History of the Plainfield-Rahway Quakers


Roger Driesbach-Williams

Historical Facts

Most of the information below is from a commerative booklet published upon the occasion of the 150th Anniversary in 1938, of the construction of the present meeting house in Plainfield, New Jersey. There is some updating taken from a single sheet pamphlet published for the 200th Anniversary in 1988 The name of the historian who researched and prepared these booklets is not noted. though a present member, Charles A. Varian remembers being involved in typing the 1938 booklet. In order to preserve and disseminate this history, it was been keyed into this form in 1996 by Alan Taplow, a former attender of the Plainfield Meeting. The Plainfield, New Jersey Meeting House The Evolution of A Quaker Meeting Historical Sketch

Before the Plainfield Meeting House was built in 1788, Quakers in this section of New Jersey met in “Amboy,” now called Perth Amboy. Their first organization meeting was held on the 13th of 8th month 1686, when “Friends at Amboy agreed to have a Monthly Meeting” and in a minute of their next meeting, held the 10th of 9th month 1686, the members were directed to “bring minutes of the births and burials since they first came into this place that they may be recorded.” Amboy at the time of the organization was the seat of government in the Province of East Jersey. The Deputy Governor, Gawen Laurie, a former London merchant, was a member of the Society of Friends, as were several of his official associates. The first marriage recorded in the minutes of the Meeting was that of Miles Forster to the daughter of the Deputy Governor.

In 1704 the Meeting was transferred to Woodbridge where Friends met in the home of Nathaniel Fitz Randolph until they constructed a Meeting house there in 1713. At a Monthly Meeting held at Woodbridge 9th month 16th, 1721, John Laing, one of the prominent members, asked permission to hold a meeting at his home in the Township of Piscataway, County of Middlesex, and not far from the boundary line of the present City of Plainfield. This request was granted and carried into effect. On land bequeathed to the society by John Laing, Friends obtained permission in 1731 to build a Meeting house not to exceed 24 feet square, which was called the “Plainfield Meeting.” This was the immediate predecessor of the present Meeting House, although not on the same property.

For over 50 years the original “Plainfield Meeting House” met the needs of the Friends, but by 1787 a change seemed essential and in the Meeting held on the 15th of 11th month of that year the following minute appears: “The Friends appointed to endeavor to find a suitable place to build a Meeting House at Plainfield report that they all agreed that a lot of land containing three acres near the house of John Webster, the third, would be a suitable place for said house to be built on, and they propose that the size of the house should be about 34 x 48 feet.” The Meeting agreed and the new house was first used for the Monthly Meeting held the 20th of 8th month, 1788.

The final report on the construction of the new Meeting House was made to the Meeting held on the 21st of 4th month, 1790, and stated “that the expenses of the house is four hundred and seventy four pounds, seven shillings and ten pence, exclusive of what stuff was got from the old Meeting House.” The cost of the land and fencing was forty-seven pounds, fourteen shillings and three pence. The committee that had charge of the construction of the house consisted of William Shotwell, Edward F. Randolph, William Webster, Edward Moore, David Vail and Ambrose Copland.

When the present building was first occupied for Meeting purposes the Federal Constitution had been formulated in Convention only eleven months and George Washington was not yet elected first president of the United States. It may be interesting and not entirely inappropriate to mention an incident which personally associates the erection of this house with a memorable event in national history. During the Revolutionary War, when the British forces held possession of Perth Amboy and nearby country, General Washington and Staff called at the farm residence of John Vail, great, great, grandfather of Charles E. Vail, the oldest member of the Meeting at the present time (1938), and requested to be guided to some prominent spot in the Watchung mountains from which he could get a good view of the plain below and the movements of the enemy. There was a man at Friend Vail’s house at the time who was acquainted with the mountain paths and he at once volunteered his services and led the Continental Commander to a high point which is now called Washington Rock. That guide was Edward Fitz Randolph, a member of the committee in charge of building this Meeting House and who, as a carpenter, gave manual labor to its construction.

