Why isn’t there a cross?" asks a young boy, visiting with his 5th grade class from North Carolina. "Where does the preacher stand?" asks another girl, "and how come there are benches on the sides and front facing in?" Later, an elderly couple from Iowa strolls in. "Are there any Quakers left today?" asks the woman, and "Do they travel by horse and buggy still?" Minutes later, a bus load of adults and young people from Indiana pour in, a church group on tour. "Do Quakers read the Bible?" asks one young woman earnestly. "Do you believe in Jesus?" someone else inquires, and "How come most Quakers didn’t fight in the Revolutionary War?"
These are just some of the questions we tour guides try our best to answer at Arch Street Meetinghouse in the historic district of Philadelphia. The beautiful double-sided brick building, built in 1804 and still in active use by Philadelphia Quakers today, is positioned in a perfect location to draw in tourists as they pass by: just up the street from the Betsy Ross House and within blocks of the new Constitution Center, Independence Hall, and the Liberty Bell. Both the patriotic and the curious who have made a pilgrimage to the "Birthplace of the Nation," find themselves suddenly in an immense meeting room with natural lighting and plain wooden floors and benches. The environment speaks of simplicity and stillness—qualities hard to find in the midst of a stimulating and thriving tourist district. The story of this meetinghouse—from how its construction was initiated by the women who needed more space for their annual business meetings to its position on a Quaker burial ground shared with the public when plots were desperately needed during a yellow fever epidemic in 1793—opens the door to many conversations about Quaker practice and values. The story, too, of William Penn’s efforts to create a peace-loving place in pre-Revolutionary War times paints a picture not to be had anywhere else in this historic city. Arch Street Meetinghouse offers not only the best-known place in this country, but in the world as well, where a ready-made audience gathers to learn about Quakerism, past and present.
Spending my time as a volunteer sharing Quaker history, faith and practice with the public was extremely rewarding. Sometimes I caught myself in the middle of an intense exchange with a seeker (in the guise of a tourist!), astounded at how much I’ve learned since joining Community Friends Meeting in Cincinnati about three years ago, and amazed to be here in Philadelphia tending to a concern with Quaker outreach work. The immense interest that is sparked in people who have never heard of Quakerism, how long they stay to ask questions and hear more, how a description of meeting for worship and the testimonies results in heads nodding in approval, not to mention how frequently they ask how they might find a meeting in their hometown, confirms my belief (and, I know, the belief of many others) that there are many, many people "out there" longing for what the Religious Society of Friends has to offer. The response of tourists reinforces for me the power of the Quaker story and the need for us to know it and communicate it in more deliberate and strategic ways.
This concern arose out of time I spent at Pendle Hill from September 2004 to June 2005. On an artist scholarship, I had come in part to write more songs and to share with Quakers those I’d already written for children as a peace educator. But the principal reason was to answer a need to deepen my understanding of Quakerism. With this aim in mind, I took courses in Quaker history, faith, and practice and learned a great deal from conversations with teachers and fellow students. Quaker historian Emma Lapsansky kindled an interest in William Penn and the colonial Quakers. Her broad analysis of both the idealism and the mercantile interests that led to Quaker success helped me see a fuller picture of Friends in Philadelphia and in New England in general. Daily meeting for worship provided spiritual deepening as well, and I found myself becoming an informed and serious Friend with strong desires to live in the fullness of this faith tradition, offering what I could to help it deepen and grow.
In Chris Ravndal’s class at Pendle Hill on prayer, we practiced writing a letter to God from a deeply centered place, waiting and then writing the response. The question that came to me had to do with "mission." Surprisingly, I found myself writing, "You have found your path and your people. This tiny group of Quakers needs to grow and expand, and you have a role to play." I recalled a memory of my first Friends General Conference Gathering in Normal, Illinois, in 2002 where I heard British Friend John Punshon speak to the theme "A Great People to be Gathered," a reference to George Fox’s famous talk at Pendle Hill in 1652. I was deeply moved as John spoke convincingly about Quakerism’s gifts as answering many of the world’s desperate needs and that, as a necessary underpinning, the Religious Society was continually required to practice deep connection with Spirit.
An opportunity to "play a role" occurred when I was invited to help gather data for a vision project regarding Arch Street Meetinghouse, one goal of which was to increase the capacity to attract and educate tourists. I visited Independence Hall, the Constitution Center, and other sites, and I discovered coincidentally that while mention was made of William Penn’s role in the founding of the colony, there was little or no information about how his Quaker faith motivated him or about how early Quaker views helped to shape our country. In contrast, the displays at Arch Street and talks by volunteer coordinator Nancy Gibbs and the other Quaker docents revealed a much fuller picture. Here tourists learn what they do not from the other National Park Service attractions: the story of William Penn in the full context of his Quaker faith, the profound influence he and early Quakers had on future U.S. ideals, and the Peace Testimony as it was legislated and carried out by Friends in the early decades of Pennsylvania and as we try to live it today.
