Quaker Meetings in John Woolman’s Time

While perusing John Woolman, American Quaker, a biography of John Woolman by Janet Whitney published in 1942 that Fred Newkirk asked me to order for him, I ran across a description of what Quaker meeting for worship was in those days. It so happens to also be what meeting for worship in the “waiting worship” approach can be in some Quaker circles still today. While perhaps Whitney idealizes a bit, I have experienced Quaker worship in this way – entering into God’s undeniable presence quietly and powerfully covering all in attendance in a manner I’ve not experienced in other forms of worship. It is most assuredly not merely worship in silent individual meditation; God moves some to speak powerfully – even to preach. Whitney knits through her description of worship a number of characteristics of early Quakers that convey the simple, humble attraction of the movement even in prose exhibiting the limitations of past colonial perspectives. It seemed worth excerpting for those who wonder at Quaker waiting worship to perhaps get a feel for what such worship and the broader Quaker approach to following Christ can be like. So, here’s an excerpt taken in pieces from pages 24-27.

On Sunday and on Thursday they went to meeting “first days  and week days meeting.” …Going to meeting was an outing and a social occasion, as well as a sacred necessity…. Silence spread around the meetinghouse, broken only by the song of birds, the chatter of squirrels and insects, or the stamp of a restless horse. Meeting “began” when the first persons entered the meetinghouse, and the deep silence was the chief part of the ritual. Although to the Quakers no one place was more holy than another, and they never had their meetinghouses dedicated or sanctified, nor their burying places consecrated, they had yet chosen for the site of their first meetinghouse in this neighborhood a place hallowed to the Indians for long past as a burying ground.

It seemed to the simple Quakers that a burying ground already established in a central spot was a suitable place to use for their own dead. God was everywhere and the Father of all. …the body of the first to die, Mary Kendal, was laid to rest by her husband and friends in 1687 in the Indian burying ground… and many more. The Indian dead, sitting upright in their barrows with their pottery and dried corn and bows and arrows beside them for use in the Happy Hunting Grounds, mingled their dust with that of the Quakers who lay reposeful and empty-handed, trusting God for provision in the future life as in the past. …no monuments above ground distinguished the one from the other. Gabriel, if he came with his trumpet, could not read the list of names otherwhere than in the Lamb’s book of life. It was against Quaker custom in those early days to have so much as a headstone. The meeting minute-books and individual family records alone furnished the information. So when the Quakers on the Rancocas were ready to build a meetinghouse, its site was a foregone conclusion. Convenience and habit dictated that it should stand beside the burying ground.

To little John Woolman the meetinghouse was as familiar as his own home. He could not remember any time when he did not go there, for he had been taken before memory became conscious. There was no symbol inside, no cross or altar, to mark the house as a temple, but yet it was solemn in there, it was different. When one entered the dim interior from the outside brightness, one felt a hush. On one side of the center aisle sat the women, on the other the men; and the same division was maintained on the two raised facing benches, where the elders and ministers sat. Behind the elders’ bench, to the southeast, was a small window made of four panes of bull’s -eye glass, and in the southwest wall, on the women’s side, was a large fireplace. In winter when the door was shut, most of the light in the meetinghouse came from the leaping fire that roared bravely in the brick chimney, and in extreme weather the women and children whose seats were furthest from it would move closer and gather near the warmth with decorous informality. In summer most of the light came from the open door…

At times another shadow silently appeared, the black silhouette of a man half-naked with a single feather upright in his hair. The Indian peered in to see the white man’s doings, and never needed telling it was worship. Only the movement of his shadow told his entrance, to take his place among the silent forms and share their inward salutation to the Great Spirit in a language which he too could understand.

It was a heavy responsibility to break that hush by speech. Although there were some who rushed readily into the vocal ministry, an opportunity open to all, a sensitive spirit trembled and forbore. Yet the ministry, by sermon or by prayer, was a necessary part of the perfect meeting, and meetings held for long periods in a silence that was never broken were found to become weak and dead. For this reason a definite “call to the ministry” was favored by Friends, and after a few spontaneous “appearings in the ministry” of one whose words seemed to feed the spiritual life of the rest, encouragement was given by making a minute recording “the recognition of their gift.” This recording minute of the Monthly Meeting, the local executive of the church, was all that it meant to be a minister among the Quakers. It did not in any sense appoint a minister to preach, much less pay him for doing so; and it did not release those not recorded as ministers from the duty of obeying a rare call to speak in meeting when the Divine impulse was felt. The Spirit of God  knew no distinction of persons in this service, neither of age nor of sex, of wealth nor of poverty. Recorded ministers sat on the facing benches with the elders simply because to one more likely to speak than others it was an advantage to be slightly raised and to face the company.

…”We being A large Family of Children,” wrote Woolman in his Journal, “it was customary with my parents after meeting on first  days to put us to read In the Holy Scriptures or Some good Books, one after Another the rest [sitting] without much Conversation; This I think was of Some use.”

John Woolman: American Quaker
by Janet Whitney, 1942, pp. 24-27
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