Sunday, June 23, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 25 - M for Meeting Houses

Come-to-Good in Cornwall with stable at side
Meeting for worship does not require a meeting house but the buildings in which Quakers gather together do reflect something of what Quaker community means and has meant over the centuries.

In Britain Yearly Meeting one of the most striking things about Quaker meeting houses is their variety. Some meetings do not have their own building but gather instead in members' houses or in hired rooms. This may be a decision reached because of lack of numbers, local circumstances or as a witness to simplicity. After all, when Quakerism began this was the way in which local meetings started out.

Manchester Mount Street

The earliest meeting houses, from the 17th and early 18th centuries,
Slough - a modern meeting house
look like houses of the period, even if they were in fact purpose-built. A little later they may take on more of the appearance of a chapel and in the expansiveness of the 19th century sometimes become quite grand. There have been relatively few purpose-built meeting houses in the 20th century but there are some notable exceptions. In modern times Friends have often adapted buildings erected for other purposes - as a house, a shop or even a masonic hall!

Wimbledon - once a house

Barnstaple - once a shop
The new meeting house in Newcastle - once a Masonic hall!

Wallingford 'stand'
Inside these different buildings there will be a meeting room and the way in which this is set out also says something about Quakers both past and present.
Slough meeting room
From the 17th to the beginning of the 20th century a meeting room had a 'stand' at one end where the ministers and, sometimes in lower seats, the elders and overseers sat. They faced the rest of the meeting who were sitting in rows of benches with men on one side and women on the other. In modern times these distinctions melted away and chairs and benches are now usually arranged in a circle with only a table, often containing flowers and perhaps copies of Quaker Faith and Practice and the Bible, as a focus. In modern meeting houses this modern practice is quite natural but in older rooms it can feel as though one is 'camping out' in the middle of somewhere originally arranged quite differently. Certainly in Reading the circular arrangement makes the acoustic quite difficult although I have found that a speaker can be heard quite clearly from the redundant ministers' 'stand'!
Reading meeting room - camping out!

Skipton meeting room
I have just moved from a large 19th century meeting house and a large meeting in Reading to a smaller 17th century meeting house and a small to medium size meeting in Skipton. The architecture of both can be inspiring in different ways but in the end for me the power of meeting for worship comes from a community of people gathering together and that can happen wherever I am.
If you want to get a fuller impression of the variety of meeting houses in the British Isles may I recommend John Hall's photostream of Quaker Meeting Houses on Flickr from which all the illustrations for this post are taken.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 24 - L for letters

I could have written about Quaker letters under E for epistles but that is the official side of Quaker communication. As a historian (and, let's face it, gossip) I am more interested in the unofficial  - in letters written between friends as well as Friends - which often give a truer, because more unguarded, view of what is really going on beneath the smooth public surface.

The early organisation of the Society of Friends was based on letters. Hundreds were sent to and from Swarthmoor Hall, home of Margaret Fell and her family, giving encouragement and support both moral and financial. The majority of these letters survive in the Swarthmore manuscripts, held in Friends House Library in London. Letters were the foundation of the networks between family members and between travelling ministers at home and abroad which sustained Quakerism in the succeeding centuries.

Catherine Phillips
18th century Friends often wrote earnestly to other Friends in almost wholly religious terms. They sometimes took the time to copy out their drafts neatly, correcting spelling and adding and subtracting words and phrases, but when in a hurry this could not always be done so we are left with errors, crossings out and much more mundane post-scripts. Writing to Richard and Patience Chester in 1769 Catherine Phillips ends with the following post-script My Cousin pressed forward wth his usual diligence & speed we got to Dimchurch ye Evening we left you and he reached Home ye next day about 11 o’clock ye next morning – had I not been afraid of making him uneasy if he waited for me at Dunstable I should not have chose to have let my Frd P.C. after kindly coming to meet me have returned alone to Dunstable in a Chaise, but I saw he was in too great a hurry to be stopped ... Upon reviewing the foregoing I find that I have indeed committed many blunders but I cannot well spare time to transcribe.
In another letter, mainly about her health, to Priscilla Farmer Catherine concludes Had I strength I wd willingly put ye foregoing in a better dress but I continue very languid & weak I got to Meeting yesterday with considerable difficulty... My Love to all as due. Don’t shew any Body this scrole [scrawl].