My research increased my interest in the history of Quaker roots, especially in Pennsylvania. I offered to volunteer at Arch Street, hoping to give presentations. Then, with only a few volunteer hours under my belt and the term at Pendle Hill over, I had to head back to Cincinnati, feeling some reluctance to leave. A request from a Friends school in New Jersey to do an artist residency in the fall of 2005 opened the way for my return, and the support of an "anchoring committee" at Community Friends and a traveling minute helped send me on the journey. During the 2005-06 school year, in addition to visiting Quaker schools and meetings with my songs, I continued to study Penn and the early Friends and to volunteer at Arch Street Meetinghouse. My interest led me to write a song about Penn and the Quaker beliefs that led to the founding of Pennsylvania. When I’ve shared it, both Quakers and non-Quakers alike have said that the history presented was unknown to them, even in Philadelphia!
I am called to share this history in the hope that it might spark Friends’ interest about how this information can be shared more broadly.
For instance, how many of us know that the charter for West Jersey, written by Penn and a few other Quakers, was apparently one of the models (and likely the original one) for the Declaration of Independence? At Arch Street, a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration next to a copy of the West Jersey charter reveals strikingly similar wording. The Jersey charter was signed in 1676, a hundred years before the American Revolution, and was hailed as one of the most innovative political documents of its time. Jefferson’s esteem for Penn was so great that he referred to him as "the first, either in ancient or modern times, who has laid the foundation of government in the pure and unadulterated principles of peace, of reason and right."
Or how many of us learned the likely connection of the Liberty Bell to Penn? The Assembly of Pennsylvania commissioned the bell in 1751, exactly 50 years after Penn signed the famous Charter of Privileges that governed the rights of Pennsylvania citizens. Isaac Norris, Speaker of the Assembly, chose the bell’s inscription, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land," which quotes from a biblical passage (Lev. 25:10) mandating a "hallowing" of the Jubilee (50th) year. Unlike what many of us may have thought, the Liberty Bell was not initially commissioned to celebrate independence from England, but long before.
Penn’s 1701 Charter, with its guarantees of freedom of conscience in religious matters and of legal rights for accused individuals, was an early symbol for liberty and served as Pennsylvania’s working constitution from 1701 to 1776. The rights in it were so treasured that many in Pennsylvania opposed adopting the U.S. constitution for fear of losing privileges Penn’s charter had long guaranteed!
Penn’s experience of deep inward transformation as a convinced Quaker, his own resulting suffering in England’s courts and jails, and his privileged education in liberal political philosophy gave him a unique perspective with which to design a government. "The Holy Experiment," his attempt to create a model government, was built on his Quaker understanding of "that of God in everyone." Penn’s vehement stand for the right of trial by jury, his insistence on no taxes or armaments for war, his welcoming of settlers from diverse religious backgrounds, his efforts to manage conflict with innovative arbitration procedures, his push for public schools educating both boys and girls, and his respect for Native Americans and acknowledgment of their ownership of the land all led to a thriving colony. Penn was a complex individual from a wealthy background who had many shortcomings, some of which even resulted in his being sentenced to debtors prison in England in his later years. And, like many visionaries, his life exposed serious contradictions—for example, he owned 12 slaves at his estate on the Delaware River. Yet his faithfulness and trust led to remarkable contributions that Friends would truly benefit from knowing.
I must admit, I sometimes question my passion for sharing this history. It’s not like me to be excited about history related to the founding of this country, particularly in light of what it ultimately meant for Native peoples and the natural world. Halting the destructive course of this growth- and greed-based economic system, and the urgency for re-connecting with nature and creating sustainable ways to live—these are of utmost concern to me. But these needs come at a time when our civil liberties, the very ones that Penn initiated here, are threatened, perhaps as they’ve never been before. As the "birthplace of the Nation," Philadelphia is routinely selected as the site of press conferences and rallies in support of patriotic initiatives. Ironically, its Quaker beginnings were invoked in January 2006 when Jerry Falwell and other clergy rallied here in support of Samuel Alito’s nomination for the Supreme Court. They referenced their choice of location by pointing to the history of religious freedom established by the early Quakers here. This misuse of Penn’s legacy gave me added impetus to know and tell the story of our true roots here, the story that is behind the principle of separation of church and state, the story that underlies these rights we cherish. The story is one built primarily on motivations of love, peace, and integrity, not fear and war.
I believe our sense of purpose as Friends could be strengthened if we all knew the history of Quaker contributions and the courage it took to bring them about. Surely our focus would be clearer, our distractions fewer, if we sought after the same spiritual sustenance that fed these early Friends. And perhaps reaching out more boldly to share the history and gifts of our faith with others will serve to increase our faith as well.
It is important to know our roots. My experience in Philadelphia makes me think it would be good for Friends from every meeting to go there for a Quaker roots experience, and also to invite others to understand the influence of Quakerism in U.S. history as well.
Discussions are taking place about finding ways to maximize visibility and accessibility of Arch Street Meetinghouse as a resource for Friends and the public. The Quaker Information Center’s website, http://www.quakerinfo.org, can help in planning a trip or locating many useful resources. But Friends could also be thinking of ways to explore the roots in the areas of their own meetings, as well. Understanding where we’ve come from helps to build a solid base from which to move ahead.