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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.
Update on Progress
When I first began this Meetinghouse Project, about a year ago, I had no idea what kind of journey I would be taking. What a journey I have had! I have seen some amazing meetinghouses and Quaker places of interest in Massachusetts. I have learned a lot about Quakerism, about taking and editing photographs, and about editing a collection of photographs. I have been to 25 meetinghouses, some empty, and most still in use. I have taken over 7,000 pictures. I have written 18 blogs, and still have six yet to publish. I have found that I am not in love with writing and blogging, but that the feedback may make it worthwhile anyway. I have learned to rely on a core group for editing my writing, and another group for editing my photographs, and yet another group for keeping me rooted in Quaker experience. I feel pride that I can say that I am a Quaker.
I do not know who is reading my blog, but I do know that about 170-415 people at least touch each page. That amazes me. I know many Quakers read it. I know people who do not know much about Quakerism also read it. I know some people just want to look at the pictures and not read the blog. Beyond that, I have no idea who my audience is. So…. who are you? Please let me know via comments on Facebook, contact on this blog page, or by personal email.
One of the things that bothers me about some of the blog postings is this: for some meetinghouses, the blog photo matched my story, but did not really represent the Meetinghouse itself. For example, I did not post a single photo of the Beacon Hill Meetingroom. And Beacon Hill’s Meetingroom is very special and worth seeing. And East Sandwich, which is such a beautiful Meetinghouse, had a blog and a picture that was more about my process than about the Meetinghouse. So I will be rectifying this situation.
Currently, I am in the process of editing my collection of photographs from many to a few of the best of the best. In a continuing process, I have gone from about 7,000 photos to about 150 photos, to about 70 photos, to a final 20-30 photos. Will I have a collection of fine art photographs that will say something about Quakerism? Will I have a set of documentary photographs that will tell a story? Or will I have a combination of these two? I do not know. Stay tuned!! Many people have asked me about whether the photos will be in a book...that is possible, maybe, if I have the time, the energy, and the money to make a book. To help in making that decision, I will need to have more information about my core audience, and how many of you there are. That is where you come in. Who are you? Should I go for it? Would you buy a book?
I am launching a Framing the Light: Quaker Meetinghouses Facebook page where I will post a set of photos periodically. I will be showing more photos of each Meetinghouse, and I also will show some topics in more depth. For example, the winching systems found in many meetinghouses are really interesting. It would be fun to explore that photographically. And I can now do that.
I am asking that you go to the Facebook page, “like” it, and also sign up to follow the page. I hope you will share it with others if you like it. I am hopeful that comments and numbers of viewers will be helpful in deciding whether I should move forward on a book… You can find my page on Facebook by searching for “Framing the Light”. If you are not a Facebook user, you can see the photos by clicking on "Meetinghouse" in the menu at the top of this page. I hope you will find the Facebook page if you are able.
I am humbled by the feedback given thus far by comments on this blog page and also in person and by email. Thank you. Please keep the comments coming.
Even though this is not a blog posting about a particular meetinghouse, I am still posting a photograph. I picked this photo because it has become the header for my new Facebook page. I used this photo on Facebook for a very technical reason: it is one of the few I had that fit into a horizontal rectangular space. I had to mangle the photo a little bit to make it fit on Facebook, so I am posting the full photo here. You can also see the editing changes that have taken place over the past year in this photo. The original one is posted in Yarmouth's blog in April, 2014. At most meetings I visited, kids' artwork adorns the walls. This photo, taken in Yarmouth Meeting's Community Room, is representative of a lot of the kids' work that I saw. Much of it is peace related. Peace is, of course, one of our Testimonies and is one of the bedrock core values that we hold.
Worcester Friends Meetinghouse
The Worcester Friends Meeting began as a Preparative Meeting of Uxbridge Meeting (See Uxbridge blog entry, May, 2014) in the 1800's. This is the third Worcester meetinghouse for the Worcester Meeting. By the time they acquired this new meetinghouse in the 1970's, they had already outgrown two buildings in Worcester proper. Also, the demise of the Leicester Meeting and the Uxbridge Meeting had occurred.
For this third Meetinghouse space, a Victorian-style house was purchased. Taking the wall down between 2 rooms created the Meetingroom. The room has 2 deep window seats as well as blue chairs. The hardwood floor gleams. This is a very versatile room. When I arrived, the chairs were stacked around the edges for cleaning. During Meeting for Worship the chairs are arranged in concentric circles. After Meeting, the room is rearranged to accommodate tables set up for a community potluck lunch, which happens weekly. The chairs are again rearranged for business or committee Meetings.
The second and third floors of the house hold First Day School rooms, an organizing office, and rooms rented by New England Yearly Meeting and an organization called “The Center for Nonviolent Solutions.”
The flexible chair arrangement was echoed in Worcester Meeting’s flexible organizational structure.
