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The Strange Case Of Solomon Eccles

The scene is London in the mid 17th Century. A man takes his musical instruments and music books to Tower Hill, and does something unthinkable. He publicly sets fire to them. Passersby hurry to put out the blaze, but this only makes the man angry, and he breaks the instruments by stamping on them instead.

This shocking act of self-vandalism was apparently the work of Solomon Eccles, a former musician and composer. In his tract A Musick-Lector, written some years after the event, he tells us this renunciation of music was brought about when ‘I through the good hand of God had an eye open in me’.

Eccles had become a Quaker, in the early years of that movement later known as the Society of Friends. He quotes Biblical scripture to justify his actions – the prophet Amos, who warned of destruction to those who ‘chant to the sound of the viol and invent to themselves instruments’, and the visions of Babylon’s music falling silent in the book of Revelation.

But perhaps his bonfire was most inspired by a brief episode in the Acts of the Apostles, where occultists who used ‘curious arts’ were converted, and then burned their books at great price. ‘And is not Musick a curious Art, wilt thou deny it?’, Eccles asks.

It’s certainly a curious story – and a sad one too. What could bring a musician to such an extreme dereliction of their art? To understand, we might look at the peculiarly charged circumstances of the time.

Quakerism emerged out of the long, bitter trauma of the English Civil War. In 1649 the King was tried and executed, a Republic declared, ‘the world turned upside down’ as the ballad went. In those distracted times, radical ideas – both political and spiritual – reached a fever pitch in England. Many wanted to drastically reorganise society. Some believed the ‘end times’ were near, such as the Fifth Monarchists, who foretold Christ shortly coming to reign on earth.

Out of this maelstrom early Quaker leaders, such as George Fox, challenged the authority of the church, speaking with contempt of their ‘steeplehouses’ and their Oxbridge-educated hired priests. Instead he emphasised every person’s ‘inner light’ of God.

The scriptures that Eccles used against music were typical of the early Quaker worldview. They saw themselves reflected in the stories of Christ’s apostles, but they also liked to draw on the dire tones of the Old Testament prophets, and the visionary doom-mongering of Revelation.

The movement quickly gathered both converts and fierce critics. Fox’s journal is a revealing testament of a life on the road, preaching and haranguing clergymen for their deficiencies – provocations which frequently saw him beaten up by angry mobs, and thrown in jail.

He was comparatively lucky compared to another leading Quaker, James Nayler. In 1656 he rode into Bristol to re-enact Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Parliament, unnerved by the spreading movement, seized the opportunity to make an example of him. He was publicly branded, had his tongue bored with a hot iron and was ridden through the streets in humiliation.

Fox shared Eccles’ distaste for music – at least, when it was made by men. But he made an exception for spontaneous singing from the spirit – in prison, he described being moved to ‘sing in the Lord’s power’. Likewise, Eccles mentions a vague music of the ‘inward part alone’ as the kind agreeable to God: ‘there is a difference between the Harps of God, and the Harps of Men’.

But in one particularly poignant passage, Eccles recalls the pleasures of making music:

I was once playing a part with four more, more than 30 years ago; and the parts hit with the Fuige, and came in with the Discords and Concords so very lovely, that it took very much with that part which stands not in unity with the Lord.

This rejection of music precisely because of the pleasure it gives had roots in radical Puritanism. But while church music was suppressed in the Republican years as unsuitable for worship, private music making carried on, so even in those times Eccles’s fundamentalist position was extreme. This is probably why he published A Musicke-Lector as a written-out conversation between a Quaker, Baptist and Musician. That enabled him to speak as the man he once was and as the convert, making plausible defences of music before countering each argument.

And yet surprisingly, Eccles’s bonfire of instruments was not even his chief source of notoriety. He took part in a phenomenon which spread among Quakers in the years 1653-5, described in detail by Kenneth L. Carroll. It was equally provocative: ‘going naked as a sign’.

Public nudity, even if only partial nudity, aimed to shock the complacent masses. George Fox justified one Quaker who spent three years ‘going naked’ in the following terms:

to the priests shewing how God would strip them of their power, and that they should be as Naked as he was, and should be stripped of their Benefices.

However, Eccles didn’t begin ‘going naked’ until 1659. By then the Republic was collapsing, and in this newly anxious atmosphere, Carroll credits him with starting a second wave of disrobing, which continued into the early years of the Restoration.

Eccles wrote a tract about this too, and he had his own eccentric approach: putting a pot of hot coals on his head, sometimes topped up with brimstone, to warn of damnation. He was whipped and imprisoned for his efforts, but his antics earned him mentions by Pepys and Defoe, and even a later depiction in a Victorian painting.

Despite all this, the story of the Quakers after the Restoration is of the gradual move towards discipline and respectability – which no doubt enabled the movement to outlast the other sects of the Republican years, such as the Ranters and Muggletonians.

In the centuries since, Friends have had a ‘precarious’ relationship with music, as an American exhibit from 2004 has described it, and one which very slowly moved towards acceptance. At the same time Quakers came to be associated with other moral causes, in particular the long struggle for the abolition of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the story of Eccles and Fox demonstrates that this moral stance evolved too.

In 1671, Eccles was one of several companions on Fox’s mission to the American colonies. Quakers had already reached the ‘New World’ by this time, and some of them even owned slaves.

After weeks at sea Fox’s ship landed in Barbados. Here his men held meetings, including among some of the plantation slaves. As another Quaker on the trip described it:

Solomon and I have had several meetings among the negroes in several plantations, and it’s like must have more yet. […] we feel the Lord’s presence and power in that service, as well as when we speak among the white people.

Fox clearly was troubled by the enslavement he saw in Barbados, and his subsequent travels to Jamaica and Maryland. He spoke out against the cruel treatment of slaves, and emphasised their equality before God.

But he also criticised the ‘loose living’ found among them. It seems Fox wanted slaves to live as Christians and to marry. He clearly felt compassion towards them, and at one point he even suggested freeing slaves after a time served – perhaps 30 years. But he did not go so far as to say the institution of slavery was itself immoral.

There was resistance from slave owners nonetheless. Quakers were accused of encouraging slave rebellion, and in 1676 a law was enacted in Barbados to prevent them bringing Blacks to meetings.

You might well ask how anyone could decry organised music making but see no wrong in organised human trafficking and exploitation. It is certainly hard to understand. But perhaps we can say that the strange forms of Quaker radicalism that emerged during the Republic helped to pave the way for the later victory against the enormous vested interest of slave owners.

Dissenting movements are frequently messy and inconsistent, but they have a vital potential to re-imagine the world, both for good and ill. And as much as we can take it for granted now, Abolitionism would once have seemed as radical to many people as a musician destroying their instruments.

Eccles returned from the colonies to London, and died in 1683. His story is an unusually vivid example of Puritanism in England with regards to music, but thankfully his attitudes didn’t catch on. Nothing illustrates that better than the fact his sons John and Henry, both born after his conversion, went on to be composers.