The Sound of Silence

From charities and hospitals to colleges, private schools and places of worship, Quakerism’s mark on the Main Line is as unmistakable as it is immeasurable. Why, then, is it so often misunderstood?

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The Religious Society of Friends originated in England around 1650. It was organized by Christians looking for a more direct relationship with God, minus the church ceremony and pastoral structure of the Anglican Church.

These Friends chose to worship in silence, seeking the “light within” without intermediaries like priests and sacred books. “It’s fair to say that, if you sit in silence weekly and ask what God requires, you might get an answer,” Merion Meeting’s Hoffman says.

In Quaker worship, songs are not sung, readings are not read and sermons are not delivered—only the thoughts of Friends are spoken. Religious and moral knowledge is based on feeling and values, not logic or fact.

Friends gather not to espouse opinions, but to join in on a common search—and eventually a united front. War has never been a means for settling differences. Dissent, after all, can lead to agreement.

Quakerism arose out of tumultuous times in England, when adherents to any religion other than the accepted one were persecuted. In the 1600s, divergent groups emerged. Quakerism’s founder, George Fox, spent his teens roaming from church to church trying to find answers. Then he had a revelation. While alone in an open space, he heard a message—that, in him, lives the spirit.

Fox named his earliest missionary followers the Valiant Sixty. He inspired Penn, who was then deemed a rabble-rouser. Penn’s father was an admiral of the noble class. When he died, to settle a debt, King Charles II shipped the admiral’s son off to land across the Atlantic. America became a proving ground for Penn’s Holy Experiment.

If Fox is the father of Quakerism, then Margaret Fell is its mother. She was the first to propose pastoral, practical work in the community. Within the Quaker tenants of tolerance and equality, there was room for women to grow and become involved. Meetinghouses were split into two sides with paneled room dividers—one side for worship, the other for use as a library and monthly business meetings.

At first, meetings were separate for men and women. “Women were not used to having a voice,” says Melanie Douty-Snipes, a Lower Merion High School alum who ran an educational outreach program at Bucks County’s Richland Meeting, which celebrated its 300th anniversary last year. “In separate meetings, women could work on their own business. It gave them confidence for the role of activists in the struggle for abolition and suffrage.”

A living example of that feminine influence, Douty-Snipes was 12 when she joined Merion and later became a Friend at Radnor Meeting. Now, she runs a 200-year-old Quaker farm in Bucks County while overseeing youth and adult groups for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

Douty-Snipes’ parents weren’t Quaker, but her two grandmothers were of the faith. Her husband is a “birthright” Quaker. If you’re not a birthright Quaker, you’re a convinced Quaker. “Seasoned” Friends are the experienced ones.

In some ways, Quakers can be their own worst enemy. “You walk into a meeting, and no one says anything, so that can’t be inviting,” says Frank Strawbridge, Merion’s clerk of the trustees. “Some [meetings] are lively, but some are not, depending on any given week and who’s there and who’s not.”

It’s why meetings are considered “unprogrammed” worship—a sort of ministry of waiting. For the first 10-15 minutes, each Friend tries to become present and open, counts blessings or sits. Someone could dominate, but most meetings have written or unwritten procedures. Quakers won’t clap for approval; they’ll wiggle both hands in the air—American Sign Language for applause.

“No Sunday is like any other Sunday,” Douty-Snipes says. “It’s influenced by world events, connections, dynamics or someone else’s shared story. There’s an energy in connections.”

Seasoned Friends often set the spiritual tone, but over time, others do as well. By design, some meetinghouse floors dip in sections so those in the back rows can see and hear. All the benches face the center, so the meeting feels circular. After an hour, someone from a facing bench watches the time and calls the meeting by reaching out to shake hands with a neighbor. Then, all shake hands and disperse.

Whether it’s the 1600s or 2010, silence is “radical,” says Douty-Snipes. “This is not a quiet world,” she says. “Silence, a connection with God, often reminds Quakers that they have some powerful listening to do. It’s then when we see how we can move ourselves forward.”

Richland Friend Zoya Kachadurian, a Russian-Armenian who once married into Brandywine Valley’s famed Wyeth family, puts it another way: “Sometimes, the best way to move forward is to stop.”

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