FRIENDS’ “TESTIMONIES” AGAINST FICTION, MUSIC AND ART
ANOTHER point brought up in this same Third Query, which caused us great trouble was contained in the question whether Friends were careful to bring up their children in “frequently reading the Holy Scriptures, and to restrain them from reading pernicious books.” All fiction of every kind was considered by the Friends of those days to be “pernicious,” and on this point our mother was very strict, and we were not allowed to read even the most innocent and select Sunday-school stories. As to novels, the very word was felt to be wicked, and to this day I never use it without a momentarily instinctive feeling of lawlessness, as if I were deliberately doing something wrong.
As we grew older the line was naturally less strictly drawn; and when we became old enough to take the guidance of our lives a little more into our own hands, we would sometimes snatch a fearful joy from some story book loaned to us by one of our school friends. One of my most vivid recollections is of such an occasion, which was made all the more vivid to me because it was the first time I had dared to partake openly and boldly of the forbidden fruit.
It was one “First Day” afternoon when there seemed to be nothing going on, I had borrowed a book from one of my schoolmates which she had told me was “lovely,” and I took this book, and a plate of apples and gingerbread, and stretched myself on the outside of my bed to read and eat at my leisure.
The story I read that day, under these delightful circumstances, seemed to give me the nearest approach to perfect bliss of anything I had ever before experienced, and it remains in my memory as one of the happiest days of my life. The book was “The Earl’s Daughter,” by Grace Aguilar, and to my young American and Quaker mind an Earl was more like an archangel than a man, and to be an Earl’s daughter was almost akin to being a daughter of heaven. And to this day, in spite of all the disillusions that life has brought me about earls and their daughters, the old sense of grandeur that filled my soul with awe on that First Day afternoon so long ago, never fails to come back for at least a moment, when earls and countesses are mentioned in my presence.
But although I enjoyed this and other stories intensely, it was always with an uneasy conscience, and it took me fifty years to get rid of the feeling that to read anything fictitious was to commit a sin. My diary is full of the conflicts I went through on account of this, and, as I read them over, I cannot but feel a real pity for the hungry, ignorant young soul that was so tormented by the constant tendency to make a sin out of a perfectly innocent recreation. The thing that at last brought me deliverance was a sudden recognition of the fact that our Lord Himself constantly used parables, which were only another name for stories, to illustrate and enforce His teaching, and that therefore fiction was not in itself, as I had always thought, a synonym for sin, but that its sinfulness depended entirely upon the sort of fiction it was; and that often fiction might be found to be an invaluable aid to virtue. But I have known many Friends who have been tormented by scruples on this point up to old age.
Music was another thing against which the Friends of my day had a very strong testimony. In a book of Discipline, published in Philadelphia in 1873, I have found the following passage in regard to it, which gives the Quaker idea concerning it.“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, and to disqualify for the serious thoughtfulness, which becomes an accountable being, hastening to his final reckoning. ... The spirit and language of the discipline forbid the use of music by Friends, without any exception in favour of that called sacred, and in order to produce harmonious action on this subject throughout the subordinate meetings, the yearly meeting instructs them that those members who indulge in the use of music, or who have musical instruments in their houses, bring themselves within the application of this second clause of the Discipline, viz.: ‘And if any of our members fall into either of these practices, and are not prevailed with, by private labour to decline them, the monthly meeting to which the offenders belong should be informed thereof, and if they be not reclaimed by further labour, so as to condemn their misconduct to the satisfaction of the meeting, it should proceed to testify our disunity with them.’” 1873.
So strictly was the Discipline obeyed in this respect that I do not remember in my young days a single individual in our select circle who owned any sort of musical instrument, and above all a piano, which was considered the gayest of the gay. And when it chanced that I found myself in a strange room containing a piano, I always felt as if I were treading the very borders of hell. For many years after I was a woman I never heard any music anywhere that I did not have a secret half delicious sensation of tasting forbidden fruit. Even singing or whistling were frowned down upon. I remember once when a party of young Quakers were all together at Newport for a summer holiday, a dear old Friend called them into his room, and told them solemnly that he had been very much grieved to hear some of them whistling in the garden the day before, and he hoped they would not so transgress Friends’ testimonies again.
