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Image Delaware Religious Ways: The Quaker Spiritist Style

“As to religion,” Delaware Quaker David Cooper told his children in 1772, “ … Let it have the chief and principal place in thy heart.” He explained, “I mean real religion, not ceremonious attendance at meetings, and talking God and Godliness.”1

David Cooper’s “real religion” was far removed from practices in Puritan Massachusetts and Anglican Virginia. It gave rise to a unique ritual of worship that centered on the Inner Light and the movement of the Spirit.

Members of the Society of Friends met in meetings, sometimes once a week, or even several times a week. These meetings for worship normally went through a strict sequence of ritual stages. First was the gathering. Quakers quietly arrived, either as individuals or in small family groups. They were urged to cultivate a gravity of demeanor on their journey to the meeting. “Frivolous” conversation was condemned, as was laughter, smoking, spitting and chewing. Men and women entered the meeting by different doors, and were expected to take seats nearest the front in order of their arrival, and not by rank or wealth or age, except for the special honor done to elders.

Then the second stage began—a time of expectant silence called “turning the mind to the light.” The English Quaker Alexander Parker wrote in 1660:

So Friends, when you come together to wait upon God, come orderly in the fear of God; the first that enters into the place of your meeting, be not careless, nor wander up and down, either in body or mind; but innocently sit down in some place, and turn in thy mind to the light, and wait upon God singly, as if none were present but the Lord. … Then the next comes in, let them in simplicity of heart, sit down and turn in the same light, and wait in the Spirit; and so all the rest coming in, in the fear of the Lord, sit down in the pure stillness and silence of all flesh, and wait in the light.2

Sometimes no words were ever spoken, and yet the meeting was thought to have been highly successful. Many Quakers believed that the best meetings happened when no outward words needed saying.

But most meetings passed to another stage when people began to rise and speak, either in the form of preaching (if the words were addressed to one another) or prayer (if to the Lord). Usually, the elders spoke first, and others followed. The manner of speaking was different from ordinary discourse. Visitors in the eighteenth century remarked upon its strange cadence and accent. The Swedish traveler Peter Kalm attended a meeting for worship in Philadelphia’s Bank Meeting House, on 7 December 1750, and described it thus:

We sat and waited very quietly from ten o’clock to a quarter after eleven. … Finally, one of the two … old men in the front pew rose, removed his hat, turned hither and yon, and began to speak, but so softly that even in the middle of the church, which was not large, it was impossible to hear anything except the confused murmur of the words. Later he began to talk a little louder, but so slowly that four or five minutes elapsed between the sentences; finally the words came both louder and faster. In their preaching the Quakers have a peculiar mode of expression, which is half singing, with a strange cadence and accent, and ending each cadence, as it were, with a half or … a full sob. Each cadence consists of two, three or four syllables, but sometimes more, according to the demand of the words and means; e.g. my friends/put in your mind/we/do nothing/good of ourselves// without God’s //help and assistance. … When he stood for a while using his sing-song method he changed his manner of delivery and spoke in a more natural way … at the end, just as he was speaking at his best, he stopped abruptly, sat down, and put on his hat.3

Anyone could speak in meeting—Friends and strangers, elders and youngsters, men and women. One diarist recorded every speaker in meetings he attended; both men and women spoke frequently, but a small number of individuals accounted for most contributions. Elders were responsible for dealing with disturbed or disruptive speakers. The meeting itself sometimes responded to unwelcome remarks by standing silently in protest.4

The last stage of the meeting was often a return to silence. Then worship would end when one member, usually an elder, rose and shook hands with another, and everyone departed in quiet dignity. A Quaker meeting for worship was thus conducted in a manner very different from an Anglican liturgical service and the Puritans lecture day.

Other differences also appeared in the physical setting of Quaker worship. Meetinghouses in both England and the Delaware Valley tended to be simple rectangular buildings, with massive stone walls and plain white shutters. Double doors for men and women were sheltered beneath a projecting hood.5

A striking feature of Quaker meetinghouses was the intensity of their illumination. Interiors were very bright. Windows were large, numerous, and set high in the walls. Interior walls and ceilings were frequently “whitened” for additional effect. Quakers preferred to worship in a room that was suffused with light—a symbol of their beliefs, and a sharp contrast with the gloom of Anglican churches and especially Puritan meetinghouses which were sometimes so dark that ministers complained they were unable to read their sermons.6


Quaker meetinghouses in the Delaware Valley were very different from Puritan meetinghouses in New England and Anglican churches in Virginia, and much the same as Quaker buildings in the North Midlands of England. These patterns of similarity and difference were defined both by religious beliefs and regional traditions. In the Delaware Valley, the church architecture of other Christian denominations was influenced by the customs of the hegemonic culture. The churches of Lutherans and Presbyterians in parts of Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century sometimes resembled Quaker meetinghouses in exterior design.

Inside the meetinghouse, all “vain” and “needless” furniture was ruthlessly stripped away. Quakers had no need for pulpits and altars, but often there was a raised platform called the “stand” where the elders sat in a place of special honor. Everyone else took a seat on the simple benches, men on one side and women on the other. There was no assigned seating as in Anglican and Puritan churches. A gallery called the loft was reserved for children and youths. Other furnishings included a sliding partition which separated men and women during their business meetings, and a cabinet where records were kept, including a locked deed-box which could be opened only in the presence of three Friends.7

American meetinghouses differed in a few details from those of England. Stonework in the Delaware Valley consisted of random walls, rather than cut stone blocks. Doors were placed differently in America and large stables were constructed for Friends who had to travel longer distances than was the case in England. But in most important ways, architecture of the meetinghouses changed very little in the New World.8

It is interesting to observe that Quaker meetinghouses set the fashion for religious architecture in rural communities throughout the Delaware Valley. Other denominations built many of their country churches in the same plain style throughout this region. The exteriors of some Calvinist and Lutheran churches were sometimes indistinguishable from Quaker buildings. Here was yet another way in which the religious customs of the Quakers had an impact upon the culture of an entire region.

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