Recollections of a Quaker Boy
MY earliest recollections are associated with the dress, speech, and manners of a sect that has become almost obsolete but in name. They are not as of things at all peculiar or unusual, but as the most familiar objects in my daily life. The broad-brimmed hat, the “ shad-bellied ” coat with its narrow standing collar, the pale drab sugar-scoop bonnet, the scant sleeved and skirted gown with the white kerchief folded across the bosom, the addressing of every person by the singular pronouns, the naming of the months and days of the week by their numbers, seemed not so strange to my childish eyes and ears as did the dress and speech of the “ world’s people.” From my point of view, it was these people, not my own, who had departed, unwisely if not sinfully, from the ordinary and proper way of life.
I was as much surprised as grieved when, in my first schooldays, my stiffcollared, single-breasted jacket and my “ thees ” and “ thous ” were derided, and I scoffed at for being a Quaker. I soon fell into the worldly custom of addressing a playmate as “you,” and calling his belongings “yours,” but it was very difficult for me to learn the heathenish titles of the days of the week in their proper order. “ Tuesday ” and “ Thursday ” sounded so much alike that I was always getting each in its wrong place. I was helped in this difficulty by the fact that on Fifth Day I donned a clean “ shirtee,” as my wide turn-over collar attached to a gathered front piece was called, and went to meeting with the family, and that this was the world’s people’s Thursday, which they did not so observe except at Thanksgiving.
How well I remember Fifth Day meetings, whose silence particularly impressed me by its contrast with the noise and bustle wherewith the world’s people were carrying on their secular affairs ! From the road would come the occasional clatter of a rapidly driven wagon, rattling into and out of hearing, with the incongruously merry whistle of the driver ; from the fields the bawling of teamsters, and from barns the regular beat of flails; while within reigned such silence that the buzzing of the flies in the windows, the sighing of a summer breeze, or the hissing of the sappy wood and the crackling of the expanding or contracting metal of the stove seemed loud and startling sounds.
The silence frequently remained unbroken by any human voice during the entire session, till the elderly Friend who sat at the “ head of the meeting,” on the “high seat,” would turn to the Friend who sat next him and shake hands with him; and the hand-shaking ran along seat after seat, till every one had shaken the hand of the person on each side of him. I used to feel highly honored when some venerable Friend bent his kindly face upon me and gravely shook my little hand, but it did seem a trifle queer when it was my own father who so greeted me. This friendly ceremony was called “ breaking the meeting.”
It was peculiarly trying to a boy to maintain a decorous demeanor during the long periods of silence. If the spirit of evil did not arouse in him an unaccountable desire to laugh at the sight of some other boy, it overcame him with an uncontrollable drowsiness. When I was thus overcome, my father would set me on my feet, to my extreme mortification ; for I imagined Friends would think the Spirit had moved me to speak, when I had no message to deliver.
One quiet summer day, when we were sitting in perfect silence, an old cow that had strayed into the meeting-house yard poked her head in at the open door, and regarded the assembled Friends with a countenance as unmovable as any of theirs. One warm October day, a big boy, who had come across lots to meeting, and on the way filled the crown of his hat with thorn apples, fell asleep in his seat, near the door. Every man and boy wore his hat in Quaker meeting. A sudden nod tumbled his from his head, and all its contents clattered on the floor, whither he followed, and made his exit on all fours, pushing his hat before him. The smile that this surprising exhibition created was not entirely confined to the youthful members of the assembly.
Our meeting house was a great square unpainted building, with shingled sides, and of two stories, the upper one consisting of a wide gallery reached by a narrow flight of stairs. Beneath these was a closet, which was awful to my youthful imagination ; for in it were kept the tools for digging graves, and the rope for lowering the coffins into them. The large lower room was divided midway by a partition : on one side sat the women ; on the other, the men. It was provided with shutters, which were closed during the session of meetings for business, to shut one sex apart from the other while each transacted the business especially belonging to it.
The body of the house was furnished with plain, unpainted seats, so hard that it is a wonder how the drowsiest Friend could ever fall asleep sitting on them. Facing these, at one end, were three long, elevated seats, one rising above the other, with rails in front, and just as hard and plain as the others, though they were the seats of the ministers and elderly Friends. It was a very common habit of the preachers to slide their hands from side to side along these rails, as if keeping time to the slow and measured cadence of their sermons. In the open space between the high seats and the others stood a huge box stove, one in each apartment, that in winter made the atmosphere torrid in its immediate neighborhood, while it but slightly raised the temperature of the remote parts of the room. The elderly women had little foot stoves, tin boxes in wooden frames, with sheet-iron fire pans, which they filled with coals at the stove before taking their seats.
