Quaker Meeting House, Newport, Rhode Island

Quakers in Newport County
Rhode Island

The Story of the Old Friends' Meeting House

A Paper written by Mrs. William P. Buffum
Printed in the Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society, Number 40, April, 1922

In 1700, half the whole population of Newport were Quakers, and the Yearly Meeting which occurred annually in the Spring grew each year in size and importance, until in 1743 it was attended by five thousand Friends, and was the event of the year in Newport.

Before the oldest part of the present Meeting-House was built, however, the earliest of the grand, old, Newport Quakers had aged, and some passed away – William Coddington and Henry Bull, Caleb Carr, Edward Thurston and the Eastons. In their day, the Friends held their meetings mostly in private houses, either in Coddington’s spacious home on Marlborough street or Bull’s, so recently burned, on Spring street.

Before 1672, however, it seems certain that the Friends had a Meeting House, for it was in a Meeting House that the famous debate between Roger Williams and the Friends took place. This was a previous building to what we see standing now, and probably stood a little farther north on Farewell street. But even yet, many of the meetings were held at Coddington’s, for we read on the Friends’ records: – "In 1678, a mans’ meeting at the Widow Coddingtons." Evidently there were strong attractions that hung about this mansion, whose Great Room had been the meeting place when George Fox was in Newport, and where Governor Bellingham of Massachusetts and his Company had been so royally entertained for ten days.

In 1689, however, we find the friends breaking away from the Coddinton House, never to return; for we read: – "It is agreed that the Yearly Men and Womens Meeting which useth to be at William Coddinton’s shall be ye first part at ye Meeting House and later part for ye affayers of ye Church to be at Walter Newberry’s."

About this time Philadelphia began to appeal more to some of the Friends in Newport than did their island home; and we find Edward Shippen leaving for the City of Brotherly Love. Later, Anthony Morris comes from Philadelphia, and marries Thomas Coddinton’s widow for his third wife. She was a sister of Edward Shippen’s wife, their maiden names being Howard. These men, Shippen and Morris, were both Colonial Mayors of Philadelphia, one after the other. So the two Miss Howards did well.

And here comes the first mention of the little Meeting House as we now see it, at the northwest end of the resent line of buildings. At a meeting in 1706 the Friends "proposed that the old Meeting House may be better put in order for a stable toward the winter, and also proposed that money may be procured toward finishing the New Meeting House of Newport." So the New Meeting House of that shadowy, far away time is the old Meeting House of today. Shall we not prize and reverence this building where our Forefathers worshipped over two hundred years ago?

The lot, generous in size, upon which the new little meeting house was erected, was without a doubt originally Easton land, having been probably part of the house lot granted to Nicholas Easton, one of the founders of Newport. It came to the Friends either by gift from him or by purchase from his widow Ann. The site of his house, the first house built in Newport, has always been said to be at the left of the Farewell street gate, as one enters the Meeting House yard. Nicholas Easton left to the Friends, with "one certain dwelling house and grounds" – possibly the present Friends’ ground – the sum of £20 "in country pay." He also left "to the maintenance of the burial yard where his body lyes, one Barrell of pork, to be managed by Christopher Houlder."

Just at this point must be mentioned a few lines to show the tender care the Meeting extended toward its members. It seems that Ann Bull and Peter Easton were at odds in 1681; about what is not mentioned; but as Ann Bull, who had the distinction of marrying two Governors in succession, first Nicholas Easton and afterward Henry Bull, was the stepmother of Peter Easton, we can readily surmise that it was over some family matter, and quite likely about the disposition of Nicholas Easton’s landed estates. The Meeting does not neglect the opportunity to put in a word of reproof, and records the minutes: – "Which act is for judgment of this Meeting that her sperrit was very hard and wrong, and gave Friends noe satisfaction."

Among the Quaker ministers who spoke in this ancient Meeting House, we find Governor John Wanton, a dashing Privateer in his youth, but who swung back to his fathers’ faith later in life and was a powerful preacher. Hew as considered the wealthiest man in the Colony, and his Friends’ principles did not prevent his wearing a bright scarlet cloak lined with blue.

Among the amusing incidents told us as children of the worthies who worshipped in the building is that of the dear old Quaker, who while preaching took his capacious bandanna from his pocket and with it came a pack of cards, carefully inserted by his mischievous son. These fluttered down on the heads of his audience beneath him. It was a trying moment; but the old Quaker was equal to it. "Friends," he said, "an enemy hath done this" and calmly went on with his sermon.

Another Friend of the Ministers’ Gallery who lived fifty years ago in Mrs. James little house on Cottage Street upon becoming engaged to be married described his future wife, "as a Godly woman with a large circle of acquaintances."

We, who do not call ourselves very old, can remember the quiet restful meetings on First Day mornings in summer, held in the middle and largest Meeting House. This was built a hundred years later, in 1807, with a spacious gallery above for the Blacks, but long unused except during the Annual Yearly Meeting week, when it was filled with your people.

The Ministers’ Gallery faced Farewell Street. On the "rising seat," as it was called, sat David Buffum with his white beaver hat. Next to him often was Levi Almy of Portsmouth, whose sermons consisted of texts strung together with almost no language of his own. George Bowen and Stephen Chase were beside them and Marmaduke C. Cope of Philadelphia.

On the other side of the aisle and facing the women below, was Annabelle Winn. Before speaking she would take off her bonnet with its snowy lining and strings and put it in the lap of the woman Friend next to her. After sitting a few moments to compose her thoughts she would arise and looking over our heads would give her sweet little message. She would begin sometimes, "As face answereth face in water," this being a favorite thought of hers. I connot remember the rest of it.

In the seats in the body of the house were many to interest. Henry Morris, who lived on Washington street, was always there. He wore white gloves, and during a Prayer would pull the end of the seat cushion to the floor and kneel himself. He drove to meeting with a two-horse vehicle whose body hung low between the wheels and which went by the name of "The Octopus." Old George Carr was there, who unfailingly arrived at meeting with a rose in his mouth.

On the women’s side, one that made an impression was dear old Deborah Wharton, for in Newport Orthodox and Hicksite Friends worshipped together. At the end of a seat sat the sisters, Anna and Eliza Hazard, one so dark and the other so fair and gray. John Farnum and his wife the aged Miss Longstreths who kept the school of renown, and others from Philadelphia staying at Mary Williams’ delightful house on Washington street, were always to be seen at meeting when in Newport.

The Friends from the cities wore black clothes – the men, broadcloth, and the women taffeta silk with white shawls. The country Friends still clung to the more ancient form of grey for both men and women.

To our childish minds the rustling of silk was always connected with a Friends’ Meeting. It used to seem unusually hot on a summer meeting morning in Newport, and palm leaf fans were freely used by the elderly Friends, both men and women, as they listened to the long sermons.


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