Book Review: The Quaker Meeting Houses of Britain

by David M. Butler, Friends Historical Society, 1999, 2 volumes, paperbound, $85. Reviewed by Barbara Rosen, Storrs Monthly Meeting

Is it a reference duo? A coffee-table extravaganza? A work of scholarship that tells us more about meeting houses than we want to know? None of the above. The Quaker Meeting Houses of Britain is a forty-year labor of love that turns out to be a much more widely ranging project than the title suggests. In fulfilling his plan to record every Quaker meeting house and burial ground in Britain, surviving or not, David Butler has worked through an immense mass of material. Indeed, it is surprising to learn how much relevant material has been preserved from the early days. He has used Quaker Records from every level of organization: county records, local records, state papers through secondary sources, biographies and autobiographies. He has found descriptions of floor plans, building plans and architects’ drawings and, where a meeting house no longer exists, he has reconstructed ground plans from documentary evidence.

But the non-specialist reader needs more than ground plans in order to visualize a building, so, when early drawings or prints exist, he reproduces them as well. Butler has personally visited the sites of meeting houses and made simple but charming sketches of building exteriors. To this he has added drawings of particularly elegant or curious features of the interior. He is particularly interested in the benches, the paneling and the construction of the moveable partitions which divided men’s and women’s seating at worship and could be completely closed for their separate business meetings. (I must confess that I had not realized how common a feature this last was, or how long it survived; nor had I understood the theological importance of the burial grounds, which often predated the meeting house.)

Butler gives scrupulous though abbreviated references to his source material. The complex layout of ground plans, hand-printed information within the illustrations, drawings, descriptive material and reference notes is admirably clear.

What makes these two volumes something more than reference books that every Quaker library should have is the content of the historical sections. They are compressed, yet extremely informative. Butler has gone beyond the task of recording the history of a building; he has chosen quotations from members, visitors and enemies that give us entry into the history of a meeting-at times the history of Quakerism itself.

Many of the early meeting places were damaged or destroyed by mob action, or by order of local authorities. People like William Brazier (33) or Mary Wood (355), whose homes were used for meetings, often lost everything, including the tools of their trade. Even when members were not harassed attendance required fortitude. Several references to boarding up the backs of benches nearest the door tell us how icily cold and drafty these buildings were. Outside porches and entries were a common draft-cutting addition; one in Cotherstone was found cheerfully crowded with “wet greatcoats and sheepdogs” (731).

As Quakers became accepted, more numerous and often more prosperous, the tension between convenience and simplicity came to the fore, as well as doctrinal disagreements that split meetings. Lancaster Meeting House, rebuilt in 1708, used tiles from the demolished earlier building (309). Southampton Meeting House, observed by an American visitor in 1845 boasted “a brass chandelier, not very highly ornamented: though “the benches are quite plain without cushions” (239). We may be relieved to learn that the chandelier had been bought second-hand for five pounds.

The idea of service as an element of worship is exemplified over the years by the variety of use of the meeting house; a poor widow might be allowed to live there and lofts were built for caretakers and traveling Friends. The place was to be no more sacred than the life it contained and thus, once a meeting ceased to exist, there was little sentiment about selling the building.

Apart from the index to volume 2, which answers many of the historical and theological questions raised in the work as a whole, and might well be read first, these are not books to be read in concentrated doses. Yet, as we dip in and out, or use them as adjuncts to travel, we are left both enlightened and imaginatively stirred.

These volumes obviously represent a major commitment of time and resources by the author and by Friends Historical Society. This makes it even more perplexing that the book apparently went to press with only minimal-if-any attention from a copyeditor or proofreader. The author, and the project, deserved better.

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