Arch Street Friends Meeting House — Hub of Quaker Activity
The Arch Street Friends Meeting House, at 4th and Arch, was built in 1805 to accommodate the growing community of the Society of Friends. The location of the meeting house was originally a burial ground that was the final resting place of Native Americans, African Americans, and members of the Society of Friends. The Meeting House also was the birthplace and home of many groups that benefitted natives, Blacks, women, and many more. The work that began here was significant at a time when minority groups were often mistreated.
The Friends religious group is nicknamed the Quakers due to the way they sometimes were thought to quake during prayer. The Quakers are unique for their meetings where they sit in silence, without a preacher, until someone feels moved to speak. Meetings for worship are held every week. Once a month or quarter, the group uses these meeting to make decisions. All the congregations within a region meet annually at what is called the yearly meeting. In Philadelphia, this yearly meeting is held at the Arch Street Friends Meeting House.
From the beginning, the Quakers had a strong relationship with Native Americans. When William Penn settled Philadelphia in 1682, he made sure he bought the land from the natives even though the land was already given to him by the King of England. He also made sure that the natives could still use the same paths and meeting places that they had previously used, even if someone had a house on that property. Later on, a committee of the General Assembly was established for the well-being of Native Americans. However, William Penn’s sons were not as friendly towards the natives.
Quakers also played a large role in the African American community of Philadelphia. There were religious meetings specifically for the Blacks in the community, but in the yearly meetings, Blacks were forced to sit in a small corner under the stairs or on a bench designated only for them. When the Grimke sisters, who were outspoken abolitionists, tried to sit on this bench in the 1830s, they were told to sit elsewhere by the white males guarding the bench. However, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery was started by Quakers, and in the 1830s, they created the Institute for Colored Youth.
Women also had an interesting place within the Society. The Quakers, according to Gregory Barnes, “insisted that women were spiritual equals of men,” since they believed in a direct relationship with God. Still, Quakers believed that women should have separate meetings to discuss issues that were solely theirs, like planning weddings yet the decisions made there had to be approved by men. The Arch Street Meeting House was built with two large meeting rooms to make the communication between men and women easier.
At the same time, women were just as likely as men to sit in the “minister’s gallery.” This section was designated for those who were recognized as gifted speakers. Women also founded and ran the Female Society for the Relief of the Distressed to help widows and orphans. Another female member founded the Female Society for the Free Instruction of Female Children in 1796.
The Quakers also created many groups and institutions for the benefit of other Quakers. There was a Friends Alms House, a Committee for the Care of the Poor, a hospital, and the Friends Asylum for the Relief of Persons deprived of the use of their Reason. On June 18, 1830 there was a meeting to discuss the creation of a college for orthodox boys. This school turned into Haverford College, which was opened in 1833. The Hicksites, a fraction that separated in 1827 due to Protestant evangelical influence, responded by building Swarthmore College. The Quakers went on to create more schools for boys and girls in and around Philadelphia.
As of 2015, the Arch Street Meeting House still stands and is in use. The original benches are there, as well as the horsehair stuffed cushions, although they have been reupholstered. However, there have been some changes to the building since it first opened, like a coat of paint on the walls. The Arch Street Meeting House is both a religious and community center just like when it first opened.
- Barnes, Gregory Allen. Philadelphia's Arch Street Meeting House: a biography. Philadelphia, PA : QuakerPress, 2012.