No. 7  October 2001
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Feature of the month

Wooden Friends: the remaining frame meeting houses

The oldest Quaker meeting house in the state lies at Seaville, in Cape May county. It is a modest structure, erected in 1716 or 1727, and might be mistaken for a small Pinelands or shore cottage built 200 years later. Many of the earliest Quaker meeting houses may have looked like this, but today, it is unusual in one respect: it was built of wood. Of the 33 early Friends meeting houses I have photographed, 23 were built of brick and only six were braced-frame wooden buildings; four were built of stone: Stony Brook (outside Princeton), Arneys Mount (Burlington county), Evesham, in Mt. Laurel and Quakertown (Hunterdon county). With the exception of the Newton Friends meeting house in Camden and the meeting house in Seaville, none of the wooden meeting houses are found in the southern part of the state, and with the exception of Trenton's two meeting houses, none of the Quaker buildings in the northern half of the state were built of brick. Many of the meeting houses in Pennsylvania were built of stone, but none that I know of (more than 100 remain) are wooden. So we are presented with the question of why these regional differences?

Plainfield [right] (b. 1788) and Shrewsbury  [below, left] (b.1816) are clearly recognizable as Friends meeting houses, but the others might easily be mistaken for modest dwellings. Measured drawings of Shrewsbury and Plainfield done by HABS (Historic American Buildings Survey) show that those two look little different from the meeting houses in, for example, Salem (b. 1772) and Crosswicks (b. 1773), or from many of the meeting houses in Pennsylvania. The Quakers who settled in Shrewsbury in 1672 predated the great Quaker migration that came up the Delaware River between 1677 and 1682 and settled Burlington and Salem counties; they may have come from a different part of England and brought with them a different building tradition—but these buildings were erected a century later and the Quaker idiom from the English midlands is likely to have been diluted by then. Most of the 18th and early 19th century meeting houses in England look more like small manor houses than the dominant style that emerged in south Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, but there are clear antecedents in several of the English buildings; so, it is not difficult to trace influences back to the English midlands where many of the Quaker immigrants originated.

      Those who settled in Dover [below, right] (b. 1758) had arrived in Burlington in the great migration, pushed north into Trenton, then into Hunterdon county by 1727, and, by 1740, into Morris county. They met in private homes until 1758 when the Woodbridge meeting (congregation) granted permission to build a 25 x 26 foot meeting house in Mendham, at a cost of £78. It was repaired in 1792 and again in 1828. In the 20th century, a detached wing was added and horse stalls were built to the rear.
     In 1758, The Plainfield meeting was formed by Friends who moved east from Monmouth county, and the group that settled in Seaville probably came from Nantucket and the Massachusetts Bay colony. The Newton Friends [below] (Camden) came directly from Ireland in 1681 or thereabouts, but that building was erected in 1828 and rebuilt in 1888, by which time the Quakers (in Pennsylvania) had moved in the direction of more mainstream church architecture, and the Newton addition reflects a subdued Queen Anne Revival style in many of its details. If you block out the additions to the right and the left in the photograph, the building looks similar to Seaville, and particularly to another early brick meeting house in Upper Springfield Township, Burlington county, built in 1727.

The meeting house in Manasquan [below] (Monmouth county) can trace its origins to Friends in Wall Township, who organized a meeting in 1693. The building was damaged in 1808 and, more severely, in 1888, after which it was rebuilt. So the small shingled building we see today may bear little resemblance to the 1808 meeting house. The supports for the pent roof have been transformed, the principal entrance is on the gable end, and the round top to the window high in the gable end is unusual, but there are precedents for all elsewhere in the state. By the time of the Civil War, the evangelical zeal and expansionism of the Friends had waned and attendance had fallen off seriously, and this building may reflect, like the one in Camden, a movement towards mainstream religious architecture.

All six buildings are pegged frame structures, built without nails except to attach the clapboards or shingles. The smaller ones are squarish or nearly so, with the principal door(s) normally on the long side (usually the south) and a side door on the east. Plainfield used heavy plastering to fit the building for winter worship, but some early frame meeting houses in south Jersey were replaced with brick because of the difficulty of heating a frame building in winter. All appear to have galleries, which was traditional.

Shrewsbury is much the largest wooden meeting house, equaling in scale many of the brick buildings found in Crosswicks [left] and Salem. Why are these built of different materials? We know it was not the period in which they were erected; all but Seaville were built after the Friends had turned inward and had developed an organizational hierarchy, but that was true for more than half the brick buildings in South Jersey as well. It is likely that regional building traditions were influential—there are few 18th century brick churches Cape May, Morris, Union, and Monmouth counties, and most of the early churches of modest scale in the northern part of the state (Bergen excepted) were wood frame. Alternatively, it may simply reflect that it was cheaper to build of wood than brick; early records granting permission to build a meetinghouse often specify that the size and/or the cost was not to exceed a limited figure. Whatever the reason, the wooden Friends offer a valuable look at variations on the subtle traditions of Quaker architecture.



Copyright © 2001 Frank L. Greenagel