Heavenly Tones: Stylized Vocal Ministry of the 18th and 19th Centuries

We contemporary Friends tend to idealize Friends from earlier times—they stayed close to the Spirit, we think. They knew what real vocal ministry was, i.e., speaking in meeting for worship without preparation, and only when filled with a spiritual power that compelled them to utter true and prophetic words.

While this may have been true for many first-generation Friends, as later Friends tried to model themselves on predecessors they admired, vocal ministry took on some odd, even unpleasant, attributes. As early as 1726, during his second trip to the American colonies, influential British Friend Samuel Bownas (1676–1753) expressed concern about the quality of ministry he found in colonial Friends meetings, every one of which he claimed to have visited “at least once, if not several times.” Bownas, whose own gift for vocal ministry was widely acknowledged, voiced his concerns for the next 15 years. Finally, in 1750 at the urging of his friends, he wrote down his accumulated wisdom in a book titled A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister. The passage below is a sample of Bownas’ advice to “infant” (beginning) ministers:

. . . keep to thy own way, both in thy opening and delivering thereof, guarding against all affected tones of singing or sighing, and drawing out thy word and sentences beyond their due length, and by speaking too much in a breath and so adding an ah! to the end of them, and drawing thy breath with such a force and groan as will drown thy matter, and render thee unacceptable to thy hearers.

Likewise guard against superfluous words, impertinently brought in, such as “I may say”; “As it were”; “All and everyone”; “Dear Friends”; and “Friendly people”; with sundry others of the like kind which add nothing to thy matter, spoiling its coherence and beauty of expression.

Likewise avoid all indecent gestures of the body, as throwing thy arm abroad and lifting up thy eyes, such gestures not suiting the dignity of the ministry.

Neither lift up thy voice beyond thy natural strength, nor strain thyself beyond due bounds, vainly supposing that when thee makes most noise with an accent and tone that pleases thy own imagination, that the power is with thee; when indeed it is nothing but the heat of thy own spirit, and sparks of thy own kindling, whoever are overtaken by and give way to must expect no less than to lie down in sorrow.

In his description of what not to do, we are left to imagine the kinds of vocal ministry Bownas must have seen in the meetings he visited.

On 12th Month, 7th Day, 1750, the same year that Bownas’ book was published, a Swedish botanist named Pehr Kalm attended worship at Bank Meeting House in Philadelphia (probably as the guest of his colleague, the highly regarded American botanist, John Bartram, a Philadelphia Quaker). In Kalm’s journal, later published as Travels in North America, he describes the Friends meeting he attended, thus providing us with a firsthand account of a Quaker minister using the affected and stylized speaking that Bownas warned against.

According to Kalm, the meeting began with an hour and 15 minutes of silence. Then an old man sitting in the front pew stood up, removed his hat, and began to speak. He spoke so quietly, however, that even those sitting nearby could hear nothing “except the confused murmur of the words.” (Some contemporary Friends who resist the call to use microphones may be harking back to this earlier style—the idea being that if the message was meant for you, you’d hear it—otherwise, it didn’t matter if you heard it or not.) Gradually, the Friend spoke louder, but—and surely this is an exaggeration—“so slowly that four or five minutes elapsed between sentences.” At this point, Kalm inserted into his diary a general comment about vocal ministry in the Quaker style:

In their preaching the Quakers have a peculiar mode of expression, which is half singing with a strange cadence and accent, and ending each cadence, as it were, with a half or . . . a full sob. Each cadence consists of two, three, or four syllables, but sometimes more, according to the demand of the words and means; e.g. my friends/put in your mind/we/do nothing/good of ourselves/ without God’s/help and assistance/ etc. In the beginning the sobbing is not heard so plainly, but the deeper the speaker gets into his sermon the stronger becomes the sobbing between the cadences.

Kalm commented on the fact that the speaker used no gestures—though he turned from side to side—and throughout his speech fiddled with his vest buttons. Although the Friend once dropped “his sing-song method” and spoke briefly “in a more natural way,” he soon resumed his “half-singing mode of expression.” And then, Kalm writes, “just as he was speaking at his best, he stopped abruptly, sat down, and put on his hat.”

In spite of Samuel Bownas’ advice about avoiding affectation and singsong inflection, it was the established tradition (fashion may be a better word), and those who offered spoken ministry continued to use affected and mannered styles. Fifty years after the above-described meeting in Philadelphia, Thomas Clarkson, an Anglican minister who attended meetings in London, reported that Quakers began their “discourses” by talking so slowly the listener forgot the first part of a sentence before the speaker reached the end of his or her thought. This, of course, made it difficult to decipher meaning. Finally, however, the speaker gained speed until he or she spoke so fast the listener could not discern individual words. The faster the Friend spoke, the more “agitated” he or she became. Clarkson, who apparently had many Quaker friends and attended meeting for worship on several occasions, commented, “This method of a very slow and deliberate pronunciation at first, and of an accelerated one afterwards, appears to me, as far as I have seen or heard, to be universal.”

Quaker historian Seth Hinshaw writes that Friends’ ministers “developed a singsong, chanting style of delivery” known as “tones” or “heavenly tones.” This became standard in meetings on both sides of the Atlantic through the 18th and 19th centuries, and the early part of the 20th (a few rare meetings still have members who use tones). Each individual developed his or her “own particular tune, which he or she followed with only minor variations, swaying a little with the rhythm, sometimes reaching a loud crescendo, then dropping down again.”

Not surprisingly, some Friends found these affected styles irritating and ineffective, and meetings issued Advices against using them, such as this one in 1876 from North Carolina Yearly Meeting: “Ministers should avoid tones, gestures, and unnecessary manners which tend to mar the work they are engaged in.”

From the 18th through the early 20th century, however, Friends held on to this style of speaking, based perhaps on handed-down observations of first generation Friends. The affected singsong “tones” became de rigueur and, in many cases, essentially silenced the Spirit—in Quaker parlance, they got the form, but lost the substance. During the 18th and 19th centuries, most Quaker meetings were silent, and the silence, writes Quaker historian Gladys Wilson, was “almost impregnable.” Perhaps a preference for silence arose in response to the option of listening to (or speaking in) the fashion expected of recorded ministers. (Quite honestly, I would prefer several hours of silence to listening to someone speak in this way.)

The choice of heavy silence or “heavenly tones” may also explain why some Friends were attracted to the lively revivals and “hireling ministry” of the Evangelical movement that swept across the nation in the late 1800s. Rather than idealizing the ponderous silence of the Quietist period, may we remain mindful of the timeless challenge of vocal ministry: to discern truly inspired or in-Spirited words from the “heat of our own spirits” and “sparks of our own kindling.”

Donne Hayden

Donne Hayden (Earlham School of Religion, 2006) serves as a minister for Cincinnati (Ohio) Meeting, a semi-programmed meeting in Wilmington Yearly Meeting.