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Reflections  >  Quakers' Meeting House

Quakers' Meeting House

Preston, 1869

By "Atticus" (Anthony Hewitson)


I love Quaker ways and Quaker worship. I venerate the Quaker principles. It does me good for the rest of the day when I meet any of their people in my path. When I am ruled or disturbed by any occurrence, the sight or quiet voice of a Quaker acts upon me as a ventilator, lightening the air, and taking off a load from the bosom; but I cannot like the Quakers, as Desdemona would say, “to live with them.”— Charles Lamb.

Sheep, leather, and religion were the principal things which George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, looked after. In boyhood he was a shepherd, in youth a shoemaker, in manhood an expounder of Christianity. No one could have had a series of occupations more comprehensive or practical. The history of the world proves that it is as important for men to look after their mutton as to “save their bacon;” that, after all, “there is nothing like leather;” and that there can be nothing better than religion. 219 years since the ancestors of those who now follow the “inner light” were termed Quakers. An English judge—Gervaise Bennet—gave them this name at Derby, and it is said that he did so because Fox “bid them quake at the word of the Lord.” Theologically, Quakers are a peculiar people; they believe in neither rites nor ceremonies, in neither prayer-books nor hymn-books, in neither lesson reading, nor pulpit homilies, nor sacraments. They are guided by their spiritual feelings, and have a strong idea that a man has no right to open his mouth when he has got nothing to say, and that he should avoid keeping it shut when he has something worth uttering.

This is an excellent plan, and the world would be considerably benefited if it were universally observed both in religion and every-day life. Creation is killed and done for daily through an everlasting torrent of meaningless talk. Compact and quiet as it may appear, Quakerism has had its schisms and internal feuds. Early in this century, the White Quakers, who dressed themselves in light suits when outside and didn't dress at all—stripped themselves after the manner of Adamites—when within doors, created much furore in Ireland. About 30 years since, the Hicksite Quakers, who denied the divinity of Christ and the authority of the Bible, made their advent; afterwards the Beaconite Quakers put in an appearance; and then came the Wilburites. Taking all sections into account, there are at present about 130,000 Quakers in the world, and Preston contributes just seventy genuine ones to their number. In this locality they remain unchanged. Today they are neither smaller nor larger, numerically, than they were thirty years age. In the early days of local Quakerism, the country rather than the town was its favourite situation. Newton, Freckleton, Rawcliffe, and Chipping contained respectively at one time many more Quakers than Preston, but the old stations were gradually broken up, and Preston eventually got the majority of their members. A building located somewhere between Everton-gardens and Spring-gardens was first used as a meeting-house by them. In 1784 a better place was erected by the Friends, on a piece of land contiguous to and on the north side of Friargate; and in 1847 it was rebuilt. Although no one was officially engaged to map out the place, a good deal of learned architectural gas was disengaged in its design and construction. It was made three times larger than its congregational requirements—the object being to accommodate those who might assemble at the periodical district meetings. Special attention was also paid to the loftiness of the building—to the height of its ceiling. One or two of the amateur designers having a finger in the architectural pie had serious notions as to the importance of air space. They had studied the influence of oxygen and hydrogen, of nitrogen and carbonic acid gas; they had read in scientific books that every human being requires so many feet of breathing room; and after deciding upon the number of worshippers which the meeting-house should accommodate, they agreed to elevate its ceiling in the ratio of their inspiring and expiring necessities. This was a very good, salutary, Quakerly idea, and although it may have operated against the internal appearance of the building it has guaranteed purity of air to those attending it.

The meeting house is a quiet, secluded, well-made place; but it has a poor entrance, which you would fancy led to nowhere. A stranger passing along Friargate on an ordinary day, would never find the Quakers' meeting house. He might notice at a certain point on the north-eastern side of that undulating and bustling public thoroughfare a grey looking gable, having a three-light-window towards the head, with a large door below, and at its base two washing pots and a long butter mug, belonging to an industrious earthenware dealer next door; but he would never fancy that the disciples of George Fox had a front entrance there to their meeting house. Yet after passing through a dim broad passage here, and mounting half a dozen substantial steps, you see a square, neat-looking, five-windowed building, and this is the Quakers' meeting house.

Over the passage there is a pretty large room, which is used by the Friends for Sunday school purposes. The attendance at this school on ordinary occasions is about 60; at special periods it is considerably more. During the cotton famine, a few years ago, when the Quakers were manifesting their proverbial charity—giving money, food, and clothing—the attendance averaged 160; and if it was known that they were going to give something extra tomorrow it would reach that point again. Speaking of the charity of Quakers, it may not be amiss to state that they keep all their own poor—do not allow any one belonging their society ever to solicit aid from the parish, or migrate in the dark hour of poverty to the workhouse. Reverting to the meeting-house, we may observe that just within its front door particular provision has been made for umbrellas. There is a long, low stand, with a channel below it, and this will afford ample accomodation for about 160 umbrellas. Taking into account the average attendance at the meeting-house, we have come to the serious conclusion that if every member carried two umbrellas on wet Sundays, the said umbrellas could be legitimately provided for. It is not a pleasant thing for a man to carry a couple of umbrellas, and we believe it has been found very difficult for any one to put up and use two at the same time; still it is satisfactory to know that if ever the Friends of Preston decide upon such a course, there will be plenty of provision for their umbrellas at the meeting house.

