Iowa History Project
The term “Quaker Meeting”, which has long since passed into our language as describing any occasion of a quiet of solemn character, is little understood by the present generation, or even by most of the Friends themselves. There are only a few secluded spots where the real Quaker meeting can now be seen in Iowa, for such meetings belong to a day that is gone.
Fifty years ago, or even less, there might have been seen here and there scattered over Iowa the old-time Quaker meeting-houses, uncrowned by belfry or steeple;(404) but now such houses of worship are all but gone. Those quaint old buildings had an architecture all their own. Of long, low, rectangular form, with plain glass windows and two plain doors (the right one for men and the left for women), they were more suggestive of peace and quiet than are the more ornate and imposing structures which have of late years so generally taken their places. There was the old-time “hopping block” of pioneer days, or the long board platform extending half-way round the house, for the convenience of those who wished to enter direct from their wagons. The meeting-house on the inside was altogether plain. The interior consisted of an open room which was divided by a half partition and sliding shutters into two equal parts, the one for the men and the other for the women. The seats, plain and straight, were set on a level floor. At the front there was a raised platform on which were placed seats in tow or more rows, each a step higher than the other, for the use of the ministers and elders. No organ, no pictures, no lamps,(405) and no ornaments of any kind were there to attract the eye or disturb meditation and worship.
As the Friends gathered from far and near they entered the meeting-house with their hats on and took their places in silence, each occupying his accustomed seat as allotted by the committee usually appointed for that purpose.(406) During the service no opening hymns were sung, there were no announcements, no scripture reading, no morning offering;(407) but silence prevailed, and in this silence each one present was expected to listen to the bidding of the “still, small voice”, unaided by the active contrivances of his own mind and heart. Many times throughout the entire meeting they sat thus in worship without a word being spoken. If, however, some one, either man or woman, felt moved of the Holy Spirit to speak, he slowly arose, removed his hat, and in a peculiarly melodious, half sing-song manner proceeded with his exhortation, which was usually unstudied and with little sequence of thought, but touched with a spiritual freshness and beauty seldom found in the stereotyped discourses of the professional clergy. When the exhortation ended, silence again prevailed, unless another felt moved to continue the exhortation or to introduce a audience arose, the men removing their hats and turning their backs to each other until the petition, usually of a highly figurative character, ended, when all were again seated.
Thus the old-time Quaker meeting for worship proceeded until he who sat at the “head of the meeting” and was known as the “timer”, felt that the hour had arrived for the meeting to close. Whereupon he would turn to his neighbor and shake hands—this being the sign for a general greeting—and in this manner the service “broke”.
At stated times a business session followed the meeting for worship, in preparation for which the sliding “shutters” were closed so that the men and women were as effectively separated as though they were in two entirely different rooms. A clerk for each body then took charge; and for the handling of matters of mutual concern, “messengers” were appointed to pass back and forth with written or oral messages through a door in the partition. With peculiar phraseology and a minuteness evolved through generations, each item of business, when passed upon by common consent (the Quakers did not vote on matters of business in their meetings), was entered on record in the “Minutes”; and when all was finished, by order of the clerk the meeting “solemnly concluded”.
Almost every Quaker custom has had its origin in some important struggle or “testimony”. With their teaching of the “inner light” and the leading of the Holy Spirit, the Quakers were obliged to recognize the ministry of women; for God, so they believed, was no respecter of race or kind and spoke His messages through male and female alike.(408) Again, as early as 1668 the custom of separate meetings for men and women was established and received the approval of Fox, apparently on two substantial grounds,(409) namely, the ability of women to better care for the concerns of their sex in separate meetings and the desire to free the Society from the slanderous charges of immorality early brought against it by its enemies. Strange as it may seem, the custom of separate meetings obtained in the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Orthodox Friends until 1893, when it was formally abandoned.(410)
404- With the most fiery bitterness Fox attacked the formality of the “steeple-house” and the bells that called men to church.
405- Not until of late years, with the holding of evangelistic meetings at night and of regular night services under the pastoral system, have the Friends had need of lamps in their churches, it being their earlier practice to have regular meetings only in the morning, with an occasional “appointed meeting” in the afternoon.
406- In like manner there was a committee appointed to grant outsiders “the right to sit”, if way seemed clear, in business meetings; such meeting being otherwise closed to all non-members.
407- The church expenses among the Iowa Quakers were early met by proportioning and collecting the same outside of the meeting. At the present time morning offerings are taken in most of the Orthodox congregations.
408- Gurney’s Observations on the Distinguishing Views and Practices of the Society of Friends (New York, 1856), Ch. VIII.
409- The Friends’ Library, edited by William and Thomas Evans (Philadelphia, 1837), Vol. I, pp. 117, 118.
410- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1893, p. 35.