Monday, March 14, 2016

Quakerism and the Rejection of the Arts

Quakerism was one of many wild flowers of an egalitarian revolution and spiritual seeking movement that sprouted and bloomed in England during the late 1640's.

It was part of the vast social, political and spiritual upheaval known as the English Civil War and the 30 Years War (on the European Continent). So much of the great change was very uncivil and drastically unspiritual, but amidst all of the bloodletting and destroying, many people also turned to the spiritual.

The vast conflagration killed millions and devastated the landscape. The main opposing movements of the Reformed/Puritans versus the Roman Catholics slaughtered many hundreds of thousands of European and English people.

Their beliefs led the soldiers to claim the predestination of billions of humans to eternal torture; they ravaged cities and countrysides, lied, stole, and destroyed thousands of works of art, sculpture, etc.

Historians write that almost a 1/3 of eastern Europe was destroyed. In England, Scotland, and Ireland so many were killed, harmed, and suffered, it changed a whole generation.

And all of them did this in tne name of Jesus giving God the thanks:-( The Puritans even marched into killing singing Bible verses.

Thankfully, most of leaders of the early Quaker movement, (at first termed the “Children of Light), turned away from all that endless savagery, slaughter, and mayhem.

Other Puritan influences on early Quakers were also negative, but most Quakers didn't go around slaughtering others as did the Puritans against the Roman Catholic Augustinians.

Quakers did adopt the rejection of artistic expression that characterized most of the Puritan/Reformed movement. They were all trying to "reform" and “purify” the Christian Church.

Fortunately, Quakers didn’t destroy thousands of works of art and beauty like the Puritan armies (which were much worse in this than the modern day Islamic State and Taliban who have blown up and bulldozed art treasures).

However, artistic expression was considered immoral. The brilliant musician and Quaker Solomon Eccles destroyed his own musical instruments:-(.

With this turning from aesthetics, drama, poetry, however, there was one wonderful counter result, early Friends turned inward to seek only the mystical beauty of the Light there.

So for a very long time Quakerism prohibited or took a dim view of artistic and literary creations, particularly dancing, drama, painting, sculpture, fiction, poetry, and architecture.

This led to a deep impoverishment toward creativity in the arts.

Even a century later, John Woolman, while so in ethics that he early on experienced from God the truth of the evil of slavery, yet he believed that poetry should be opposed.

It wasn’t until in the 1800’s that a little art in painting and in poetry bloomed in the Society’s austere desert.

Of course not all Friends or religious historians think this rejection of the arts was bad like I do.

I do need to show my cards (bad analogy since card-playing and other games were also banned by Friends).

I am an biased against all this prohibition and dismissal, because I am an artist and writer. Being an art major for 2 years at university, an oil acrylic, tempra painter, and earning my B.A. in Creative Writing gives me a very different perspective.

So, yes, I admit I am strongly against the early Friends opposition to aesthetics, and all the other bad influences from the Puritan/Reformed for that matter.

However, it is important to point out that part of Puritan reaction against aesthetics came about because of the gross immorality in Protestant and Roman Catholic culture and society, especially among aristocrats and the rich (the ones who could afford to pay for art, painting, sculpture, drama, and fancy clothes).

Look at modern western culture now. Media is often used to glorify what is base, vulgar, and even evil. Huge amounts of money--billions of dollars--are spent and made today by Hollywood and Internet for salacious and pornographic ‘art.’

Consider the amazingly creative and technically brilliant TV show, Sense8, by the Wachowskis siblings who gave the public, The Matrix.

Without a doubt, that show is one of the most creative, thoughtful, reflective, at times very compassionate, and artistic achievements in modern cinema.

But the show is also a modern paean to gross immorality, deep praise of the superficial, the untrue, the impure and the evil.

How is that possible?

Humans so often turn the very best to glorify the very worst.

On the other hand, other creative humans use the arts to bring the Good, the True, the Just, and the Beautiful to Light for all to experience.

Without the arts, we humans would be greatly impoverished.

Consider this:

Many modern Quakers emphasize silence, and most modern day Puritans (Reformed/Calvinists/Muslims) emphasize lecture.

But many, probably most, humans aren’t silent or lecture learners, but DO grow spiritually through artistic expression.

Which would most of the humans in your city or town prefer to go to a 2-hour sermon?

A 2-hour time of mostly silence?

Or a 2-hour movie?


I've spent many hours in silent meditation, prayer, open unprogrammed worship, and reflection...

and am an aficinado of long lectures on history and religion and spirituality...

but my first love is the artistic, the poetic, the visual, the creative!

Brief history of Quakers and their later responses to the artistic rejection:

In the early 1800's, Bernard Barton, later called "the Quaker poet", wrote an aesthetic article justifying the arts. His main poem, "The Convict's Appeal," protested against the harsh British system of criminal justice, especially its use of the Death Penalty for many offenses.

Keep in mind however, that even on ethical issues, Quakers were often uncreative and almost passive. Partially because of such intense persecution, Friends had rejected and turned away from their very early expressive, revolutionary vision and became traditional, conservative, and often rigid.

In the modern era, many look back and credit the Quakers with abolition, but that is only seeing a few Quaker peaks. Actually most Quakers until the late 18th century owned slaves or supported slavery. Many of the ships which transported slaves were Quaker owned!

Even worse, a Massachusetts Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends "in 1837 voted not to permit anti-slavery lectures at Quaker Meeting Houses...!"

The rising poet, John Greenleef Whittier said "he could never again be the representative to the Yearly Meeting...Although he did not believe Quakers should sing in Meetings, he wrote over 100 hymns, mostly for other denominations, many of which are still sung in Protestant churches today."
North Shore Community College

"George Fox had a very definite 'puritan' view of the arts. To him these 'jests and toys' were nothing but a distraction from God and Truth and as such were to be entirely avoided by Friends. The only purpose of sports, games, poetry, plays and music as far as he and other early Quakers were concerned was to while away time that should be dedicated to a higher and more serious end."

"Another objection to the arts was that they were not true. Plays were particular offenders here as not only was the story being told not real but actors dressed up and pretended to be someone else!"

Some serious religious poetry was allowed for private personal devotion.

In 1799, Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker prison reformer, wrote,
"How much my natural heart does love to sing: but if I give way to the ecstasy singing sometimes produces in my mind, it carries me far beyond the centre; it increases all the wild passions, and works on enthusiasm."

"Many say and think it leads to religion, but true religion appears to me to be in a deeper recess of the heart..."

However later she did write,
"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."

"Paintings were seen as superfluous decoration and portraits were particularly frowned on as leading to personal vanity. This is the reason why there are so few contemporary representations of Quakers in the 17th and early 18th centuries."

"In 1846 for example London Yearly Meeting minuted 'We believe [music] to be both in its acquisition and its practice, unfavorable to the health of the soul. . . .'"
Quaker and retired librarian, Gil S.

Some Quaker thinking showed the anti-humanistic influence of the Reformed and the Augustinian views (even though all Friends rejected those horrific theologies). In regards to paintings of families and portraits:

"Sorrowful it is...Shallow indeed must be the religion of him who knows not that in himself, as a man, dwelleth no good thing."
from The Friend, Philadelphia

Such an extremely negative view of humanity and the arts started to gradually change. Consider the beautiful painting, The Peaceable Kingdom , by Edward Hicks, 1830:

And by 1895 Quaker leader William Charles Braithwaite wrote,
"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."

At present, we have fine Quaker organizations who support the arts such as the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts and the Quaker Arts Network.

Also some contemporary Friends leaders such as Jan de Hartog and Chuck Fager have written fiction.

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

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