One of my favorite sites is the amazing NJChurchscape.com—that’s New Jersey Churchscapes, put together largely through the efforts of Frank L. Greenagel. It’s a true labor of love, a cataloging of church and meeting architecture in New Jersey. It has beautiful photos, great stories, readable essays on architecture. In a state where everything below Cherry Hill often gets ignored, South Jersey gets good coverage and there’s a lot from the old Quaker colony of West Jersey. This month’s feature is on the meetinghouse, a building of endearing simplicity and it raises a lot of questions for me of how we relate to our church buildings.
We modern-day Friends tend to think of the term meetinghouse as uniquely ours, but go back in history and you’ll find just about everyone using the term to describe the non-showy buildings they erected for religious services and town life. Drive around South Jersey and you’ll see old Methodist churches that started out life as meetinghouses and look surprisingly Quaker. Greenagel looks at the style and then asks:
At what point does a structure cease being a meetinghouse and become a church?.. With the rising affluence and increased mobility of the population came a demand for more specialized places to meet, as well as more of the basic comforts and style which heretofore were dismissed as too worldly, so many churches added smaller lecture rooms, classrooms for Sunday school, and other assembly rooms distinct from the main auditorium.
By this measure, how many of our beloved East Coast Quaker meetinghouses should really just be called “churches?” In the nineteenth century the Protestant “Sunday School Movement” was picked up by Gurneyite and Progressive Hicksite Friends, with the classes simply renamed “First Day School” in deference to Quaker sensibilities (I’ve always wondered if the name switch actually fooled anyone, but that’s another story). By the twentieth century, the new modern liberal Friends had picked up the lecture format, which like the First Day School movement had been adopted from educational models via other religious groups. Many of our larger monthly meetings have fellowship halls, classrooms, kitchens, etc. These buildings have become specialized religious worship buildings and many of them sit empty for most of the week. But not all.
Nowadays many Quaker meetings with buildings open them mid-week for use by community groups. Quaker meetinghouses host peace groups, battered women hotlines, yoga classes, religious congregations in need of a temporary home and similar causes. There’s often an element of good works in the group’s charter.
Perhaps this willingness to open our buildings up earns us the right to continue using the meetinghouse name. If so, we should be careful to resist the pressure of the insurance industry to close ourselves up in the name of liability. One uniqueness to our worship spaces is that they are not consecrated and there should be no special rules for their use. They are oversized barns and we should cherish that. We should remember not to get fetishistic about their history and we shouldn’t tie up our business meetings in endless discussions over the color of the new seat cushions. When we turn our buildings over for others’ use, we shouldn’t worry overly much if a chair or clock gets damanged or stolen. Friends know that our religion is not our buildings and that the measure of our spirit is simply how far we’ll follow God, together as a people.
- There’s a very handsome book about the HABS work on Quaker meetinghouses in the greater Philadelphia area called Silent Witness: Quaker Meeting Houses In The Delaware Valley, 1695 To The Present. (only $10!).
- My friend Bob Barnett has been putting a lot of great work into a new West Jersey website.