Extract from a letter from Samuel Fothergill to Mary Pemberton
One of George Dillwyn's notebooks
It is not only historians that find these letters helpful. Letters that were particularly valued by contemporaries were frequently copied out and kept in commonplace books or journals and this may be the only form in which they surv.ive. Although it is usually the serious religious letters that are treated in this way, with any extraneous material removed, sometimes these valued letters can be quite personal.  The letter which Richard Shackleton of Ballitore in Ireland wrote to Catherine Phillips in 1757, telling her of the sudden death of her close friend and travelling companion Mary Peisley Neale just three days after her marriage, is a case in point. He begins, It’s laid on me by a common  Friend of our’s to send this Messenger of Sorrowful tidings to thee. A Scene has opened little expected by us which as I know will nearly affect thee, as it has us, I am at a Loss how to begin to relate it, and then gives a detailed account of Mary's illness and death before concluding Such was the latter and last end of our Dear Friend concerning whose excellencies I need not enlarge to thee, who not only hast been more a Witness, but art a better Judge of them than I. Catherine obviously did not keep this letter to herself as I have seen several copies in libraries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Matthew Boulton
Informal letters written by non-Quakers can also give an impression of Friends from the outside. One of the most striking examples of this that I have seen is a letter written by Matthew Boulton to his daughter about the death of William Phillips of Redruth, the husband of Catherine Phillips. Boulton knew William Phillips as a business associate as they both had mining interests in Cornwall but he obviously valued him as a man. Writing to a colleague Thomas Wilson in August 1785 he says But alas we have had a sudden & melancholy change in the death of our worthy, good, sincere, Benevolent, hospitable, Charitable, usefull, spirited, good humourd, Religious, pleasant & kind friend, William Phillips. So many adjectives witness, I think, to an unusual depth of feeling.

Today when we communicate more by email or text or through Facebook than by letter, have we lost a way of networking, of encouraging and supporting one another in the things that are eternal as well as in the everyday and of revealing ourselves as we really are?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 23 - L for Benjamin Lay

Benjamin Lay in America
Benjamin Lay was born in Colchester in Essex in 1683 to poor Quaker parents. There was no money for education and Benjamin was apprenticed to a glove maker but before he was eighteen he went to work on his brother's farm. When he came of age Benjamin decided to become a sailor, a surprising choice given his physical difficulties. He was only four feet seven inches (1.40 m) tall and was a hunchback, with a projecting chest and legs so slender that they seemed hardly able to bear his weight. However for the next seven years he went to sea and visited many parts of the world. He returned to England in 1710, moved to London and in 1718 married Sarah Smith of Deptford.

Benjamin was troublesome to Friends in London because of his practice of interrupting any ministry which he felt went beyond the guidance of God and used the minister's own words. When remonstrated with he said that he would prefer not to disturb meetings but had to be true to his own discernment. Eventually he was disowned in 1720. Benjamin took his wife back to Colchester and opened a shop, but he continued to disturb meetings and also other denominations' services. As he was already disowned Colchester Friends could do little but issued a public condemnation of him in 1723. Eventually Benjamin and Sarah left England for America in 1731.

They went first to Barbados where Benjamin obtained land and built a cottage. It was here that an incident occurred which made a great impression on Benjamin and which also illustrates the extremes of his character. One day Benjamin was furious to discover that a wild hog had got into his newly planted garden and uprooted everything. He killed the hog but then went further, dismembering it and nailing the pieces to his gate. Later, when his temper cooled, he was so stricken with remorse that he vowed never again to eat food or wear clothes that involved the death of any animal. He became a vegetarian and refused to wear leather.