The grounds around the meeting house were surrounded by a board fence, as shorn of all adornment as the house itself, except by nature’s contributions of grass and daisies, and one little maple tree that grew near the gate, and clothed itself in autumn with gay colors, in utter disregard of Quakerly soberness of attire. There was a bed of tansy, set with no purpose of ornamentation, but for use at funerals. Its bitter aroma is always associated in my mind with those solemn occasions. There was an entire absence of display at funerals. The coffin was of unpainted wood and without handles, and was placed in the grave without any outer box. There were no services at the grave, nor a word spoken but by the manager of the funeral, who, in behalf of the family of the deceased, briefly thanked those present for their attendance. This was not done till the grave was filled, wherein one and another in turn assisted. Even to the bounds of the mysterious world beyond the grave the Friends bore testimony against worldly ostentation. Many of the graves were entirely unmarked. Some had at head and feet small gray stones, as rough as when taken from the ledge or field. A few bore the initials, fewer the full name, with the age and date of death, in rude characters carved by loving but unskilled hands.
Meetings for worship were held on First Days and Fifth Days. Each month two of these midweek meetings were followed by sessions for the transaction of business, that were termed Preparative and Monthly Meetings. After the religious service some Friend arose and asked, “ Is it not about time to close the shutters ? ” when this act was accomplished with some little stir, shutting the men and women apart as in separate rooms. I never knew what was done in the women’s room, but suppose the business transacted was substantially the same as in ours, where the clerk read the “ minutes ” of the last meeting, and then a list of nine “ queries.” The one which I remember most distinctly was, “ Are Friends clear of sleeping in meeting and other unbecoming behavior ? ” Each time I was overwhelmed with the consciousness of guilt, and did not dare to look up and encounter the many eyes that I knew must be fixed upon me.
The usual answer to each query, by the head of a duly appointed committee, was, “All clear as far as appears.”
Persons “ intending marriage ” were required to make public declaration of such intention in the meeting. The man, accompanied by an attendant, entered the women’s meeting, and made formal declaration of his intended marriage; and the woman did the same, in like manner, in the men’s meeting. A committee was then appointed to visit the parties, and learn if each was clear of other engagements; and if the report was favorable, the marriage was in due time solemnized in the presence of the meeting. After the usual religious exercises, the couple arose, joined hands, and repeated the few solemn words prescribed by the Discipline, when such of those present as desired set their names to the certificate of marriage. The ceremony ended with a wedding dinner at the home of the bride’s parents.
“ Declaration of intentions ” was a trying ordeal, as may be easily imagined.
“ Who came in with Timothy when he declared his intentions ? ” was asked of a Quakeress who had lately been married. “ I can’t tell thee,” she answered. “ I only know that he had a patch on one of his boots.”
“ Do any keep company with persons not of our Society, on account of marriage ? ” was another query. For sixty years ago whoever married out of the Society was “ disowned,” — a serious penalty, especially to a “ birthright member,” as one born of Quaker parents was called.
Another serious breach of discipline was to attend marriages accomplished by a justice or a priest. So, also, was the performance of military duty, or the payment of fines for the non-performance of such duty.
If a member became incapable of selfsupport, he or she did not become a town pauper, but was supported by the meeting, and was treated with as much respect as the wealthiest of the Friends.
Twice a year Quarterly Meetings were held at our meeting house, and each occupied three days. Friends came from the precincts of other Quarterly Meetings, and often from what, in those days of slow travel, were long distances. Ministering Friends from distant parts, men and women who “ had a concern ” to visit Friends, were frequently present. What with the religious “ opportunity,” the generous but unostentatious hospitality, and the social intercourse of old and young, Quarterly Meetings were the great events of our year. I remember how unwontedly full the meeting house used to be on these occasions. It seemed to me there could not have been more present before the deplorable “ Separation,” which I so often heard spoken of.
The division of the Society, on doctrinal points, into Orthodox and Hicksites occurred some years before my remembrance ; but a good deal of the bitterness which always attends religious quarrels still remained, and there was no religious unity between the two sects, though some members of each felt a warm personal regard for some of the other. The old meeting house remained in possession of the Hicksites, but their thinned ranks only meagrely filled its wide seats, and the useless gallery had been quite cut off from the lower room by a loose flooring of boards.
At Quarterly Meetings the seats were almost crowded, and it seemed strange that the place could be so still with so many living people in it. No sounds were heard but the dismal moaning of the wind in that mysterious upper room, the hissing of the sappy wood, the hollow murmur of draught, and occasionally the sigh of some burdened spirit or the cautious clearing of a clogged throat. Then, rising without a rustle of garments, some venerable preacher, moved to bear testimony, would break the solemn silence with as solemn speech. The sermons were delivered with a peculiar intonation, a kind of monotonous tune, not always unpleasing in its effect. Sometimes they seemed interminable to children’s sleepy ears and aching bones ; but they were sure to end at last, and then came the welcome signal of hand-shaking, and presently the bustle of departure to homes and warm firesides and bounteous tables and visiting.
