Quaker Meeting – 52 Churches

An advantage to the 52 Church project (more accurately the 52 Houses of Worship project) happening on Cape Cod is my proximity to relatively old churches and traditions. For example the oldest American synagogue is an hour away in Newport, Rhode Island; Plymouth is a mere 30 miles away, and the oldest Quaker meeting in the country is less than ten miles to the north in East Sandwich.

There are some significant churches on my mental list that I look forward to, either because of historical reasons or pure curiosity, and one of those is the Quaker meeting in Sandwich. This morning I went with great anticipation for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the historical importance of Quakerism to Cape Cod. I felt a bit guilty indulging in the Quaker meeting so soon in the project, but it was what I decided to do, so I did it.

“Quaker” is a perjorative term affixed to this particular practice of religious dissent and faith which began in 1650 in England when a judge dismissed the faithful as “quakers” because the power of their beliefs made them tremble before God. It arrived in Massachusetts shortly after the Mayflower, and its early adherents were severely punished, chastised, and even put to death for their beliefs, leading some to emigrate out of Plymouth to Sandwich, the oldest town on Cape Cod, where a meeting was founded in 1658. Other persecuted Quakers fled the North Shore of Massachusetts and founded the first white settlement on Nantucket. Over time many of the most prosperous whaling fortunes (Coffin, Howland, Folger) were Quaker fortunes. I strong recommend Peter Nichols “Final Voyageand Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Seafor a clear look at Massachusetts Quakers and their relationship to the seacoast, industry, and the first American fortunes. My whaling captain ancestor, Thomas Chatfield, was not a Quaker.

But I digress. To the meetinghouse and its remarkable service.

The meetinghouse was built in 1810 in Kennebec, Maine, dismantled, barged down the coast, and reassembled by the numbers on its present location  north of the King’s Highway (Route 6A) in East Sandwich. It is on Quaker Meetinghouse Road and sits on a small hill in a wooded copse of locust and holly trees. The architecture is quite severe and ultra-New England, with weathered shingles and remarkably plain but beautiful detail work.

I arrived ten minutes early and entered the door as a woman stepped outside and declared “there’s a fire in the stove, make yourself at home.”

I stepped into the narthex/entryway, signed my name in the guest book, dropped some money into a box labelled the “building maintenance fund” and guessed at which closed door I should open. I stepped into a moderately sized room with rows of pews facing to the northwest and another set facing back towards the door. In the middle of the room was a woodstove and the chimney rose up to the ceiling and made a 90-degree turn to the chimney on the western wall. One woman sat in the pews. She did not turn when I entered. I found my place in the back row corner seat and made myself comfortable. It was so silent in the room that I didn’t dare snap a photo of the interior. This shot is from the Meeting’s website:

Not a word was said in the room for the next 70 minutes.

More people arrived and the only sounds in the room were the soft ticking of an old clock by the door, the rustling of one man’s synthetic jacket, an occasional airplane flying overhead unseen in the blue sky, the ticking of the woodstove as it slowly warmed up the chilly room, the shifting coals as the logs burned down, three sneezes that were unanswered with “gesundheits” or “god bless you’s,” the occasional rustling as someone shifted in their pew, the turning of a page as a man in the front pew read a Bible. This was not a place to have a cough, a rumbling stomach, or the hiccups.

No one preached. No hymns were sung. No prayers were said outloud.

I was attending an unprogrammed meeting. That means there was no minister or service, but instead a meeting of friends to contemplate God. I’ll quote from the Meeting pamphlet:

“We invite you to share the hospitality of our Meeting House and join in our unprogrammed Meeting. The Meeting asks that you listen attentively, both to the remarkable harmony of the silent waiting and to the minustry that may arise from the silence. We ask you to wait with patience and openness for an understanding of Friends Meeting.

Meeting really begins only when we are all joined in the silent waiting upon God that is known among Quakers as Centering Down.

Speaking, when there is any, arises from a deep religious experience and is preceded by the conviction that this experience must be shared. This is sometimes senses as an upwelling of the spirit, sometimes as an insight following study, meditation and prayer. It is always humble, always a result of the most earnest seeking. It is not casual or argumentative and seldom is humorous.”

The meeting ended around 11 am when the same woman who welcomed me stood up and shook hands with another person. I greeted the people around me, there were introductions by all, and some announcements of forthcoming meetings, food drives, and pot luck suppers.

Random observations:

  • I was perhaps the youngest person there
  • There were too few people to make any pithy sweeping demographic statement about the parking lot
  • I want to return to this service more than any of the previous three experiences

What I thought about during the 70 minutes:

  • Whaling and why Quakers dominated that industry (I have no idea).
  • William Penn
  • Quaker Oats
  • Why such a silent, benign, pacifist gathering would be persecuted 350 years ago
  • The branches of the bare locust tree through the antique glass windows and how that swirling effect is like my eyesight now
  • How completely timeless the room was — nothing in it other than the clothing and eyeglasses we wore and the three electrical ceiling lights was from this century
  • Richard M. Nixon (his mother was Quaker and his father converted)
  • The overalls the bearded man who tended the woodstove wore
  • Would someone speak?
  • This was the quietest I have ever been for an extended period of time
  • How much I enjoy this project

Here is the Wikipedia entry for the Religious Society of Friends. Next week, I may go Catholic.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

3 thoughts on “Quaker Meeting – 52 Churches”

  1. Dave:

    Thanks for posting your 52 churches experience. Your comments on visiting the Friends intrigued me because of something I’ve learned recently while conducting Genealogy research.

    My Ancestor John Warren (1585-1667) traveled to the new world with John Winthrop on the Arbella and heard the “A Modell of Christian Charity” (sic) sermon given onboard ship just before they reached New England in 1630. Winthrop warned the Puritan colonists that their new community would be a “city upon a hill,” watched by the world:

    “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken… we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God… We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a-going.”

    John Warren apparently got something different from the speech than many of the other Puritans. This is from a biography:

    “The fleet arrived at Salem June 12,1630. …. From Salem, he with the rest of the company went to Charlestown, whence, after a brief stay they moved to Watertown. John Warren settled in Watertown, Massachusetts at age 45. He was admitted as a freeman on May 18,1631; and was Selectman from 1636 to 1640 which was a position of high regard. … However, he does seem to have lost some favor with the authorities sometime thereafter as can be seen from the old records. He sympathized with the Quakers, and was at odds with the Puritan Church. In October 1651, he and Thomas Arnold were each fined 20 shillings for an offence against the laws concerning baptism. On April 4, 1654, he was fined, for neglect of public worship, 14 Sabbaths, each 5 shillings = 3 pounds, 10 shillings. On March 14, 1658/59, he was to be warned for not attending public worship; but “old Warren is to be found in town”. On May 27, 1661, the houses of “old Warren and goodman Hammond”, were ordered to be searched for Quakers. He appears to have agreed in religious sentiments with Dr. John Clark, of Newport, Nathaniel Briscoe, Sr., who returned from Watertown to England, Thomas Arnold, who moved from Watertown to Providence, RI. They were probably all Baptists. Despite his lack of conviction for the established church and his leanings toward the Quaker faith, John never gave up or lost his church membership. He may have kept his membership to avoid losing some privileges, such as voting, etc.”

    I have a book at home that may answer your question about the Quakers and whaling. This project will give me something to do during commercl breaks in tonights Pats-Saints game.

    Best regards,


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