The Sound of Silence

From charities and hospitals to colleges, private schools and places of worship, Quakerism’s mark on the Main Line is as unmistakable as it is immeasurable. Why, then, is it so often misunderstood?

Merion Friends Meeting is the oldest Quaker meetinghouse on the Main Line.There are few campus settings more idyllic or functional than Swarthmore College’s Scott Outdoor Amphitheater. In this sanctuary built by Philadelphia landscape architect Thomas Warren Sears during World War II, 10 half-moon banks of ancient stone-slab seating rise above a grassy stage area under the columnar canopy of some of the tallest poplar trees in Delaware County.

The amphitheater is the setting for First Collection, the candle-lit culmination of Swarthmore’s freshmen orientation program. The reincarnation of the decades-old Quaker practice of Collection began on campus in 1994. A candle is distributed to each freshman; one is lit at the end of each row and passed along to light the others. “Perhaps it could symbolize the light within each of us,” says Maurice Eldridge, a Swarthmore alum and its vice president for college and community relations. “But it also establishes a bond in a band of beautiful light between all present.”

You’d think that Swarthmore’s young intellects might find the First Collection ceremony hokey. Some do. But most find it moving. They sense the passion, the invitation to personal engagement, the sense of community—and the Quaker influence of the prestigious institution they’ve sought out.

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It’s impossible to compress Quakerism’s vast religious and social history into a few pages. Quakers have been meeting along the Main Line since arriving here in the 17th century. That’s nearly two centuries before there was a Main Line.

While spiritually rooted, the Quakers are probably noted more for their social activism—for their ministry of reaching out to the underprivileged, the poor and minorities. The acronym SPICES represents the Quaker testimonies; it’s how they witness faith in their lives. “S” stands for simplicity; “P” for peace; “I” for integrity; “C” for community and inclusiveness as to race, creed and sexual orientation; “E” for equality and social justice; and “S” for stewardship, mostly of the Earth.

“When I talk to people about why Quakers are significant in American history, I mention the abolition of slavery, the equality of women, fair treatment of Native Americans and religious toleration,” says Christopher Densmore, curator of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College. “These are quite basic to our society today—though the abolition of war hasn’t made much headway in the larger world.”

Among the lasting influences in Philadelphia, Quaker compassion helped establish some of the best hospitals and charitable institutions anywhere. William Penn, a Quaker against his English father’s will, affected the revolutionary principles of religious, social and political tolerance, and the limitation of governance. All were reflected in the country’s founding and living documents.

Modern-day Quaker luminaries with Main Line ties include Rufus Jones, Thomas Kelly and Douglas Steere. Jones, in particular, defined modern American Quakerism. He taught philosophy and religion at Haverford College, wrote 58 books, co-created the American Friends Service Committee and was influential in early efforts to reunite Quakerism’s disparate branches.

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When it comes to the Quaker faith’s lengthy and rich history in this state, misunderstanding common. Alice Hoffman is a Friend at Merion and a docent for Philadelphia’s Arch Street Meetinghouse—the world’s largest, with room for 1,000 Friends. She cites the significance of Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges for its fairness to Native Americans, democratic values, and principles for the separation of church and state. “The Liberty Bell was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that charter,” she says.

But Hoffman says recent history books either downplay Penn or try to redefine the early founder. “Institutions want to talk about the birth of this country, but not its gestation; it makes the story more complicated,” she says. “Quakers, of course, didn’t support the [American] Revolution.”

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In this region, there are about 9,000 Quakers affiliated with 104 monthly meetings—80 of them active. Haverford Quarterly Meeting, Old Haverford Friends Meeting, Radnor Monthy Meeting, Valley Friends Meeting in Wayne, Merion Friends Meeting and Newtown Square Meeting are all members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which is part of the national Friends General Conference. There are also meetings in Media, Springfield, Swarthmore, West Chester, Westtown, Willistown Township, Phoenixville, Downingtown, Coatesville, Kennett Square, Birmingham Township and other surrounding areas. In education circles, Haverford College was founded as a Quaker institution. In fact, its students and faculty worshipped at Haverford Friends Meeting every Thursday morning until 1957.

Of the local monthly meetings, the granddaddy is Merion Friends. The oldest in Pennsylvania, it’s at the intersection of Montgomery Avenue and Meetinghouse Lane in Merion Station—also known as God’s Corner. The Jewish Center and the McCauley Convent are neighbors.

The meetinghouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, and a $300,000 capital preservation campaign is well underway. Another $55,000 is needed to finish the restoration and stabilization of a structure that’s gone virtually unaltered since 1829.

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Merion is one of a few meetinghouses that survive from the 17th century. It’s also one of the country’s earliest existing examples of Quaker architecture. Its construction began in 1695, and it was completed by 1715.

Merion’s T-shaped cruciform plan may be unprecedented in meetinghouse design. There’s also evidence of the Welsh building tradition in its stone construction, steeply pitched roof with angled cruck timbers (wood likely grown in the 1500s), and remnants of original leaded casement windows, pent eaves and doorway hoods.

It’s documented that Penn spoke at Merion, which was also an early public school for the meeting’s children and local American Indians. Its history is also tied to support for slaves en route to freedom via the Underground Railroad, a portion of which followed the old Philadelphia and Columbia rail line along Montgomery Avenue in front of the meetinghouse.

Merion’s restoration was an 11-year project in the making—a typical Quaker waiting period. For any Quaker meeting decision, all have to be in agreement. If there’s one dissenter, there’s no decision.

Original estimates for the work totaled $1.2 million, but Quakers are a thrifty bunch. Merion Meeting was awarded $127,000 from Partners for Sacred Places, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and others. There was also a $5,000 gift from Friends’ Central School, and an undisclosed memorial gift after the death of Merion Friend Ann S. Hartzell.

The first phase addressed the structural repair and reinforcement of the meetinghouse’s timber roof frame, reversing the direction its weight was pulling the building. Remaining restoration and stabilization is in store for the chimney, floor, and the electrical, fire and security systems, plus stone pointing, termite treatment and wood repair. The front door will be rebuilt, handicap access added, and water runoff better controlled.

“When we’re done spending, you won’t be able to tell we’ve spent any money,” says Ross Mitchell, a Merion Friend. “Our goal is the preservation of this building for future generations.”

These days, membership at Merion Meeting is down to about 90 Friends. Locally, outreach is subtle and informative in its efforts to educate and entice outsiders. Haverford Friends hosts its “Quaker Quest,” a series of discussions and presentations to introduce others to the faith that has already made an impact in the United Kingdom. Elsewhere, the world’s largest concentration of Quakers is in Kenya, of all places.

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The Religious Society of Friends originated in England around 1650. It was organized by Christians looking for a more direct relationship with God, minus the church ceremony and pastoral structure of the Anglican Church.

These Friends chose to worship in silence, seeking the “light within” without intermediaries like priests and sacred books. “It’s fair to say that, if you sit in silence weekly and ask what God requires, you might get an answer,” Merion Meeting’s Hoffman says.

In Quaker worship, songs are not sung, readings are not read and sermons are not delivered—only the thoughts of Friends are spoken. Religious and moral knowledge is based on feeling and values, not logic or fact.

Friends gather not to espouse opinions, but to join in on a common search—and eventually a united front. War has never been a means for settling differences. Dissent, after all, can lead to agreement.

Quakerism arose out of tumultuous times in England, when adherents to any religion other than the accepted one were persecuted. In the 1600s, divergent groups emerged. Quakerism’s founder, George Fox, spent his teens roaming from church to church trying to find answers. Then he had a revelation. While alone in an open space, he heard a message—that, in him, lives the spirit.

Fox named his earliest missionary followers the Valiant Sixty. He inspired Penn, who was then deemed a rabble-rouser. Penn’s father was an admiral of the noble class. When he died, to settle a debt, King Charles II shipped the admiral’s son off to land across the Atlantic. America became a proving ground for Penn’s Holy Experiment.

If Fox is the father of Quakerism, then Margaret Fell is its mother. She was the first to propose pastoral, practical work in the community. Within the Quaker tenants of tolerance and equality, there was room for women to grow and become involved. Meetinghouses were split into two sides with paneled room dividers—one side for worship, the other for use as a library and monthly business meetings.

At first, meetings were separate for men and women. “Women were not used to having a voice,” says Melanie Douty-Snipes, a Lower Merion High School alum who ran an educational outreach program at Bucks County’s Richland Meeting, which celebrated its 300th anniversary last year. “In separate meetings, women could work on their own business. It gave them confidence for the role of activists in the struggle for abolition and suffrage.”