I am afraid that I was not religiously inclined, or, as Friends would say, not a “ tender youth ; ” for what was said and done at meeting is not so strongly impressed upon my memory as the home events incidental to Quarterly Meeting. How distinctly through the mists of near threescore years I see the circle of worthies gathered around the Franklin stove, all arrayed in their best sober-hued attire ; the men eating apples, if doing anything, the women almost always knitting, and all busily chatting. No one was addressed as Mrs., Miss, or Mr., but by the first or full name, or as Friend Soand-So, whether man or woman. From another room came the subdued sound of the young people’s decorous merriment, in which I was too young to be permitted to take part, but was assigned to the humblest place in the circle of the elders, a footstool or little chair by my father’s knee. Much of the conversation was of so grave a nature that it did not interest me ; but it never failed to do so when it drifted into reminiscences of the past, the trials of early Friends, the hardships of the pioneers in the northern wilderness, and stories of the wild beasts that had not then long been rare. Even now I feel the pain of the bitter disappointment I suffered when, as the most thrilling point of some story was approached and the name of an actor was mentioned, some worthy woman Friend would interrupt with the incongruous inquiry, “ Now thee speaks of Ichabod Frost, John Holmes, I want to ask thee if his wife was n’t Zebulon Thorne’s daughter ? ”
Then they would go off on the genealogical trail of the Frosts and Thornes, till the subject in which I was so deeply interested was lost sight of ; and remembering the oft-repeated maxim that children were to be seen, not heard, I never dared to lead them back to it.
For two or three days the houses of resident Friends were filled with visiting Friends, who in turn were filled with the best that each house afforded, and then, with kindly farewells, departed, to resume the ordinary affairs of their peaceful lives.
For me, the quiet that succeeded the bustle of Quarterly Meeting was attended by a depressing feeling of loneliness. If the elders of the family shared it, they were too rigidly disciplined in restraint of all manifestations of emotions to give any outward sign of it. It was rare indeed to see a Friend moved to tears, or excessive mirth, or any violent expression of anger.
The sweet yet strong faces of the women, especially, wore an habitual expression of serenity, as if victory had been gained over all enemies of the soul, and that peace entered upon which passeth all understanding. How befitting was their dress! What could be more becoming to the placid face than the plain muslin cap, without ribbon or ruffle, or the spotless muslin kerchief folded across the calm, untroubled breast!
I remember the clearstarching of these articles as a sort of half-religious rite, performed, in a room withdrawn from the public gaze, by my mother and my aunt, walking slowly to and fro as they clapped the precious muslin between their palms, and indulged then, if ever, in such mild and guarded gossip as Quakers might partake of. I am unable to know how much early associations may influence my opinion that there could be no more becoming dress for a middle-aged or elderly woman than the simple, unchanging garb of the Quakers. Yet I am forced to admit that the bonnet, precious as it was to its owner, was a very ugly article of headgear. In shape it closely resembled a sugar scoop, except that it had a bulging crown, folded lengthwise in broad plaits. The covering was of finest light drab silk, or sometimes black silk, and lined with white silk, and of course entirely without any sort of adornment. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine how such a headdress could be adorned but by the calm, sweet face to which it could add no charm. I remember a few cold - weather bonnets of beaver, with high square crowns and broad soft brims, that were quite as unattractive to the eye, but must have given the wearers much more comfort than the stiff sugar scoops.
The broad-brimmed hat of the men was not so unbecoming, especially when it had a round crown, like the modern derby; but it was very stiff, and as uncompromising in form as its wearer. My heart warms at sight of the ugliest article of the apparel, now almost obsolete, though once so familiar to my youthful eyes, and the old speech comes as readily to my tongue as if it had never learned another.
In Fifth Month was held the Yearly Meeting, of which we youngsters heard much, but saw nothing; for it was convened in far-off New York. It was a solemnly momentous event in our lives, and not a small one in theirs, when our parents and some of the neighboring Friends set forth on their journey to the distant city, by stage, canal boat, and steamboat, or sometimes by their own conveyance, in which case they spent the nights in the homes of their hospitable brethren who lived on the route. By the speediest means, it took nearly a week to accomplish the brief journey. The departing pilgrims were intrusted with many messages, commissions, and letters; for the postage on a letter to New York was twenty-five cents, a sum then better worth saving than can now be imagined. It used to be said that the Quakers always brought rain to New York, but what else they did I have little idea, except to issue an epistle to the Monthly Meeting and one to other Yearly Meetings, which in due time were read before the Quarterly and Monthly Meetings.
There are yet Yearly, Quarterly, and Monthly Meetings, and meetings for worship, but the good people who attend them are not like those with whom my earliest recollections are so fondly associated. Except by a few of the oldest members, the peculiar distinctive dress is no longer worn nor the “ plain language ” spoken. In the meetings one sees fashionably dressed congregations, and hears singing and organs, but no testimony against “ steeple houses ” and a “ hireling priesthood,” and but little is said of the great guide, the “ light within.” To one who remembers Quakerism as it was sixty years ago, its forms are not recognizable nor befitting its name, and its peculiar spirit seems to have departed. As for our old meeting house, like most others of its kind and time, nothing remains to mark its site but the rough stones that were the steps of its two front doors, and the last member of its worthy congregation sleeps in his adjacent quiet bed beneath the unshorn grass and daisies.
Rowland E. Robinson.