Meetinghouse a reflection of island’s deep Quaker legacy
Conanicut Island has been home to the Religious Society of Friends – also known as Quakers – since the late 1650s.
The Quaker faith was founded by George Fox in approximately 1648, and it grew quickly. Fox believed that in order to worship, one did not need any regulated religious hierarchy or rituals.
Harry Wright of the Jamestown Historical Society explained Fox’s views, saying, “Fox felt that there must be a little bit of what he called ‘that of God’ in every person.
“If God made mankind, then every person must have that of God in them,” Wright said. “The thing for people to do is to reach down inside themselves and discover that ‘inner light’ in them. And if they do that, then they will understand the purposes of their lives and how best to live a good life.”
But Quakerism wasn’t with- out controversy.
“The problem with this, for other religions, was that if you have a direct pipeline to God, you don’t need ministers, you don’t need churches, you don’t need any kind of fancy religious activity,” he said. “This was very upsetting for all other faiths, which have churches, which have ministers and which have a more structured religious organization.”
Jamestown has allowed for different expressions of faith for hundreds of years, Wright said.
The first Quaker Meetinghouse, built in 1709 near the Cedar cemetery, was moved to its present location in 1733-34, as the center of the population in Jamestown moved south. It was severely damaged by the British during the revolution and the current Quaker Meetinghouse was built to replace it in 1786-87.
After the revolution, however, the Quaker population in Jamestown dwindled.
The Meetinghouse was left empty and abandoned until the early 1900s, when a group of Philadelphia Quakers – who had become Jamestown summer residents – reopened its doors.
It has been open for summer Sunday worship ever since.
Quakerism was the overwhelming component of religious life in Jamestown for years, offering a unique way of looking at God and religion. Wright described the simple religion as including the key components of pacifism and “plain living.”
“Quakerism is a pacifistic religion, meaning opposed to war, on the grounds that everyone has that of God in them and has to be respected for that reason,” Wright said.
Plain living, Wright said, was a lifestyle quite simple in practice, as well as belief.
Examples of this life include dressing simply and using First Day, Second Day and Third Day to describe the days of the week, in contrast with using the more traditional pagan names of Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
Reflective of the plain lifestyle, the Meetinghouse is a simple, rectangular -shaped, shingled building. The interior of the unheated building is ideal for the simple, quiet services held there, and is without traditional religious symbols, such as stained glass, high ceilings or a steeple.
Two entrances – one for men, the other for women – traditionally allowed for separate access to the building, but men and women, who are viewed equally in the Quaker faith, hold joint worship services.
“There’s a big shutter that can be lowered in the middle so each could have their own business meeting,” Wright said. “But by and large, Quakerism treated women extremely equally.”
Wright said a typical Quaker service lasts about 45 to 60 minutes, with worshippers sitting in utter silence, until someone “finds God in them,” when they would stand and speak. Traditionally, elders will often sit on benches facing the other worshippers.
The Quaker Meetinghouse – the only religious building constructed in Jamestown until 1841 – was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and was restored to some extent in 1976-77.
In 1997, the building underwent a complete restoration, thanks to a grant from the Champlin Foundation. It is currently in “pristine” condition, according to Wright.
The title to the Quaker Meetinghouse was transferred from Providence Friends Meeting to the Jamestown Historical Society that same year, with the understanding that Quaker worship and services be allowed there, as well as tours given by the JHS.
“The JHS has quite a nice relationship with the Quakers,” Wright said.
Today, there are few Quakers in Jamestown and Newport, augmented slightly by summer visitors.
The public is invited to attend meetings, held Sunday mornings at 10:30 during warmer months and can feel free to walk the grounds, except while meetings are in session. For tours, call 423-2674.