive out the devils of inequality and unemployment and war, and yet suffer the fate of the tenant of the "empty, swept, and garnished house." The arts of peace must be guarded meantime by each of us. For to all those in the full stream of social and religious work there may come the temptation to undervalue the cultural activities which they have given up. The tone in which the often-heard words, "Oh, we haven’t time for that," are said sometimes betrays an underground censor, a suggestion that such interests, if not actually frivolous, are somehow inferior. The up-and-doing Christian has often been impatient of the apparent supineness of the artist, his need . . . to be receptive before he is active. Yet the zealous worker in a social campaign has peculiar need of the recreation and refreshment which cultural interests may bring. Fanaticism, as well as indifference, may defeat its own end.

—Caroline Graveson, 1937

Where [the London Yearly Meeting quotation, 1925, above] might well be amended is in the implied suggestion that some men may be called to abandon art in the interest of some other service to God and man, but never the reverse. It may be that some Friend will be called to abandon his painting in order to identify himself with the people of Africa. But it may be that another is doing right when he resigns from certain important committees in order to devote himself more completely to his art. . . . The "good" is often the enemy of the "best"; but we must not conclude that the "best" is necessarily to be identified with moral reform, while creative art is merely "the good."

—Horace Alexander, 1954

The same subtle tendency by which a testimony for simplicity narrows into a rigidity of outlook affected for many years the attitude of Quakerism toward the arts. . . .When I first began to practice as a writer, I still encountered a certain amount of prejudice in that some Friends regarded the first duty of a Quaker writer to be the conveying of a "message," whereas obviously the first duty of a writer, Quaker or otherwise, is to maintain the artistic integrity which is part of the integrity of the human soul.

—Elfrida Vipont Foulds, 1955

Generally speaking, the arts are now accepted as good leisure-time pursuits and entertainments and suitable subjects for the school curriculum. But the willing leap to accept them as a genuine spiritual experience for the artist and a means of spiritual strengthening for the "onlooker" has not been taken by Quakers as a whole. And it probably will not be taken until we refuse to tolerate in our religion . . . the divorce between "man’s spiritual integrity and his inspiration to creative art." An acceptance of art as being of spiritual significance is but one aspect of the Quaker faith that all life is sacramental.

—David Griffiths, 1956

Do Friends have a concern to seek out and nurture the flame of creativity that burns in all men? Do we provide an atmosphere in our meetings for worship, and in our schools, which helps us to discover our creative abilities, and discipline them, and exercise them to the fullest power God has given us?
Do we set aside a time every day for the reading of poetry, for listening to music, for looking at painting? By our own work is a vision of the Truth advanced among us, and let to shine before all men so that they may be led to a clearer knowledge of their Father?

—Queries proposed by Barbara Hinchcliffe, 1959

There are many, including a goodly number within the Society of Friends, who find that the insights and exper-i-ences of the arts are perhaps the clear-est manifestations of spirituality in everyday existence. Nevertheless Friends have not identified their atti-tudes toward the arts with much precision. And this doubt-less reflects a fair amount of inde-cision as to the validity of the attitudes of earlier Friends in these matters, for the arts appear to have been definitely relegated to the pastimes called frivolities, and treated with uneasy tolerance if not the more usual outright condemna-tion.

—Ben Norris, 1965

The history of the protest of early Friends against excess and ostentatious superfluity is fascinating. It is easy to ridicule their apparent denial of the Arts; yet it must be admitted that, certainly visually, out of it there was born an austere, spare, refreshingly simple beauty. . . .What is hopeful is that in the Society there is no finality; we can laugh at ourselves and go on learning. As long as we are given to constant revision there is hope for us. Special pleading for the Arts is no longer needed. They are not viewed, as they once were, as a distraction from God. Rather they are seen as a manifestation of God.

—Robin Tanner, 1966

For an artist to grow productively in his work he needs a market and/or an audience for his output, a way of sup-porting himself. Most important of all, he needs to be con-firmed in his talent by others. The Society of Friends has provided none of these in the past, for "plain" or doctrinal reasons, and is not providing them today for her creative artists. We who write, paint, sing, compose, act are obliged to take our wares else-where, receiving possibly marginal recognition from our meetings if we are lucky, while there is rarely a shortage of flak. A queasy "tolerance" has be-come the hallmark today.

