Around sixth or seventh grade I remember discussing religion with a friend. We were in the backseat of her car and her mother, who was driving, politely asked me if I attended any type of Christian services. Before I could answer, my friend’s sister, sitting in the front seat, casually interjected, “She’s Quaker,” before continuing to suck up the remnants of her Slurpee. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and tried my best to hide a frown of irritation. Why would she be so quick to answer such a personal question for me? More importantly, who told her? I assume it had been her younger sister, my friend, but it reinforced an existing feeling that I was a walking anachronism.
I come from a historically Quaker town, but as far as I know, I was the only person in my year to come from a Quaker background. Of course my friend told her sister about me—I was an oddity coming simultaneously from the familiar and unfamiliar. While everyone else at school seemed to subscribe to something normal like Presbyterianism, Catholicism, or Judaism, I was the only girl who went to meeting. Even though my school system’s mascot was the Quaker, I still fielded the occasional joke about Quaker oatmeal, and especially in elementary and middle schools, there was a stigma associated with this cultish-sounding organization called the Religious Society of “Friends.” I went to public school, but the private Friends’ school situated in the center of town at the nexus of Main Street thrives with a price tag of $30,000 a year, though few if any Quakers are enrolled. From what I’ve heard, the weekly Wednesday meetings for students are shortened to a half hour and are treated as a pain, sometimes as a joke. Though every five or ten years the town continues to vote down on the sale of alcohol to uphold its traditional “Quaker values,” I would wager that maybe one percent of the population of 20,000 is actually Quaker.
As is natural for younger folk, I didn’t want to be a part of this minority. Living in a Quaker town makes it feel homey and quaint and gives residents a source of all-American pride, but in the last few years of elementary school I’d be reminded that most of my peers still didn’t quite understand the sect whenever anyone would ask me if people “quaked” during meeting. Quakers are historically a rather boring group of people who abstained from alcohol, war-mongering, and material comforts, instead opting to wear plain clothing and live in plain houses and drive plain carriages. Meetings are silent (unless one is moved by God to stand up and share a thought), the people who sit in the pews are old and prune-like, and the cookies in the receptions after services are as dry as the conversation. One of the last things a ten-year-old girl would want is to be grouped into what, at the time, I thought to be the most boring demographic imaginable.
For years, I didn’t go to meeting willingly. I would sleep in on Sundays as late as I could, spent the longest time possible in the shower, and took forever to get dressed. My family would, on occasion, enter the old brick building a few minutes late due to the shouting matches between my mother and me. I would beg to bring a book or I would stubbornly refuse to go, but my mom always won out. To this day I admire her for the perseverance required in successfully coercing a ten-year-old daughter to sit in silence for an hour. My mother was a lapsed Catholic, but my father comes from a mixed Quaker-Episcopalian background. In order to have some semblance of spiritual understanding in my childhood and in order for her to have some peace and quiet on a Sunday morning, she decided that attending Quaker meeting would be the solution. But for a child, this “spiritual understanding” meant sitting on the hard wooden benches living inside my active mind for an hour. “Spiritual understanding” meant sometimes sitting with two other girls in a stuffy meetinghouse nook for a little before the scheduled meeting to listen to an old lady talk about George Fox, the founder of Quakerism. At the time, I didn’t get why so many people in 17th century England and America loved this guy or why old English ladies would throw palm fronds in his path while he rode a donkey. He couldn’t manage to get a horse, like a normal person who didn’t want to act like Jesus? The Anglican/Episcopal church was a much more visually stimulating experience and you could sing songs and priests would put little wafers in your mouth.
If I lived in a Quaker town, then why were there so few other Quakers? At one point, Quakers ran the Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey areas. They came over en masse from England and bred like flies. Families like the the Wisters and the Wistars, the Nicholsons, the Morrises, the Whitalls, and the Smiths, to name a few, all intermingled and intermarried like some sort of Hobbit clan in the Shire of the mid-Atlantic colonies, and produced lots of Quaker babies. Some of them had funny names like Abel, Ebenezer, or Caspar, but most of them were simply named John or Mary or Elizabeth. Out of this mélange came my father, and then me. My mother (the lapsed Catholic) wanted to name me Elizabeth in line with my English Quaker heritage, but my father protested its too-traditional nature, and so on a whim I was given the very un-Quaker name Veronica.
At some point in history, before I came along, the vast majority of those Quaker babies grew up and either didn’t want to be Quaker anymore or didn’t want to have any more Quaker babies, or simply moved too far away from the Philadelphia area where most Quaker meetinghouses operate. I actually lived in Grosse Pointe, Michigan until I was eight, but as fate would have it my parents moved us back to the very town from which my family originates and where my father grew up. The Nicholsons have been attending the same meetinghouse for almost 200 years, but I have a feeling it won’t be for much longer, since I can’t imagine myself living in the same place as an adult. The Wisters and the Wistars have dispersed and are no longer the big names of Philadelphia. We seem to be dying out.
Every year in Germantown, Pennsylvania, right outside of Philadelphia, the Nicholson-Haines-Wistar-Smith-“insert Quaker last name here” families host a tea at an ancestral house called Wyck. There are pictures of me there as a fat baby sitting in the laps of wizened, long-dead relatives who failed to make proper bastions of Quakerism out of their children. My family doesn’t attend the tea anymore, mostly because we are busy and unwilling to make time to drive to the other side of Philadelphia, but I know that the gathering is sparser now. Wyck today, though open to the public, is not extremely well cared-for, and anyone could technically stroll in and steal china from the cabinets and antique furniture from the halls. There are still some vestiges of Quakerism left in my family, mostly in the form of old photographs, letters, a few pieces of furniture, and some portraits of white-haired men with sideburns and wrinkly ladies in black dresses wearing bonnets. My parents and I find these slightly creepy, thus we let my aunts have them. More fundamentally we tend to have a go-with-the-flow philosophy towards spirituality and an attitude of making one’s own morals as opposed to finding them in organized religion.
Today, people who came to the Quaker community much later in life fill out the benches of my town’s meetinghouse. Some of the old guard Quakers are still around, but meetings are attractive to those looking for an alternative form of worship. I’m afraid to say that after relative consistency in attendance for many years, for the last four or five my parents and I have not been regulars. We always make it on Christmas Eve, though, and sometimes Easter, and some days during summer vacation. Now that I’m older, I find my peers to be far more interested in and respectful of Quakers, and even curious to attend meetings. I tend not to talk about being Quaker, not because I don’t want to, but because it doesn’t make up a huge presence in my life and I’ve never been very inclined to bring up religion in conversation. But today I notice a marked difference in the ways that people react when I tell them that I’m Quaker. Instead of joking about the man on the box of oatmeal, they say “Really? I love Quakers!” I could feel patronized, but instead it makes me smile. I’m glad to see people find their place in the Society of Friends or show interest in the organization, although I can’t lie and say it isn’t strange to see others experiencing profound moments of spirituality in my birth religion when I never have.
Only recently I found out that my form of Quakerism—called “waiting worship,” because meetings are silent—is only practiced by a small percentage of Quakers. I thought that everyone did it this way, which goes to show how little I actually know about my own religion and how little I’ve ever really investigated what Quakerism is all about. When I go to meeting on a rare occasion, this time without protest and of my own volition, it serves the purpose of connecting with where I come from as opposed to finding inner peace. Despite a long and storied history, I believe that the Society of Friends will survive on its elasticity and attractive, alternative church community. It is what you make of it.