A living example of that feminine influence, Douty-Snipes was 12 when she joined Merion and later became a Friend at Radnor Meeting. Now, she runs a 200-year-old Quaker farm in Bucks County while overseeing youth and adult groups for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

Douty-Snipes’ parents weren’t Quaker, but her two grandmothers were of the faith. Her husband is a “birthright” Quaker. If you’re not a birthright Quaker, you’re a convinced Quaker. “Seasoned” Friends are the experienced ones.

In some ways, Quakers can be their own worst enemy. “You walk into a meeting, and no one says anything, so that can’t be inviting,” says Frank Strawbridge, Merion’s clerk of the trustees. “Some [meetings] are lively, but some are not, depending on any given week and who’s there and who’s not.”

It’s why meetings are considered “unprogrammed” worship—a sort of ministry of waiting. For the first 10-15 minutes, each Friend tries to become present and open, counts blessings or sits. Someone could dominate, but most meetings have written or unwritten procedures. Quakers won’t clap for approval; they’ll wiggle both hands in the air—American Sign Language for applause.

“No Sunday is like any other Sunday,” Douty-Snipes says. “It’s influenced by world events, connections, dynamics or someone else’s shared story. There’s an energy in connections.”

Seasoned Friends often set the spiritual tone, but over time, others do as well. By design, some meetinghouse floors dip in sections so those in the back rows can see and hear. All the benches face the center, so the meeting feels circular. After an hour, someone from a facing bench watches the time and calls the meeting by reaching out to shake hands with a neighbor. Then, all shake hands and disperse.

Whether it’s the 1600s or 2010, silence is “radical,” says Douty-Snipes. “This is not a quiet world,” she says. “Silence, a connection with God, often reminds Quakers that they have some powerful listening to do. It’s then when we see how we can move ourselves forward.”

Richland Friend Zoya Kachadurian, a Russian-Armenian who once married into Brandywine Valley’s famed Wyeth family, puts it another way: “Sometimes, the best way to move forward is to stop.”

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Of late, Quakerism has attracted young liberals and fallout Catholics, among others. Its model has always been reform. In some ways, Quakers remain radicals. They expect change, but admit they don’t have all the answers. Instead, they believe they’re on a path to an answer—a very different approach from most groups that purport to have them all.

Quakerism has three main branches. In this region, it’s mainly the unprogrammed branch affiliated with the Friends General Conference. In the Midwest and New England, there’s the semi-programmed Friends United Meeting. A third branch, Evangelical Friends Church International, began in Ohio and spread west. Its services are more like those in a church, with pastors and the controversial inclusion of sacraments. Keystone Fellowship Friends Meeting, a fourth offshoot in Chester and Lancaster counties, is seen as a conservative branch.

But the basics are the same for all branches. “We have the same roots in Fox; we’re all peacemakers and follow SPICES. The way we all practice is the most practical,” says Douty-Snipes. “We just have different ways of organizing.”

And still, Douty-Snipes says, there are the ever-present questions: Are you Christians? How are you governed if there isn’t a hierarchy? Do you follow the Bible?

The Quaker “bible” is Faith and Practice, a guide for how to organize, but the Bible is on the benches in meetinghouses.

Douty-Snipes is used to dispelling myths. “No, we do not dress like pilgrims,” she says. A Friend may have a beard, she adds, but he might also be wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt.

Once, Quakers really did “quake” in their seats when they became full of the spirit. Today, they occasionally stand up and share some exuberant conviction. “If you don’t [stand up], sometimes you later regret it, but you do need courage,” admits Douty-Snipes. “Involuntary, spontaneous message is meant for everyone.”

But Quakerism remains a plain religion—so plain that there might be only a single vase of flowers at a meeting. No cross, nor icons of any sort. The window glass is clear, not stained—so members can connect with God and be inspired by the day.

“If the cross is that powerful, then you can hold it in your mind,” says Douty-Snipes. “There’s no separation between us and creation.”

Influential Main Line Quakers You Might Not Know

Wallace Collett
A war tax resistor and American Friends Service Committee leader in the 1960s and ’70s.

Margaret Collins
She fought for racial integration on the Main Line through her advocacy for fair housing.

Jane Kronick
A beloved sociology professor at Bryn Mawr College, which was founded by Quakers (though it doesn’t seem to have been intended as a Quaker school).

Howard Brinton
A descendant of William Brinton, founder of Birmingham Township. He established Pendle Hill at Wallingford, a Quaker retreat in Delaware County.

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!