That the Discipline in this matter was no dead letter is proved by the fact that when I was older and this testimony was more or less losing its power over the less “concerned” members, I knew of several instances where Friends, who, though otherwise exemplary, were not strict in the matter of music, were actually turned out of membership for having a piano in their houses. And as late as 1865 when we had presented our son Frank with a cottage organ (we did not dare to let it be a piano, as we felt organs were for some reason “plainer” than pianos), we were obliged to hide it in one of the top rooms of our house, in order to spare the feelings of our Quaker relations. I never shall forget my surprise when I first waked up to the fact that musical instruments were not only sanctioned in the Bible, but that we were actually commanded to use them. In reading the Psalms one day I could hardly believe my eyes when I came across Psalm 150 and read, “Praise ye the Lord. ... Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet, praise Him with the psaltery and harp. Praise Him with the timbrel and dance: praise Him with stringed instruments and organs.” I never heard any Friend explain how they got over this.
“Plainness” in my day also excluded pictures everywhere, except in books. No good Quakers would have any pictures on their walls, nor did they feel free to have their pictures taken. Even daguerreotypes, when they came in, were considered “gay” by all the really good Friends. I believe they had an idea that pictures of oneself might tend to vanity. And for some occult reason it seemed to be felt that pictures or statuary were dangerous, as offering a temptation to idolatry. I certainly grew up believing that it was wicked to go to picture galleries, or to look at a statue. And I remember well, when I was about seventeen, breaking loose from all the traditions of my life, and going with a beating heart, as though on some perillously wicked excursion, into the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. There was a marble group there of Hero and Leander, and I am afraid Leander had not many clothes on, and I can see myself now, standing and looking at it with my heart in my mouth, and saying to myself, “I suppose now I shall go straight to hell, but I cannot help it. If I must go there, I must, but I will look at this statue.” No words can express what a daring sinner I felt myself to be; and I remember distinctly that I was quite surprised to find myself safely outside that Academy, standing unharmed in Broad Street, without having experienced the swift judgments of an offended Creator.
I can see that marble group vividly even to this day, far more vividly than any statuary I have ever seen since; and although I do not suppose it was at all what would be called good art nowadays, yet to me it has always lived in my memory as the acme of all art, for it was my emancipation into the hitherto absolutely unknown art world. Nothing dreadful happened to me from looking at this, and I gradually gained courage for more, until at last I learned that a gift for art was as much a Divine bestowment as a gift for mathematics, and as such it could not be wrong to develop and exercise it. And gradually the Friends also have seemed to learn this, and those old scruples against art and music have almost entirely vanished from their midst.
Another testimony included in “plainness of apparel” in my young days was one against beards. It happened that when Friends’ customs began to crystallize, smooth faces were universal; and, as a consequence, with the Friends’ idea of not following the changing fashions, when beards began to be fashionable, Quakers kept on with their smooth faces. As the fashion for beards became more insistent, the Quakers took a firmer and firmer stand, until insensibly, without any real reason for it that I ever heard, it developed into a “religious testimony”; and when I was born into the Society it was one of the most stringent. I remember vividly the first time I saw a “preacher” wearing his beard. He was a visiting Friend from England, where they were less strict, and, in spite of the fact that I had a great reverence for English Friends, his beard seemed to me so evidently the mark of the evil one, that I felt it almost a sin to listen to his preaching. In several “strict” Meetings this same preacher was refused entrance to the “gallery” because of his beard; and I can remember well the great concern expressed by the Philadelphia Elders over this sad evidence of the “gradual encroachments of a worldly spirit in London Yearly Meeting.”
This testimony against beards is shared, I believe, though probably on different grounds, by the Roman Catholic priests, and also by High Church clergymen of the Church of England. But the Friends meanwhile have dropped it, along with many others of the strict testimonies of my childhood. They still practice great moderation in their dress and address, and in the furnishing of their houses, and the ordering of their lives, but they have for the most part abandoned all idea of any especial cut of clothes, or any stifling of natural gifts, either in literature, or art, or music, being a necessary passport to the favour of heaven. But one cannot but admire and reverence the sturdy adherence to what was felt to be a religious duty, even though it may seem to us a mistaken duty, which characterized those dear old saints.
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