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Art, Religion, and Utopia

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Unitarian Universalist Christian Table of Contents

The James Luther Adams Papers

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993

Part 13: Art, Religion, and Utopia

The Peaceable Kingdom, the choral work by Randall Thompson, was dedicated to the late G. Wallace Woodworth and to the Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society. The title page of the composition reads: “To the Memory of Edward Hicks, 1780-1849, the preaching Quaker of Pennsylvania,” with texts from the Prophet Isaiah. The title of the work refers to a series of primitive paintings by this Quaker sign painter and coach builder, paintings that depict the hoped for kingdom of peace envisaged by Isaiah.

Before turning to this theme, I want to be permitted to inject something personal here. Wallace Woodworth and I occupied rooms next to each other in a Harvard dormitory when we were graduate students. Next to Wallace’s room was the room of Virgil Thompson, later to become a distinguished composer and critic. In those days, Wallace Woodworth was conductor of the Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society, and before that Dr. Archibald Davison was conductor of these societies. Mrs. Adams and I were members during those years. Professor Elliott Forbes of the Harvard Music Department after the death of Wallace Woodworth has reminded me that Wallace Woodworth published in the Program Notes of the Boston Symphony Orchestra an article about the first performance of Randall Thompson’s The Peaceable Kingdom, saying that “Thompson is the first among our native composers of choral music.”

One year after Wallace Woodworth published his article for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Professor Elliott Forbes published an article on Randall Thompson in which he says of this composition, The Peaceable Kingdom, that it is the most inspired work of this composer. Then he proceeds to analyze the music of each of the choruses. He points out that Randall Thompson took a great deal of time selecting the passages from Isaiah, choosing them in such a way as to bring into sharp contrast the rewards of the righteous and the rewards of the wicked. Dr. Forbes tells us that the type of scale used for the righteous is different from that used for the wicked. When concerned with the wicked, the harmony tends toward the modal (medieval or Renaissance); and when concerned with the righteous, it tends toward the major of the diatonic scale. On the whole, however, the style is conservative and in the diatonic. Modern dissonantal music is reserved for the third chorus, “The Noise of a Multitude in the Mountains.” In this chorus, there is a lack of real melody, the voices rising to and remaining on a certain plateau. A distinctive feature of this whole work is the composer’s simplicity and clarity of style following the rhythms of normal speech.

What shall we say of the title, The Peaceable Kingdom, and of that quaint Quaker painter. Edward Hicks lived from 1780 to 1849. He was a man without much formal education, a man who took a skeptical attitude toward higher education, seeing it as a threat to the simple ways of authentic Quaker existence. After some years of his youth which he spent in a lackadaisical fashion in the taverns, he was converted to Quakerism. Of special interest is the fact that Edward Hicks was the cousin of Elias Hicks, the founder of the liberal branch of Quakerism, which at that time struggled against the so-called orthodox Quakers. In his view, these orthodox Quakers emphasized the letter of Scripture rather than the spirit and the Inner Light, and they emphasized certain doctrines of traditional Christianity. The Hicksites were accused of denying the virgin birth of Jesus and the doctrine of the divinity of Christ. Some of them were called Unitarian Quakers. Indeed, in 1817, Elias Hicks succeeded in preventing the Baltimore Meeting of Friends from adopting a set creed. Only two years later, in 1819, William Ellery Channing delivered in Baltimore the beacon light sermon entitled Unitarian Christianity, which launched the Unitarian movement in a more of less formal fashion. The struggle of Elias and Edward Hicks against the orthodox Friends generated a great deal of heat and acrimony. At times one gets the impression that the passages from Isaiah about the wicked were applied by Edward to these orthodox Friends. Edward’s conception of wickedness brought him near the major conflicts of the time. He, like his cousin, was a vigorous opponent of violence and war; he was opposed to slavery and was an abolitionist. In religion, he was something of a rationalist like the Unitarians, and he vigorously opposed the emotional methods and manipulations of the revivalists. He opposed a professional ministry, what he and the Quakers called a hireling priestcraft, and he served for years as a lay preacher, never accepting any pay. He opposed usury and excoriated usurous bankers and farmers. He put on a battle against phrenology, thinking it was a fraud. He opposed instrumental music in the church, and perhaps it is fitting that Randall Thompson’s composition should be a capella. Edward Hicks also opposed professional training for the artist as well as for the preacher. He was a sign painter, and on the side he pursued the hobby of painting landscapes and animals and farm scenes. He became the foremost American primitive painter in the 19th century.

His favorite theme was the pictorial depiction of the Peaceable Kingdom, relying upon the texts from Isaiah which Randall Thompson has used for this composition, texts in which, according to Isaiah, the lion would lie down with the lamb at the end of time when peace and harmony among people and animals would be realized. Edward Hicks painted about 100 paintings of this theme. About 50 of them are said to be still extant. These pictures make Edward Hicks the foremost utopian painter of the 19th century, a century in which there were hundreds of utopian movements and communities.

That word “utopia” has deteriorated in the course of time. In its original Greek meaning, it refers to “no place” or “nowhere,” the perfect ideal. According to another interpretation, the word refers to “a beautiful place.” In general we may say that the utopian literature intends to portray human nature and human society in their purified form, in the mode that overcomes the evils of human society. Therefore, utopian literature has been a major form of expression in the history of culture, both Occidental and Oriental. In the West, it stems from the Old Testament prophets to kingdom of God conceptions in early Christianity, through Greek and Roman literature to Sir Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Thomas Campanella, the Diggers of the 17th century, and Edward Bellamy and hundreds of books and tracts in 19th century America.

Ernst Bloch, an anti-Nazi exile from Germany came to Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Harvard he wrote the most compendious history of utopian literature which we have, tracing utopian literature from ancient Israel and Greece and Rome down through the centuries. He viewed it as the principal literature of social criticism and of openness to the future, seeing Karl Marx as a principal stem from this stock.

Some of this literature is highly speculative. Some of it is concretely practical, looking towards the establishment of absolute equality among people, or toward the emancipation of slaves, workers, Indians, or women. Edward Hicks, following in the line of the Quaker William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, was especially concerned with the plight of slaves and Indians and with emancipation from war. Many of his paintings include William Penn and George Fox and other Quakers making their treaty with the Indians, along with the animals and children playing among them. These paintings depict what might be called the fulness of being, the potentialities of all creation.

Edward Hicks possessed an elaborate theory of the evils, the foibles, the frustrations, and the pervasions of human nature. He singled out four animals as the manifestations and symbols of the major evils of humankind: the wolf, the leopard, the bear, and the lion. In his writings, he epitomizes these evils which he finds not only in humanity but in himself: greed, deception, cruelty, violence, irresponsibility. The evils referred to by Isaiah also play a heavy role in the texts selected by Randall Thompson. These passages are not viewed as indicating the vindictiveness of God but rather as presenting the self-destructive consequences of greed and selfishness, cruelty and violence.

What, then, is the significance of this theme, The Peaceable Kingdom. In the first place, it engenders hope, reminding us always that in our personal existence and our societal existence there is always the possibility of new beginnings; that there are potentialities in human beings not yet realized but possible of realization. Such a work of art offers social criticism touching the imagination and the heart. At the same time, it gives us the experience of contemplating perfection, giving us a vision of fulfillment. So it is that the Peaceable Kingdom, in utopian literature and also in visual art, gives us a foretaste of the kingdom of God and a communal experience of the beauty of holiness.