While the storms of over 200 years have beaten upon this venerable building, and yet, shingle-sided and wrought-nailed, with the exception of a portion of one end damaged by fire and repaired in 1873, and the substitution of slate in place of the shingle roof in 1922, it stands outwardly the same as of old. Inside the massive timbers have become richly browned by the mellowing hand of time and clearly show the marks of implements used by the sturdy forefathers of 1788. The benches, which were built by individual families from a common template still are in use, though with the addition of cushions which were not a part of the original plans. Electric lights instead of the old oil lamps that swung from the beams, a furnace in place of the wood-burning stoves so long used, running water and modern plumbing are among the changes made within the building. In 1955 the need for expansion was felt, this time for more classroom and nursery space. A large portion of the old carriage sheds, older than the Meeting House since many of the timbers came for the earlier Meeting House on Woodland Avenue, was converted into a one-story building which now contains a nursery, a large subdivisible Sunday School room, a kitchen in place of cooking facilities on the balcony of the Meeting House, and a library in place of a closet containing books. In 1988, a covered breezeway connecting the Meeting House to the School Wing was expanded to include new lavatory facilities.

A burial ground had been established behind the old carriage sheds. The earliest extant dated stone bears the inscription “1815/H.W..” there are reports that Friends and “some Indians” were buried earlier at the northern corner. The burial ground is still in use.

The surrounding environment has changed greatly in 150 years. Originally, the only house of worship in a small community of about 150 people, it now represents one of over 40 places of worship in a city with a population of over 40,000. In 1836 a committee was appointed to confer with representatives of the railroad about the sale of land for a right of way which eventually was granted, the Meeting receiving $200 for the land. Trains operated between Elizabethport and Plainfield in 1837 and eventually in 1852 as far as Philadelphia. The railroad tracks were elevated in 1874 and for a period after the Friends seriously considered moving the Meeting House to a location that would be less disturbing. No action was ever taken, however, and though the noise of chugging steam engines is now gone, the problem is one that still causes concern to visiting speakers who seek to talk above the noise of the trains.

The members of the Meeting have from time to time been active in community affairs, and have always been ready to allow the use of the Meeting House for deserving causes.

Friends took recognition of the 100th, 125th, 150th and 200th anniversaries of the construction of the Meeting House by holding suitable exercises. The history herein presented was written in 1938, and is supplemented with materials from the 200th anniversary in 1988. There is always the hope that the present generation will not lose the vision of the past, but rather that the members now living may find in the use of their Meeting House these qualities so fittingly set forth by Elizabeth Lloyd:

“Our Fathers gathered here long years ago To hold communion with the power divine That is within, and over, and around: And as they were obedient to the Voice That spoke into their inmost souls, They found sweet peace and strength, Leaving behind a priceless heritage Of courage, patience, faithfulness and love. This heritage is for us to enrich And magnify, not merely to enjoy; Oh, that we may be wise to know the right, And strong to do the work that lies at hand > From the unfailing source to which they turned In prayer, we seek for wisdom, vision, power.” ACTIVITIES OF THE PLAINFIELD FRIENDS IN THE CAUSE OF PEACE (Early history through 1938)

That the peace testimony of Friends was recognized in the early days is indicated by the minute recorded Fourth Month 21st, 1705, reading:

“Any person presenting a certificate signed by 6 or more members of a Monthly Meeting or Quarterly Meeting of the people called Quakers, stating that said person was one of said people called Quakers, he shall not be lyable to the penalties of the act of militia.”

In 1756, complaint was made against John Kinsey for attempting to transport provisions for the Army raised against the French colonies.

During the Revolutionary War, the Plainfield neighborhood was crossed and recrossed by both loyalist and rebel forces and the Friends must have been greatly stirred. While the scattered references to the conflict in the minutes are inadequate to give a complete historical picture, the record indicates that the Meeting maintained its position of opposition to war.