—Candida Palmer, 1972

At first there was almost no Quaker art because of the Society’s anti-esthetic bias; now there is hardly any Quaker art because there is so little identification of the Society as the community about whom or for whom one writes. Indeed, for very few contemporary Friends is there much appreciation of the communal aspect of faith, much response to Fox’s call to us to become the people of God. The absence of Quaker art has the paradoxical consequence that though today individual Friends may be sensitively appreciative of the esthetic dimension, our group life is still ascetic, indeed an-esthetic: unresponsive to the sensuous, to the emotions (the latter reflected in our fear of conflict and tension) and to the humorous.

—Christine Downing, 1972

Quite simply (but so mysteriously!) a work of art redeems the commonplace. By lifting, if only for a fleeting moment, the "veil from the hidden beauty of the world" a work of art compels us to see. And how rarely do most of us really see! Even the surface loveliness of things:

The beauty and the wonder and the power
The shapes of things, their colors, light and shade,
Changes, surprises. . . .

And rarer, but more precious still, the moment of recog-nition, when we see "into the life of things" and glimpse "a world in a grain of sand." And the word which the artist says to his object is the same word that the religious man says to Creation: Thou.

—Fred J. Nicholson, 1974

On the evidence we have, it seems to me that in some ways, in spite of their asceticism, our ancestors were closer to the artistic experience than we are: that is, to the beauty and mystery revealed by the imagination. They built finer meetinghouses. . . .

—John Ormerod Greenwood, 1978

Can’t we see that the essence of art is a source of life renewing itself in every act of creation? The same should hold true for a spiritual movement such as the Society of Friends, which needs constant renewal. Without the arts we lose our youth—without our youth we lose our Society.

—Fritz Eichenberg, 1979

Both writing poetry and being a Friend imply an act of trust in the nature of Reality. If there is a dimen-sion of our indi-vidual beings which is psychi–cal and spiri-tual, and which in some myster-ious way is open-ended and linked to a reser-voir of creative energy beyond ourselves, then perhaps the Quaker "Inward Light" and what some poets have termed "inspira-tion" are two manifestations of the same Source.

—Winifred Rawlins, 1979

What might be called "classical Quaker-ism" up to the 20th century represented a kind of Franciscan volun-tary pov-erty in the arts, inspired by a vision of a divine com-mu-nity of love and simplicity. In the 20th century comes liberation from these older taboos and an em-brac-ing of a vast, expan-ded com-plexity and richness of human experience. . . . How do we preserve that simplicity and at the same time enjoy our new-found riches? How do we break out from what was perhaps a cultural prison without falling into the hands of the world, the flesh, and the devil, the hell on earth that seems to follow so many
libera-tions—political, econo-mic, sexual, cul-tural?

—Kenneth Boulding, 1983

Quakers should enter the world of the arts with humil-ity and courage: courage because it is a risk of our certainties. A religion unwilling to take risks shuts out what is creative. Preoccupation with moral integrity is likely to assume that life can be tidied up: that is its goal. In fact, it is because life is essentially untidy that it can be creative.

— Kenneth Barnes, 1983

I have never wanted to be a "Quaker artist." Heaven preserve me from that! There is no place now for "The Presence in the Midst." Nor is there any place for "poetry" that puts Quaker sentiment into versified form, however modern the metre or lack of it—no place except the dustbin. Our art must make sectarian boundaries irrelevant, must concern itself with experiences common to all people everywhere. All religious associations—if they are not keenly aware of the danger—become incestuous, and their members tend to feed each other with familiar and appropriate emotions. The only way to health in a religious community is by sending out roots into earth far beyond its own little patch.

—Kenneth Barnes, 1984

The Holy Spirit can indeed restore us to health (or stimulate us to work well) through the medium of music as well as prayer or antibiotics! And why, indeed, should I be sur-prised that this is so? Crea-tivity is the gift that we were given on the eighth day of creation. In naming and re-making the world we are coworkers with God, and whether we are making a garden or a meal, a painting or a piece of furniture or a computer program, we are sharing in an ongoing act of creation through which the world is constantly remade.

— Jo Farrow, 1994

Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys.

Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

—Britain Yearly Meeting, 1995

Esther Mürer

Excerpted from Beyond Uneasy Tolerance: The Saga of Quakers and the Arts in 100 Quotations, compiled and chronologically arranged by Esther Greenleaf Mürer (Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts, 2000).