Since Friends believe that each person has that of God within, and that no person should be above another person, their organizational structure is very flat. There is no one person in charge. All members run each Meeting community and all members do all of the Meeting work. All major decisions are group decisions (See South Berkshire blog entry, September, 2014).
Traditionally committees carry out the work of the Meeting. There is usually a Finance Committee, a Maintenance Committee, a Library Committee, a Peace and Social Concerns Committee, a spiritual nurture committee usually called Ministry and Counsel, a pastoral concerns committee, and a First Day School Committee. There may be other committees such as Outreach, a committee to organize potlucks and Sunday coffee, and…you get the idea…lots of committees. There is a website which pokes fun at Quaker tradition (http://quakerprobs.tumblr.com) and they show a picture of a Quaker looking heavenward saying “99 problems…98 committees.” It is kind of like that…
Committees are a good news/bad news situation. The committees are run by Quaker practice and so Quakers can spend a LOT of time making decisions and doing good work. In today’s world, the committee structure can be problematic: shrinking memberships at some meetings mean fewer people to join committees and do the work. In the busy world of today, finding time to devote to committee work is difficult for many. So sometimes, a few willing people do the majority of committee work. However, the good news is that all members are involved in running the Meeting.
In Worcester, they are using a flexible arrangement for committees with just three of them: Spiritual, Practical, and Peace and Social Concerns/Outreach. They looked at the problem of too few people and too little time for too many committees, and they tried an alternative arrangement. When a project/problem arises, people join in and help to solve it, no matter what committee they belong to. This structure works well for this meeting. They are still experimenting with it, and are planning an evaluative process soon. I will be interested in hearing the outcome…
The picture I have chosen is the picture of the Worcester Meetingroom, with the chairs arranged in concentric circles for their Meeting for Worship. I have chosen this picture to show the flexibility of this room. You can imagine the chairs stacked and to the side for their other community functions. And you can see that it is in a room that was once two rooms. The stairs to the second floor can be seen on the right.
Smith Neck Friends Meetinghouse
I will get to the story of Smith Neck, I promise. But first, I have to give some more bits of Quaker history and Quaker theology lite.
In their earliest days Quakers were a mix of the mystical and evangelical. Waiting in silence, gathered meetings and belief in the Inner Light are all mystical, seeking experiences. But make no doubt about it, early Quakers were also evangelical and preached with fervor so that others could hear their truth. Evangelical fervor brought Quakers to American shores and increased the numbers of Quakers in the colony dramatically. I am astounded that 2000 Quakers came to the opening of the Apponegansett Meeting and that 2400 Quakers lived on Nantucket in its heyday.
As religious tolerance grew in the Colonies in the late 1700's, Quaker evangelical fervor lessened. Meetings had less vocal ministry and followed strict behavioral rules. Many Quakers were disowned for marrying out of the Society of Friends, for playing music, for fighting in the Revolutionary War, or for wearing bright colored clothing. After 1820, the numbers of Quakers began to decline.
Following this “Quiet Period”, the mid-1800s ushered in a new era with differences of opinion about Quakerism, followed by schisms. There were three major splits during this time. I will talk about just one of them in this blog.
John Gurney came along in the mid 1800s. He emphasized the evangelical side of early Quakers, placing the Bible as the ultimate authority, with the Inner Light in a more supporting role. This was quite different from the traditional Quaker practice which placed the highest value on continuing revelation from the Inner Light with the Bible in a more supporting role. Gurneyites further broke from tradition by holding meetings for worship with pastors, sermons and music. These were called programmed meetings. This appealed to many Quakers in those times and led to further expansion of Quakerism in the American Midwest and West.
Today, in fact, the majority of Quakers worldwide have programmed Meetings. However, in Massachusetts, the majority of Quakers practice traditional Quakerism with unprogrammed or traditionally silent Meetings for worship, with the belief in the Inner Light as the primary authority and the Bible in a supporting role. There are currently just two Meetings in Massachusetts that hold programmed Meetings: Smith Neck and Allen’s Neck, both in the Dartmouth area.
Now…. back to the story of Smith Neck Friends Meeting, as it is known locally. It conducts business under the formal name of Dartmouth Meeting, which was originated in 1699. The story of the Smith Neck Meetinghouse continues the rich Quaker history of the Dartmouth area (See blog entry for Apponegansett, February, 2014.). The Quaker settlers in the Smith Neck area of Dartmouth began to meet in homes about 1768. The group was designated as a preparative meeting under the care of Apponegansett. In 1818, the Meetinghouse was built at Smith Neck. Over time they have added a community room, electricity, plumbing and a change to one uni-sex door for the entrance to the Meetingroom. At the time of John Gurney, the Smith Neck Quakers began to invite pastors to preach. To this day, this Meeting has continued with a programmed service with a part-time pastor. The service includes singing as well as a short period of silence. There is an organ, a piano, and a pulpit for the pastor, as well as benches that look more like pews. They describe themselves as Christ-centered, which means a greater emphasis on Jesus and the Bible than I have found at most other Massachusetts meetings. Despite having a pastor, they have traditional Quaker governance with committees and a Clerk.