In 1776, a member was disowned for having “signed a paper of independency, and suffering his apprentice to go in the Army.” The same summer a committee of investigation reported that the “soldiers in the Woodbridge meeting house took possession without leave, they at times continue there yet, but don’t much interrupt Friends in time of Meeting.” Representatives appointed to attend Shrewsbury Quarterly Meeting in the winter of 1777 were unable to do so “by an apprehension of great difficulty attending their passing through the contending armies of soldiers.”

Interesting reports were made by the “Committee for Suffering Cases” for the years 1777-1782 which consist of long lists of those who suffered fines and confiscation of property for refusing to bear arms, and for the non-payment of taxes to support the “present commotions.” The property taken included live stock, farm implements, household furniture and utensils and farm produce. Among the various items listed are cows, heifers, yoke of oxen, desk, pewter “basons” (basins), “pye” pans, mirrors, “cyder” spirits, Bibles and “servant man for one month to serve in the militia.” Those requisitions totaled upwards of 200 pounds (specie value) in the war years, or about five pounds per person assessed. The inflated war time price level is indicated by the valuation of 10 bushels of corn at 2 pounds, 2 shillings and 6 pence. In 1777, all of the requisitions were put down as fines, but later they were mostly taxes.

Some Friends did not voluntarily accept the new government as shown in the following minutes for Twelfth Month 1778:

“Elijah Pound sent a paper to this meeting condemning his late conduct, which is accepted and is as follows: Whereas I was bound over to court by one of our late made Justices to affirm to the states so-called, or give my reasons why Reasoning at it, a weakness covered my mind, I gave way to their request and affirmed which I now believe is wrong and am sorry I ever did it and hope the Lord may forgive me and also hope Friends may be pleased to pass it by and hope the Lord may be pleased to preserve me from ever falling into the like again.”

There are three other similar “papers,” two of which mention being taken to Morristown “gaol” before affirming allegiance to the new government.

Near the close of the War, the Meeting expelled three members who “removed to New York, Long Island and Staten Island, some of whom have privately returned back and committed acts inconsistent with our peaceful principles and thereby occasioned public scandal to the society.” The sanction of the Quarterly Meeting was obtained in this case because it was impracticable to “treat with” the offending members in person due to their absence. Whether the delayed procedure may have been prompted by the youth of the members, or because of reluctance to act against those who took the loyalist side, we can only speculate.

From the Revolutionary War to the World War (WW I), this meeting does not seem to have deviated much from the paths of peace. The last recorded suffering payment on account of military requisitions was for $5.75 in 1832, but in 1838 a member was “treated” with paying such a demand. In this connection, a significant query answer in 1865 reads “it is likely there has been some tax on account of the support of war so unified with the general tax that it was difficult to avoid it.” The Queries also indicate that three Quakers volunteered for service in the Civil War, and that one paid a military fine.

For over two hundred years, it seems that the Quaker opposition to war was expressed largely by negative non-participation rather than in attempts to build up public sentiment throughout the nation for peace. In 1895 a trend away from isolation was shown by the appointment of a Committee of Aaron M. Powell and others to prepare a protest to the State Legislature against the proposed introduction of military drill into the New Jersey public schools. In 1898 the meeting sent a letter to the Czar of Russia commending him for proposing a disarmament conference.

With the outbreak of the World War, meeting members raised funds and collected clothing for relief work, held peace meetings, distributed peace literature, and undertook to mitigate the evil effects of the War. The first Peace Committee was appointed in 1916. The further happenings during and since the World War period being well remembered need not be recounted here. PLAINFIELD FRIENDS AND RACE RELATIONS (Early history through 1938)

As we look back over our 150 years of life in our meeting house, and more than 250 years as a religious society in this part of New Jersey, it is natural that we survey the past and take stock of ourselves as to our beliefs, traditions and aims. In the matter of race-relations we have played various parts.

