Quaker Meeting House: Keeping history alive in Lincoln

Quaker Meeting House: Keeping history alive in Lincoln

Beverly and Terrence Cournoyer pose outside of the Saylesville Friends Meeting House where they renewed their wedding vows last week, borrowing from 19th century Quaker traditions. (Breeze photo by Nicole Dotzenrod)
One of the oldest Friends properties in New England faces an uncertain future

LINCOLN – The oldest continuously used Quaker Meeting House in Rhode Island sits discreetly on Great Road in Lincoln, providing a spiritual home for the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) since 1704.

The scene unfolding inside the Saylesville Friends Meeting House on April 21 gave guests a glimpse into the past, as its wooden benches began to quietly fill with those clad in hoop skirts and bonnets, gathering to witness the historical re-creation of a mid-19th century Quaker wedding ceremony.

The 1860s-style ceremony, presented as a collaboration between the Friends Society and the historic Hearthside House Museum, was more than a historical re-enactment for the costumed couple sitting at the front of the Meeting House: Beverly and Terrence Cournoyer would be renewing their vows on their 17th wedding anniversary. The couple married in Warwick on April 21, 2001.

In the Quaker tradition, there is no officiant during a wedding ceremony, or a meeting for worship. After a period of silent reflection, the couple rises to face one another and declares their vows. When they return to their seats, an hour of silent introspection is broken up periodically by guests who stand to share their thoughts and well-wishes with the couple.

The ceremony ends when the couple signs their marriage certificate, followed by each person who bore witness to the ceremony.

As participants exited the building for lemonade and pastries last Saturday, they passed by a replica of the marriage certificate of former Rhode Island governor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Stephen Hopkins, who married Anne Smith at the Saylesville Meeting House in 1755. Anne Smith was the grandmother of Stephen Hopkins Smith, who built Hearthside House and worshiped at the Saylesville Meeting House.

Kathy Hartley, president of Friends of Hearthside, said the event “gave the sense of what our ancestors here in Lincoln might have experienced as they sat here in those pews and witnessed the union of a loving couple."

Much like the historic Quaker wedding re-enactment, an “unprogrammed” Quaker meeting for service is mostly quiet, with members intermittently breaking the silence to stand and speak out loud. Sometimes, the silence lasts for the entire meeting.

“We are gathering to center ourselves and listen for the divine. People who feel they have truly heard will stand and speak and share that in a message,” said Rebecca Leuchak, assistant presiding clerk of the Providence Monthly Meeting.

“It’s not me electing to stand and deliver information, I am more a vessel for something that’s meant to be shared; my own choice in the matter really dissolve. People talk about all of a sudden finding themselves on their feet, compelled to express something,” she said.

The Religious Society of Friends, or Quaker, religion was born in England in the 1640s during a time of political and religious upheaval. Quakers were persecuted for their “radical” beliefs. Based on the central tenet “that of God is in every person,” they believe all people are equal.

Said Leuchak, “What that means if you really act on it is that no one is lesser or better than anyone else. That applies to race, gender, age, economic status … across the board.”

The faith carries no creed, official literature or dogma. It is deeply individualistic and introspective, and there is no universal belief among Quakers.

“Some people talk about God, some people never say God. Some people say spirit, the Divine, the light within. We even have some atheists,” she said. “Friends hold any number of personal religious convictions, as there is no unitary or monolithic doctrine. That is very unique to this faith – if you look at most any other religious tradition there’s a set of beliefs you internalize. You’re given a catechism or standards of belief, and in our faith it’s the opposite direction: it comes from within and then you profess what you believe.”

Quakers rejected – and still reject – the hierarchical framework of most organized religions. Leuchak said the church does not have an official administrative structure because there are no officials to refer to in Quakerism.

“Everybody is equal, even today,” she said. “There is no one person who stands higher than anyone else. Each person holds a piece of the truth. In our religion everyone has the potential to be a teacher and a leader. It makes you very responsible because there is nobody to pass the buck to.”

With no paid staff, Quakers meet once a month for business, considering as a body such decisions as budget, programming, membership and all other activities that a minister might handle in a church.

The Saylesville Friends Meeting House was the original place of worship for Providence-area Friends, built by Eliezer Arnold, who lived across Great Road at a stone-ender, owned and maintained by Historic New England since 1918. An addition was added to the building in 1745, though it’s up for debate whether the east or west portion of structure came first.

The Saylesville building’s rich history is also its greatest weakness. A circa-1704 structure is difficult and expensive to maintain. It costs upwards of $15,000 each year for the Providence Monthly Meeting to maintain.

The Providence Monthly Meeting recently formed a task force to investigate possible outcomes for the property, including having an outside secular organization take over ownership. Saylesville Friends Society member Bruce Downing said razing the building has been a matter of discussion since the 1940s.

“Providence Meeting values the worship community and appreciates the heritage of that Meeting House, but the historic building cannot supersede the priorities of the spiritual community,” Leuchack said. She noted that Quakers do not hold material things above all else.

Saylesville has been given a year to try to increase the use of the property, and plan to open the historic building to the public to rent. Some potential uses for the space include meditation groups, small political activist organizations, scout meetings, social activities, art shows, rehearsal space for bands, homeschool lessons, AA meetings, health groups, poetry readings, weddings and other ceremonies.

Members hope that community outreach, such as their recent partnership with Hearthside House and other historic entities, will help bring more people to the quiet building on Great Road.

"We are delighted at Hearthside to showcase this meeting house and its important role in the early history of our town, and of the state. Too many just drive by this modest little building and never notice it, or realize the stories that it holds. Their story needs to be incorporated into that of Great Road and it's 300 years of history," said Hartley.

“Friends don’t hold buildings as sacred in the way other religions do, but there is something special about that place for me,” said Downing.

For information call 401-331-4218 or email clerk@providencefriends.org.