A Quaint Quaker Past
Chester County Meetinghouses Offer Religious and Colonial History
As a young man in 17th-century Great Britain, George Fox searched for spiritual guidance, but the Church of England was unable to meet his needs. After having a vision in which he claimed to have experienced the presence of Jesus Christ, Fox began preaching publicly without the Church’s permission. His actions were viewed as highly controversial and, in 1650, Fox was brought before magistrates on a blasphemy charge. In his autobiography, Fox tells how he directed the magistrates to —tremble at the word of the Lord. The term “Quaker” was later used to describe him and his followers, also referred to as the Religious Society of Friends.
William Penn was an early practitioner of this religion. In 1681, the King of England granted him title to 45,000 acres of land in North America to satisfy a debt owed to Penn’s father. Aware that many dissenters who disagreed with the policies of the Church of England were searching for a better, friendlier place to live, Penn jubilantly drew up a frame of government stressing freedom of religion in what would become the colony of Pennsylvania. Chester County was one of its three original jurisdictions, and Quakers began settling here in large numbers.
Today, Chester County is home to many destinations with Quaker roots.
The first Quaker meetings in Birmingham Township were held around 1690. A meetinghouse for the Birmingham Friends was constructed using red cedar logs, later replaced with stone. The structure flanked a cemetery surrounded by a long wall that gave cover to Continental soldiers during the Battle of the Brandywine. Dozens of British and American troops were killed at this site; a large stone monument marks their final resting place. A unique octagonal schoolhouse was built nearby; the site is now used as The Peace Center at Birmingham. As you walk along the edge of the burial ground, you can sense the presence of those patriots who gave their lives for the cause of independence. A bronze plaque pays homage in a simple statement: “This grave is a place to contemplate a world without war.”
Another location of Quaker worship was the Old Kennett Meetinghouse built by Ezekiel Harlan in 1710. Early regional meetings included settlers of nearby Hockessin, Newcastle and Newark, Del., but by 1760 the members agreed to focus their congregation at Kennett. Differences in philosophy caused a split into conservative and liberal sects, with a progressive group opposed to slavery forming the Progressive Friends. They built the Longwood Meetinghouse, which hosted such prominent anti-slavery advocates as Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth. Their building is now home to the Chester County Visitors Bureau.
Over the decades, Quakers built several structures in the region, including the Bradford Friends Meetinghouse in Marshallton. Constructed due to the devotion of Abraham Marshall (father of noted botanist Humphry Marshall), the meetinghouse has a single story that encloses four rooms as compared to the customary two used by most groups.
Nearby, the Marlborough Friends Meetinghouse had its origins in the settling of a dispute for water rights between two farmers — Richard Barnard and Isaac Baily. Barnard and Baily ultimately agreed to donate land upon which to build a place for religious worship. The Marlborough Meetinghouse is an interesting example of Quaker principles, with its interior divider separating men from women for propriety. A raised platform with facing benches along the back wall is where the “elders” sat. As education was important to the Friends, the women’s side was converted into a schoolroom in 1880. Students paid 50 cents a week for their learning. You can still see their wooden double desks with inkwells and books of the period.
Despite diminished numbers today, Quakers continue to quietly practice their beliefs around the region. Due to their importance in showcasing our early heritage, all of these meetinghouses have been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Seeing the staid yet elegant structures, we’re reminded of a simpler time, when people not only knew their neighbors but often walked miles to help them in times of need. These houses of worship can be found throughout the county, their quiet appeal a silent offer to all who pass by: “Welcome. Come in — and pray”
Gene Pisasale is an author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His six books focus on regional history. Gene’s latest work is “The Forgotten Star,” a historical novel covering true life mysteries surrounding the Star-Spangled Banner. For more information, visit his website at www.GenePisasale.com or e-mail him at [email protected].