John Woolman
Benjamin was horrified by the treatment of slaves in the island and his choice of food and clothing was further restricted by his refusal to use anything that was the product of slave labour. He grew flax and made his own clothes, refusing to wear cotton or to use indigo to dye cloth as both were produced by slaves. This practice was later followed by other Friends including John Woolman who were called 'White Quakers' because of their appearance. Benjamin spoke out against the slave owners and made himself so unpopular that he was soon on the move again, this time to Philadelphia. He had thought to escpe from slave owners there but was disappointed to find the practice widespread even among Friends. Benjamin built a house in the country where he grew vegetables and kept bees and devoted himself to campaigning against slavery and for other causes such as temperance and penal reform. As Benjamin's wife was in poor health the couple moved from their own house to stay with a Friend living near Abington Meeting. Here Benjamin built a 'grotto' in which he kept his library. Sarah died in 1735 but Benjamin continued his campaigning although his direct, dramatic methods made him very unpopular among Friends.

In 1738 during a Yearly Meeting session in Burlington, New Jersey, Benjamin entered dressed in a long white overcoat with a large book under his arm. He exclaimed against the hypocrisy of Quaker slave owners saying that they 'might as well throw off the plain coat as I do.' At this he took off his overcoat and revealed himself dressed in a bright military coat with a sword at his side. Saying that owning a slave was like thrusting a sword through his heart, 'as I do this book', Benjamin drew his weapon and plunged it into the book, piercing a bladder full of red poke-berry juice which he had concealed within its hollowed-out centre. People next to him were splashed with the scarlet liquid and several women fainted.

This disturbance proved the last straw for Philadelphia Friends. They had already been offended in the previous year by Benjamin's publication, without going through the proper channels to gain the Yearly Meeting's approval, of his book All Slave-Keepers That keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates... The book, printed by Benjamin's friend and namesake Benjamin Franklin, made many accusations against individual Friends and the Society as a whole for being complicit in the slave system. The Yearly Meeting was so displeased that they put advertisements in various newspapers distancing themselves from Benjamin's book and his views. In 1738 they went a step further and formally disowned him, claiming that he had never truly been a Friend and that he had obtained a travelling minute from Colchester under irregular circumstances.

Benjamin Franklin
Of course Benjamin took no notice and continued to consider himself a Quaker, He also continued to make dramatic gestures. Once he stood outside a meeting house in the snow without a coat and in bare feet to remind Friends of the hardship experienced by slaves. Eventually his campaigning, together with the more moderate stand taken by John Woolman and Benjamin Franklin among others, had an effect and the tide of public opinion turned against slavery. Not long before he died Pennsylvania decided to disown slave-holding Quakers. When Benjamin heard the news he rose from his chair and gave thanks to God adding, 'I can now die in peace.'

Eccentric to the last Benjamin wanted to be cremated and offered a friend £100 if he would burn his body and throw the ashes into the sea. But his friend refused, recoiling in horror at such an unheard-of request. So when he died, on 3 April 1759 at the age of seventy-six, Benjamin Lay was buried at Abington, Pennsylvania. Today we may associate the struggle against slavery with the name of Woolman rather than Lay but Benjamin's legacy continued to inspire the movement for generations and throughout the first half of the 19th century it was common for abolitionist Quakers to keep pictures of him in their homes.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 22 - K for Hannah Kilham

Silhouette of Hannah Kilham
Hannah Spurr Kilham was born in Sheffield in 1774 where her father Peter was in trade. Her mother died when she was twelve, leaving her to look after her father and five brothers. Two years later her father also died and she was sent to a boarding school in Chesterfield where 'she made more rapid progress than her master approved.'

