Nantucket Quaker Meetinghouse
In Nantucket, history and theology combine to tell a compelling story. I will depend on the history buffs among my readers to fill in detail and correct inaccuracies in the comment section, as I will be sticking with history lite in this blog…. In Nantucket the rise and decline of whaling and Quakerism go hand in hand. The Quakers were involved and pre-eminent in the whaling industry of Nantucket.
The Wampanoags taught early Nantucket settlers how to extract whale oil from whales washed onshore. As early as 1690, a Cape Cod Quaker was invited to Nantucket to instruct the islanders in more efficient whaling and extraction of whale oil. At first they only collected dead whales and extracted whale oil, but soon they built ships to follow the whales wherever they were in the ocean. Whaling in Nantucket began to die out with the development of kerosene (1830s), a great fire on Nantucket (1846), the development of railroads on the mainland, the silting of Nantucket harbor, the Gold Rush, and the Civil War. Between 1840-1870 the population of Nantucket decreased dramatically.
Quakers had a similar arc of surge and decline on Nantucket. There was not an identified Quaker population until 1708 when the first Quaker Meeting was held. The numbers of Quakers grew rapidly, creating the need for a series of Meetinghouses over the next 50 years. It is estimated that there were 2400 Quakers on the island at the peak. Then, Quakers on the island were plentiful, very wealthy, and involved in all aspects of the whaling industry.
After 1820 Quakerism began to decline, in conjunction with the decline of whaling and also with the in quarreling among Quakers about theology and practice. In the 1830s schisms split the Nantucket Quakers. (See Allen’s Neck, 2014 for the explanation of the schisms) At one time there were three separate Quaker Meetings on the island due to the theological disagreements. By 1860, with the decline of whaling and the general decline of the Nantucket population, very few Quakers remained on the island.
The Quaker Meetinghouse that I visited was built in 1838 as a school for the Wilburites, one of the branches of Quakers that developed from the schisms. In 1864 the school building was converted to a Meetinghouse. By 1894 the building was sold to the Nantucket Historical Association and housed the island’s first historical museum. The historical museum then added a new building, which is attached to the Meetinghouse and holds the historical library. Currently the Nantucket Worship Group meets in this Quaker Meetinghouse on Sunday, June through September. The Meetinghouse is open to all visitors during the summer months.
I am posting a picture of the view of the Meetinghouse from the front facing benches looking back to the rear entrance to the building. The gallery for overflow seating is also visible from this viewpoint. I like this view as it shows the symmetry of the room, which is a hallmark of very old Quaker buildings. More pictures of this Meetinghouse can be found on the Facebook page called Framing the Light or in the Meetinghouse portfolio on this website.
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