The inside of the general building is severely plain. There is no decoration of any description about it, and if the gas pipes running along the side walls had not a slight Hogarthian line of beauty touch in their form, everything would look absolutely horizontal and perpendicular. The seats are plain and strong with open backs. A few of them have got green cushions running the whole length of the form. In some small cushions are dotted down here and there for individual worshippers, who can at any time easily take them up, put them under their arm, and move from one place to another if they wish for a change of location. Over the front entrance there is a gallery, but ordinarily it is empty. There is no pulpit in the house, and no description of books—neither bibles, nor hymn-books, nor prayer-books—can be seen anywhere. At the head of the place there is an elevated strongly-fronted bench, running from one side to the other, and below it an open form of similar length. The more matured Quakers and Quakeresses generally gravitate hitherwards. The males have separate places and so have the females. It is expected that the former will always direct their steps to the seats on the right-hand side; that the latter will occupy those on the left; and, generally, you find them on opposite sides in strict accordance with this idea. There is nothing to absolutely prevent an enraptured swain from sitting at the elbow of his love, and basking in the sunlight of her eyes, nor to stop an elderly man from nestling peacefully under the wing of his spouse; but it is understood that they will not do this, and will at least submit to a deed of separation during hours of worship. In addition to the 70 actual members of the society there are about 60 persons in Preston who pay a sort of nominal homage at the shrine of George Fox.

They have two meetings every Sunday, morning and evening, and one every Thursday—at half-past ten in the morning during winter months, and at seven in the evening in summer. The average attendance at each of the Sunday meetings is about 70. The character of the services is quite unsettled. Throughout Christendom the rule in religious edifices is to have a preliminary service, and then a discourse; in Quaker meeting houses there is no such defined course of action. Sometimes there is a prayer, then another, then an “exhortation”—Quakers have no sermons; at other times an exhortation without any prayer; now and then a prayer without any exhortation; and occasionally they have neither the one nor the other—they fall into a state of profound silence, keep astonishingly quiet ever so long, with their eyes shut, and then walk out. This is called silent meditation. If a pin drops whilst this is going on you can hear it and tell in which part of the house it is lying. You can feel the quietude, see the stillness; it is “tranquil and herd-like—as in the pasture—'forty feeding like one;'” it is sadly serene, placidly mysterous, like the “uncommunicating muteness of fishes;” and you wonder how it is kept up. To those who believe in solemn reticence—in motionless communion with the “inner light,”—there is nothing curious in this; it is, in fact, often a source of high spiritual ecstacy; but to an unintiated spectator the business looks seriously funny, and its continuance for any length of time causes the mind of such a one to run in all kinds of dreadfully ludicrous grooves.

Quakers don't believe in singing, and have no faith in sacred music of any kind. Neither the harp, nor the sackbut, nor the psaltery, nor the dulcimer will they have; neither organs nor bass fiddles will they countenance; neither vocalists nor instrumentalists, nor tune forks of any size or weight, will they patronise. They permit one another to enter and remain in their meeting house with the hat on or off, and with the hands either in the pockets or out of them. They have no regular ministers, and allow either men or women to speak. None, except Quakers and Ranters—the two most extreme sections of the religious community, so far as quietude and noise are concerned—permit this; and it is a good thing for the world that the system is not extended beyond their circles. If women were allowed to speak at some places of worship they would all be talking at once—all be growing eloquent, voluble, and strong minded in two minutes—and an articulative mystification, much more chaotic than that which once took place at Babel, would ensue. At the meeting house in Friargate it is taken for granted that on Sundays the morning service lasts for an hour and a half, and the evening one an hour and a quarter; but practically the time is regulated by the feelings of the worshippers—they come and go as they are “moved,” and that is a liberal sort of measure harmonising well with human nature and its varied requirements.

We have paid more than one visit to this meeting house. The other Sunday evening we were there. The congregation at that time numbered just thirty-two—fifteen men, twelve women, two boys, and three girls. This was rather a small assemblage for a place which will hold between 500 and 600 persons; but it might be gratifying to the shades of its chemistry-loving, cubic-feet-of-air-admiring designers, for they would at any rate have the lively satisfaction of knowing that none of the famous 32 would suffer through want of breathing space. The members of the congregation came in at various times; four were there at half-past six; the remainder had got safely seated, in every instance, by ten minutes to seven. All the males made their appearance with their hats on; some pulled them off the moment they got seated; two or three seemed to get their convictions gradually intensified on the subject, and in about ten minutes came to the conclusion that they could do without their hats; some who had cast aside their castors at an early period reinstated them; whilst odd ones kept on their head coverings during the entire meeting. For 45 minutes, not the least effort in any lingual direction was made; no one said a word for three-quarters of an hour. There was a good deal of stirring on the forms, and creaking sounds were periodically heard; the whole indicating that the sitting posture had become uneasy, and that the paint, through warmth, had got tenacious. There was, however, neither talking nor whispering indulged in. The elderly Quakers, with their broad-brimmed, substantial hats, and white neckcloths, kept their eyes closed for a season, then opened them and looked ahead pensively, then shut them serenely again,—just

As men of inward light are wont
To turn their optics to upon ’t.

