I thought we Dover Quakers – or more formally Friends – had our long history covered. I had even helped Silas Weeks, way back, in some of his research for his definitive volume on New England Quaker meetinghouses and burial grounds.
Frankly, after revising and republishing seven novels after the appearance of my eighth, I wanted a break.
A big break.
These are supposed to be my retirement years, OK? Admittedly, I had long imagined devoting myself to the writing as a big part of that dream, but really!
But then a casual request for an overview of Dover Friends history changed everything. It came indirectly, through someone in another denomination who was active in our Sanctuary movement. But then, going back through my filing drawers, I came up empty – couldn’t even find my folders of notes. What we did have was mostly about our three meetinghouses over the years – especially the structure where we’ve worshiped since 1768 – along with a few prominent events.
This left me unsettled.
Unlike many other denominations, the Society of Friends, or Quakers, is first and foremost about its members. Our definition of church is the body of believers – not the building or the polity and definitely not the ordained clergy. It’s why we call our building a meetinghouse and why we organize as Meetings, reflecting the times and ways our church-people come together. Church can happen whenever and wherever we are, even over dinner in our homes or chance encounters on the street or in the midst of social activism. And vitally it’s not just us – we’re meeting God, too.
WHAT NEEDED TO BE TOLD was the lives of the individuals and families who were the essence of one of the oldest Quaker Meetings in the world.
I resisted as long as I could but finally succumbed. Who were they? Why were they so willing to risk severe punishment and persecution imposed by the Puritan authorities? And in the face of that, how and why did a third of Dover’s population quickly become Quaker? And several generations later, start fading away?
With the 400th anniversary of the settling of Dover – and thus New Hampshire, too – coming up next year, the timing for our side of the history felt right.
Now that the book’s written and revised, I’ll be sharing some of my findings with you as well as news of publication itself as that nears.
WHAT EMERGED IS A PARTIAL HISTORY, as in partisan, with my focus on a radical religious subculture that thrived in a unique, out-of-the-way, locale. Partial, as well, to the independent streak of New Hampshire against more powerful Massachusetts authorities to the south. Partial even in being incomplete as well as lacking footnotes, and not even the work of a professionally trained historian.
The story is also partial in being biased toward a sequence of unusual, sometimes roughhewn, figures and their families – not all of them Quaker – and inclined especially toward the narrative they shape.
The roots, as you’ll see, arise in the very beginning of English settlement. Forget what you’ve assumed about New England before Paul Revere and Sam Adams and the American Revolution and Boston as the Hub of the Universe.
A lot had already happened before the first Puritans sailed into Boston Harbor. Let’s look instead to Dover, which lays claim to being the seventh-oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the United States.
In the standard telling of the founding of today’s city of Dover, New Hampshire, two brothers arrived from England in the spring of 1623 and settled at the mouth of Great Bay on the Piscataqua River, upstream from the Atlantic Ocean. The brothers were fishmongers, members of one of the oldest and wealthiest guilds, or great companies, of London.
Except, as it turns out, one of the brothers didn’t arrive until a few years later.
Instead, the cofounder of the new settlement was a fishmonger apprentice who would be an important figure in the early years of the colony.
YOU’LL PROBABLY BY AS SURPRISED by this alternative take on New England history as I’ve been. It’s not just Quakers. There’s much more to New England’s past than a Thanksgiving dinner and a riotous tea party followed by a midnight ride and the shot heard ’round the world or even the notorious witch trials.
Here at the Barn, you’ll definitely be hearing a lot more about this big project through the coming year. Believe me, some of the findings will be startling.