When I first walked into the Smith Neck Meetingroom, my thought was: This looks like a church. What am I doing here, and what will I photograph? I felt a little out of my league. However, as I began to meditate and photograph, I realized that though there are stylistic differences and probably even some theological differences, there is a recognizable culture that is uniquely Quaker.
There were two things that made me feel right at home in their Meetingroom. There is an old wall clock ticking in the quiet of the room. And the hymnal on the organ was open to the hymn “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” I found myself quietly singing all the verses as I worked. Both of these things were so familiar to me from my home meeting, Valley Meeting in Pennsylvania, which was an unprogrammed traditional Meeting. I used to listen to the clock tick during silent Meeting, and we sang that hymn on First Day morning before settling into silent worship. The sounds of the clock and the hymn helped me to realize that although Quakers may practice different forms of Quakerism, may have Meetingrooms that look different, may even have slightly different theologies, we share some similar beliefs and we share a very similar “Quaker culture.” And we are united in our beginnings as a religion and united in a belief in the Light Within. We also subscribe to the same Quaker testimonies, which is a very important set of values to share.
I have chosen a straight forward picture of the interior of this Meetinghouse. It is a beautiful and well maintained Meetingroom. I wanted to show how this Meetinghouse differs from unprogrammed meetings: the benches are all front facing and there is a pulpit. Not visible in this photograph is the organ in the left front of the room. The aforementioned clock is on the right wall, near the window.
When I walked into the Apponegansett Meetinghouse in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, I was immediately reminded of the Adams Meetinghouse. (See blog entry in August, 2014.) Apponegansett is slightly larger, but that is really the only difference. And no wonder they look similar. After rechecking my notes, I find that settlers from the Dartmouth area were some of the original settlers in Adams. And the buildings were built around the same time. Like Adams, Apponegansett is rectangular with shingled siding, and there are two separate doors for men and women. Inside, both have men’s and women’s galleries and two fireplaces. Pulleys run the panels that separate the sides, with the exception of one panel that hinges. To my knowledge, these two Meetinghouses are the only ones that have this type of arrangement for partitions. However, this is the first time I have seen a floor panel in the upper gallery that can be raised or lowered, depending on the need for heat conservation.
I have to return to the past, as this area is so important to Quaker history in Massachusetts. According to the Dartmouth Historical Commission, the “Old Dartmouth” area was purchased from the Wampanoag tribe in 1652. There were 34 original investors in the land, some of them Quakers. Each purchased 200 acres. As the original investors sold off their land, more religious dissidents began to purchase it. Because there were no town centers and consequently no strong church or Puritanical control, the dissidents were free to worship in their own form, making the area very attractive to Quakers while persecutions were happening in the Boston area. Apponegansett was the original Meeting in the Dartmouth area, and it was like a Mother Meeting, with spin-offs everywhere. There were eventually 6 Quaker Meetings in the general area. Smith’s Neck, Allen’s Neck, Westport and New Bedford are still active Meeting communities. The North Dartmouth Meetinghouse is now located on Woolman Hill. Acushnet Meeting was discontinued, but the Meetinghouse is still standing.
The Apponegansett Meetinghouse that I visited is the second building. The current, newer Meetinghouse was required due to larger numbers of attending Quakers. The original Meetinghouse was built in 1699. The current Meetinghouse was built in 1799 and at its opening the records indicate that 2000 Quakers were in attendance. That is a lot of Quakers, especially in a sparsely populated area.
Today the Meetinghouse is under the care of Dartmouth Friends Meeting (also known as Smith Neck Meeting). It has been lovingly tended and restored by Brian Hawes and Christina Styan. And it shows. It is in beautiful condition. In the Meetinghouse, there is an early Sunday morning worship, attended by about 3 people, and occasional other use by the town. Though there is no heat and no electricity, there has been a composting toilet added on the property, making it fully usable in the summer months. There is also a large cemetery on the 14.5-acre lot. The rock walls and fences have all been rebuilt, and it looks beautiful.
In the 1960’s, Harvard University asked if they could place Wampanoag remains in the cemetery. After the Meetinghouse caretakers consulted with tribal leaders, they agreed to the request. They had a long and positive history with the Quakers in the area, having originally sold them the land. The Wampanoag gravesite area is marked with white rocks and shells.
The picture is of the interior of the Meetinghouse. I took it from the facing bench area looking to the back of the room. The two beams directly in the middle are the supporting beams for the partitions between the equal-in-size men’s and women’s sides. You can see the two doors in the back, one for men and one for women. You can also see the men’s and women’s stairways leading to the second floor galleries, one for men and one for women. The two fireplaces are to the extreme right and left, and are not visible in this picture.
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