The Quakeresses on the other side followed a similar programme. We saw only three of them in the olden dress—only three with narrow-barrelled high crowned bonnets, made of brown silk and garnished with white silk strings. The younger branches of Quakerdom seemed more conventional than their ancestors in general dress. There was a slight dash of antiquity in their style; but their hats and bonnets, their coats and shawls had evidently been made for ornament as well as use. Originally Quakers were peculiarly stringent in respect to the plainness of their clothes; what they wore was always good, always made out of something which could not be beaten for its excellence of quality; but it was always simple, always out of the line of shoddy and bespanglement. But Quakerism is neither immaculate nor invincible; time is changing its simplicity, its quaint old fashioned solidity of dress; “civilisation” is quietly eating away its rigidity; and the day is coming when Quakerism will don the same suit as the rest of the world. For the first ten minutes we were in the chapel silence was not to us so much of a singularity; but when the Town Hall clock struck seven, when the machinery in the dim steeple of Trinity Church, which adjoins, gave a slow confirmation of it, and when all the little clocks in the neighbouring houses—for you could hear them on account of the general silence—chirped out sharply the same thing, one began to feel dubious and mystified. But the Quakers took all quietly, and even the children present sat still. The chime of another hour quarter came in due order; still there was no sign of action. Two minutes afterwards, an elderly gentleman, whose eyes had been kept close during the greater part of the time which had passed, suddenly leaned forward; the “congregation” followed his example in a crack, and for ten minutes they prayed, the elderly gentleman leading the way in a rather high-keyed voice, which he singularly modulated. But there was not much of “the old Foxian orgasm” manifested by him; he was serene, did not shake, was not agonised. He finished as he began without any warning; the general assemblage was seated in a second; and for seven minutes there was another reign of taciturnity. When that time had elapsed the same elderly party gave an exhortation, simple in language, kindly in tone, and free from both bewilderment and fierceness. Mr. Jesper—the person to whom we have been alluding—is one of the principal speakers at this meeting house. His colleague in talking is Mrs. Abbatt, a very worthy lady, who has often the afflatus upon her, and who can hold forth with a good deal of earnestness and perspicuity. Although Mr. Jesper and Mrs. Abbatt do the greatest portion of the talking and praying, others break through the ring fence of Quakerdom's silence periodically. One little gentleman has often small outbursts; but he is not very exhilerating. All the “members” attending the meeting house are very decorous, respectable, middle-class people—substantial well-pursed folk, who can afford to be independent, and take life easily—men and women who dislike shoddy and cant as much as they condemn spangles and lackered gentility.

The aggregate of the people connected with the place are calm, steady-going beings. We have a large respect for Quakerism. Its professors are made of strong, enduring, practical metal. They never neglect business for religion, nor religion for business. They believe in paying their way and in being paid; in moral rectitude and yard wands not the millionth part of an inch too long; in yea and nay; in good trade, good purses, good clothes, and good language; in clear-headed, cool calculations; in cash, discounts, sobriety, and clean shirts; in calmness and close bargain driving; in getting as much as they can, in sticking to it a long while, and yet in behaving well to the poor. The influence of the creed they profess has made their uprightness and humanity proverbial. Their home influence has been powerful; their views in the outer world are becoming more fully realised every day. Nations have smiled contemptuously at them as they have gone forth on lonely missions of freedom and peace; but the inner beatings of the world's great heart today are in favour of liberty of thought and quietness. The Quakers have been amongst life's pioneers in the long, hard battle for human freedom and human peace. Quakerism may be a quaint, hat-loving, silence-revering concern in its meeting-houses; its Uriahs, and Abimelechs, and Deborahs, and Abigails, may look curious creatures in their collarless coats and long drawn bonnets; but they belong to a race of men and women who have kept the lamp of freedom burning; who have set a higher price upon conscience than gold; who have struggled to make everything free—the body, the religion, the bread and butter, and the trade of the nations; who are now by their doctrines slowly lifting humanity out of the red track of war, and teaching it how grand a triumph can be made all the world over by absolute Peace and Honesty.

A chapter from Our Churches and Chapels – Their Parsons, Priests, & Congregations; Being a Critical and Historical Account of Every Place of Worship in Preston. By "Atticus" (A. Hewitson). Reprinted from the Preston Chronicle. Printed at the "Chronicle" Office, Fishergate, Preston. 1869.

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|^| Preston
On the western side of England, south of Lancaster and north of Blackpool and Manchester.
Footnote two.