The Challenge of Celebrating Historical Wars

Trenton Friends meetinghouse and burial ground in March 2011.
Trenton Friends meetinghouse and burial ground in March 2011.
Phillis Wheatley, as illustrated by Scipio Moorhead in the frontispiece to her book “Poems on Various Subjects” (1773).

Every year the Friends meeting in Trenton, N.J., faces a challenge. Trenton is the site where two battles took place around Christmas 1776, changing the course of the Revolutionary War, and every year the city turns out to celebrate the anniversary of these battles. Preceded, as in 1776, by George Washington’s famous winter crossing of the Delaware River, the battle anniversary gives Trenton a delectable keystone for its tourism and economic development enterprise. During Patriots’ Week, December 26–31, the local calendar fills with demonstrations of marching, cannons blasting, muskets shooting, reenactments of the Delaware crossing and the two battles, feasting, dancing, a colonial tea, a march of Pennsylvania regiments from Philadelphia through Trenton to the Princeton battlefield, and more. Arts, history, civic, municipal, and business organizations collaborate to create nonstop festivity. As the hotel fills with guests, the city fills with pride in the fact that, as King George III’s advisors lamented at war’s end, “all our hopes were blasted by that unhappy affair at Trenton.”

Much of the festival happens at Trenton’s Old Barracks Museum, a handsomely restored historic site from the French and Indian War (1754–1763) that is the city’s most popular downtown historic destination. Old Barracks, along with Saint Michael’s Episcopal Church (1748) and Old Eagle Tavern (1765, now abandoned), are three of the four buildings from 1776 that remain today. The fourth is the Trenton Friends Meeting House, which was built in 1739.

Because we occupy one of the four original buildings, and because, as Friends, we care deeply about and work hard to promote the well-being of this post-industrial city, the meeting today finds itself caught between its civic commitment to Trenton and its principled witness against war. Like our eighteenth-century ancestors, we worry that silence in the face of, or absence from, this great civic celebration might foster suspicions about our loyalty. So rather than stand aside, we create special programs each year that support the Patriots’ Week festival, honoring Trenton’s history while also holding up our witness against militarism.

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Gottleib Leutze (1851)

It’s not always easy, and the details change from year to year. For a number of years, we have offered period music with the Practitioners of Musick, a group specializing in early music entertainment and education, as well as shape note singing, a music notation introduced in 1801 to facilitate community singing, led by a meeting member. In partnership with the Coalition for Peace Action, we invite the community in for a peace vigil on New Year’s Eve. The meeting has hosted talks by Reverend John Norwood, a councilman and the principal judge for the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation. He spoke about the impact of the Revolution on the prospects for Native American safety and freedom. In 2013, with a program grant from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, we invited Amanda Kemp’s Back to Black troupe to perform “Phillis Wheatley, Voice of Freedom,” a dramatic and musical presentation about America’s first published African American woman (a book of her poems was published in 1773). These are several examples of efforts made by Trenton Meeting to place less-heard voices from the era back into circulation.

Three years ago, we created a set of skits featuring nonviolent Revolutionary activity, such as civilian home manufacture, anti-British boycotts, and the important role of literacy and tavern culture in spreading Revolutionary ideas throughout the colonies. We invited our audience to consider nonviolent ways that remain available to express dissent from prevailing authority. A number of members drew on their contemporary experiences with the Occupy movement for rich perspectives on the past.

Last year, helped by excellent research materials available in the Trenton Free Public Library and through local historical resource consulting firm Hunter Research, Inc., we created a walking tour of the vanished historic downtown. Covering several blocks of the colonial town’s main street, King Street, our 45-minute tour was bookended by Saint Michael’s Church and the Friends meetinghouse. One participant, a scholar of the colonial mid-Atlantic, commented that Trenton’s four surviving colonial buildings vastly privilege religion over revelry, but he was reassured once the number of now-lost taverns that once decorated the main street emerged during the tour. The tour also pointed out how close most colonial artisans lived to their places of work, including the Howell family at its smithy, several storekeepers who lived just above their stores, and even—despite the stench of his profession—Stacy Potts, the tanner. We mused on General Washington’s visit with the defeated and mortally wounded Hessian commander, Colonel Johann Rahl, to whom Washington made a promise that captured Hessian officers would be treated with respect.

We also saw that wealthy political leaders and prominent families lived cheek by jowl with the poor and struggling, that John Fitch, a radical innovator and first to build a steamboat in the United States, lived next door to the most conservative leaders of the English church (Saint Michael’s at the time). We noted that, besides Anglican and Quaker houses of worship, the historic neighborhood hosted Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church (organized in 1817), anchor of the early city’s small African American community and later an important station on the Underground Railroad. We saw how some of the great homes of colonial Trenton were repurposed in later years for, among other uses, a hotel, the governor’s residence, and Har Sinai Temple, the city’s first synagogue.

Our tour ended at the meetinghouse after a stop in our burial ground, the final resting place of George Clymer, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and notable progressive physician Dr. Thomas Cadwalader, an advocate of inoculation against smallpox. Our guests stayed for refreshments and learned from meeting member Fred Millner about the history of the meetinghouse and burial ground. The discussion also gave us some moments for conversation about Quaker beliefs and practices and a chance to emphasize that the tour was designed to maintain our witness against the destructiveness of war.

All of these programs help our worshiping community to grow and remind our neighbors of the long-established Quaker ministry in the city. Trenton Meeting will continue to explore ways to lift up our values during Patriots’ Week each year and invite the larger community in to share knowledge, sociability, memory, and civic spirit.


Sharon Ann Holt

Sharon Ann Holt began attending Trenton (N.J.) Meeting upon moving to the city in 2012, having absorbed some Quaker spirit in her three years as director of the Sandy Spring Museum in Maryland. She teaches history and public history at Penn State Abington and enjoys using her professional abilities to serve the meeting.

3 thoughts on “The Challenge of Celebrating Historical Wars

  1. What wonderful outreach to the greater community. It certainly seems as if Trenton Friends leads by example and does not shy away from the value of knowing history–in order that we may not repeat it!

  2. A correction: Bishop Allen didn’t establish the AME until 1794, so an AME church in Trenton would not have existed in colonial times.

    An observation: Friends in Trenton in their observation of the Battle of Trenton are much more consistent with our testimony than Princeton Friends School, which has an annual celebration of Cinco de Mayo – which commemorates the Battle of Puebla in which 500 French soldiers were killed.

    Princeton Meeting, adjacent to the Princeton Battlefield, holds an open house each July 4th so that those touring the battlesite are aware that the wounded from both sides were treated in the Stony Brook meetinghouse (built 1724).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.