Our minutes, dating from 1686, give many instances of concern against owning slaves. Such advice is noted in a minute in the year 1716 when Friends were requested not to buy any more slaves. Thereafter Friends frequently expressed concern that their members should not purchase or even own them. If, on joining the Society, they owned slaves they were urged to take immediate steps to free them. There are many minutes giving in full the manumission papers of freedom for the slaves of some member. In 5th month 1776, “Adams Miller manumitted and set free two negroe boys and one negroe girl to take effect when the boys arrive at the age of 21 and the girl at 18.” Also in 9th month 1776 “Johathan Harned produced an instrument of writing to this meeting wherein he manumits and sets free his Negroe woman named Mary which is as follows:

“Whereas I Jonathan Harned am possessed of a Negroe woman named Mary and not being easy to continue her in bondage being persuaded she ought to be free and that it is her just due . . . therefore I do by these presents manumit and set her, the said Mary, free. . .

“Whereas she, the said Mary, is old and likely is or soon will be incapable to support herself comfortably, therefore I promise to give her . . such necessary supplies as will render her life comfortable in meat, drink, apparel, washing and lodging. . .”

Friends interest did not cease at freeing their slaves. They continued to feel a concern for their welfare and their education as well. If some member refused to free his slaves he was “treated with” at length. If such treatment failed to convince him and he still continued to hold negroes in slavery he was disowned from his Meeting.

Intellectually, friends admitted the enormity of owning or trading in slaves, as is evidenced by the minute from 5th month 1836: “The deeply interesting subject of slavery has been again spread before us, and greatly have we desired that we may be enabled to discover what there is for us to do while this great evil exists. May we be willing to go into an individual examination in the light of truth what would be our feelings and how we should move, were the ties of endeared relatives and friends broken and they separated from us and doomed to perpetual toil and bondage. Let us examine ourselves whether the peace of our minds would not be promoted by abstaining from the use of products of slave labor.”

But emotionally they were not wholly free from race prejudice. Instances are noted where there were rear benches for colored attenders at a Meeting. “They usually sat in a special place against the wall, under the stairs or in the gallery.” (Henry J. Cadbury “Negro Membership in the Society of Friends.”)

It was difficult for Negroes to become members. There are rare cases of such colored members, but it took long periods of consideration and many referrings to superior meetings before such colored membership was consummated. One such case appears in our own meeting, as noted in the report of the monthly meeting held the 20th of 4th month 1796, which reads, “They,” referring to women Friends, “inform that Cynthia Miers, a mulatto woman had also requested to be joined in membership with Friends, but this being a case of a singular nature amongst us the meeting thinks it best to proceed very cautiously herein and therefore appoints to take the subject into their serious consideration and report at the next meeting, John Haydock and others.”

It took about a year to turn this request into actual membership since the Monthly Meeting referred the matter to Quarterly Meeting which in turn referred it to Yearly Meeting. The committee appointed by Yearly Meeting to consider this matter brought in the following report which was accepted. “We are united in believing our Discipline already established relative to receiving persons into membership is not limited with respect to Nation or Colour” and it recommended that applicants for membership should be investigated as to their views and practices and when satisfied, Monthly Meetings “may in their freedom receive such with propriety without respect of persons or colour.” (Henry J. Cadbury, “Negro Membership in the Society of Friends.”)

Many of these conferences with superior Meetings developed the statements that there could no where be found any place in the Discipline against receiving a person into membership on account of his color. So, intellectually, Friends have consistently testified to the propriety of such membership.

Later on in pre-civil war days when the abolition movement was at its height, disagreement among Friends as to their activity in this movement was very evident. While in Revolutionary days members were disowned for refusing to free their slaves, in Civil War days they were disowned for their abolition activities. One of our former members, Aaron M. Powell in his “Reminiscences,” dwells on this incongruity. In speaking of the difficulty of finding suitable places in which to hold anti-slavery meetings he says: “I early had the cooperation of Joseph and Mary W. Post and their family. In their hospitable home . . . I was welcome with a cordiality which in a period of general social ostracism for abolitionists, made it seem an oasis in a desert. . .. They also opened their house for my meetings at a time when the Friends Meeting House, strange to say, was closed against them.”