Alexander Kilham
At the age of twenty she left the Church of England for the Methodists and in 1798 became the second wife of Alexander Kilham who had split from Wesley and founded the Methodist New Connexion. However he died only eight months later at the age of thirty-six. In order to keep herself and her step-daughter Sarah, Hannah opened a day-school for girls in Nottingham. She also became acquainted with Quakers and joined the Society of Friends in 1802. At the same time she espoused the anti-slavery cause and subscribed to the abolitionist boycott of sugar. She returned to Sheffield and as well as teaching engaged in philanthropic work and originated a 'Society for the Bettering of the Condition of the Poor' that was to provide a model for many others.

Tottenham Friends Meeting House
Hannah developed a concern for African education and from 1817 studied the means of putting the unwritten languages of Africa into print so that the natives might be taught Christianity. She produced an elementary grammar for children in missionary schools in Sierra Leone. In 1819 Hannah persuaded Friends to set up an unofficial African Instruction Fund Committee with William Allen and Luke Howard among its members. She moved to Tottenham and enlisted the aid of Friends there in her cause. They visited a ship which had just arrived from the Gambian coast and asked whether any of its sailors would be willing to stay in England, be taught English and help Hannah to transcribe their languages. Two of them, Sandanee and Mahmadee, agreed to stay and Tottenham Friends raised money for their board and lodging.  From these two men Hannah acquired a good knowledge of Jaloof (Wolof) and Mandingo (Mandinka) and in 1820 published anonymously First lessons in Jaloof.

In 1823, with the backing of the Friends' committee, she sailed with the two Africans and three missionaries to St Mary's in the Gambia and taught there and in Sierra Leone. Hannah's first impression of Africa was that 'idleness was a great sin of this country which will have to be guarded against'. Later, however, after one missionary, Richard Smith, had died and her own health had suffered she revised this opinion. 'We were ourselves too closely occupied, and health in some of us consequently suffered...Now I regret that we did not more frequently urge their leaving anything undone, rather than endanger their health by so much exertion.'

Hannah returned to England in 1824 to report on progress to her committee. She criticised the colonial attitudes which even missionaries could be infected by. She said that they must learn to exert influence over merchants, not be influenced by them; they must cease using 'high tones and repelling manner' to black people. Her educational philosophy, of preserving and using indigenous languages rather than teaching English to potential converts, was most unusual for the time. She declared 'It is the Africans themselves who must be the travellers, and Instructors and Improvers of Africa.' As well as working on tracts relating to African languages and the teaching of them Hannah also spent her time at home doing what she could to help the poor of Spitalfields with education, employment and health issues. In 1826 she went to Ireland and spent some months working with the British and Irish Ladies' Society for famine relief.
Map of Africa showing Sierra Leone, Liberia and Gambia

In 1827 she sailed again for Sierra Leone, taking with her African School Tracts which she had published in the interval. She visited Free Town and in little more than two months put into writing the numbers and principle words of twenty five languages. However poor health forced her to return home. In 1830 she set out for Sierra Leone once more. Having obtained permission from the governor to take charge of all children rescued from slave-ships she founded a large school near Charlotte, a mountain village, with the aid of a matron. Some of  the children were so emaciated as to be practically walking skeletons and Hannah later wrote that without receiving children direct from a ship she would never have understood the full vileness of slavery. Having set up the school Hannah travelled to Liberia and visited schools in Monrovia. In February she sailed for Sierra Leone but her ship was struck by lightning and put back to Liberia. Hannah did not recover from the shock and died three days afterwards at sea on 31 March 1832, aged forty eight.

Hannah Kilham's concern for Africa and her achievements in education and liguistics would be enough to make her memorable but there is another aspect to her life which should not be forgotten. The long journeys by sea which she had to make to further her concern were a particular trial to her as she suffered from a life-long dread of water. Only her conviction that it was her religious duty to go on gave her the strength to overcome her fear.

As she said, 'Why, if duty appear plain, should I recoil or draw back? I will try to be still, and hope clearly to know what is best, and not give way to any apprehension of my own creating.'