Saturday, August 15, 2009

Art and Music in Puritan Worship

Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, Appendix B, "Art and Music in Puritan Worship," pp. 268-272:

Macaulay has popularized a grave misrepresentation of the Puritans as fanatical Philistines, apostles of gloom, utterly antagonistic to the arts and music.
This charge would make all Puritans tone-deaf and colour-blind iconoclasts. Its untruth has been fully and finally rebutted Dr Percy Scholes in The Puritans and Music (1934).
The Puritan did not object to the arts as such: indeed, the Puritans numbered amongst their adherents such poets as Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, John Milton and Andrew Marvell. The typical attitude is that of John Cotton, who declares that whilst instrumental music is banned in the worship of the Church,

Nor do we forbid the private use of any instrument of musick there-withal.

The Puritans only objected to elaborate church music which did not edify the congregations and, indeed, the very complexities of such music made it impossible for the common people to sing the praises of God.
In conclusion, the Puritans must bear their share of the blame for the wholesale destruction of many beautiful monuments at the hands of such iconoclasts as William Dowsing. But their aim was not Philistinism. It might have been misguided, but it was nevertheless sincere. They thus hoped to uproot all idolatrous practices which God had not required in his worship. Their motto, to which they held inflexibly, was: 'Quod non jubet, vetat'. But if beauty was forced to abdicate from the churches, she was accorded a coronation in their homes. The Puritans objected to Sunday dancing, to the use of instrumental music in the worship of the Church, and to ecclesiastical representations of the Trinity and the Saints. But it is utterly untrue to affirm that therefore music, dancing and art were banished from the Commonwealth. Dancing was encouraged by Cromwell, celebrated by Milton in L'Allegro; it was an essential part of the education of Colonel Hutchinson's family, and it was at the height of the Puritan regime that Playford published his English Dancing Master (1651). As to the private encouragement of music, it will suffice to remember that 'Opera, so far as Britain is concerned, was actually an importation of Puritan times'. A group of people who produced Milton, and who popularized the Psalms, are unfairly described as Philistines. Privately they encouraged the arts and, if they objected to the use of the arts in the service of the Church, their conviction was not aesthetic but religious in basis. It was not that they disliked art, but that they loved religion more.


  1. Thanks for this post! Not something I had really considered. How did you like "The Worship of the English Puritans"?

  2. You're welcome! I have found it to be a very useful resource on the subject. Blessings!