Now in these present days of 1938 we are still a divided Society on our stand on Race Relations, but on the whole it seems as if fair dealing and right treatment were beginning to be the real concern of the Society. The Race Relations Committees of the New York and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings are evidences of an awakening conscience and interest in justice and fair dealing to all races. The younger members are accepting people at their true value, and where worth exists, honor it, whatever the color. PLAINFIELD MEETING AND THE CAUSE OF TEMPERANCE (Early history through 1938)

The members of the monthly meeting were advised of the evils of intemperance as early as 1688 when they received through their Quarterly Meeting from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, held the “7th of ye 7th month, 1687” advising that “ye practice of selling rum and other strong liquors to the Indians directly or indirectly or changing rum or other strong liquors for any goods or merchandise to them, considering the abuse they make of it, is a thing contrary to ye mind of ye Lord.” The Yearly Meeting requested that “this, our testimony, be entered in every Monthly Meeting book and every Friend belonging to their Monthly Meeting to subscribe the same.” That the concern of Friends regarding the use of strong liquors was carried over into their own membership, is evidenced by the following minute of the Monthly Meeting held at Woodbridge the “16th of the 2nd month, 1741.” “Whereas, Samuel . . . being frequently very much in liquor . . . for which he has been tenderly delt with and frequently admonished, . . . but not withstanding he still persists in the same . . . we disown him to be of our Christian Society.” Disownments for the excessive use of strong liquors are found in the minutes for over 100 years, continuing until the Monthly Meeting apparently was clear of any members so inclined.

The associating of members with the liquor traffic was giving concern as early as 1810 when a committee was appointed to “labour with such of our members as are in the practice of distilling or trading in liquors or encouraging distillation by processing their fruit and cider.” (Monthly Meeting at Rahway, 24th of 5th month 1810.) Three years later a committee report on the subject stated that “we do not know of more than one of our members that is in the practice of trading in distilled spirits.” In 1815, a committee on the subject reported that the membership contained “one retailer and 17 who have disposed of their fruit for the purpose of distillation.” In a report to the monthly Meeting on the 18th of 12th month, 1822, it was noted that “sixteen members have taken their fruit to the Distilleries . . . but some have given us encouragement they would relinquish the practice. A few are in the practice of using and handing it out to laborers as a common drink at particular times.” This phase of liquor problem apparently was brought under satisfactory control shortly after the above date as no further reference is made to it.

Friends gradually accepted a total abstinence attitude regarding the use of alcoholic liquors and entered the field of liquor control by political means in the period when local option was a paramount issue. In the minutes of the Monthly Meeting on the 12 of 1st month, 1897, the following “Memorial to the Plainfield Common Council” appears: “This Meeting respectfully and earnestly requests that in the exercise of the legal option rested in you, you will not renew of grant any licenses for the sale of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes for the year 1897 within the municipality of Plainfield.” During this period, Aaron M. Powell, a member of the Meeting, was an active worker for the cause of temperance, often speaking before public gatherings. In the report of the Philanthropic Labor Committee for the year ending 4th month, 1898, it was noted that “Aaron M. Powell delivered an address at a temperance mass meeting held in Plainfield,” and that “an opportunity for active temperance work having opened at the time of the Plainfield city election, by the decision of the Common Council to permit the people to take an informal vote on the question of ‘License or No License,’ our committee issued an ‘Appeal to Voters,’ one thousand copies of which were distributed.”

The meeting continued to appeal to the City Council to refuse licenses until the 18th Amendment was made a part of the Constitution of the United States in 1918 and took up the work again in somewhat the same manner after the amendment was repealed. In the Monthly Meeting held the 19th of 12th month, 1934, the Philanthropic Committee reported “that the members of the temperance section attended a public hearing of the City Council and spoke in favor of more strict requirements in the laws governing liquor licenses.”

And so, for over 200 years at least some of the members of the Monthly Meeting have had a concern relative to the problem of temperance. Just how this will be expressed in the future remains to be seen.

Additional History of the Rahway and Plainfield Friends Meeting