Some years ago (in 1980) when my husband, Bruce, and I were visiting New England Yearly Meeting with a minute of travel for the concerns of lesbian and gay friends, I was reading a historical display of old disciplines and came across the following from 1675. The contents of the minute left me stunned. Like so many, I was convinced that early Friends were completely opposed to all forms of singing in meeting. However, contemplation of its contents led me to a helpful understanding of my own personal experiences in meeting. I believe it to be accurately copied as follows:
Singing in Meeting from South Kingston Monthly Meeting* Discipline, 1762, Section on Singing, #421 of 1675
It hath been and is our living sense & constant testimony according to our experience of the divers operations of the spirit & power of God in His Church, that there hath been and is serious sighing, sensible groaning and reverent singing breathing forth an heavenly sound of joy with grace with the spirit, and with understanding in blessed unity with the brethren, while they are in public labor and service of the Gospel whether by preaching, praying, or praising God, in the same power & spirit and all to the edification and comfort of the Church of Christ which therefore is not to be quenched or discouraged by any: But where any do or shall abuse the power of God, or are immoderate, or do either in imitation, which burthens [burdens] rather than edifies, such ought to be privately admonished unless rebellious, for that life, spirit, and power is risen in the Church which doth distinguish & hath power accordingly to judge.
Three kinds of singing in meeting? “Serious sighing, sensible groaning, and reverent singing”: Wow! This expanded my concept of singing, and of meeting itself, dramatically.
I was fairly quickly able to identify serious sighing—both in my own experiences and in others whom I had heard in meeting. Often as Friends enter the silence, there is a sigh, a deep breath. It has many meanings; sometimes it’s happy, sometimes it’s sad, sometimes it’s a sigh of relief. But I think we all can understand its spiritual nature. I believe it is “an heavenly sound,” which ought not be and to this day hath not “been quenched.” Thank goodness.
This one took a little more time, but as I looked back on my own experience in meeting, I remembered that when I was 15, my older brother went on a date on Christmas Eve, despite our mother’s strenuous protests. He was killed late that night in an automobile accident on his way home. At the time, he and I were at the height of our sibling rivalry. We hated each other. When my parents woke me to tell me in the morning, the first word out of my mouth was “Good!” It was about ten years later, when I was sitting on the back bench on the lefthand side at Gwynedd (Pa.) Meeting, that I realized he and I would never have a chance to get over our rivalry, our hatred for each other. We would never have a chance to be friends in life. I heard a loud groan, opened my eyes, realized it was me groaning, and swallowed it as fast as I could. This experience has had an important effect on my spiritual life ever since. It was a song of lament. I’m certain I am not alone in having had this kind of moment in meeting. While I can’t give the page of the comment, I remember coming across something in, I think, William Sewell’s History of the Quakers where Sewell comments that he had attended meetings in which not a word was said, and yet not an eye was dry. This in the first century of Quakerism. I remember once looking out across those gathered for meeting at Unami on a First Day years ago and realizing that I had been with everyone there, at one time or another during meeting, in a time of tears in their life. We were a close community.
There was a Church of the Brethren minister, Art Gish, who once differentiated meetinghouses from church‐houses. In a church‐house, he said, everyone looks at the front and focuses primarily on the hereafter and getting into heaven. By contrast, in a traditional meetinghouse, the believers (Quaker, Mennonite, Brethren, etc.) look across the room at other believers. The focus is on community and living the Kingdom of God in this world. Once I ran across a query that went, “What does it mean to live as though the Kingdom of God has already come?” This query was life‐altering as I was coming out and began looking for a husband. Bruce and I eventually celebrated our marriage under the care of Unami Meeting, in the Gwynedd meetinghouse. We have been together for 38 years, doing our best to “live as though the Kingdom of God has already come.” It is not an easy calling in this world, but it is filled with joy nevertheless. Meg Christian wrote a song (hymn?) that relates to this and which I have heard sung in meeting on more than one occasion: “Come to your life like a warrior, nothing will bore yer [sic.]; You can be happy. Dancing along in the madness; There is no sadness, Only a song of the soul.” (In the Friends Hymnal this song is credited to Cris Williamson). I remember feeling edified and strengthened by this song.
I must confess this one is still a little elusive. Does it pertain to the singsong form of speaking in meeting that is now probably completely gone? Could it have anything to do with persons bursting into a song/hymn that honestly articulates their experience? I remember being at Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) the weekend after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, when “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand” rose out of the silence. I think we were all in tears. I’ve been at other meetings where something like that has occurred, and thank goodness it was not quenched. Eliza Foulke of Gwynedd Meeting once said, “Water baptism, for Quakers, is often experienced in the flow of tears.” I’ve also been in meetings (ostensibly for worship) which turned into song fests, and felt “burthen[ed] rather than edifie[d].” I don’t know how to judge, but I am certain it is important, as our Quaker forebears were wont to say, to “keep low.” That is, to keep close to the source of leading at times like this. Music is a very powerful art form. Given the right music, people will sing (say) almost anything, whether we believe it or not. I am also certain that “reverent singing” does not pertain to the ritual of singing hymns in order to get into the mood or somehow to get prepared for meeting. What is the difference between that and, say, smoking a joint before meeting to “get into the mood”? One verse that occurs to me that I have often sung, and found myself and others much moved by, comes from a carol, “He rules the world with truth and grace, [wouldn’t it be nice] and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of his love.” I would give anything to see that be the case. Honesty does not allow me to sing that song—yet.
I will close with one last experience of singing in meeting. It was at State College (Pa.) Meeting. They would sing at the end of meeting. The choices of hymns were called out from the floor. They reflected what had happened in meeting for individuals, and occasionally for all of us gathered there. I liked it; I felt edified by it.