Making History: Writing the Story of a Meeting

10-moundOn March 14, 2010, Donne Hayden, the pastor of Cincinnati (Ohio) Meeting, stood before those gathered and pointed out that the following Tuesday marked the 195th anniversary of the establishment of the meeting. She noted that we did not have an up-to-date history and suggested that “if anyone is so inclined, five years might be long enough to research and write a thorough history of this meeting.”

As I sat in silent worship, I wondered if this might be something I was called to do. In truth, I was not as well qualified as others in the meeting. I had been attending for less than four years; several others had been there for more than 40. I’m a writer by profession but in an entirely different field: software documentation. Two of our members had previously been involved in writing other meeting histories, and another had co-authored a bicentennial history of Cincinnati published by the Cincinnati Historical Society. Yet the sense that this was something I ought to do would not go away. After discussing it with Donne, I embarked on a project that would not only be of service to my community, but also draw me closer to the Religious Society of Friends than I had imagined.

The 1814 deed to the first meetinghouse.
The 1814 deed to the first meetinghouse.
Before joining the meeting, I had taken a Quakerism 101 class but had not read extensively about Quakers. To give myself a better overview, I started with The Journal of George Fox, and segued to Howard Brinton’s Friends for 300 Years and Thomas Hamm’s The Quakers in America.

Feeling better grounded in general Quaker history, I began to dive more deeply into the specifics of Cincinnati Friends. I read the two previously printed histories: a 16-page booklet written in 1899 by William H. Taylor (the great-grandson of Christopher Anthony, who was considered the meeting’s founder) and a 50-page book written in 1965 by Thomas J. Kiphart (who had been recorded as a minister of the meeting in 1919). These merely whetted my appetite for the main course: reading all of the meeting’s minutes since 1815.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

As it turns out, there were men’s preparative meeting minutes from 1814 to 1893, women’s preparative meeting minutes from 1845 to 1893, men’s monthly meeting minutes from 1815 to 1893, women’s monthly meeting minutes from 1815 to 1903, and joint meeting minutes from 1893 to the present. There were preparative meeting minutes of ministers and elders from 1831 to 1920, Missionary Society minutes from 1867 to 1947, Cincinnati Peace Association minutes from 1875 to 1876, Christian Endeavor minutes from 1891 to 1901, and Auxiliary Bible Association minutes from 1860 to 1967. Not to mention the various editions of the Book of Discipline (later called Faith and Practice) of the three yearly meetings to which Cincinnati Meeting had belonged.

12-childrenYet another challenge was the fact that all of these records were kept in the Watson Library at Wilmington College, about a 45-minute drive from my house. I work full time, and soon realized that I would not be able to cover all of the necessary ground with occasional weekend jaunts. Cincinnati Meeting graciously gave me permission to take the minutes home with me. To make it even easier, Patti Kinsinger, head of reference services at the Watson Library, would often meet me by the interstate before work to swap minute books. (We joked that someday law enforcement officials would want to know what these two women were doing, surreptitiously exchanging boxes in a gas station parking lot!)

The meeting also has its own library, as well as boxes and folders full of historical documents that I found extremely helpful. The letters, biographies, and memorial minutes of long-gone Friends provided wonderful details and photographs that brought these individuals to life for me. I began to realize that a meeting history is not merely a series of monthly meeting minutes; it’s the story of how being part of a Quaker community affects its members’ daily lives.

In an effort to learn more about these people, I expanded my research to the Internet. In addition to leveraging Google searches, I subscribed to This gave me easy access to William Wade Hinshaw’s Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy—a treasure trove of familial relations, travel records, and significant events such as marriages and disownments. That website also enabled me to connect directly with the descendents of early Friends, who generously supplied their own photographs and anecdotes.

Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin (c. 1865), nicknamed the "President of the Underground Railroad," was a member of Cincinnati Meeting.
Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin (c. 1865), nicknamed the “President of the Underground Railroad,” was a member of Cincinnati Meeting.
Another valuable resource was GenealogyBank, an online database which offers full-text searches of historic newspaper articles, giving me insights into Friends’ activities outside of the meeting. I learned of their efforts to help runaway slaves, speak at temperance meetings, organize peace rallies, and establish the Children’s Home (an institution that 150 years later still serves disadvantaged youth in greater Cincinnati). For more contemporary material, I explored the online research databases at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. As a further service, the staff there would scan and email me articles.

Several members of my meeting, as well as others outside it, also provided me with clippings, photographs, family records, reading recommendations, and their own personal memories.

When I discovered materials that were beyond my local or virtual reach, I found other ways to access them. One of our former members had been a conscientious objector who labored at Civilian Public Service camps during World War II, and his family had donated his correspondence to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection in Pennsylvania. Unable to travel there myself, I hired a research assistant who scanned the letters and sent them to me.

With so much information at my disposal, the next challenge was deciding what to use and how to organize it. Early on, my objective in writing this work was to provide a detailed, in-depth look at Cincinnati Meeting with honesty and integrity, even if that meant describing unpleasant events such as disagreements and splits. I also wanted to provide some perspective about how the meeting fit into broader trends within Quakerism, local history, and American history. As I evaluated each piece of information, I asked myself several questions: Does this detail represent a significant development in the life of the meeting? Does it help characterize or shed light on the nature of the meeting at that point in time? Does it signal the beginning or end of a particular practice?

Cincinnati Meeting member Mary J. Taylor (1808-1875).
Cincinnati Meeting member Mary J. Taylor (1808-1875).
When there were several examples of a particular action, I tried to choose the one that best illustrated the point, or provided an interesting twist. For example, in the early years of the meeting, there were dozens of disownments for marrying “contrary to Discipline”—that is, marrying a non-Quaker, or marrying in a manner contrary to the established order. I was particularly struck when this standard was applied to the daughter of one of the meeting’s own ministers; it demonstrated a commitment to applying the rule without partiality. Even more intriguing was the fact that the woman apologized for her transgression (and was forgiven), and that several years later her husband not only joined the meeting but became a recorded minister himself!

Among the turning points in the meeting’s history are its various relocations: from the first hewn log meetinghouse on the edge of town, to the quickly erected building on the same lot after the Hicksite separation, to the stately downtown edifice, to the quaint church in the hills surrounding the city basin, to its final home in the suburbs. In each of their five meetinghouses, Cincinnati Friends had an opportunity to start anew and reflect on who they wanted to be. The book is accordingly divided into six chapters, with the last covering the twenty-first century in our current meetinghouse. Within each chapter, there are narrative sections that delve into specific topics pertaining to that time frame. How did the manner of our worship change? How did we educate our children? In what ways did we interact with and minister to our community? How did we live our testimonies?

As of July, the research on my meeting’s history is complete, and the writing nearly so. Over the next several months, the editing and final layout will take place. By January of 2015, I hope to make Friends Past and Present: The Bicentennial History of Cincinnati Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (1815–2015) available via CreateSpace, a self-publishing service that distributes works via and Kindle.

It has been a labor of love to write my meeting’s history—the story of a small group of Quaker families in a frontier town who established a faith community that has touched the lives of people around the world. I have endeavored to tell it well.

Sabrina Darnowsky

Sabrina Darnowsky is a member of Cincinnati (Ohio) Meeting. She recently received a grant from the Friends Historical Society in London for her next project: a biography of Murray Shipley, a nineteenth-century Quaker minister and philanthropist. When not researching Friends history, she enjoys puttering in her garden.

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